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For Talks to Succeed, China Must Admit to a Tibet Problem

China’s hard-line policy towards Tibet creates more problems than it solves. Beijing’s recent crackdown on Tibetan protesters has attracted condemnation from around the world, but did nothing to address the underlying problems in Tibet itself. If Beijing is serious about securing Tibet’s long-term future as part of China, it needs to put aside its past enmity towards the Dalai Lama – and Michael Davis, law professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong, offers a strategy for China to pursue. Only by acknowledging that the human-rights issue cannot be separated from the country’s unity and negotiating with the Dalai Lama will Beijing achieve the goal that both Beijing and the Dalai Lama claim to share: an autonomous Tibet that remains part of China while retaining its own Tibetan identity. – YaleGlobal

For Talks to Succeed, China Must Admit to a Tibet Problem

China should view the Dalai Lama as a partner, not an opponent
Michael C. Davis
YaleGlobal, 16 May 2008
Past can be prologue: Panchen Lama, Chairman Mao Zedong (center) and the
Dalai Lama (right) during a 1954 Beijing visit

HONG KONG: Under the glare of the Beijing Olympics, China’s failed policies in Tibet have moved to the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Under international pressure Chinese officials resumed their dialogue with the representatives of the Dalai Lama on May 4. The parties agreed to continue the ongoing dialogue that began in 2002 and included six rounds of meetings. Chinese officials emphasized that they’ll approach these renewed meetings with “great patience and sincerity.” Chinese officials have long promised that anything can be discussed if the Dalai Lama stops seeking independence, which the Dalai Lama has repeatedly said is not his goal. The talks can succeed if China proves its promised sincerity by first acknowledging that there is a Tibet issue and the Dalai Lama’s representatives are the best interlocutors to resolve it.

The depth of Tibetan anger about Chinese policies, expressed during March demonstrations, shocked the world. Tibetans who took to the streets faced certain Chinese crackdown. The world was disappointed by the toxic Chinese official reaction and by the rather nationalistic popular demonstrations that followed the Olympic torch around the world. High Officials labeled the Nobel Peace Laureate Dalai Lama a “wolf in monk’s robes,” a “serial liar” and a “slave owner.” Is sincerity likely in the face of this continuing vilification?

For the Chinese, hosting the Olympics symbolizes China’s emergence on the world stage as a responsible great power, and indeed, people expect a high standard of behavior from an Olympic host. While the Tibet issue is generally seen as posing a serious challenge to Beijing, it can also offer an opportunity for China to prove its sincerity and responsible behavior. China has historically set up obstacles to successful dialogue on Tibet, yet can now take steps to demonstrate its sincerity.

First, China should accept at face value the Dalai Lama’s repeated statements that he does not seek independence. A protracted discussion about the “true intentions” of this highly respected Tibetan leader serves no purpose. Both sides have long conceded that Tibet should remain part of China and that it should be autonomous. The Dalai Lama has proposed “genuine autonomy” under what he calls the “middle way” approach. The Chinese side has not offered a response through six years of protracted discussions.

Second, China should drop its attacks on traditional Tibetan governance. The Chinese side has long accused the Dalai Lama of formerly running a feudal theocracy, as if this is what awaits an autonomous Tibet. Surely China was equally feudal before the founding of the People’s Republic of China. But these accusations are irrelevant since the Dalai Lama proposes to step down from any temporal role and to establish democracy, human rights and the rule of law under his “middle way” approach.

Third, in these discussions China should avoid its oft-stated historical title claim. Chinese officials are fond of arguing that Tibet has for centuries been “an inseparable part of China” as a strategy to deny that there is a Tibet issue. If independence is off the table and the goal is autonomy, this claim is irrelevant. Even if such history were taken seriously, it is not clear it would work in China’s favor. China’s claim of 700 years of imperial patronage offers little that would justify a modern state’s claims to territory. Of more relevance to autonomy, China never directly governed Tibet until the PRC took over in the 1950s. It is uncontested that through these long centuries Tibet remained largely Tibetan. Chinese census data reports that the Tibet Autonomous Region, the largest Tibetan area, is still 92 percent inhabited by ethnic Tibetans today.

Fourth, China should accept that the Tibet issue is one of human rights rather than insist that the only issue is national unity. A superficial examination of reality refutes this claim. In the heady days after the Chinese revolution, the Chinese failed to live up to their obligations, imposing repressive radical leftist policies. China’s former party leader, Hu Yaobang acknowledged this in the 1980s and apologized. Human-rights violations continue, and the Dalai Lama recently asked China to end repressive policies, release prisoners, open Tibet up to the media and stop the “patriotic reeducation” campaign which denigrates traditional Tibetan culture.

Fifth, China should avoid using its own constitution as an obstacle to settlement. On its face, the Chinese constitution allows greater flexibility than Chinese officials concede. The Chinese Constitution allows for two forms of autonomy, including the type of national minority autonomy now applied to Tibetan areas and the more substantial autonomy reflected in the creation of special administrative regions, as now applies in Hong Kong. The former, applied nationwide to implement Communist Party control in designated minority areas, offers little genuine autonomy and does not seem to allow the level of autonomy proposed under the “middle way” approach. Chinese officials have argued that the Hong Kong model cannot be applied in Tibet because Tibet has not involved the regaining of sovereignty and has already undergone democratic and socialist reform. Tibetan efforts to push forward their genuine autonomy model under either approach have proven futile. Even a superficial look at Tibetan history refutes the claim that sovereignty has never been an issue and that Tibet has always been an inseparable part of China. The failure of democratic and socialist reform in Tibet and nationwide is equally obvious.

Sixth, China should stop viewing genuine autonomy as “splittist.” Officially the country has 55 national minorities. Would other minorities demand the same treatment or would Tibetans use autonomy as a platform for independence? That Tibetans have long been considered distinctive among these groups is evident in the 1951 “17-point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet,” the only agreement of its kind entered with a so-called national minority. Practically, only one other minority in China poses such risk – the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. Because of assimilation or location, other minorities are not likely to seek independence. A peaceful and fair Tibetan settlement, in fact, would offer a positive example for the Uighurs.

Seventh, China should abandon the constant suspicion of foreign interference. China is too big and powerful a nation to wallow in this victim mentality. In an age of ethnic wars and terror, the treatment of a domestic indigenous minority is increasingly a matter of international concern. With the September 2007 passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, standards for the autonomy of indigenous ethnic groups have become more concrete. While China claims not to have any indigenous peoples, these standards may still provide a useful guideline. Tibetans are clearly distinctive as to their land, history, language, culture, religion, customs and traditions.

Eighth, China should simply enter into negotiations with the Tibetan side over the boundary of an autonomous Tibet. Historically dividing Tibet into 13 areas, China has objected to the Tibetan request that all contiguous Tibetan-populated areas be united into one autonomous Tibet. Tibetans argue that since they are not seeking independence this should not be a problem. Compromise that considers current ethnic distribution and the protection of Tibetan culture should be possible.

The suggested actions offer a yardstick by which China can prove its sincerity and win the confidence of the Tibetan people and the world. The Dalai Lama is the rare negotiating partner with the capability to win over even the more skeptical segment of the Tibetan community. China should take advantage of this opportunity.

Michael C. Davis is a professor of law at Chinese University of Hong Kong. For further analysis of this issue see Michael C. Davis, “Establishing a Workable Autonomy in Tibet, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol 30, 227-58, May 2008. Click here to read the article.

Rights:© 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

15 September 2009
[The Dalai Lama MUST DO SOMETHING SUBSTANTIVE to prove that he has given up independence. Listen to his REMARKABLE REMARKS below]
Chinese peoples all over the world - Note what the Dalai Lama said in 1997 below, and do not be fooled by his sweet (and bitter and angry and sour) talks. Dalai Lama said: “People must talk about independence…we need to think of our methods to struggle for independence.” (Blog writer) Buxi: “If many Chinese are still skeptical about cooperating with the Dalai Lama, it’s not because we’re unaware he claims to have rejected independence; it’s because we question whether he really means what he says.” (This is a pro-Dalai Lama website. Year was 1997, ten years after his “Five-Point Proposal” and “Middle-Way Approach” were solemnly declared in U.S. Congress). Marchers’ Private Audience with His Holiness The Dalai …[The Dalai Lama] added that many people, Tibetans and friends of Tibet, think that the middle path is not right. Instead, Tibetans need to struggle for independence and talk about independence. For this reason, His Holiness explained the need for Tibetans to discuss what they want and to make a decision. “People must talk about independence,” He said. “That is good. We have the right to ask for independence, but we need to think of our methods to struggle for independence. Only prayers will not get independence, and only slogans will not get independence.” His Holiness stressed that Tibetans must carefully and systematically construct and implement a method to pursue independence.
-MatthewTan , Singapore
15 September 2009
The Dalai Lama MUST DO SOMETHING SUBSTANTIVE to prove that he has given up independence. Review his "track records" after his "Middle-Way Approach" was put forward in 1987 and 1988. The outlook for U.S.-China relations following the 1997-1998 summits pp. 192-195 Chapter 10 Year of the Yak: The Tibet Question In Contemporary U.S.-China Relations By Barry Sautman …After officially abandoning the Strasbourg Proposal in 1990, the Dalai Lama refused to say whether he was reverting to support for independence.76 The exile parliament, however, endorsed “complete independence” as the official goal in 1992.77 Many of the Dalai Lama’s subsequent statements indicate that he has not wholly abandoned a pro-independence stance. In the mid-1990s, the Dalai Lama stated that “Our stand is still for independence”; “Tibet is not part of China”; “Tibet is independent in cultural, geographical, linguistic and racial terms”; “experience shows that independence is the only real answer”; and “independence remains our goal.”78 He also remarked that “Tibet is not part of China”: “[T]he entire international community should speak out in support of Tibet independence”; and “Of course we have the right to regain our independence.” 79 In the late 1990s, the Dalai Lama, while speaking often of attaining “genuine autonomy,” has shown a continued identification with the cause of independence. He has, for example, stated that “we Tibetans have every right to independence”80 and “independence is our historic right.”81 These statements might be interpreted as mere assertions that, although Tibetan independence has been usurped, the exiles are willing under the proper conditions to waive their right to re-establish it. Other actions, however, belie this interpretation. The Dalai Lama has been quoted as telling a Barcelonia audience that “he would be willing to renounce in the short term the cause of Tibetan independence, if Beijing would guarantee the establishment of an autonomous Tibetan government.”82 This approach recalls the frank statement made by the Dalai Lama’s younger brother (and longtime exile leader) Tenzin Chogyal to a French reporter “Let us first of all achieve autonomy. Then we can throw out the Chinese!”83 Not surprisingly, P.R.C. spokesmen concluded that “the high degree of autonomy advocated by the Dalai Lama is in essence a two-step strategy for Tibet independence.84 The Dalai Lama, moreover, expresses solidarity with pro-independence exile activists and their supporters. In May 1997, he received particiapants on a “March for Tibet’s Independence” in Fishkill, New York. The March from Toronto to New York City was sponsored by the International Tibet Independence Movement (ITIM), an organization led by two Indiana University professors, one of whom is Thubten Jigme Norbu, the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother. 85 An internationally publicized ITIM report quotes the Dalai Lama as telling the marchers: “People must talk about independence. That is good. We have the right to ask for independence, but we need to think of our methods to struggle for independence, and only slogans will not get independence. “ The marchers’ report added that “His Holiness stressed that Tibetans must carefully and systematically construct and implement a method to pursue independence.”86 No objection to this report was offered by the exile administration. In April 1998, the Dalai Lama visited six Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) hunger strikers in New Delhi. The TYC seeks “complete independence”. [page 194 is not accessible on Google Books at the time of typing this passage] …Thus, they have no incentive to discourage pro-independence activism among their American supporters by pointing out the nonviability of that option. In fact, the Dalai Lama’s representatives are convinced that international support would diminish were the Dalai Lama explicity to renounce independence. 94 They often praise and encourage members of Congress who are plus royaliste que le roi in insisting that China grant Tibet independence. Moreover, there is some evidence that the Dalai Lama’s representatives themselves are pro-independence. 95 Thus, the idea of “complete independence,” rather than an autonomous Tibet within China, has carried the day within organizations that make up the Tibet Lobby. Correlatively, most U.S. politicians who are concerned with the issue are influenced to cling to the notion of establishing a “Free Tibet,” a scenario for which a “peace process” between the exiles and P.R.C. government would seem otiose.
-MatthewTan , Singapore
15 September 2009
FACT ONE: Tibet has been doing relatively well for the past 50 years WITHOUT the Dalai Lama – considering the facts that his photos have been banned, and his fake Panchen Lama has been rejected; in other words, the Dalai Lama may stir up waves outside Tibet, but INSIDE TIBET HE HAS BEEN QUITE IRRELEVANT FOR 50 YEARS.
FACT FOUR: Tibet has been OK without Dalai Lamas in power for more than one hundred year (1890-1890)
FACT FIVE: Unlike the CATHOLIC POPE which has had 2000 years of uninterrupted history, and backed up by scriptures and apostolic tradition, the Dalai Lama has had less than 300 years of real reigning power. AND THERE IS NO SCRIPTURE and EARLY BUDDHIST TRADITION TO SUPPORT the re-incarnation of Dalai Lama.
-MatthewTan , Singapore
15 September 2009
Lee Kuan Yew: Dalai Lama is ‘A thorn in India-China relationship’ ‘A thorn in India-China relationship’ P. S. Suryanarayana SINGAPORE: The continuing presence of the Dalai Lama in India “does not help” in its ties with China, according to Singapore’s elder statesman and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. In a dialogue session, under the auspices of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Diplomatic Academy, he said: “I do not see the Dalai Lama as a bargaining chip [for India] against China. … As long as the Dalai Lama is there [in India], there will be this thorn in their side. … 1959 [when he reached India] was a different year. And, in 2009, the configuration of world balances has changed. And, it is going to change in their [Chinese] favour over the next 50 years, provided there is no internal collapse.” Answering questions from S.D. Muni, Professor at the Singapore-based Institute of South Asian Studies, Mr. Lee emphasised that the status of Tibet “is off the table”. On an intervention by dialogue moderator and Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, Mr. Lee said China believed that the Dalai Lama’s reported acceptance of the status of Tibet “is not his true position.” In fact, the Chinese “need no interlocutor” to resolve the Tibetan problem. “They need time to bring up a new generation [of Tibetans]: speaking Chinese, thinking like them and integrating … into China.” Responding to India’s High Commissioner S. Jaishankar on the issue of rebalancing the world order, Mr. Lee said: “My guess is that they [the Chinese] would like to have in the Security Council only five permanent members [as at present].”
-MatthewTan , Singapore