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.