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Settling Tibet issue- Problems and Prospects

Beijing  has a tendency to view its policies for  addressing the  aspirations of the Tibetan people, only in  proportion to the perceived threat to Tibet’s ‘sovereignty’; it should instead adopt a holistic approach, says the writer.

The Dalai Lama side and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) held talks on the Tibet issue last year. The former is now hoping for resumption of negotiations with Beijing this year, but no word in this regard has so far come from the PRC. In the meanwhile, the persistent Chinese opposition to the exiled leader’s concepts of “Greater Tibet” and ‘genuine autonomy’ is making one feel pessimistic about the possibility of any progress during   future talks. This paper makes an attempt to provide an understanding of the situational status quo and project what could be in store for future.

To start with, it would be worthwhile to have a look at the positions on Tibet being maintained by the two contending sides – the Dalai Lama Administration based in Dharamsala, India and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The Dalai Lama side argues that before the Chinese ‘invasion’ of Tibet in 1949, Tibet was not a “feudal serf system” and that Tibet only had a ‘priest-patron’, not political, relationship with Beijing.  It affirms that “Tibet was a ‘politically independent, economically self-sufficient and culturally distinct nation with a different way of administration that many countries around the world had at that time”.[i] It  points out that the essence of the ‘Middle Way’ approach of the exiled Tibetan leader is to secure ‘genuine autonomy’ for the Tibetan people under the commitment not to  seek separation or independence for Tibet and that the autonomy being demanded  will be within the scope of the Constitution of the PRC[ii]. As viewed in Dharamsala,  ‘the  greatest challenge for Tibetans in exile will still be dealing with the PRC  to find a solution to the Tibet issue, which  is neither an easy task, nor will it be accomplished in a short spell of time’.[iii]

Beijing on its part does not see any conflict in Tibet on the premise that the territory got liberated from the “representatives of theocratic feudal serfdom” in 1949 and that the PRC’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) “enjoys high degree of self-government, with a high level of participation in the political process by the Tibetan population[iv]”. Its most forceful argument is that Tibet remained a part of the Chinese territories since the Yuan dynasty ruled the country in the 13th Century. It interprets the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” line as having two substances- formation of “Greater Tibet” aimed to form an administrative region encompassing all of the Tibetan-inhabited areas in China and achievement of “high degree of autonomy” under which every aspect of the region from the political and economic affairs to culture, education and religion will be controlled without the “interference” of China’s central government. The PRC finds the line unacceptable for the stated reason that it aims to realize ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Tibet; in this regard, it especially notes a past statement by the Dalai Lama that ” for the Tibetans to survive as a people, it is imperative to form a population transfer body enjoying the right of formulating relevant laws on the residence, settlement, working or conducting business in Tibet by the people from other areas of the PRC”. In a nutshell, the PRC completely repudiates the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” approach, being seen by it, as reflecting the exiled leader’s position of “Tibet Independence” and agenda “to drive all of the other ethnic groups out of the region”.

Apparently, in the Chinese mindset, there seems to be a firm conviction that any political concession to the Dalai Lama could erode into the PRC’s sovereignty over Tibet. In a larger context, Beijing appears to fear the implications for China’s national cohesiveness coming from the Dalai Lama; a case in point is its continuing concern over the exiled leader’s patronage to organisations like Tibetan-Han Friendship Associations and online contacts with Chinese citizens.

China’s current hard line position on the Tibet issue, certainly looks  a   part of its current  broader foreign policy vision aimed at protecting the country’s “core interests” (Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan etc) which disallows any  compromise on questions concerning national sovereignty. In the case of India, the ‘core interests’ stand has already manifested in a tough PRC position on the border issue. Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, a territory disputed by Beijing, has come under strong Chinese attack. “The Indian government is responsible to the Dalai Lama’s visit to ‘Southern Tibet’ (Chinese name to Arunachal Pradesh)”, according to influential Chinese scholars. “The Dalai Lama went to Southern Tibet probably because of pressure from India,” observed Hu Shisheng, a researcher of South Asian studies at the Ministry of state security-affiliated China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.

Inside Tibet, to preserve its ‘core interest’,  the PRC seems to be showing no hesitancy  to suppress any fresh unrest through use of force; military and police units are now deployed in Tibet in requisite numbers. All monasteries in Tibet are being subjected to a ‘patriotic education campaign’ supervised by State Administration for Religious Affairs.  “Tibet Buddhism and Socialist society should adapt to each other”, has said President Hu Jintao. China is taking a stand that a successor to the 14th Dalai Lama has to be found within China, apparently with an eye on foreclosing any option for the exiled leader to find his successor outside China. With the blessings of Beijing, a successor to Panchen Lama has already been found. The PRC’s very recent description that the ‘struggle’ against the Dalai Lama will be ‘lasting, intense, complicated and even vehement’ conveys a clear message- Beijing wants to settle the Tibetan conflict at its own terms and timing.

What is the current strategy of Beijing in the matter of tackling Tibet issue? The PRC is trying to appease the Tibetans through launching socio- economic programmes ostensibly designed to uplift the standard of lives of the latter. The Tibet Work Conference (Beijing, 2010) has called for combating separatism in Tibet, side by side with implementation of plans to achieve a ‘leap frog’ development of all Tibetan-inhabited regions including the TAR. It has significantly focused on improving conditions in Tibetan rural areas, as a sign of indirect admission that such areas stand backward even today in matters of development. “To achieve leapfrog development, Tibet should implement the concept of inclusive growth, shedding greater efforts to improve living standards of relatively poor farmers and nomads” has been the advice of Tibetologists in China to the government[v]. As a strong evidence to China’s making stability and development as two pillars of the government’s Tibet policy now, the top leadership in the PRC at a special meeting held at Beijing in as late as February 2011, has asked for “continuation and deepening of fight against the Dalai Lama ‘clique’ side by side with raising living standards of the people in Tibet and other Tibetan-inhabited areas”[vi]. The clubbing of Tibet Autonomous Region with all other Tibetan-inhabited areas could be a significant pointer to Beijing’s adoption of a tactic to counter the perceived political character of the Dalai Lama’s ‘Greater Tibet” proposal with its own pan-Tibetan formula for economic development.

From the foregoing, the existing gaps in the standpoints of the two sides – Beijing and the Dalai Lama, become obvious. They indeed provide a backdrop for the continuing conflict with respect to Tibet. The divide between the majority Han people and the minority Tibetans in terms of language, ethnicity and religion, further exacerbate the conflict situation. The Tibetan language has Brahmi/Sanskrit as source, the Tibetans are of Mongoloid stock and the Tibetan religion is Buddhism. In contrast, the Chinese language has ideographic script, is not phonetic and has no alphabets, the Hans belong to a different race, called by some ‘Yellow’, and their faith is mainly based on Confucianism and Taoism. This is not to deny the spread of Buddhism into China over a long period, but it could never become a major religious force for the Han people; it only enjoyed imperial patronage at times.

There are of course  examples in the world   for a multi-ethnic society contributing to nation building like in the case of India, but China, notwithstanding the government claims, still undeniably faces a challenge in assimilating the Tibetans into the national mainstream; is it  due to a systemic fault under the one-party rule in the PRC? The question requires a close examination.

Equal distribution of wealth is no doubt a noble criterion; it remains central to Marxism, followed by ruling  Communist parties, though few,  in the world including in China.  The  Chinese Communist Party (CCP) aims to finally bring the society under ‘Communism’ based on the well known Marxist concept of “from each according to ability, to each according to his needs”; in the current epoch called by it as ‘primary stage of socialism’, the CCP has introduced an interim concept called “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”, which as a compromise, justifies the suitability of a market economy in the country, besides calling for   a balanced development covering all areas of China, including Tibet.  While implementing the concept internally at levels of society and politics however, the regime willy-nilly appears to be slipping into a mode tending to concentrate on the majority interests and approaching the issue of the aspirations of minorities only in proportion to the perceived need for maintaining “national sovereignty and integrity.” ‘Development conditional to national security’ can be seen to have emerged as Beijing’s theme to govern Tibet and the minority Uighur Muslim- dominated Xinjiang.  Instead of treating the Tibet – Xinjiang situations in a holistic manner, Beijing’s policies thus appear to be having a narrow security-centric focus, i.e on meeting perceived separatist threats. Why this is so? The answer may be traced to the traditional Chinese defence culture – giving importance to controlling the country’s minority-dominated ‘periphery’ for the purpose of protecting the ‘core’ Han majority heartland. In any case, the bottom line on the Tibet issue is that no trust exists between Beijing and Dharmasala. This is where the crux of the Tibet conflict lies now.

So, how the conflict situation with respect to Tibet issue can be resolved? International theories on conflict resolution emphasize the importance of a consensus-based approach. Author Jim Wallis in his work (“The Soul of Politics: A Practical and Prophetic Vision of Conflicts”, London, 1994”) describes peace making as an “attempt to resolve the sources of conflicts and restore a situation of balance, thereby eliminating the need for victory and defeat.”  Professor John Burton of the Centre for Analysis of Conflict, University of London, believes that a “need- based cooperative” approach, not a “power-based one with focus on rights”, could be a good choice to resolve conflicts. Without doubt, it can be said that its resolution would very much depend on the ultimate return to Tibet with honour of the Dalai Lama and his more than 100,000 Tibetan followers now exiled in India. A key question will be what could be the ideal mean to achieve that result? Can the conflict resolution come through an armed struggle by Tibetans?  Can it be accomplished through the application of the principle of non-violence, which the Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Dalai Lama says his choice?

Starting from 1959, when the situation in Tibet involved fighting, the unrest within Tibet has passed through various phases. In seventies, there was again an armed confrontation   between the Tibetan guerillas and the government forces, with the American CIA helping the former. The March 2008 demonstrations covering for the first time the entire Tibetan-inhabited areas – Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and adjoining provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan, were unprecedented. Beijing claims that 19 were killed and 400 injured in what it calls ‘riots’. The Dalai Lama side puts the figure for dead as 99 and describes the Tibetan protests as peaceful. Overall, one cannot help noticing a mix of both violent and non-violent methods adopted during protests by Tibetans. Question arises – violence perpetrated by whom on whom?

While all the world scriptures like the Vedas and Bible as well as the teachings of Buddha, stress on the efficacy of principles of ‘forgiveness’ and ‘non- violence’ in tackling human problems, Marxism as an economic and political philosophy does not rule out use of violence as a mean to achieve social transformations The Dalai Lama draws inspiration from Buddhism which prescribes ‘non-violent’ approach towards issues affecting humanity. The teachings of Mahatma Gandhi have added to his faith. The exiled leader’s  conviction that Buddhism does not justify violence dominates the thoughts of the Dalai Lama who realizes that armed struggle by Tibetans will give an excuse to Beijing to forcefully suppress Tibetans and as such, conducting a dialogue with Chinese authorities on preserving Tibet’s distinct cultural and ethnic identity, can be the only way out. On this basis, he has chosen to adopt a ‘Middle Path approach’ centering round the principles of ‘non- violence’ and ‘genuine autonomy’ for Tibetans in their homeland within the framework of the PRC. Why the Dalai Lama gave up demand for independence for Tibet? What has been the motivating factor behind his “Middle Path” formula based on ‘non-violence’? It may not be wrong to conclude that perhaps the Nobel Peace Prize winner feels that any line in favour of waging an armed struggle by Tibetans against the Chinese could result in Beijing’s backlash, leading to unprecedented harsh measures to suppress the aspirations of the Tibetan inhabitants inside the country.

There are sections in the exiled Tibetan community, for e.g Tibet Youth Congress (called by the Chinese as a ‘terrorist’ organisation), which do not subscribe to the principles of ‘non-violence’, about which the Dalai Lama is convinced. The high stature of the spiritual leader, it definitely looks so, is acting as a deterrent to such militant views gaining strength. But what will happen when the Dalai Lama, who is aging, is no longer in the scene? That would be a million -dollar question. Beijing’s present tactic  can therefore be expected to concentrate on the need to prevent  any growth in the  strengths of the militants inside the exiled community, who may be capable of  filling the void likely to be created once His Holiness is no longer in the scene.

It cannot be denied that holding a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, is still Beijing’s desire. The tenth round of dialogue took place last year in Beijing. Questions arise- whether the desire is genuine or rooted in the necessity for showing expediency. The talks are not at government levels; but between United Front Work Department of the CCP and Special representatives of the Dalai Lama. The parleys have not so far led to any meaningful result. In the negotiations, Beijing takes a position that “national interests are inviolable and there is no room for discussion on the issues of national and territorial sovereignty”.  Beijing has firmly conveyed its opposition to the Dalai Lama side to the exiled leader’s   concept of ‘Greater Tibet”; it claims that   the Dalai Lama’s demand for “high degree of autonomy for Tibet” violates China’s Constitution. It however continues to say that the ‘door is open for dialogue’, but with a rider – talks cannot be on the already settled status of TAR and that they can cover only the Dalai Lama’s future religious position.

There are views outside China that Beijing likes to prolong the negotiations; it may like to wait for a post-Dalai Lama scenario, under the belief that without 14th Dalai Lama, the Tibet issue may die. In this connection, relevant to note are concerns prevailing among the Tibetan exiled community in India over the implications of China’s statements on the Centre’s right to appoint the next Dalai Lama. Top leaders of that community at the same time believe that further progress can be achieved in the next round, possible in 2011. “ If not,  the next Prime Minister of the exiled government,  with [vii]the support of the Dalai Lama,  might have to come with appropriate alternative approaches[viii]”, warn Tibetan writers in Dharamsala  close to the spiritual leader. Professor Samdong Rimpochee, the ‘Prime Minister’ in the exiled government feels that “there can be a great vacuum and more psychological setback with Tibetans getting disheartened and losing their self-confidence if the Dalai Lama is no more”.

A study of Tibet scenario will be incomplete if Beijing’s perceptions on the role of the West are not paid attention. The PRC is highly suspicious of the motives of the West in demanding talks between the Dalai Lama and the PRC. Since the Tibet unrest began, the stand of the top leadership in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) remains one of condemnation of the Dalai Lama as ‘instigator’. In its view, ‘the Dalai clique organised, premeditated and incited the 2008 trouble’. However, at junior levels as well as in the state-controlled media of the country, a parallel trend is being noticed simultaneously; the blame game has spread to cover the role of “Western Anti-China forces” in the unrest and their motives are coming under their sharp focus. It has been alleged that  the US is playing a game to  use the Tibet issue as a pawn to keep China in check and that Washington  “sees Tibet as a ‘breaching point for paralysing’ China, very much like the role many former Soviet republics played in bringing the Soviet Union to an end”.  A specific target of Chinese media attack has been the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED) which, as seen by them is functioning as a channel for US funds to ‘contain’ China and ‘split’ Tibet.

China especially questions the patronage being given to the “splittist” exiled leader by the US, for e.g President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama (Washington, 15 February 2010), which even though was closed to the press and held in the White House basement Map Room not in the Presidential suite, giving an impression that the US had intended to appease China. A question arises – why Beijing basically remains unconvinced of US intentions?

For an answer, the genesis of US policy towards Tibet needs to be understood. All world powers recognize that Tibet is part of China, but the West, the US in particular, lay more emphasis than other powers, on the need for Beijing to hold a substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama for greater Tibetan autonomy.  In the Annual Report on Tibet submitted to the US Congress on 19 August 2010, it has been said as follows:

“Encouraging substantive dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lana is an important foreign policy objective of the United States. We continue to encourage representatives of the PRC and the Dalai Lama to hold direct and substantive discussions aimed at the resolution of difference, without precondition….. The US government believes that the Dalai Lama can be a constructive partner for China as it deals with the difficult challenge of continuing tensions in Tibetan areas. His views are widely reflected within Tibetan society, and he commands the respect of the vast majority of Tibetans. His consistent advocacy on non-violence is an important principle for making progress toward a lasting solution….China’s engagement with the Dalai Lama or his representatives to resolve problems facing Tibetans is in the interests of both the Chinese government and the Tibetan people. Failure to address these problems will lead to greater tensions inside China and will be an impediment to China’s social and economic development.”

“Even as we, the United States, recognise that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China, the United States continues to support further dialogue between the government of China and the representatives of the Dalai Lama to resolve concerns and differences, including the preservation of the religious and cultural identity of the Tibetan people,” Obama had said at a joint news conference[ix] with President Hu at the White House, Washington.

Responding to President Obama’s call for Beijing-Dalai Lama talks,  Hu Jintao said as follows:

“Taiwan and Tibet represent the core interests of China and touch upon the national sentiments of 1.3 billion Chinese. A review of the history of our relations tells us that China-US relations will enjoy smooth and steady growth when the two countries handle well issues involving each other’s major interests. It is only normal that we have some disagreements and frictions. We should view and handle bilateral relations from the strategic and long-term perspective and with a sense of responsibility to history and to the future. Otherwise, our relations will face a constant trouble or even tension. Taiwan and Tibet-related issues concern China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and they represent China’s core interests. They touch upon the national sentiments of the 1.3 billion Chinese. We hope that the US will honour its commitments and work with us to preserve the hard-won progress of our relations[x]“.

It is clear that the US views the Dalai Lama’s role as crucial to settlement of the Tibet issue. China on other hand has no such position; it however seems to be willing to accommodate the Dalai Lama strictly in a non-political sense. This basic US-China divergence on the role of the Dalai Lama is the reason for Beijing’s remaining unconvinced of US intentions. It is also probable that China still feels  uncertain about the ultimate US thinking on  Tibet. Also, China may still not be sure on the return of normalcy to Tibet in the aftermath of 2008 unrest. It may continue to fear about the chances of exploitation of internal conditions in Tibet by foreign powers in order to destabilize China. All these factors may stand to explain the consistent nature of Chinese response to the US Tibet policy – Washington should keep away from Tibet.

A resolution to the Tibet conflict can come only through a peaceful dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama. Economic development alone cannot be the mean to address the aspirations of the Tibetan people who have deep attachment to the Buddhist religion with Dalai Lama as its symbol.  How far Beijing realizes this phenomenon is unclear.  As on now, chances of a breakthrough in the ongoing China-Dalai Lama dialogue appear bleak as no consensus on key issues could so far be reached between the two sides. Also, the PRC Premier Wen Jiabao has admitted[xi] that the Tibet issue is a sensitive one in relation with India. The apparent stalemate in talks may therefore have implications for Sino-Indian ties.

(The writer, Mr D.S.Rajan, is Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. This formed the basis of his presentation on the subject, at a National Seminar on “Conflict Resolution in South Asia”, sponsored by the University Grants Commission and organised by the Centre for Gandhian Studies, Alphonsa College, Pala, Kerala, on 1-2 February 2011.

[i], 4 January 2010

[ii] Memorandum on “Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People”, presented to the Chinese side at the 8th round of Sino-Tibetan dialogue, 4 & 5 November 2008, Beijing.

[iii] Sitting down with Tibetan Prime Minister in Exile,, 22 February 2011

[iv] “ China Releases Tibet White Paper”, 17359029.htm

[v] “First Qomolangma Forum on Tibetology Kicks Off in Beijing,, 24 November 2010.

[vi] “Senior Chinese leader stresses stability in Tibet”, Xinhua, 24 February 2011, reporting on the address delivered by Politburo Standing Committee member Jia Qinglin,at meeting on Tibet and other Tibet-inhabited areas in the provinces of Qinghai,Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan, held at Beijing  on 23-24 February 2011

[vii] China Daily, 7 May 2008

[viii], 9 January 2011

[ix]…/2011/…/20110119161005su0.9508282.html, 19 January 2011

[x] Hu Jintao’s address at US-China Business Council Luncheon, 19 January 2011.

[xi] “Tibet, a burden for India”,  Outlook magazine,  14 April 2008

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