Roadblock on the Middle Path

The Chinese attacks on the Dalai Lama in recent months have been of an intensity and viciousness not seen for years. Among a host of accusations, he has been called a “false religious leader” and a “double dealer”; his Middle Way approach to finding a solution to the Tibet situation has meanwhile been roundly rejected, described as a “swindle”. The new Communist Party secretary of Tibet, Zhang Qingli, who has been at the forefront of the new hardline approach, has described the battle against the Dalai Lama as a “fight to the death”.

This latest round of vituperation from China is all the more surprising as it comes at a time when contact between the Dharamsala-based Tibetan government-in-exile and Beijing is, on the face of it, better than it has been for some time. Although the Chinese have never officially acknowledged the Dharamsala government’s existence, five rounds of talks have been undertaken between the two sides since 2002, the latest taking place in February of this year. Moreover, in an effort to create the best possible environment for the discussions, the Tibetan side has been at its most conciliatory. For the first time, the Kashag—the executive body of the government-in-exile—has officially issued appeals to Tibetan exiles and their supporters to refrain from public demonstrations highlighting the cause of Tibet.

Why, then, when the Tibetans are officially doing everything possible to create what the Kashag’s Prime Minister, Samdhong Rinpoche, calls a “conducive atmosphere”, are the Chinese stepping up their campaign to vilify the Dalai Lama, and denouncing his overtures to find accommodation? More importantly, what does this imply for the future of a negotiated Tibetan settlement based on the Middle Way approach, which seeks autonomy for a Tibet that would remain within the People’s Republic?

Let us go back to June 2005, soon after the fourth round of talks between representatives of the Dalai Lama and senior Chinese officials had concluded. Reporting on the status of these discussions to the Fourth World Parliamentarians’ Convention on Tibet in Edinburgh, the Dalai Lama’s envoy, Kelsang Gyaltsen, stated: “What is presently most disturbing and of great concern to us is that there have been no positive changes inside Tibet since the opening of direct contact with the Chinese leadership. On the contrary, repression inside Tibet has increased recently … nor have there been any clear signs that the Chinese leadership is genuinely interested in beginning an honest dialogue.”

Despite this pessimistic overview, the exile government continued its confidence-building measures. In the lead-up to the fifth round of talks this February, the Kashag made its strongest appeal yet to US-based Tibetans and Tibet support groups not to disrupt President Hu Jintao’s visit to America by staging demonstrations. In keeping with the previous meetings, the substance of the talks was not revealed by either side. Special Envoy Lodi Gyari’s press statement started with a positive spin: “Today there is a better and deeper understanding of each other’s position and the fundamental differences that continue to exist in the positions held by the two parties.”

But the statement went on to hint at a more serious impasse: “This round of discussion also made it clear that there is a major difference even in the approach in addressing the issue.” Although Gyari did not elaborate, this most likely refers to China’s rejection of the Middle Way approach. This dynamic was made amply evident in a recent article in Beijing’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, which explains why the Chinese government sees the current negotiations as representing “the Dalai Lama’s ulterior motive: eventually seeking Tibetan independence.”

The article is the clearest indication yet from Beijing about its position with regard to the Middle Way approach, and comes hard on the heels of its renewed attack on the Dalai Lama. Despite this, Prime Minister-in-exile Samdhong Rinpoche stressed in a recent statement: “In order to resolve the issue of Tibet, which is the main objective of the Tibetan community in exile, we intend to make more efforts towards continuing the current Sino-Tibetan dialogue process, based on the mutually beneficial Middle Way approach.” In a recent Australian documentary, Rinpoche also stated that, “Unless the Chinese prove they are not trustworthy, until then we will have to trust them.” Pressed by the reporter as to whether the Chinese government had not already proven itself untrustworthy, he replied, “They have proved in the past … [But] for the last few years we have been in dialogue, and they have not proved as yet.” This implies that despite all evidence to the contrary, Dharamsala still believes that the Middle Way approach is not only a viable basis for dialogue with China, but is actually “mutually beneficial”. But is this really the case?

Impossible pre-conditions
As outlined on the official website of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the main component of the Middle Way approach is that “Tibet would not seek separation from, and remain within, the People’s Republic of China”. By itself, this should be an attractive proposition to China. But this concession is predicated on three preconditions, which must first be agreed upon by Beijing:

  1. Without seeking independence for Tibet, the Central Tibetan Administration strives for the creation of a political entity comprising the three traditional provinces of Tibet.
  2. Such an entity should enjoy a status of genuine national regional autonomy.
  3. This autonomy should be governed by the popularly-elected legislature and executive through a democratic process.

The recent People’s Daily article has made it clear that Beijing is deeply resistant to the idea of the creation of a greater Tibet, and sees it as a call for what it has previously termed “disguised independence”. Before the Chinese invasion, the Lhasa government did not exercise control over the areas beyond what is roughly the central Tibetan province of U-Tsang, the region today demarcated as the Tibet Autonomous Region. While all Tibetans shared common cultural and religious traits, and Lhasa was unquestionably the spiritual heart of the country, most of the province of Kham and all of Amdo were de facto independent territories with shifting political loyalties—sometimes paying tribute to Lhasa, sometimes to the Chinese, and more often than not to neither. China immediately took advantage of these ground realities. The 17-Point Agreement, which it forced upon the Tibetan government in 1951, applied only to central Tibet, the area controlled by the Lhasa government. Amdo and most of Kham were appended to the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Szechwan and Yunnan.

It was only after coming into exile in 1959 that the concept of a greater Tibet—comprising U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo—evolved to reflect the aspirations of refugees from all three provinces who had fought together against the Chinese, and represented a renewed awareness of Tibet as a nation state. In recent years, anti-Chinese activities and expressions of Tibetan nationalism have taken place in both Kham and Amdo, pointing to the fact that the ideal of a united Tibet—forged in exile—has taken root inside Tibet. This is a worrying trend for Beijing; any move towards the unification of Tibet’s traditional provinces would, in its estimation, further encourage such nationalist tendencies, posing an even greater threat to its rule. It is the contention of this writer that this fear alone will keep China from ever acceding to this key pre-condition to the Middle Way approach.

In a statement made earlier this year to commemorate the Lhasa uprising of 10 March 1959, the Kashag made the case that the demand to unite the three provinces of Tibet into one autonomous region conforms to the provisions of China’s Regional National Autonomy Law (RNAL), which was set up to safeguard the culture and identity of minorities. Lobsang Sangay, a Tibetan legal expert, wrote recently that within the provisions of RNAL, the concept of ‘unity’ assumes greater importance than that of autonomy, “thereby creating paradoxical and contradictory approaches to autonomy for minorities”.

The definition of ‘unity’ here includes both unity of the motherland and unity under the leadership of the Communist Party of China. But even if this ambiguity did not exist, we know that China has a very poor record of abiding by the strictures of its own Constitution. Time and again Beijing has shown that it does not tolerate anything that remotely threatens its power base, and has no hesitation in trampling even the most basic rights of its citizens. In the case of Tibet, what China sees as a threat to its ‘unity’ will always outweigh any concern about regional autonomy—indeed, this is the crux of the argument made in the People’s Daily article. Therefore, presenting this demand as a legally viable option within Chinese law gives China more credibility than its record would suggest.

The other pre-condition set out in the Middle Way approach is that even if China were to agree to an enlarged Tibet Autonomous Region within the meaning of the RNAL, this region must be “governed by the popularly-elected legislature and executive through a democratic process”. Given that China is a totalitarian state, there is no way it can accept such a demand without first undergoing a major transformation. It has been argued that this demand has precedent in the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ approach operating in Hong Kong. But there is a significant difference in the situation between these two regions. The Basic Law under which Hong Kong retains its special characteristics was negotiated by the British as an integral component of their agreement to hand over the colony to China. Additionally, it was advantageous for China to maintain Hong Kong’s uniquely capitalist set-up as part of its own burgeoning economic strategy. No such precedent or compulsion exists with regard to Tibet.

Next year in Lhasa?
While the Middle Way approach makes a huge sacrifice in terms of giving up the claim for Tibet’s independence, it does so by placing pre-conditions that, as far as China is concerned, are no different from actually seeking independence, and are far from “mutually beneficial”. This impression is not helped by the fact that Dharamsala continues to inadvertently send out mixed signals. For example, on the Dalai Lama’s 71st birthday on 6 July this year, the Kashag strongly reaffirmed the “determination to engage in dialogue for resolving the issue of Tibet through the present Sino-Tibetan contacts”. But it then concluded its statement by exhorting, “May the truth of the issue of Tibet prevail soon!” Most Tibetans would understand this “truth” to mean only one thing: Tibet’s independence. The Chinese must surely recognise that this underlying sentiment exists in the hearts of all Tibetans, regardless of their official stance. Nowhere is this more starkly evident to Beijing than in the influence that the Dalai Lama continues to wield inside Tibet.

Beijing officials understand that it only takes one appeal from the Dalai Lama—for example, to stop using furs—and suddenly they are confronted with spontaneous public burnings of fur from Lhasa to Karze in Szechwan and Rebkong in Qinghai. They know that the destruction of a statue of Dorje Shugden, a Tibetan Buddhist protector deity, in Ganden monastery near Lhasa earlier this year by a group of monks was in direct response to the Dalai Lama’s denouncement of the worship of this spirit. They have seen that even in the furthest reaches of Qinghai, it only takes a rumour of the Dalai Lama’s return for thousands to gather in anticipation, as took place earlier this year. There are so many instances that demonstrate the Dalai Lama’s pervasive influence throughout Tibet, and the continuing devotion and loyalty he commands there, that in order to truly consolidate their hold on Tibet, Beijing’s battle with the Dalai Lama must necessarily be “a fight to the death”.

This explains why the Beijing government is opting to escalate its anti-Dalai Lama diatribe, even at a time when it is supposedly engaged in talks with him. To the Chinese government, after all, the talks are not about discussing the Middle Way approach, but rather about how to neutralise the Dalai Lama’s influence once and for all, both inside and outside Tibet. Gestures of goodwill on the part of the Kashag will ultimately mean nothing to China, other than to give its international image a public-relations boost. The only “conducive atmosphere”, as far as Beijing is concerned, is one wherein the Dalai Lama ceases to exert influence of any sort in Tibet. And this, so long as he is alive, is impossible.

Given such a situation, unless there is a major change within China’s political set-up, we can assume that as long as Dharamsala insists on the Middle Way approach in its present form as the basis for negotiations, Beijing’s intransigence will continue. And if this remains the state of things until the Dalai Lama passes away—as China surely hopes—what then will be the fate of Tibet’s national struggle? Will the Middle Way approach remain a viable option without the Dalai Lama to give it credibility? These are difficult questions, but ones Tibetans in exile must be prepared to ask and discuss while they still have the Dalai Lama to lead them.

In November 1996, when he was the chairman of the Tibetan People’s Deputies, Samdhong Rinpoche proposed a programme to launch a Tibetan Satyagraha movement. He ended his proposal with an emotional appeal: “When Gandhiji gave the call to ‘Do or Die’ there was no other choice. As I propose my people to ‘Do or Die’ there is no other choice either. The return journey back to the homeland must commence here and now. Only then we can say, ‘Next year in Lhasa’.” That was ten years ago. Unless Tibetans seriously reconsider the direction of their struggle, the matter of a return to Lhasa will not only remain as elusive as ever, but will become increasingly irrelevant.