Originally Published 2005-02-28 08:48:29 Published on Feb 28, 2005
The 46th Anniversary of Tibetan Uprising of the Year 1959 is round the corner. On March 10, the Dalai Lama will issue yet another Policy Statement to commemorate the occasion.
Beijing and the Dalai Lama: Ice Melting?
The 46th Anniversary of Tibetan Uprising of the Year 1959 is round the corner. On March 10, the Dalai Lama will issue yet another Policy Statement to commemorate the occasion. Expectedly, the event will go unnoticed in the Indian and International media, barring a few; the Tibet issue no longer has news value for them. The Anniversary is also likely to be ignored by most of the world governments including that of India, which in the interest of strategic nature of their present relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC), have of late firmly distanced themselves from the Tibet cause. For the exiled Tibetans in general, it will be life as usual on that day. During their stay as refugees abroad for the last four decades or so, they have been left with only one choice- feel content over what and where they are. Returning home some day remains their distant dream, under conditions of no immediate breakthrough on the Tibet issue. Lastly, the PRC continues to adopt a tough posture vis-à-vis the Dalai Lama, despite latter's series of concessions on the Tibet question in the recent period. 

At the same time, it cannot be denied that a ray of hope for the exiled Tibetans has at last emerged. After a gap of about 12 years, contacts between the Dalai Lama and Beijing have been revived. Envoys from Dharmasala (India) are periodically visiting China since the Year 2002, for informal discussions with the Chinese officials. The very fact that the Chinese allowed such visits to take place is itself significant. New signs favorable to finding a solution to the problem are also being seen internationally. The Dalai Lama has declared during his visits abroad without any ambiguity that he is not seeking independence, but genuine autonomy, for Tibet. In this background, while making no departures from their stand of recognizing Tibet as part of the PRC, influential powers like the USA and the EU are increasing their pressures on Beijing at official levels to start a substantive dialogue with the Tibetan spiritual leader. The Dalai Lama has mentioned specifically that the recent improvements in Sino-Indian relations would have a positive impact on the Tibet issue. What follows is an attempt to trace in detail the main trends regarding the Tibet issue and assess the future scenario. 

Dalai Lama's Concessions  

The Dalai Lama's present declared position that he is not seeking independence, but a 'genuine autonomy' for Tibet, is only of recent origin A chronological approach in this regard will be in order. The spiritual leader's Five Point Proposal made at the US Congress Human Rights Caucus (Washington, September 21, 1987) described Tibet as "still an independent state under illegal Chinese occupation". He asked for transformation of whole of Tibet into a 'Zone of Peace'. This was followed by a somewhat less rigid position the following year, with his 'Strasbourg Proposal" allowing the PRC to maintain responsibility for Tibet's foreign policy among others. But the position once again became stiff in the Year 1992.In his Statement to mark the Anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising that year, he asked for 'full freedom' to Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Eastern Turkistan. His corresponding Statement two years later demanded holding of a Referendum in Tibet to ascertain the wishes of the people over the region's future .The same for 1995 described Tibet as an 'occupied county under colonial rule'. 

It took another 9 years for the Dalai Lama to break with the past and make fresh compromises. In the background of three visits to China by his envoys in the Years 2002 and 2003, he stated at a seminar (Ottawa, April 23, 2004), that he is not seeking independence for Tibet or separation of Tibet from China, but a rather 'genuine autonomy' within China. He will not enjoy political powers in Tibet and the PRC can control Tibet's foreign affairs and defense. Following October saw yet another visit, fourth such one, to China by the envoys (September 12 to 29, 2004). Immediately after this visit was over, the Dalai Lama in a speech abroad, asked for Tibet's autonomy under the PRC Constitution. (Mexico, October 7, 2004). His mention of PRC Constitution, made for the first time, was in contrast to what he had demanded in 1987-88.He had, then, asked for Tibet's governance 'under its own constitution' providing for a popularly elected Chief Executive, a bicameral Legislature and an independent legal system. The timings of Dalai Lama's remarks at Ottawa and Mexico, apparently made under the influence of the impressions gained by his envoys while in China, could be important. The Dalai Lama further reduced his pitch when during an interview in the same month with The Times, he observed that Tibet might benefit more by remaining with China, provided that the culture and the environment of the region are protected. The most recent Dalai Lama's speech at Bangalore (December 2004) was more categorical on the independence issue than ever before. He said, "I am seeking genuine autonomy for Tibet and not independence. It is in Tibet's interest to remain in China especially from the perspective of economic development". 

The next point regarding concessions relates to the concept of "Greater Tibet" The concept provides for an unified approach to the whole of Tibet - consisting of Usang (now Tibet Autonomous Region, TAR), Amdo and Kham(both now spread over other PRC Provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai). In the 1994 Uprising Anniversary speech, the Dalai Lama said that any talk with the Chinese must comprise whole of Tibet and not just the area of TAR. He has now relented and chooses to make no references to the term "Greater Tibet". For e.g., he demanded at Ottawa a democratic system of governance for the three 'traditional' Tibetan provinces, with no use of the 'Greater Tibet' concept. This approach might strike a sympathetic chord with the Chinese side which perceives "Greater Tibet" as a sinister concept of the Dalai Lama with an eye on independence. 

The Dalai Lama has diluted his stand on another key issue- the presence of Chinese troops in Tibet. His Five Point Proposal of 1987 demanded withdrawal of Chinese troops from Tibet. In the following year's Strasbourg proposal, he stopped short of full withdrawal demand and only asked for a restricted number of military installations in Tibet. He conceded further and made clear his stand at Ottawa by saying that the PRC can be in charge of Tibet's defence, along with foreign affairs. In yet another sign of the Dalai Lama's soft approach towards the PRC, the Tibetans in exile have now been instructed not to hold demonstrations against the visiting Chinese leaders. 

Tough posture of Beijing  

Ever since the Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959, the Chinese attitude towards the Tibetan leader remained very hostile, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. Some signs of a thaw in their relationship were, however, visible in 1978, the Year which saw the beginning of China's liberalization process under Deng Xiaoping. The veteran leader told the visiting brother of the Dalai Lama, Gyalo Thondup in 1979 that except for Tibet's independence, everything else can be discussed. China held informal dialogue with four Dalai Lama delegations in the following 1979-85 period as an indicator to its exploratory approach. In September 1988, Beijing responded somewhat positively to the Tibetan leader's Strasbourg proposal by welcoming talks between the two sides at any of the three places -Beijing, Hong Kong or any other PRC mission abroad . The only condition of the PRC was that the Dalai Lama should drop the idea of an independent Tibet. In January 1989, Beijing backed out of its offer and the atmosphere became tense once again later that year, with conditions in China worsening due to student demonstrations in Beijing and the imposition of martial law in Tibet under then Party Secretary Hu Jintao's regime. Beijing maintained with its barrage of criticism against the spiritual leader in the subsequent years. 

The Chinese reaction started assuming a concrete shape in the beginning of the new century, when the Dalai Lama began a new conciliatory approach towards the Tibet issue, the highlight of which has been the demand for 'genuine autonomy' for Tibet. Beijing resorted to a tough posturing in response to the demand .The Foreign Affairs Committee of the PRC National Peoples Congress, described (April 2, 2002) the 'genuine autonomy' concept as one aimed at "fanning up of opinions in favor of separation of Tibet from China". It argued that the Tibetan people are already enjoying "ethnic regional autonomy". Further condemnation of the concept came through the PRC Government White Paper on "Regional Ethnic Autonomy in Tibet" (May 22, 2004). The document, significantly released on the day of the 53rd anniversary of signing the 17 - point agreement (May 1951) between the Dalai Lama and the Beijing, was very harsh on the former. It ruled out any role in Tibet for the spiritual leader and severely attacked his demand for the exercise of One country--Two systems Principle and a high degree of autonomy in Tibet after the Hong Kong and Macao models, as 'untenable'. "The destiny and the future of Tibet can no longer be decided by the Dalai Lama and his clique, but by the whole Chinese nation including the Tibetan people". 

The final word from the PRC Government on opening a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, came on July 13, 2004. The PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson laid following preconditions in this regard on that day - "The Dalai Lama must truly give up his advocacy of Tibet independence, stop splittist activities and openly acknowledge that Tibet and Taiwan are integral parts of Chinese territory. This would be the important principled foundation for dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama". The same message was also given to the Tibetans inside the TAR. The Deputy TAR Party Secretary, Hu Chunhua stated (September 20,2004) that "opposing splittism remains the most serious task for the party and a dialogue with the Dalai Lama could be resumed only if he genuinely and publicly renounces his quest for Tibet independence". The tough pre-conditions were repeated by the Foreign Ministry spokesperson on October 20, 2004. The Chinese hard-line position was once again visible when the official media which have been keeping mum over the whereabouts of the Dalai Lama-selected 10th Panchan Lama, gave prominent publicity to President Hu Jintao's meeting at Beijing with the Government- appointed incumbent to that post, Gyaltsen Norbu. (February 4, 2005). 

The Dialogue

The visits of the Dalai Lama delegations to China (Gyalo Thondup -July 2002; Lodi Gyari- September 2002, May-June 2003 and September 2004), by all indications, symbolize a breaking of ice on the Tibet issue. The Dalai Lama camp appears to be upbeat on the outcome of their trips. Lodi Gyari, the special envoy of the Dalai Lama in Washington, has stated (London, January 2004) that his talks with the officials of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party last May were carried out with 'openness and candour'. "We are at the first stage of the process of the dialogue, not negotiations", he added. Keltsang Gyaltsen, the Dalai Lama's representative in Europe, who visited China as part of the delegation in September 2004 disclosed (October 20, 2004, Radio Far East Tibetan Service) that the talks were held on a 'strong footing' and that the Chinese gave a 'great deal of time' to the Tibet issue. 

On the other hand, the Chinese side has tried to downplay the significance of the dialogue. Though the PRC leaders have emphasized the point that unofficial channels of communication with the Dalai Lama are open (President Jiang Zemin- June 27, 1998; PRC Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing- August 3, 2003 and Premier Wen Jiabao-November 23, 2003), the visits of the envoys are being officially described as those carried out by "Tibetan compatriots in private capacity'. China's Assistant Foreign Minister Shen Guofang was the only leader in the PRC to openly comment on the dialogue. He described the September 2004 talks as 'useful and beneficial' while he was visiting Australia.( Sydney Morning Herald, October 21,2004). The fact that the Chinese side allowed the envoys to visit Tibetan areas outside the TAR, could indicate some flexibility on the part of the PRC which is always sensitive to the idea of 'Greater Tibet'. 

In developments which could indirectly help the dialogue process, there have been reshuffles in the leaderships of the United Front Work Department (UFD) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee which deals with the Dalai Lama issue (December 2002) and the TAR Party Committee (December 2004). The newly appointed UFD Chief Ms. Liu Yandong and the Tibet Party secretary Yang Chuantang are loyalists of the Tibet veteran and the present CCP General secretary Hu Jintao. Also, all the three share a common background - the Chinese Communist Youth League (CYL) The Dalai Lama related work in China is thus in the hands of a set of Tibet experts now. There has also been a comparable movement in the Dalai Lama camp. To guide the future course of the dialogue, a 10-member expanded Task Force with a separate Office has recently been set up in Dharamsala with inclusion of senior Kalons. The reshuffles may augur well for the future scenario. 

Concluding Remarks 

The Dalai Lama has made significant concessions; China, in response, however persists with a two-pronged approach - persisting with a tough posturing, but at the same time maintaining contacts .The latter needs to be explained in the context of China's realization of its status now as a responsible World economic and political power and its desire, therefore, to improve its human rights image internationally. What is now required leading to a formal negotiation between the two sides is establishment of mutual trust, which does not exist. The PRC appears to be suspicious of the real motives behind the Dalai Lama's "genuine autonomy" concept. The same is looked upon by Beijing as a hidden move towards independence (watch what the Chinese say - the Dalai Lama must 'truly' give up his independence demand). Another important factor worrying the Chinese is the Dalai Lama's connections with the Taiwan independent- minded leader Chen Shuibian. This explains their condition to the Tibetan leader to openly declare Taiwan, along with Tibet, as part of China. The US, which has appointed a Tibet Special Coordinator in the State Department, has taken up the Dalai Lama issue with China at high official levels. President Bush himself took up the dialogue matter with the visiting PRC Premier Wen Jiabao (Washington, December 9, 2003). The European Union and Australia are not lagging behind in this regard. What India, a country directly involved in the Tibet issue, is going to do? Compared to the past, China has come to consider the issue as "not a difficult problem" in Sino-Indian relations (PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson, June 19, 2003 prior to the then Prime Minister Vajpayee's visit to China). Ties with Beijing are strategically important for New Delhi, but should it remain inactive on promotion of the dialogue? This question merits a debate at this crucial juncture when the ice seems to have started melting in the Dalai Lama-Beijing relations.

Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group, New Delhi, Paper No. 1271, February 28, 2005.

The author is Research Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter. He was earlier with the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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