Tibet and the
By Julian Gearing
DHARAMSALA, India and KATHMANDU, Nepal - When
astronaut Yang Liwei rocketed into space on China's
first manned spaceflight, he carried with him the 2008
Beijing Olympic Games banner and China's national flag.
Just like the spaceflight, China's award of the Olympic
Games represents the coming of age for this growing
On this historic flight the
Olympic Games logo was flown high. But the Chinese
government fears that the banner will be dragged through
the dirt by protestors when the games begin. "Free
Tibet" and human rights agitators are gearing up to
protest, and the government does not want their glorious
sports epic sullied by dissent at home or abroad.
Face matters to the Chinese government. Looking
good for the Olympic Games is one of the reasons why the
Tibetan "exile government" in the Indian Himalayan hill
station of Dharamsala believes that there is a chance of
winning a deal that will allow the Dalai Lama and his
exiled people to go home.
In the guessing game
being played by Tibetan exile politicians to work out
why the Chinese government has recently opened up to
dialogue on the Tibet
issue after years of shut doors, the Olympics is one of
the factors that has come into play. Samdhong Rinpoche,
the exile government's kalon tripa or prime
minister, understands that looking good for the Olympic
Games matters to Beijing. He said that the growth in
international public support for the "Tibet Cause", and
the realization that working out a deal could prove
beneficial to both sides, is helping to drive the new
willingness to dialogue.
As China aims for
superpower stardom, its leaders continue to be dogged by
Western protests over their treatment of Tibet, which
began in 1950 when China invaded the Buddhist kingdom.
Although the massive pro-business and pro-China lobbies
in the United States and Europe have prevented even a
whiff of a suggestion that sanctions should be imposed
on China, over the past two decades there has been major
growth in the "pro-Tibet" lobby.
Since the Dalai
Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the call for
change in Tibet by Western politicians, activists, pop
stars and actors has grown to the point where the
subject of Tibet crops up at many high-level meetings
between Western leaders and Beijing. The European Union
even went as far as sponsoring a resolution in 2000
calling for the recognition of the Tibetan exile
government as the legitimate government of Tibet within
three years if there was no progress on human rights in
the territory. That resolution has been put on hold
following the recent resumption of the Sino-Tibetan
Beijing appears particularly troubled
by international support for the Tibetan spiritual
leader. "The Chinese leaders are very afraid of the
Dalai Lama and have been shocked by the international
response to his calls," said Sonam Topgyal, a senior
Tibetan exile politician. Beijing calls him a
"splittist", a "separatist", even a "devil" and a
"cannibal". But this "simple monk", as he calls himself,
continues to attract the handshakes of world leaders,
and recently tens of thousands of people to a talk he
gave on Buddhism and peace in Central Park, New York.
China realizes a new approach is needed. Lodi
Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, the two envoys of the Dalai
Lama who are dealing with China, sense a change in
Chinese attitude. Gyari was part of a team that visited
China and Tibet in the 1980s. Back then, he reportedly
found the Chinese attitude rude and deaf to the Tibetan
point of view. Now the Chinese side is being courteous
and listening. The envoys visited China and Tibet in
September 2002 and May this year in what was described
by the Tibetan exile government as "encouraging" visits.
This dialogue is just the start, or "talks about
talks", as one Tibetan exile government official put it.
Samdhong Rinpoche said that hopes are pinned on the next
visit of the envoys during which "substantial
negotiations" can begin into the status of Tibet and the
future of the estimated 6 million Tibetans in the
Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Tibetan parts of
neighboring Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, what the
exile government calls "greater Tibet".
is on the table yet. But what is clear is that the gap
between the Dalai Lama's exile government and Beijing
has narrowed. On a recent visit to the United States,
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was heckled at Harvard
Business School by an American protestor shouting "Free
Tibet". Such protests now seem to embarrass the Dalai
Lama's exile government rather than cause them to smile.
The Dalai Lama has dumped the idea of independence. Now
he calls for a "middle path" to autonomy, and a very
limited form of autonomy at that.
exile government is calling for a degree of self-rule in
Tibet that would protect the cultural and religious
identity of the Tibetans and offer a mechanism to allow
the 130,000 exiled Tibetans to return home, but keep
defense, foreign affairs and the economy under Beijing's
control. The Dalai Lama has said he wants no political
position - he claims he is already "semi-retired",
having handed over his executive powers to premier
Samdhong Rinpoche. According to Tibetan exile parliament
speaker Pema Jungney, their exile government envisages a
situation where Tibet would be under the control of
China, but with a different system of government, like
in Hong Kong.
On the Chinese side, the form of
autonomy they have offered is tightly limited. Their
stance was voiced by former president Jiang Zemin when
he outlined a vision little different than the communist
party rule currently seen in the Tibetan region, with
the opportunity for the Dalai Lama to live in Beijing
with an honorary title.
Jiang and former
communist party boss in Tibet Guo Jinlong were the
leaders who opened the doors to dialogue, according to
Thierry Dodin, director of the Tibet Information Network
in London. Now the ball is in President Hu Jintao's
hands. Hu understands the challenges. He served as
Communist Party secretary in Tibet from 1988 to 1993,
said Dodin. But while Tibetans are pinning their hopes
on Hu, his policy during his tenure in Tibet was to
"open up to economic development, but stamp down on
separatism". This was starkly shown in 1989, when he
brutally clamped down on a Tibetan demonstration for
independence in the capital Lhasa.
Hu has been
dubbed "hard-line", but still the Tibetans feel he may
help. Tibetan exile premier Samdhong Rinpoche said:
"There are a few strong Chinese leaders who want to
solve the Tibet issue as early as possible and during
the active lifetime of the Dalai Lama. But they are not
able to come out forcefully because they are not certain
whether they would be opposed." He said the reception of
the Tibetan envoys suggests these leaders are
consolidating their own position before they make a
move, ever mindful of the danger of being stabbed in the
back by enemies within their own Communist Party ranks.
"These leaders need to be on solid ground,"
Samdhong Rinpoche said. "Up until recently, the Chinese
considered policies just to delay until the Dalai Lama
passes away, under the banner of 'keep the banner of
negotiation high and stop the Dalai Lama from
returning'." Now there are some powerful leaders who
recognize the need to deal with Tibet before it becomes
violent like the situation in Sri Lanka or the Middle
East, he said. Such a situation would not be easy for
China to handle, he added.
Tibet observers say
that China could swiftly crush violent dissent, but that
this would have a very negative fall-out
Are the Chinese leaders'
efforts genuine? Or is this just a bluff to defuse
opposition and the Western grumbles about Tibet in the
run-up to the Olympics? China watchers are in two minds.
This could be a genuine effort to solve the problem by
younger and more liberal leaders. Or it's a sham.
Professor Colin Mackerras of Griffith University in
Australia says the Chinese position has to be understood
against the background of China's growing influence
globally, both economically and strategically. He said
the Chinese and their supporters in Tibet "would like to
see a rapprochement, because it would reduce the extent
of the tension in Tibet and lessen the extent of the
long-standing international thorn in their side, but
they can afford to wait.
"From their point of
view, things are going quite nicely in Tibet at
present," Mackerras said, referring to the growing
consolidation of control over the region and the
economic and infrastructure development. This includes
the building of the Golmud-Lhasa railroad, and the
continuing influx of "outsiders", mostly Han and Muslim
Hui migrants, who reportedly are close to outnumbering
the local Tibetans.
While the Tibetan exile
government puts a good face on the dialogue, some
Tibetans are skeptical. One high Tibetan lama claimed
the Dalai Lama's "middle path" to autonomy rather than
striving for independence is a "sell-out". He expressed
distrust of the Chinese leadership, claiming there was
little evidence to show they have budged from their hard
line of "no deal" on Tibet.
The skepticism is
warranted. But the options for the Tibetans are limited.
And time is not on their side. Senior Tibetan exile
politician Topgyal said that opting for autonomy was
more achievable that aiming for independence. This makes
even more sense given the Dalai Lama's age. He's 68. The
Tibetan leader may joke that there could be 100
reincarnations of the Dalai Lama to carry on
negotiations for a settlement of the Tibet issue. But
the reality is this incarnation has done an incredible
job of bringing the issue to world attention and keeping
With the Beijing Olympic Games less
than five years away, there is a good chance the world
will see progress in the dialogue between the rising
superpower and the Tibetan exiles. Maintaining face
demands that. But whether this is really the "end game"
in which the Dalai Lama gets to go home or a feint to
deceive the world remains to be seen. As Tibetan exile
premier Samdhong Rinpoche put it: "There is an old
Tibetan saying, 'the Tibetans are deceived by hope; the
Chinese are deceived by doubt'." Given the gap, one can
only question whether there will ever be a meeting of
TOMORROW: Part 2 - The tale of two
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