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    Greater China
     Nov 27, 2008
Tibetans stick to the 'middle way'
By Denis Burke

AMSTERDAM - Of the 50 years since the Dalai Lama went into exile, few years can rival 2008 as a landmark for change in the Tibetan struggle. A year of protests, riots, fresh negotiations and strong words on all sides has culminated in a special meeting of prominent exile Tibetans to assess Tibet's situation and their strategy.

The exiles devised the so called "middle way" approach in the 1980s. It was adopted by popular referendum in the mid-1990s. The strategy calls for greater autonomy within China and demands that this goal be pursued through non-violent means. Twenty years later, the "middle way" has not produced any meaningful results. The latest round of China-Tibet negotiations


concluded the week before the special meeting was convened. No progress has been reported on either side.

The outcome of the special meeting was general agreement to continue to support the "middle way" approach, despite earlier signals that the strategy would be reassessed. In recent months, the Dalai Lama has suggested that continuing to negotiate with the current Chinese leadership is likely to prove fruitless. He underscored these remarks after the meeting when he reminded Tibetans of the importance of not alienating the Chinese people because of the actions of their government. The Dalai Lama, apparently wishing to give the delegates room to discuss the issues at hand freely, had absented himself from the meeting.

Although the meeting seemed to be a discussion aimed at the total revision of the exiles' strategy, it has served a very different purpose. The decision to retain the non-violent drive for greater autonomy is surprising considering events in Tibet this year, the ongoing failure to make progress at the negotiating table, the harder line adopted by Beijing, and - above all - the worsening situation in Tibet.

For some time, young rural Tibetans have been moving into the cities in search of employment. An underclass of young, unemployed Tibetans is swelling in cities like Lhasa. Meanwhile, Han Chinese numbers continue to increase in the area and they are finding economic success where the Tibetans are not. Conditions for ethnic tension are rife, as demonstrated by the unrest in Tibet this year.

It has been 20 years since unrest on the scale seen in March has occurred in Tibet. The reaction of the Chinese police was initially quite unusual in its restraint, signaling a pre-Olympic Games departure from their usual zero tolerance tactics. Ethnic tensions were clearer in the Lhasa demonstrations than in any earlier riots that gained international attention. Significantly, the rapid and zealous Western condemnation of the Chinese security response to the Lhasa riots came before the situation on the ground had become clear. Many Western media reported a harsh crackdown before it actually happened, provoking a wave of anti-Western and anti-Tibetan diatribes on blogs and news websites.

However, the meeting provided a forum to seriously discuss the future of Tibet and - crucially - to practice democratic decision-making. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly expressed concern that support for the "middle way" was dwindling. The decision to continue the strategy serves to strengthen not just unity among the diaspora, but the entire political system of the exile community.

The Tibetan pontiff has been pushing the Tibetan people to be less dependent on him for political guidance for a long time. It is very likely that the selection of a successor for this Dalai Lama will be complicated at best. This meeting has given the exile community a chance to engage in meaningful political discussion in his absence - including the possibility of selecting his successor in his lifetime.

What has not emerged from this meeting is a timetable for the "middle way". Karma Chophel, who chaired the meeting, told Phayul news portal that there was no reason not to pursue a policy of independence if the Chinese leadership failed to respond to the "middle way" approach.

But the Chinese government has recently made it very clear that it interprets the "middle way" approach as a drive for independence in disguise. Nothing that has happened this year suggests Beijing has any interest in discussing increased autonomy. Even Deng Xiaoping's late 1970s statement that everything was negotiable apart from independence has now been denied by a Chinese official.

"Comrade Deng Xiaoping had never made such statement. It is a falsehood," Phayul reported Zhu Weiqun, executive vice minister of the Chinese Communist Party's Central United Front Work Department, as saying at a press conference on November 10.

Deng's original statement partially explains the Dalai Lama's decision to pursue autonomy and not independence.

The Chinese government insists that the Tibetan administration is still chasing independence of some sort despite persistent statements to the contrary. The Tibetan administration, for its part, will neither recognize Taiwan as part of China nor accept that Tibet has always been part of China; two conditions the Chinese government has insisted on. This stalemate has impeded any real progress for at least six years and the latest talks were no exception.

Statements by Du Qinglin - minister of the Central United Front Work Department - to Xinhua suggest that the Chinese position did not move at all during these latest negotiations. Xinhua reported Du as saying "the Dalai Lama should respect history, face reality and conform to the times, as well as fundamentally change his political propositions".

Several points have recurred as unacceptable to Beijing. The Tibetan proposition includes restrictions on further migration of other ethnic groups into Tibet. The Dalai Lama has designs to see Tibet as a zone of peace which would see a serious reduction of the Chinese military presence in the area.

Chinese official statements so far have not ruled out the possibility of future talks, but it is clear that their patience is thinning.

As the Dalai Lama has suggested, the hope now for Tibetans is to appeal to the Chinese people and not their current government. However, popular relations have also suffered badly this year. The protests that followed the Olympic torch around the world and the misreporting of the Lhasa protests by many Western media have angered many potentially sympathetic Chinese people.

Nonetheless, the Dalai Lama's absence from the meeting deliberately or otherwise underscores the point that the exiles' policy is not his policy, further countering Chinese official claims that he is orchestrating "splittist" activities from abroad.

Denis Burke is a writer and editor based in Amsterdam where he recently completed research on Chinese-Tibetan affairs in the 21st Century.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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