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
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
"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.