Losing, saving or giving face is a social concept common in many Asian societies but for the ever-resourceful leaders in Beijing, face takes on political meanings such as "sovereignty" and "territorial integrity" of the People's Republic of China (PRC). To save face, Beijing uses these politically loaded words to brush off prying questions on its authoritarian behaviour. Criticizing China 's abuse of the word "sovereignty" to escape accountability and stave off inconvenient issues like Tibet , Liu Jianqiang, a senior reporter with Southern Weekend, an influential Chinese weekly, wrote recently, "This expression is used for human rights issues, for the Taiwan issue, and for many other issues. Sometimes China loves sovereignty even more than it loves the facts."
The late January discussions the ninth such meeting since 2002 between envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Chinese leadership have achieved little in terms of agreement on issues that the Chinese side thinks are linked to sovereignty and territorial integrity of the PRC. Beijing again accused His Holiness of demanding "high level of autonomy" for "greater Tibet " to realise Tibetan independence. In the press statements after the talks, Du Qingli, head of the United Front Work Department - the body tasked specifically to handle the Tibet talks - and his deputy Zhu Weiqun reiterated the non-negotiability of sovereign and territorial issues.
But the Tibetan proposal for genuine autonomy calls for a uniform policy for all Tibetans in Kham, Amdo and U-tsang provinces under a single administration. Clearly, for Tibetans, it is less of a territorial issue than administration and policy. Meaningful autonomy is possible only when culturally compact Tibetan communities are allowed to create their own space within which to preserve and promote their culture, religion, language and identity. The reorganization of Tibetan cultural areas under a self-governing entity within the PRC territory should not be a sovereignty problem. Even India since its inception as a federal republic has successfully negotiated with its numerous languages and cultures by carving out states on linguistic basis. Events in Tibet in the last decades have proved that direct governance from Beijing has failed to address grievances of the Tibetan people. The fact is Tibet is still a hot bed of resistance and revolt even after 60 years of Chinese rule. No amount of money has brought stability or Tibetan loyalty for the government. And frankly, China wouldn't want ignominious remnant of its divide and rule policy reflected in the still dismembered territory of traditional Tibet if it was serious about respecting Tibetan sentiments and establishing lasting stability in PRC. Further, the Tibetan proposal makes no mention of independence or any insinuation thereof. The extent of autonomy that Tibetans are asking for on specific issues is justifiable considering their distinctive historical and cultural characteristics.
Among experts, there is a broad consensus that Tibetans are a people with distinct identity, culture, language and core values. "There's a general view that the Tibetans are a distinct nationality and indigenous one, and that the Chinese government should have some obligation to work with their leaders to sort out how they are to be treated. Yet the Chinese government has consistently refused to do so," Michael Davis, a law professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong was quoted by New York Times on Feb 2.
During the eighth round of talks in Nov. 2008, the Tibetan side presented a copy of Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy to their Chinese interlocutors urging them to make it the basis for negotiation. Earlier in July 2008, Du had explicitly invited suggestions from His Holiness for the stability and development of Tibet . Even Zhu requested more information on the degree or form of autonomy Tibetans were seeking under the PRC. But China rejected the memorandum saying it still contained "semi-independence" and "disguised independence".
The official narrative of benevolent PLA troops liberating uncivilized barbaric Tibet has fed the minds of many Chinese at least since 1949. Millions of Chinese still believe that they are doing the Tibetans a favor by their presence in Tibet . Little wonder that in the aftermath of the 2008 protests in Tibet the Chinese chat-rooms were filled with patronizing attacks against the "ungrateful blockhead" Tibetans. That the protests exposed the truth behind official propaganda of "happy, prosperous" Tibetans never reached the domestic audience instead Beijing exploited this nationalistic mood to hit back at criticisms from home and abroad. Chinese nationalism thus feeds on the government views on Tibet and has become a potent political weapon. Beijing is least bothered about what the outside world thinks as long as it could maintain the artifice on Tibet intact. This constant struggle to preserve "liberation" tales includes the continued paternalistic and militaristic treatment of Tibet . For 60 years, China has tried all sorts of violent ideological and political maneuvers to make Tibet Chinese but each time, it has faced rejection and resistance. It is not that China is out of touch with reality in Tibet , it simply refuses to accept it. Acceptance would expose the lies beneath the stories. The stories the regime has ingeniously constructed over the years around the "separatist" Dalai Lama and the "splittist" Tibetans.
The proposal for genuine autonomy is perhaps the biggest challenge yet from a minority nationality to Beijing in implementing the rights and freedoms enshrined in Chinese constitution. The reasonableness of the proposal is evident in the kind of reactions and responses it engenders among the Chinese leadership. Without stating their reservations in concrete and logical terms, it rejected the Tibetan demands outright for threatening PRC's sovereignty and territorial integrity blocking in a few words the path to a meaningful negotiation on Tibet . Beijing knows going into the heart of the matter raised by the proposal would open the Pandora's Box in Tibet . Thus, rejecting Tibetan peace overtures with the broad strokes of sovereignty excuse provides the shortest escape route. When faced with questions it cannot and will not answer, China thinks this phrasal ruse does the trick. Still, if China really wants to settle the Tibet issue without losing face, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is their best bet.