This article is about the breakdown of the ninth round of talks between the envoys of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government and why China is responsible for the talks' failure. It also explores and addresses the major issues that block these discussions from reaching a real level of negotiation on the vexed issue of Tibet.
The concept of mianzi or "face" in dealing with the Chinese is being stressed in many orientation briefings to foreigners visiting China where face is generally equated with image, reputation, prestige, pride and respect.
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 the "territorial integrity" of the People's Republic of China (PRC). To save face, Beijing uses these politically loaded words to brush off prying questions about its authoritarian behavior. 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 a "high level of autonomy" for "greater Tibet" in order to realize 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 one of 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 a 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 that 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 an 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.
During the early years of occupation, this distinctiveness was vital in China recognizing the special status of Tibet as evident in the 17-point agreement China forced the Tibetans to sign in 1951. It was the first agreement signed by the Chinese Communists with any minority nationality in PRC. The agreement inspired Deng Xiaoping to devise the one-country-two-systems policy for Hong Kong. Among Chinese leadership, there was implicit understanding of Tibet as a complete whole comprising of Tibetans living in all three provinces. In the early 1950s, Premier Chou Enlai promised Ngabo Ngawang Jigme (former commander-in-chief of the then independent Tibetan government) orally to return the areas incorporated into Chinese provinces to Tibet. Ulanfu, former head of the Nationalities Affairs Commission who represented the Chinese side during the first exploratory talks with the exile Tibetan delegation in 1982 had reportedly favored reunification of Tibetan cultural areas. In 1956, at an internal meeting of senior party cadres, PLA Marshall Chen Yi called for the establishment of a "united autonomous region of Tibetan nationalities" with Lhasa as its capital, according to Bawa Phuntsok Wangyal, the veteran Tibetan communist in his essay In Memory of Comrade Tashi Wangchuk. At the time, Yi was a politburo member and vice-premier of the State Council. He headed the Chinese delegation at the founding ceremony of the Preparatory Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The establishment of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) formally marked China's redefinition of Tibet. The 10th Panchen Lama - who in 1989 died unexpectedly a couple of days after he made a speech in the southern Tibetan town of Shigatse attacking Chinese rule - had called the demand for a united autonomous Tibet "fair, reasonable and legal" and in line with "the aspirations of the Tibetan people". Bawa Phuntsok Wangyal wrote that the Chinese policy of "Divide Administratively for Better Control and Sinicization" was not limited to administrative and territorial matters in Tibet. But it mutated into censorship tactics employed in the case of Tsering Dhondup, a Tibetan historian in Tibet whose book Tibetan History was banned by the authorities who insisted the title be changed to Tibet History, an obvious reference to the official definition of Tibet as Tibet Autonomous Region only. As is demonstrated by history, the demand for "greater Tibet", as Beijing calls it, is not a recent invention. It is as old as the occupation itself - ever since the Chinese Communists re-delineated the borders of traditional Tibet.
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 an 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".
Interestingly, in an interview last December, Zhu said that the proposal was "good but not enough". However, on Feb. 3 Zhu told China Daily that Beijing wanted to "give the Dalai Lama a chance to correct his mistakes" by holding talks with his envoys. While such statements give rise to that old nagging doubts of China buying time until His Holiness' demise to "settle" the issue, it is also symptomatic of the regime's fears and frustrations over Tibet.
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 the 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 can 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.
Tsering Tsomo is a Tibetan journalist based in New Delhi, India. She writes for exile Tibetan publications and other online media.