False optimism on Tibet?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2006, 12:00am

For the first time since the Dalai Lama's representatives and those of the mainland government started talks in 2002, the Tibetan religious leader's chief envoy has provided an in-depth account of the hitherto secret discussions in a talk at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari said he was optimistic that the dialogue would prove productive in the end. However, there is little evidence to support such feelings. 'We fully support China's effort to create a harmonious society as well as its aspirations for a peaceful rise,' he said. 'After all, its successful peaceful rise will depend on internal harmony and stability, which can hardly be achieved without the Tibetan issue being resolved.'

Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari raised the possibility that the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan exiles would be willing to 'accept their place within the People's Republic of China of their own free will'. He felt the discussions, five rounds of which have been held, 'have gone a long way towards establishing a climate of openness' between the two sides.

However, such optimism seems unwarranted. One major obstacle is the Dalai Lama's request for a redrawing of the boundary of the Tibet Autonomous Region to include parts of the provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan, where about half of China's 6 million Tibetans live.

Beijing has made it clear that this is out of the question. An article published by the Tibet Information Centre in July, five months after the last Tibetan-Chinese meeting, derided the idea. Historically, it said, Tibetans had never been under one administration, and that such a new Tibet would account for a quarter of China's land area. 'If all of the 55 ethnic minorities founded their own unified autonomous areas, there would be conflicts between various ethnic groups and social disorder in China,' the article said.

Beijing certainly won't give Tibetans - who comprise less than half of 1 per cent of the mainland population - administrative control over a quarter of China's territory.

Another seemingly insuperable obstacle is Beijing's demand that the Dalai Lama acknowledge that Tibet has been part of China since ancient times. The Dalai Lama says there is little point in talking about history, since the two sides are bound to disagree. Instead, he proposes that they begin from the current reality, with Tibet as a part of China, and look to the future.

The problem, however, is a lack of trust: when the Dalai Lama preaches a 'middle way' leading to autonomy, Beijing thinks he really means independence.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking. The current Dalai Lama is 71 and, though still healthy, he will not live forever. His passing may well leave a fragmented exile community with no recognised leader. Younger leaders are likely to be more radical.

Some mainlanders look forward to the departure of the Dalai Lama, thinking that they will be able to name the new Dalai Lama, just as they chose a new Panchen Lama in 1995.

However, the Tibetans believe they have a trump card. They say that the Dalai Lama is able to decide where and when to be reborn, and it is illogical to think that he would spend his whole life in exile and then choose to be reborn in China. So if Beijing designates a boy as the reincarnated Dalai Lama, Tibetans will not recognise him. If the exile community picks its own reincarnated leader, he would not be old enough to play a leadership role for at least 15 to 20 years.

In the meantime, the nature of Tibet may be altered irrevocably by the immigration of ethnic Chinese. Tibetans may then find themselves a minority in their own homeland, like the Mongols in Inner Mongolia .

Both sides should be willing to compromise. The Dalai Lama should give up unrealistic goals, such as a Tibet Autonomous Region twice its current size. And Beijing should accept the Dalai Lama's words at face value and not suspect that, in his mind, autonomy means independence.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator