Some light at last?
Last week, mainland officials and representatives of the Dalai Lama gave separate press conferences after their ninth meeting in eight years. Both parties indicated there had been no progress. Just what constitutes 'progress' in these dialogues is difficult to define and may be quite tenuous, such as the latest Chinese slogans imparted to the Tibetans. For example, during an informal session in May 2008, the Chinese side insisted that the Dalai Lama abide by the 'three stops' - to 'stop separatist activities, stop violence and stop sabotaging the Olympic Games'. The Tibetans protested that the Dalai Lama had not been doing these things, so how could he stop?
When the two sides met again, two months later, the Chinese came up with a new slogan, the 'four do-not-supports'. This translated into not supporting activities that would disturb the Beijing Olympic Games, plots inciting violent crimes, terrorist activities and activities seeking Tibetan independence.
This change in slogans was considered to be positive since Beijing no longer assumed that the Dalai Lama was actually engaged in such activities. That was progress.
The latest round was preceded by speculation that, this time, there may be real progress. Newsweek published an article in which it said mainland officials had come to the realisation that their 'government has been mishandling the issue of Tibet all along'. 'Suddenly,' it said, 'the Dalai Lama is not the problem but rather a pivotal part of the solution.'
If there has been such a Chinese change of heart, it was not evident at the latest round of talks between the Tibetans, Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, and mainland officials headed by Du Qinglin , director of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party. In fact, Beijing takes the position that the talks are only about the future role of the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in 1959, if he should return to China. But, the Dalai Lama's representatives say he has no demands for himself and is only interested in the welfare of the 6.5 million Tibetans in China.
But there are, in fact, tantalising signs of movement in the eight-year-old dialogue. In November 2008, at the last round of talks, the Dalai Lama's representatives presented a memorandum on genuine autonomy for all Tibetans. This called for the creation of a government not only for the Tibetan Autonomous Region but also for Tibetans who live in the provinces of Sichuan , Gansu , Yunnan and Qinghai . Beijing rejected the memorandum out of hand.
This time, the Tibetans presented a note clarifying points in the memorandum and 'fundamental issues raised by the mainland leadership during the eighth round'. So far, it appears, the note has not been rejected out of hand. Beijing may actually be studying it. That alone would be progress.
This time, the mainland officials also gave a detailed briefing on developments in Tibet, including holding an important meeting called the Fifth Tibet Work Forum, just days before the session between the two sides. At the forum, mainland officials apparently toned down their rhetoric against the Dalai Lama, whom they had previously accused of fomenting terrorism. This is important to the Tibetan side. Interestingly, the forum not only discussed the development of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but also Tibetan-majority areas in adjacent provinces.
Moreover, it did not simply focus on development of industry and infrastructure but on improving the livelihood of the people.
Indeed, Lodi Gyari said: 'If we take away the political slogans, many of the issues that have been prioritised by the forum are similar to the basic needs of the Tibetan people outlined in our memorandum.' Thus, he said, 'given political will on the Chinese leadership's side, we do not see any reason why we cannot find a common ground on these issues'.
The outlook is for more sessions and more frustration but, for now, it looks like there may be a slight glimmer of hope. Future sessions may yield more tangible progress than a few new slogans.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator