The Tibetan impasse - Barry Sautman
Han and Tibetan Chinese share a saying, coined by a Tang dynasty Buddhist scholar, that could apply to talks between the Chinese government and Tibetan exiles led by the Dalai Lama. That saying, 'to hang out a sheep's head to sell dog meat', is the equivalent of the English proverb 'To cry wine and sell vinegar', meaning to claim to do one thing with the intent of doing another. Three decades of 'negotiations about negotiations' between the Dalai Lama's envoys and Beijing have not made progress because, although exile leaders claim they are not separatists, they continue with assertions and actions that belie that claim.
In their talks, the two parties have supposedly clarified their positions, yet no formal negotiations have taken place. Both sides tell the world that's because the other side is insincere, but because 'Chinese propaganda' is a stock notion in much of the world, while 'Tibetan exile propaganda' is not, the exiles' side of the story is often assumed to be true. They say that the Chinese government is not serious about negotiations because it is only willing to talk about the Dalai Lama's future and awaits his death, hoping the Tibet issue will then fade away.
Formal negotiations with the Dalai Lama are not being conducted, so it is not surprising that Beijing won't discuss Tibet with his representatives in any but general terms. The exiles' talk of waiting for the Dalai Lama to die is intended to make the Chinese government appear like a vulture, but the Dalai Lama said in the mid-1990s that the exiles' leverage would increase once Deng Xiaoping died. Those in the exile community who explicitly advocate Tibetan independence have also said that their position will improve once the Dalai Lama dies.
Beijing has repeatedly stated it will negotiate with the Dalai Lama if he meets several preconditions, the main one being that he acknowledges that Tibet is an inalienable part of China. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile refuse to do that, bizarrely claiming that to do so would be the same as agreeing that Tibet has always been part of China. That is one reason Chinese leaders continue to regard them as separatists.
Recent statements by the Dalai Lama and leaders of the Tibetan government in exile indicate that it is not unreasonable to regard them as separatists. They have said that Tibet has always been independent, that it is an occupied country or colony with a right to independence, that the government in exile is the legitimate government of Tibet, that not a single Tibetan considers himself or herself Chinese, and that the majority of Tibetans want independence. For two decades, exile leaders have given indications that they await the collapse of China so that Tibet can become independent like former parts of the Soviet Union.
Chinese leaders regard claims that Tibet was always independent and has a right to independence as assertions that Tibet should not be part of China. They see the Tibetan exile leaders' friendly gestures to separatists in Taiwan and the Xinjiang Uygur diaspora, and the government in exile's patronage from the United States and India - states that have conflicts with China and political elements that want to 'play the Tibet card'.
When Han and people of other ethnic groups were murdered in the streets and shops of Lhasa two years ago, Tibetan exile leaders claimed without evidence that the killings were carried out by disguised Chinese soldiers. Thus, no matter how much others, especially in the West, credit the Dalai Lama's disavowal of independence, the Chinese government will talk to, but not negotiate with him - as long as he stands apart from the United Nations and the world's states by disavowing that Tibet is legitimately part of China.
In 1998, US president Bill Clinton stated: 'I agree that Tibet is part of China and I can understand why the acknowledgment of that would be a precondition of dialogue with the Dalai Lama.' Only the Dalai Lama's pronouncement of Tibet as an inalienable (and thus legitimate) part of China will convince its leaders that he has abandoned any claim to Tibetan independence. But instead of taking these steps, exile leaders have demanded that all Tibetan areas be united into one jurisdiction that covers a quarter of China's territory - creating an entity that never existed historically - and that Tibet have a US-style political system.
The exiles' demands call to mind another proverb - 'negotiating with a tiger for its skin'; that is, demanding something that can never be surrendered. Indeed, the Chinese government rejects such demands as efforts to achieve independence by stealth. If, however, the Dalai Lama does agree to Beijing's preconditions, there is plenty to talk about. Beijing is not about to alter Tibet's political status, erasing the borders between China's Tibetan areas any time soon, or dilute the hegemony of the Communist Party. It may, however, be willing to discuss a gradual expansion of the autonomy of Tibetan areas, including by incorporating non-separatist Tibetan exiles in key positions in these areas' governing apparatuses. It may agree to remove restrictions on religious practice for officials, students and others, adopt additional measures aimed at fostering the Tibetan language and culture, make a more targeted effort to raise the incomes of ethnic Tibetans, and even restrict migration by non-Tibetans into Tibetan areas.
If agreement were reached along these lines - the complete abjuring of separatism and specific steps to bolster ethnic autonomy and preferential policies for Tibetans - the resulting diminution of political tensions could lead to de facto common policies and practices among China's Tibetan areas. Because of the history of separatism, Beijing is not going to make the Tibetan areas into another Hong Kong, in which only local people are political leaders and a high degree of autonomy allows for a system markedly different from the rest of the country. In that regard, among autonomous areas of the world's states, Hong Kong and Macau are unique.
Negotiations that follow the Dalai Lama's acceptance of China's preconditions could, however, lead to changes beneficial to Tibetans' cultural and material life, especially if the Chinese government is pressed to make good on its claim of wanting to achieve 'equality-in-fact' among ethnic groups. The first step, however, lies with the exiles' clear acceptance that Tibet is legitimately part of China and that negotiations will not be based on demands Beijing cannot concede, as well as on the Chinese government's clear indication that concerted, wide-ranging talks will follow.
Barry Sautman is a political scientist and lawyer at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology