Tibet policy needs rethink by Beijing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 July, 2011, 12:00am


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The face of Tibet has changed dramatically in the 60 years since it came under Communist Party rule. Untold billions of yuan have been poured into developing infrastructure, improving living standards and developing the local economy. But this largesse has not won the hearts and minds of Tibetans, nor has it lessened their respect for their exiled religious leader, the Dalai Lama.

Beijing has to rethink its policy and resuming dialogue is the best place to start. Attempts to buy goodwill have clearly been unsuccessful. It is not only about wealth or politics, but respecting religion, culture and customs. The party has done a poor job of this through policies that have decimated monasteries, traditions and the Buddhist clergy. Its way of governing is at odds with Tibetan culture, which is grounded in the Buddhist religion and a theocratic political system. The more materialistic values of Han Chinese immigrants do not sit easily with traditional beliefs.

As US President Barack Obama's meeting last week with the Dalai Lama also showed, the Tibet issue remains diplomatically sensitive. Ties that had been positive following President Hu Jintao's US visit in January were instantly soured, just as they are for any country that hosts the Nobel peace prize laureate.

Few issues are as irritating for Beijing, which sees Tibet as one of its core interests. The Sino-US relationship is important to both nations and affects global trade and politics; it should not be turned on and off like a tap. Finding common ground with the Tibetan government in exile has to be a priority.

Beijing has seen it as otherwise, putting faith in development and believing that the issue will die with the passing of the Dalai Lama, who is now 76. There has been no tangible progress in nine rounds of meetings since 2002, when a decade of no formal contact ended. Tibetan negotiators in 1988 shifted their chief demand from one of independence to seeking genuine autonomy, but disagreement persists over what this should mean and China is firm that there is no room for discussion on issues of national and territorial sovereignty. Doing nothing is not a sound strategy, as the Dalai lama's resignation as head of the exiled government would seem to prove; Lobsang Sangay, who was in April elected as its prime minister, is, like Obama, a Harvard Law School graduate with firm views on rights and freedoms.

Tibetans have to be given a greater say in their own affairs. The special status of Tibet under the constitution as one of five autonomous ethnic regions is not enough, as Tibetans still have little ability to influence how they are governed. However much Beijing contends that this amounts to self-rule, decisions on legislation are ultimately made in the capital. It is time for a new approach.