Originally published by the Far Eastern Economic Review. The writer, based in Washington, is the Dalai Lama’s special envoy.
The 1998 summit meeting between Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and United States President Bill Clinton had evoked hopes that progress on the Tibet issue would soon be at hand. However, this hope was short-lived, as the summit didn’t lead to any talk between China’s leaders and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Indications from Beijing are that there is an intense debate within the leadership on its approach to the Tibet issue. Pragmatists are still not in the majority and new information reveals that Beijing may have a more hardline position on Tibet than its public position may depict. In late 1999, a Tibetan-language newspaper in India, the Tibet Times, published a confidential document in which a senior Chinese official was quoted saying the following: “We have no need to engage in dialogue with the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama’s return to China will bring a great risk of instability. We will then not be able to control Tibet. The Dalai Lama is now fairly old. At the most, it will be 10 years before he dies. When he dies, the issue of Tibet is resolved for ever. We, therefore, have to use skillful means to prevent his return.”
If that is indeed Beijing’s conclusion, its approach to the Tibet issue couldn’t be more simplistic or misguided. While China is an important global power with the potential to become a leader among nations, it is also its own worst enemy. Ignoring the value of working with the Dalai Lama must rank at the top of its self-destructive tendencies.
Still, the quote from the senior Chinese official does answer one question that has puzzled governments and China-watchers. Why has China continued to erect roadblocks to negotiations? This despite the Dalai Lama’s firm commitment to negotiate a solution within the framework of the People’s Republic of China. The answer would appear to be that it’s hoping to not have to deal with the Dalai Lama. Yet it is foolhardy for Beijing to think that it can wait for the Dalai Lama to be out of the picture. He is only in his mid-60s, far younger than many of today’s world leaders. And, unlike other leaders who hold their positions for a limited time, the Dalai Lama faces no term limit. Furthermore, his moral authority transcends his political position, and the Tibetan people’s devotion to him remains strong and will grow even stronger over time.
Of course, without the Dalai Lama the Tibet movement would be devastated. But the longer the Chinese government waits in trying to resolve the Tibet issue, the greater it will be that resentment and defiance will grow and the more difficult it will be to convince Tibetans to accept a solution short of independence. The danger exists of a more extreme leadership then emerging. Most importantly, the death of the present Dalai Lama in exile would immortalize the Tibetan resistance against Chinese rule in such a way that would be extremely hard for a future Tibetan or Chinese leader to overturn.
If China’s leaders desire peace in Tibet and stability throughout the People’s Republic, they need the Dalai Lama’s help. Once they respond positively to his overtures, the Dalai Lama could use his moral authority to ensure the successful implementation of a negotiated settlement.
A peaceful resolution in Tibet could then help assure more restive regions, such as Eastern Turkestan, also known as Xinjiang, that dialogue is more effective in solving problems than taking up arms, and that China is capable of respecting diversity. Similarly, with Central Asia reasserting its historical role, a stable Tibet would contribute greatly to peace in this sensitive region. Further, friendly relations between India and China are possible only in the absence of the current instability on the Tibetan plateau.
Some say the reason China isn’t moving on the Tibet issue is because it has placed Taiwan much higher on its agenda. This may be true, but it’s short-sighted to believe that these two issues exist in isolation from each other. On the contrary, an acceptable resolution in Tibet could help win the confidence of the leaders and people of Taiwan, as well as individuals and governments around the world.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the solution to the situation in Tibet. If the political will exists, there will be no major hurdles to negotiations, at least on the fundamental issues. The paramount concern of China is the unity of the PRC, and the Dalai Lama is committed to not seeking independence. Similarly, China’s leaders should revisit assurances about Tibet’s status made by Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Hu Yaobang, Deng Xiaoping and others. The Dalai Lama also is one of the strongest advocates for change and has no wish to return Tibet to the system that existed before 1959. But it must be said that China’s leftist policies, in place in Tibet for decades, are the root of problems there and must be reversed.
The Chinese leadership should work with the Dalai Lama, whose commitment to nonviolence and negotiation remains steadfast. To do so would have positive reverberations throughout Asia, and indeed would provide China with the legitimacy it needs to be fully accepted by the international community.