The recent protests in Tibet have contributed towards highlighting the Tibet issue at a global level linking it with the forthcoming Olympic Games in Beijing. For China, this has been an unwelcome negative publicity and the ‘Dalai clique’ is seen as responsible for such a development.
China’s response to any kind of Tibetan dissension seems to meet with similar treatment. Subsequently, on being pressured by the international community to enter into dialogue with the Dalai Lama, China has reiterated its basic preconditions and questioned the Dalai Lama’s sincerity towards dialogue. Conversely, the Tibetan side, under the leadership of the Dalai Lama, has refuted Chinese allegations and reiterated that he is committed to a peaceful resolution of the problem.
China’s consistent reiteration of its basic preconditions — one, the Dalai Lama must give up his pursuit for Tibet’s independence and stop separatist activities against China; two, declare Tibet as an inalienable part of China; and three, recognise Taiwan as a part of China — have rendered the Sino-Tibetan talks that restarted in 2002, hostage to positional bargaining. The Dalai Lama has unilaterally conceded that he does not seek independence but only meaningful autonomy for all Tibetan areas within China’s constitutional mandate. However, the unilateral initiative without any positive reciprocity from the Chinese side, has cost the Tibetan leadership dearly resulting in a fractured Tibetan movement — autonomy versus independence. However, China refuses to accept the Dalai Lama’s unilateral initiative. This has naturally led to an outpouring of international sympathy in favour of the Dalai Lama’s sincerity, while damaging China’s image.
A lasting solution, however, might lie in an alternative approach. To begin with, China’s third precondition, linking Taiwan to the Tibet must be considered as a ‘false demand’. The second precondition, recognising Tibet as an inalienable part of China, is the major problem area in the Sino-Tibetan conflict. It must be understood that sovereignty in its modern context as the chief characteristic of a Nation-State with its connotations of territoriality did not exist in traditional Asian societies — the Sino-Tibetan societies being no exception. There is a need to re-examine the application of these modern lexicons to define Sino-Tibetan relations.
Even while the Sino-Tibetan talks are arrested by this precondition, the Sino-Tibetan conflict has only become more complex and dynamic as respective positions become further entrenched and external actors become involved. Furthermore, with the institutionalisation of the Tibet question in China, the Tibet issue has fallen prey to bureaucratic hurdles. Also, the Dalai Lama’s unilateral initiatives have often been mistaken for weakness.
Appropriately, there is a dominant view among Tibetologists that the current talks are a façade whereby the Chinese government is merely deferring the Tibet question until the Dalai Lama’s demise which will result in the waning of international support for the Tibetan cause.
But there is another more serious aspect. The focus, even over-emphasis, on the persona of the Dalai Lama does not adequately factor in the restive nature of Tibetan nationalism. This then opens up the possibility of a demand for secession as a ‘worst alternative to a negotiated agreement’. Drastic demographic changes and social exclusion of Tibetans from the benefits of economic development in China have tended to enhance Tibetan in-group cohesion and transnational solidarity. As a reaction, Chinese Han nationalism too has been stoked by the Chinese government’s policy of allowing access to selective images and videos depicting Tibetan violence against Han Chinese. Such a policy will have far- reaching ramifications for the Han-Tibetan relationship.
Therefore, Beijing will have to restructure its preconditions along the lines of a conceptual understanding of history; likewise for the Tibetans. All stakeholders must recognise the danger of frittering away the current opportunity of achieving a lasting solution within the lifetime of the Dalai Lama. China must refrain from anti-Dalai Lama and anti-Tibetan minority propaganda. The Tibet question must be attended at the highest levels of Chinese leadership and the Dalai Lama must remain steadfast in his middle way approach.
Tshering Chonzom is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU