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'Seeking unity through equality'
Himal[Friday, January 26, 2007 10:39]
Although five rounds of discussion have now taken place since 2002 between Beijing and the Dharamsala government-in-exile, until recently little has ever been made public about the substance of those talks.

By Lodi Gyari

Lodi Gyari, Special Envoy of the
Dalai Lama
Lodi Gyari, Special Envoy of the Dalai Lama
Since 2002, representatives of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government have completed five rounds of discussions. These have gone a long way towards establishing a climate of openness that is essential to reaching mutually agreeable decisions regarding the future of the Tibetan and Chinese people.

We Tibetans have been encourag-ed by the new focus within China’s leadership on the creation of a “harmonious society”. A society built on harmony is a society built on consensus, and one that takes into account the needs of all its peoples. This is particularly true in a country like today’s China, which is comprised of so many distinct nationalities.

Similarly, we are encouraged by the concept of China’s “peaceful rise”, whereby it will develop as a “modern socialist country that is prosperous, democratic and culturally advanced”. While this philosophy candidly addresses a number of issues that confront China today, to be lasting it must take into account the aspirations of the Tibetan people; peace and stability can only be achieved by peaceful means. Embracing its diversity and protecting the identity of the Tibetan people is integral to China’s successful “peaceful rise”.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s forward-looking approach to Tibet’s future shares a common vision with these ideals of harmony and peaceful development, as illustrated by his deep understanding of humanity’s interdependence and his philosophy of universal responsibility. In an address to the European Parliament, His Holiness said: “Today’s world requires us to accept the oneness of humanity. The world is becoming increasingly interdependent. Within the context of this new interdependence, self-interest clearly lies in considering the interest of others. Without the cultivation of a sense of universal responsibility our very future is in danger.”

Tibetan and Chinese delegations, July 2005  (DIIR/CTA)
Tibetan and Chinese delegations, July 2005 (DIIR/CTA)
Ever since the re-establishment of contact between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese leadership in 2002, concerned individuals, organisations and governments have shown a keen interest in better understanding our discussions. Up until the present we have resisted giving details, knowing that China prefers to operate cautiously and free of scrutiny, particularly on sensitive issues like Tibet, and recognising that to openly discuss the dialogue could adversely impact the process. Thus, in our public statements following each of the five meetings so far, we only provided a general assessment without divulging the content of our discussions.

In recent times, however, there have been articles in the Chinese media, under a pseudonym, detailing our discussions with the Chinese leadership. Similarly, we have learned that our counterparts in the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party have been briefing foreign diplomats based in Beijing about our discussions. We do not take issue with the Chinese authorities making this information public. As a matter of fact, we would have liked our dialogue process to be as transparent as possible from the beginning. But, these developments have led to the circulation of speculative, uninformed and one-sided information about some of the important issues at stake. This has not only sent a confusing message to the international community, but also distorted His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s position on and good intentions to the Chinese people.

Focusing on the future
The five rounds of discussions that we have had with the Chinese leadership have brought our dialogue to a new level. Today, there is a deeper understanding of each other’s positions and recognition of where the fundamental differences lie. On the surface, it may appear that there have been no breakthroughs, and that a wide gap persists in our positions. But the very fact that the two sides have been able to explicitly state our positions after so many decades represents a significant development. How can we even attempt to make real progress unless we fully understand our differences?

Our Chinese counterparts have also remarked on the progress we have made through our discussions. Following our fourth round of meetings in July 2005, I reported that Vice Minister Zhu Weiqun “stated that we need not be pessimistic about the existing differences, and that it was possible to narrow down the gaps through more meetings and exchange of views”.

There are several issues which are of utmost importance as we continue our dialogue with the Chinese leadership: His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s firm commitment to a resolution that has Tibet as a part of the People’s Republic of China, the need to unify all Tibetan people into one administrative entity, and the importance of granting genuine autonomy to the Tibetan people within the framework of

China’s Constitution.
First, the status of Tibet. China’s lack of trust in His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people is one of the most critical obstacles we currently face in our dialogue. To take a case in point, the Chinese side seems to believe that because His Holiness the Dalai Lama has stated that he wants to look to the future as opposed to Tibet’s history to resolve its status vis-à-vis China, he has some sort of hidden agenda. This could not be farther from the truth. Revisiting history will not serve any useful purpose, as the Tibetans and Chinese sides have different viewpoints of their past relations. We have therefore chosen to base our approach on Tibet’s future, not on the past. Debates over Tibet’s history, before we have reached mutual trust and confidence, are counterproductive, making it more difficult for the Tibetans and Chinese alone to untangle this issue.

In 1979 Deng Xiaoping laid down the framework for resolving the issue of Tibet by stating that, other than the issue of Tibetan independence, anything else could be discussed and resolved. Thus, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said we should recognise today’s reality that Tibet is a part of the People’s Republic of China. He is committed to his decision that we will not raise the issue of separation from China in working on a mutually acceptable solution for Tibet.

While the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way approach involves resolving the issue of Tibet within the framework of the People’s Republic of China, it also embodies his deep concern for the survival of the Tibetan identity, culture, religion and way of life. It was adopted by His Holiness after deliberating at length with Tibetan leaders in exile over many years. It is now fully endorsed by the democratically established institutions in exile, including the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies and the popularly elected Chairman of the Cabinet, Professor Samdhong Rinpoche. Rinpoche’s role in this effort has been crucial. Because of prevailing conditions, His Holiness is not in a position to openly seek the endorsement of the Tibetans inside Tibet. Nevertheless, he has used every opportunity to explain his approach, and has received favourable reactions from all levels of Tibetan society. He has also been encouraged by the strong support expressed by a number of Chinese intellectuals and scholars.

The Middle Way approach represents the Dalai Lama’s commitment to look to the future, instead of the past, to find a solution that will provide maximum autonomy for the Tibetan people and bring peace and stability to the People’s Republic of China and the entire region.

Second, concerning a single administration for the Tibetan people. Since His Holiness the Dalai Lama has addressed the fundamental concern of the Chinese government about the status of Tibet, it is our expectation that they should reciprocate by acknowledging the legitimate needs of the Tibetan people. Today, less than half of the Tibetan people reside in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The rest reside in Tibetan autonomous counties and prefectures in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. All Tibetans residing in these Tibetan areas share the same language, ethnicity, culture and tradition. Furthermore, just as the Chinese nation has sought to unify many different regions into one nation, the Tibetan people, too, yearn to be under one administrative entity so that their way of life, tradition and religion can be more effectively and peacefully maintained.

Historically the division of a nationality area into many administrative units contributed to the weakening and erosion of that nationality’s unique characteristics, as well as its ability to grow and develop. This can also hinder or even undermine the nation’s peace, stability and development. Such a situation is in contradiction to the founding goals of the People’s Republic of China, namely the recognition of the equality of all nationalities. Thus in order to thrive, the Tibetan people cannot remain divided, but must be accorded the equality and respect befitting a distinct people.

The Chinese side makes the argument that the present-day Tibet Autonomous Region parallels the area under the former Tibetan government. Thus, their argument continues, our position that the entire Tibetan people need to live under a single administrative entity is unreasonable. This question will lead us inevitably to the examination of Tibet’s historical legal status under the Tibetan government, and will not help in reaching a common ground on which to build a common future. The Chinese government has redrawn internal boundaries when it has suited its needs, and could do so again in the case of Tibet to foster stability and to help ensure Tibet’s characteristics remain intact. The point here is not about territorial division, but how to best promote Tibet’s culture and way of life.

The Chinese side is also characterising our position as a demand for the separation of one-fourth the territory of China. First of all, since the Tibetans are not asking for the separation of Tibet from China, there should be no concern on this front. More importantly, it is a reality that the landmass inhabited by Tibetans constitutes roughly one-fourth the territory of the People’s Republic of China. Actually, the Chinese government has already designated almost all Tibetan areas as ‘Tibet autonomous entities’ – the Tibet Autonomous Region, Tibet Autonomous Prefectures or Tibet Autonomous Counties. Thus, our positions on what constitutes Tibet are really not so divergent.

Having the Tibetan people under a single administrative entity should not be seen as an effort to create a ‘greater’ Tibet, nor is it a cover for a separatist plot. It is a question of recognising, restoring and respecting the integrity of the Tibetans as a people and distinct nationality within the People’s Republic of China. Furthermore, this is not a new or revolutionary idea. From the beginning, the Tibetans have raised this issue, and representatives of the Chinese government have recognised it as one that must be addressed. In fact, during the signing of the 17-Point Agreement in 1951, Premier Zhou En-lai acknowledged that the idea of unification of the Tibetan nationalities was appropriate. Similarly, in 1956, Vice Premier Chen Yi was in Lhasa and said that it would be good for Tibet’s development as well as for the friendship of Tibetans and Chinese if in the future the Tibet Autonomous Region included all ethnic Tibetan areas, including those now in other provinces.

The Tibetan people are striving for the right of a distinct people to be able to preserve that very distinctiveness through a single administrative entity. This would give the Tibetans a genuine sense of having benefited by being part of the People’s Republic of China, and would embody the respect for the integrity of the Tibetans as a distinct people.

The Chinese leadership is clearly aware that this aspiration of the Tibetan people is voiced not just by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans in exile, but by Tibetans inside Tibet, including prominent members of the Communist Party. Knowing this, certain elements of the Chinese leadership have lately been trying to alter the public perception by orchestrating and arranging written opposition to the aspiration by some of the Tibetans inside Tibet.

The importance of autonomy
Third, regarding genuine autonomy. According to the Chinese Constitution, the law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy as well as the White Paper on Regional Ethnic Autonomy in Tibet, the Tibetan people are entitled to the following rights: full political right of autonomy; full decision-making power in economic and social development undertakings; freedom to inherit and develop their traditional culture, and to practice their religious belief; and freedom to administer, protect and be the first to utilise their natural resources, to independently develop their educational and cultural undertakings. The Constitution also states:

All nationalities in the People’s Republic of China are equal. The state protects the lawful rights and interests of the minority nationalities and upholds and develops the relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance among all of China’s nationalities... Regional autonomy is practiced in areas where people of minority nationalities live in compact communities, in these areas organs of self-government are established for the exercise of the right of autonomy.

In treating the Tibetan people with respect and dignity through genuine autonomy, the Chinese leadership has the opportunity to create a truly multi-ethnic, harmonious nation without a tremendous cost in human suffering. As Hu Yaobang, former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, said: “It is not possible to achieve a genuine unity amongst the nationalities of the country as long as complete autonomy is not implemented in the areas of the minority nationalities.”

Some detractors in the Chinese government allege that our proposal for a single administrative entity for the Tibetan people and the implementation of genuine regional autonomy as provided in the Constitution is really an effort to restore Tibet’s former system of government in Tibet today, or an effort by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to personally regain power over all of Tibet. Nothing is farther from the truth. In his 10 March 2005 statement, His Holiness reiterated his position, saying:

My involvement in the affairs of Tibet is not for the purpose of claiming certain personal rights or political position for myself, nor attempting to stake claims for the Tibetan administration in exile. In 1992 in a formal announcement I stated clearly that when we return to Tibet with a certain degree of freedom I will not hold any office in the Tibetan government or any other political position, and that the present Tibetan administration in exile will be dissolved. Moreover, the Tibetans working in Tibet should carry on the main responsibility of administering Tibet.

The task at hand is to develop a system that would grant the kind of autonomy required for the Tibetans to be able to survive as a distinct and prosperous people within the People’s Republic of China. So far, in our discussions with our Chinese counterparts we have not proposed specific labels for how Tibetan areas would be designated, although it should be noted that the Chinese-authored 17-Point Agreement does propose a similar arrangement for Tibet. Nor have we specifically proposed formulas that ask for higher or lower levels of autonomy than Hong Kong and Macao. Each of these areas has its unique characteristics, and in order to succeed, their solutions must reflect the needs and qualities of the region. We have specifically conveyed to our counterparts that we place more importance on discussing the substance than on the label.

The Tibetans have the legitimate right to seek special status, as can be seen in the following quote by Ngapo Ngawang Jigme. He is the most senior Tibetan in China’s hierarchy who, by virtue of his position, has endorsed many of China’s views on Tibet. In 1988 he said:

It is because of the special situation in Tibet that in 1951 the 17-Point Agreement on the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, between the central people’s government and the local Tibetan government, came about. Such an agreement has never existed between the central government and any other minority region. We have to consider the special situation in Tibetan history while drafting policies for Tibet in order to realise its long-term stability. We must give Tibet more autonomous power than other minority regions. In my view, at present, the Tibet Autonomous Region has relatively less power of autonomy compared with other autonomous regions, let alone compared with provinces. Therefore Tibet must have some special treatment and have more autonomy like those special economic zones. We must employ special policies to resolve the special characteristics which have pertained throughout history.

Other important Tibetan leaders, including the late Panchen Lama and political leader Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal, have strongly advocated the legitimacy of Tibet’s special status. Similarly, the former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, had acknowledged that Tibet is unique from other autonomous regions and provinces, and has argued that the validity of Tibet’s special status must not be contested.

There are some other issues, which are based on misperceptions of His Holiness’s views by detractors in the Chinese side, including the allegation that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is asking for all Tibetan areas to be populated solely by Tibetans and to be rid of the People’s Liberation Army. The detractors in the Chinese government have deliberately misinterpreted His Holiness’s concerns in these areas, just as they denounce any effort to manifest the Tibetan identity as separatist. His Holiness has very honestly expressed the need for the Tibetan people to maintain their distinctive way of life and protect Tibet’s fragile environment. He has had this in mind when he raises concerns about the large influx of people from other parts of the People’s Republic of China and the extensive militarisation of Tibetan areas. We are fully aware that these are issues of concern to the Chinese government, as these matters have been extensively discussed during our meetings. I am confident that through the negotiations process we will be able to dispel these concerns.

The solution
The Dalai Lama is widely recognised and admired for his honesty and integrity. He has been pragmatic and flexible in wanting to negotiate with the leadership in Beijing on the kind of status Tibet should enjoy in the future, and has held steadfast to his commitment to non-violence and dialogue as the only logical means of resolving the issue of Tibet. It is a reality today that in spite of their tremendous suffering resulting from some of China’s policies, the Tibetans have not resorted to non-peaceful means to respond to this injustice. This is largely because of the unwavering insistence on peace and reconciliation by the Dalai Lama and the hope he provides to his people.

Some detractors in the Chinese government seem to believe that the aspirations of the Tibetan people will fizzle out once the Dalai Lama passes away. This is a most dangerous and myopic approach. Certainly, the absence of the Dalai Lama would be devastating for the Tibetan people. But more importantly, his absence would mean that China would be left to handle the problem without the presence of a leader who enjoys the loyalty of the entire community and who remains firmly committed to non-violence. It is certain that the Tibetan position would become more intractable in his absence, and that having their beloved leader pass away in exile would create deep and irreparable wounds in the hearts of the Tibetan people. In the absence of the Dalai Lama, there is no way that the entire population would be able to contain their resentment and anger. And it only takes a few desperate individuals or groups to create major instability. This is not a threat, but a statement of fact.

The Dalai Lama’s worldview, his special bond with the Tibetan people and the respect he enjoys in the international community, all make the person of the Dalai Lama key both to achieving a negotiated solution to the Tibetan issue and to peacefully implementing any agreement that is reached. This is why we have consistently conveyed to our Chinese counterparts that far from being the problem, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the solution.

Providing genuine autonomy to the Tibetan people is in China’s interest, as it makes efforts to create a peaceful, stable and harmonious society. But resolving the Tibetan issue is also important to the international community, particularly to our region. The historically volatile Central Asian region has revived and has already become an area of conflict. Here Tibet can play a stabilising role, which is important to the countries in the region such as India, China and Russia, as well as to the United States and other countries. Tibet, which for centuries played the vital role as a buffer in the region, can help create a more cohesive and stable region by serving as a valuable bridge. A number of political observers from the region also acknowledge that resolving the Tibet issue is an important factor in the normalisation of India-China relations. Understanding the great mutual benefit for all concerned, His Holiness has consistently supported closer India-China relations.

There is also increased awareness of the vital importance of the Tibetan plateau from the environmental perspective. Just on the issue of water alone, it is an undeniable fact that over the next few decades, water may become as scarce a commodity as oil. Tibet is literally the life-source of the region, serving as the source of most of Asia’s major rivers. Therefore, protecting Tibet’s fragile environment should be accorded the highest priority.

To date, the Chinese authorities have resorted to political and military pressure, and intimidation to stifle the Tibetan people. This is clearly demonstrated by some of the recent actions by the top party leader in the Tibet Autonomous Region, as well as the persistent attempt to deny the Tibetan people their religious freedom and other human rights. These actions can not only harm the sincere efforts by both sides for a mutually beneficial reconciliation, but also create embarrassment and difficulty to the Chinese leadership; they will do substantial damage to China’s efforts to be a peaceful and responsible power internationally, and the creation of a harmonious society at home.

We have no illusions that coming to a negotiated solution will be easy. Having identified each other’s position and differences, it is now our sincere hope that both sides can start making serious efforts to find a common ground and to build trust. In furtherance of this goal, His Holiness has made the offer to go personally to China on a pilgrimage. This has met with considerable opposition from Tibetans, both inside and outside Tibet, as well as from friends in the international community who are not convinced of China’s sincerity. But His Holiness is committed to doing everything he can to dispel the climate of mistrust that continues to exist.

We fully support China’s effort to create a harmonious society, as well as its aspirations for a peaceful rise. After all, its successful, peaceful rise will depend on internal harmony and stability, which can hardly be achieved without the Tibetan issue being resolved. The People’s Republic of China is a multi-ethnic nation state whose internal diversity is a reality. It is based on this reality that a harmonious society needs to be created. And in looking forward to finding a solution for Tibet, it is in China’s best interest to have the Tibetan people accept their place within the People’s Republic of China of their own free will.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people are deeply grateful for the outpouring of interest and support from the international community. It is an invaluable source of inspiration. At the same time, we are fully aware that ultimately the issue needs to be resolved directly between the Tibetans and Chinese. I also want to note that my delegation has received the warmest hospitality and the highest courtesy from every level of the Chinese government during our visits. Similarly, the personal conduct of our counterparts has been exemplary.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has a vision of the Tibetans being able to live in harmony within the People’s Republic of China. Today’s China was born out of a historical movement for the people’s self-determination, and the Constitution asserts that it is based on principles of equality. Let us build our relations on this equality, and give the Tibetan people the dignity to freely and willingly be a part of this nation. We cannot rewrite history, but together we can determine the future.

From a speech given to the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, 14 November 2006.
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