By Thomas Laird
On guard: Paramilitary officers patrol Lhasa's iconic Potala Palace (Ng Han Guan / AP)
Since 2002, a little-known academic ritual has taken place each year at Harvard University. Academics of every stripe, from historians to constitutional lawyers, gather to discuss Tibet's past, present and future. Uniquely, these intellectual debates have brought together Chinese and exiled Tibetan scholars. In the real world, the simplest facts about Tibet are so divisive that dialogue is impossible. Chinese speak of the 1950 peaceful liberation of the Chinese province of Tibet, and of its subsequent modernization; Tibetans speak of the invasion of an independent nation, and the suppression of its religious and cultural traditions. The polite rules established at Harvard, however, at least allow the two sides to exchange views. In fact, a senior Chinese scholar attending the first Harvard event met with the Dalai Lama's envoy. That secret meeting birthed the official Sino-Tibetan dialogue between the Dalai Lama's representatives and the Chinese government, which still takes place annually in Beijing.
The most recent Harvard Tibet conference, late last year, occurred amid a hurricane of news events. The Dalai Lama met the leaders of Germany, the U.S. and Canada in quick succession. Headlines trumpeted Beijing's angry response. In Tibet, 4,000 armed police confronted monks at Lhasa's venerated Drepung Monastery when they tried to celebrate the Dalai Lama being awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal. Then the Chinese government announced that it must certify all new reincarnations of Tibetan Buddhism's top clerics, signaling its firm intention to select and control the next Dalai Lama when the current 14th Dalai Lama passes away. He, in turn, announced that he was considering the idea that he might select his successor before he died. At the Harvard conference, you could see these news events landing like mortars amid the polite dialogue. The scholars carried on, reflexively, trying to peel away each other's assumptions, looking for any sliver of space where a beachhead of shared meaning might be established.
Can reconciliation ever be achieved? Beijing first needs to give Tibetans, in exile and in Tibet, at least a hint of mutuality in their relationship. China could start by listening to Tibetans like Phuntso Wangye. He founded the first Communist Party in Tibet in 1940, which he merged with the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, and then helped lead Chinese troops into Tibet in 1951. Mao Zedong trusted Wangye so implicitly that he selected him as the translator for his 1954-55 meetings with the Dalai Lama. Today, the 85-year-old Wangye lives in Beijing. He believes that those Tibetan leaders collaborating with Beijing are misleading the Chinese leadership by claiming the Dalai Lama no longer has much sway over Tibetans. Wangye has urged Beijing to invite the Dalai Lama to China. Only the Dalai Lama has the standing among Tibetans to convince them to give up their hope for independence (it's self-deceiving to think such feelings do not exist).
The Dalai Lama has clearly indicated that he wants to negotiate meaningful autonomy, not independence, for Tibet. Yet the hawks in Beijing refuse to deal with him; they believe China can solve its Dalai Lama problem by letting the current one die in exile. However, history proves no power has ever successfully imposed a fake Dalai Lama on the Tibetan people.
Harvard's professor emeritus Ezra F. Vogel — who has enjoyed good relations with many of China's leaders, past and present — chaired several sessions during the Tibet conference. Beijing might want to consider Vogel's opinion regarding the 15th Dalai Lama: "If the Dalai Lama passes away without agreement with China, then you could have someone Beijing selects, who would not be acceptable to Tibetans. Then China could be in for a long-term problem, like Russia has in Chechnya."
Today's sporadic Sino-Tibetan dialogue continues not because China wants to use it to reach some accommodation with the Dalai Lama, but because China does not want to be blamed for ending it. Yet Beijing needs to engage the Dalai Lama because only he has the legitimacy among Tibetans to negotiate, and sell, genuine autonomy to the Tibetans. Inviting the Dalai Lama to China would do more to burnish the country's international image in this Olympic year than any other single step. When the Dalai Lama departs the scene, things will become harder, not easier, for China to deal with Tibet. Journalist Thomas Laird's latest book is The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama