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Cultural Autonomy for Tibet
WSJ[Tuesday, April 08, 2008 13:38]

Given the scrutiny Beijing faces for its handling of the recent uprising in Lhasa, it may come as a surprise that there is a relatively simple solution to the problem: China need only implement existing laws on cultural autonomy. Doing so is not only the best way to preserve Tibetan culture. It would also address international criticism, while providing a lever with which to encourage the Dalai Lama to fully, formally and forever renounce Tibet's claim to independence.

After the Communist Party came to power in 1949, China recognized the advantages of providing minority groups with self-government, and adopted extensive provisions for regional autonomy. Article 4 of China's constitution affirms the equality of the country's 55 ethnic groups and requires the state to adopt policies advancing their "special characteristics and needs." Not only does the constitution prohibit discrimination, it also guarantees minorities the same freedom of thought, expression, assembly and religion as the majority Han Chinese enjoy.

China has since added to its body of laws aimed at protecting and promoting minority rights. At least 160 rules and regulations have been adopted by provincial, prefectoral and county authorities in the ethnic Tibetan areas of Western China. The scope of these laws is far-reaching. In Tibet, regulations require hiring ethnic Tibetans in security roles. They provide for the use of Tibetan language in education and local government. Regarding education and language, authorities are mandated to provide curriculum in both Chinese and Tibetan, and to provide textbooks in the Tibetan language. Signage, street names and judicial proceedings must also be posted in Tibetan. Public health institutions must have Tibetan medical personnel and a dispensary offering traditional Tibetan medicines.

Autonomy arrangements governing religious practices are more problematic. Whereas regulations guarantee the observance of minority holidays, dietary restrictions and religious practice, religious freedom is restricted. Rules require monasteries to be managed by "patriotic religious groups" whose members "support the Party" and the "unity of the state." Owning or displaying images of the Dalai Lama is prohibited. The Chinese government interfered in the traditional process of selecting a reincarnate Panchen Lama by arresting the Tibetan boy identified by the bona-fide search committee and anointing their own choice. It is certain to do the same when the Dalai Lama passes on.

Beijing fears that implementing China's autonomy laws would compromise national sovereignty. But genuine autonomy need not be a half-step toward independence. On the contrary, meaningful autonomy would enhance, not impair, China's sovereignty. For example, the Hong Kong Basic Law affirmed Beijing's willingness to come up with a formula that allows a degree of self-rule while asserting the central government's control over defense and foreign affairs. The Hong Kong experience demonstrates that territorial integrity can be strengthened through a policy of "one country two systems."

Resolving the Tibet issue peacefully and through negotiations would also send a positive message to Taiwan, thereby positioning China to further consolidate its territory. And an agreement on cultural autonomy would enhance stability in China's other minority areas – such as Xinjiang, where six Uighur protesters were killed and 400 arrested during demonstrations last week. In the event of an agreement, China could expect greater foreign direct investment in western China with benefits to Tibetans, Uighur, Han and other residents. Without one, China will continue to bear extraordinary expenditures on education, infrastructure and development. The cost of maintaining security is also an unnecessary drain on China's resources that could be better spent, for example, addressing the country's energy needs and pollution problems.

The best way to achieve a more desirable arrangement is to engage the Dalai Lama. Such a step would also silence much of the international community's justifiable criticism on the Tibet issue. Having clearly and repeatedly stated that Tibet is part of China, the Dalai Lama is best placed to endorse an agreement that advances China's interests as well as the interests of Tibetans. Absent progress, however, even he will not be able to prevent Tibetans from becoming radicalized. The opportunity to negotiate an autonomy arrangement that strengthens China's territorial integrity would thus disappear.

Before the window of opportunity slams shut, the Chinese government should reconsider its approach. It is not too late to calm the situation by rescinding its declaration of martial law, withdrawing soldiers to their barracks, and releasing monks as well as other political prisoners. President Hu Jintao has said that, "It is essential to stick to and improve the system of regional ethnic autonomy." To this end, China should establish a Special Commission on Cultural Autonomy including representatives from the Tibetan government-in-exile. The commission would be mandated to draft governance, economic and cultural autonomy measures to be uniformly implemented in the Tibetan Autonomous Region as well as ethnic Tibetan areas in the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan and Sichuan.

Many countries are watching to see how China harmonizes its goal of territorial integrity with the need to satisfy the aspirations of ethnic or religious minorities. If China chooses negotiations over violence, other states – such as Indonesia, India and the Philippines – may emulate its conciliatory approach with their own restive minorities. The best way to resolve the Tibet problem, as well as to set a good example to its neighbors, is through talks resulting in Beijing's verifiable commitment to upgrade and fully implement its own laws on autonomy.

Mr. Phillips is a visiting scholar at Columbia University's Center for the Study of Human Rights.
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