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Change in official wording indicates US position on Tibet issue
Kate Saunders[Saturday, October 04, 2003 10:30]
By Kate Saunders

The US government’s policy view on the Tibet issue has been broadened with a new definition of Tibetan territory. The US previously defined Tibet as the Tibet Autonomous Region, which did not take into account the Tibetan areas of Kham and Amdo, now absorbed into the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu. The new wording refers to Tibetan autonomous prefectures and counties as well as the Tibet Autonomous Region. According to a report published by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) on Thursday (2 October), the new wording will first be formally used in a forthcoming report on international religious freedom by the State Department. The US administration has not changed its position on the issue of China’s sovereignty over Tibetan territory; it continues to recognise the TAR and Tibetan prefectures and counties as part of the People’s Republic of China. But, the new wording formalises a recognition by the US government of the importance of Tibetan areas outside the TAR. It is significant at a time of possible progress towards dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama, following two visits by the Dalai Lama’s envoys in the past year. The Dalai Lama is seeking genuine autonomy under Chinese sovereignty.

The new US wording avoids depicting Tibetan areas as a single or unitary administrative entity. The Annual Report of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China published on Thursday refers to the differing representations of what constitutes ‘Tibet’ when it states that the boundaries of the TAR, which makes up about half of the total Tibetan area, approximate the extent of administration exercised by the Tibetan government in Lhasa when the PRC was founded in 1949. The report by the CECC, a body which was created by Congress in October 2000 with the legislative mandate to monitor human rights and the development of the rule of law in China, states: ‘Many Tibetans regard oversight by a single Tibetan capital as central to their concept of “Tibet”. However, no Tibetan capital has administered the entirety of what is designated by China today as “Tibetan” since the Tibetan empire collapsed in the 9th century.’ (http://www.cecc.gov/pages/annualRpt/annRpt2003.php).

In a recent interview with the Chinese language Hong Kong-based Kai Fang (‘Open’) magazine, the Dalai Lama acknowledges that the Lhasa government did not even control all of the central Tibetan area by 1951. In answer to a question about ‘areas directly ruled by the original Tibetan government’, he said that this refers to ‘the areas under the control of the Tibetan government at the time of the signing of the 17-Article Agreement. If I pursued independence, I would not care about other regions, such as Qamdo (Tibetan: Chamdo prefecture) because it did not belong to the scope of direct rule [oftheoriginalTibetangovernment], and not care about the east of the Yangtze River with the river as the border (editor's note: referring to Jinshajiang segment of Tongtianhe of the upper reaches of the Yangtze River). But what I am saying is that we want to stay in the same country, in the scope of China, or in one People's Republic of China. Under such a premise, if I only cared about one part and ignored others who have the same expectations, it would be absolutely unjustifiable, irrational and inexplicable.’ (1 August 2003).

The CECC states in its Annual Report that only 90% of the territory that the Tibetan government in exile refers to as ‘Tibet’ has been officially mapped by China as areas of Tibetan autonomy: ‘The Tibet government in exile’s representation of Tibet exceeds the total area of Chinese-designated Tibetan autonomy by about 100,000 square miles. Aside from pockets of long-term Tibetan settlement in Qinghai, most of that is made up of autonomous prefectures or counties allocated to other ethnic groups.’ The CECC report, which notes that China has consistently stressed national integration over local autonomy, also states that nearly 94% of Tibetans in China are residents of areas designated as ‘autonomous Tibetan’.

The issue of Tibetan territory is considered by many analysts to be the key point of contention in terms of achieving a resolution between China and the Tibetan government in exile. There are indications, however, that Beijing recognises the significance to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile of all Tibetan regions as integral parts of Tibet, and that all Tibetan autonomous areas are potentially under discussion. A Tibetan delegation led by the Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy, Lodi Gyari, was allowed to visit Gyalthang (Chinese: Zhongdian) in Dechen (Chinese: Diqing) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan province, during its visit to China in May this year. Dechen TAP is part of the traditional area of Kham.

In his interview with ‘Open’ magazine, a non-PRC-owned monthly magazine that focuses on political issues in China, the Dalai Lama said: ‘If I only care about Tibetan religions and cultures in the current Tibetan Autonomous Region and ignore Tibetan religions and cultures outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region, what consequences will there be? All Tibetans have great hope in me, and find all sustenance in me, if I say that I do not care for anything outside the [Tibetan] Autonomous Region, what consequences will there be? It is like a country. What will the result be if I care about some parts and ignore others? If I pursued independence and said that the areas directly ruled by the original Tibetan government should be independent, that would mean that I do not care about regions outside the Autonomous Region.’

The Chinese government has divided ethnic Tibetan geographic areas into 13 administrative divisions, totalling 2.24 million square kilometres. The Tibet Autonomous Region (Chinese: Xizang Zizhiqu) was set up by the Chinese government in 1965 and covers the area of Tibet west of the Yangtze River which was previously under the jurisdiction of the Dalai Lama’s government and is often referred to as central Tibet in English. During the early 1950s, other Tibetan-inhabited areas were incorporated into the neighbouring Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan; where Tibetan communities were said to have ‘compact inhabitancy’ in these provinces they were designated autonomous Tibetan prefectures.

This is one in a series of independent reports by Kate Saunders commissioned by the Australia Tibet Council, Free Tibet Campaign and the International Campaign for Tibet.
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