February 05, 2010

Beijing talks fail, but hope flickers

Claude Arpi

Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama’s special envoy, and his colleagues recently visited Beijing and met officials of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee. Nothing special happened during the meeting, but that was only to be expected.

Since early-1980, the Dalai Lama has regularly sent representatives to Beijing for talks with little or no purpose served. All these years, the Chinese have brought the same topic to the table — the Dalai Lama’s status. In 1980 itself the Tibetan leader had clarified that he was only interested in the fate of six million of his people living in Tibet and not his position.

In July, 1981, CPC General-Secretary Hu Yaobang had told Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, that Beijing was ready to talk: “The Dalai Lama and his representatives should be frank and sincere with the Central Government, not beat around the bush.”

At that time, China’s central leadership was keen on the Dalai Lama’s return to the ‘Motherland’. “This (the offer of talks) is based on the hope that they will contribute to upholding China’s unity and promoting solidarity between the Han and Tibetan nationalities,” Mr Hu Yaobang had said.

Mr Hu Yaobang was specific — the Tibetan leader would enjoy the same political status and living conditions as he had before 1959. However, there was a catch: He would have to remain in Beijing. Mr Hu Yaobang had added: “Of course, he may go back to Tibet from time to time.” Unfortunately, the talks never went further and even a visit of the Tibetan leader to his native land in 1985 was not permitted by the Chinese authorities.

Nearly 30 years later, where are we? Since 2002, the Tibetan envoys have had eight meetings in China, apart from a meeting in Switzerland, with no apparent progress.

Today, China has become a superpower, the second economy of the world; Beijing has brilliantly hosted the Olympic Games and has not only survived the global financial crisis, but is considered a crucial player for the recovery of the world’s economy. Despite these tremendous changes in the Middle Kingdom’s status, the Dalai Lama remains a major headache for Beijing’s leadership.

Over the years, the Chinese stance has hardened; today the CPC bosses don’t even want to hear the name of the Tibetan leader whom they call a “splittist”. Lodi Gyari’s interlocutor, Mr Zhu Weiqun, UFWD’s Executive Vice-Minister, declared that the Dalai Lama does “not represent” the Tibetan people.

On his return to India, Lodi Gyari publicly objected to this: “It cannot be disputed that His Holiness legitimately represents the Tibetan people.” The Tibetan envoy said that he had asked Beijing “to stop baseless accusations against His Holiness and labelling him a separatist”.

It is clear that as long as the Chinese authorities are not ready to recognise that the Dalai Lama has a role to play in the future of Tibet, the ‘talks’ will continue to be fruitless. During his Press conference, Mr Zhu Weiqun said, “The private representatives have no legal status to discuss with us… They are only the Dalai Lama’s private representatives, so they can only talk about the prospect of the Dalai Lama.” Where do we go from here? Probably nowhere.

A noticeable change, however, is that Beijing admitted to having met the Dalai Lama’s envoys. In the past, when asked, the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs would just state that some “overseas compatriots” have visited Beijing. Not only a communiqué was issued, acknowledging the visit, but Mr Zhu Weiqun held a Press conference attended by Chinese and foreign journalists.

Mr Zhu Weiqun reiterated that Beijing does not recognise the “the so-called ‘Tibet Government-in-exile’ composed of those who defected to India as it absolutely violates China’s laws”. Without giving any explanation, he also rejected the Memorandum for All Tibetans to Enjoy Genuine Autonomy presented in November 2008 by Lodi Gyari which offered a solution based on the Chinese Constitution.

At the end of his media briefing, Mr Zhu Weiqun suggested that the “Dalai Lama should correct his mistakes”, without listing the ‘mistakes’.

Many young Tibetans are not unhappy about the standstill in the ‘talks’. The day the envoys arrived in Beijing, Xinhua circulated a news story which will help you understand why. The article boasted, “Tibet is expected to have 100,000 Internet users this year, a 15 per cent rise from 2009, according to the Tibet Autonomous Regional Communications Administration.” The story was accompanied by a photo showing two young Tibetan women using a smart phone in Tingri county, near Mount Everest.

Beijing speaks of the development that it has brought to Tibet, but nobody is fooled. Any search containing words like ‘Tibet’, ‘Dalai Lama’ or ‘Tiananmen’ is blocked by the Great Firewall of China which filters the Internet. Why should young Tibetans who enjoy freedom in India and elsewhere in the world suddenly decide to return to a Tibet under military occupation and constant censure? They won’t even be able to Facebook their friends!

Step for a minute into an ordinary Tibetan’s shoes. While they immensely respect their leader, they are also well-informed and aware about the situation inside China (and Tibet). For example, they were shocked when the Dalai Lama was recently accused of “pleasing his Indian masters” by describing himself as “a son of India”.

During his Press conference, Mr Zhu Weiqun said that a meeting between US President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama would “violate international rules”. He threatened that China would take “necessary measures” to counter it. The White House, however, has confirmed that Mr Obama plans to meet the Dalai Lama when the latter visits the US.

The Tibetan delegates may not have brought back anything from Beijing, but clearly the mighty Communist Party has lost one more chance to deal decently with the non-violent Tibetan people. Remember Mr Hu Yaobang’s words. He had said, “The Dalai Lama should contribute to upholding China’s unity and promoting solidarity between the Han and Tibetan nationalities.”

If the Chinese were sincere, they would have realised that the Dalai Lama remains their best bet, as he is the only person who can today bridge the insuperable gap between Tibetans and Hans. Beijing should take advantage of this reality, not repudiate it.

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