The year 2008, for many reasons, is likely to go down in the annals of recent Tibetan history as a watershed year. This was the year when Tibetans in Tibet, 49 years after the takeover of their country, demonstrated clearly and loudly that they were still unhappy under Chinese rule; when a new generation of Tibetans in Tibet, spanning the entire society from monks and nomads to farmers and students, became politicised; and when the Tibetan movement assumed a pan-national character, involving people from all three traditional provinces of Tibet in a united and hitherto unprecedented manner. Finally, this was also the year when the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way approach, which gives up the demand for independence in return for genuine autonomy, and which he has pursued patiently and unwaveringly since the late 1980s, finally crashed in the face of Beijing’s unequivocal rejection. Now, a year on from the widespread anti-Chinese demonstrations of spring 2008, and six months since the ‘special meeting’ convened by the Dalai Lama to discuss future options for the Tibet movement, it is time to face up to some harsh realities.
After years of leading Dharamsala up the garden path of promised negotiations, Beijing unceremoniously and unambiguously pulled the rug out from under the Dalai Lama’s envoys in November 2008. At that time, it categorically rejected his Middle Way approach and the formal proposal that emerged from it, the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People. Not only this, Chinese officials even dismissed the right of the Dalai Lama to represent the Tibetan people. In a news conference in Beijing on 12 November, Zhu Weiqun, the Executive Vice-Minister of the United Front Work Department, accused the Memorandum of seeking “half-independence” and “covert independence”. Furthermore, he stated: “We talked with Mr Lodi Gyari” – the Dalai Lama’s special envoy – “and his party only because they were the Dalai Lama’s private representatives. And we merely talked about how the Dalai Lama should completely give up his splitting opinions and actions, and strive for the understanding of the central authorities and all Chinese people so as to solve the issue concerning his own prospect. We never discussed the so-called ‘Tibet issue’.”
It was a major turnaround. Whatever the nature of their discussions in private – and observers have always been led by the Dalai Lama’s envoys to believe that these were substantial and building up to real negotiations – the Chinese clearly had no qualms about publicly quashing the entire exercise in one humiliating move. Those who had always warned that Beijing was not serious about the talks, and was simply playing for time, were vindicated. But even to the most ardent critics of the Middle Way approach, China’s decision to abandon any pretence of discussion with the Dalai Lama so soon after the Beijing Olympics, held just three months before, undoubtedly came as a surprise.
It is clear that China is now ready to embark on a new strategy in its efforts to resolve the Tibet question – one that has no place for the Dalai Lama. In the short term, this seems to mean continuing its campaign to discredit and sideline the Dalai Lama internationally, while using brute force and draconian measures to stamp out any sign of protest or dissent on the plateau. China is engaging in this with impunity, simply because there is no one to tell it not to do so. The international economic crisis has made China an even stronger world player, one that is able to dictate terms to the West in a way that would have been unthinkable even a year ago. Beijing is in no mood to listen to Western admonitions about its human-rights record or conduct, and Western governments are in no position to push the point.
Of course, Chinese officials do understand that there is deep discontent in Tibet. But they believe that this will disappear in the longer term, particularly once the Dalai Lama is no longer there to provide inspiration. And the government is clearly prepared to wait for this to happen. More interestingly, Beijing also seems to have decided to confront the Dalai Lama’s influence on the world stage, by challenging the exile Tibetan perspective in the public debate over Tibet – or, at least, influencing it so that it is no longer a black-and-white issue. It is doing this by aggressively asserting its own view of Tibet to the world.
A case in point is the eight-page advertisement supplement headlined “China’s Tibet: The Past and the Present”, which came out in the Hindustan Times edition of 9 April 2009. Abundantly illustrated with photographs and statistics, it purports to show how backward and hellish old Tibet was, and how much progress and development, both socially and economically, the Chinese government’s munificence has brought to the area. It makes no mention of the Dalai Lama – China wants to marginalise him – or the recent unrest in Tibet, which the government chooses to portray as the work of a few agents provocateurs. Instead, it stresses its claim that China’s rule in Tibet has brought modernisation, prosperity and happiness to the long-suffering, and now eternally grateful, people of Tibet. For the uninformed reader, the facts are impressive and convincing.
Similarly, China’s declaration that, beginning this year, 28 March would be celebrated as Serf Emancipation Day in Tibet is a direct challenge to the 10 March Uprising Day commemorated by Tibetans in exile, an anniversary that has continued to challenge the legitimacy of China’s rule over Tibet. This may seem provocative and crude to those who know something about the real situation in Tibet; but China is not concerned about such individuals. Rather, its officials are seeking to influence the vast majority of the world’s population that knows little to nothing of Tibet. Why else would they decide to take out, on 6 April this year, an 18-page supplement entitled “50 Years of Democratic Reform in Tibet” in, of all places, the Daily Times of Malawi? Indeed, we can expect many more such supplements to appear, throughout the world, as China ratchets up its public-relations campaign on Tibet.
How can the Dharamsala government-in-exile counter this new offensive? Unless it fights to reclaim its ground in this debate, and brings fresh thinking into the movement, the Tibet issue risks becoming increasingly amorphous and eventually sidelined. But Dharamsala’s response to both the situation in Tibet and the failure of its talks with China has been anything but convincing.
The two key strategies outlined by the Kashag, the exile Tibetan cabinet, earlier this year are to continue to promote the Memorandum both among its own people and internationally, and to reach out to ordinary Chinese citizens. Its position with regard to China’s rejection of its Middle Way approach is simply to state: “The entire responsibility for the future status of our dialogues, irrespective of what it is going to be, lies squarely on the Chinese leaders. The Tibetan side has already made all the required clarifications and brought a process of dialogue that began in 2002 to its logical conclusion.” But what does this mean, exactly? That, in an ever-unpredictable, politically charged situation, Dharamsala has played its final hand and, come what may, will not budge from its position? A recent Reuters report quoted the Dalai Lama’s lead envoy, Kalsang Gyaltsen, as saying: “If there is any seriousness and political will on the part of the Chinese government, the ball is now in their court,” a sporting metaphor thereafter repeated by Prime Minister-in-exile Samdhong Rinpoche. The image here is of two equally matched contestants playing a back-and-forth game of tennis. But in reality, China has long since abandoned both the ball and the court.
Dharamsala’s curiously passive and moralistic response to the gauntlet thrown down by China is evident in a second statement by Samdhong Rinpoche, from mid-March. “If the present leadership do not wish to take the credit of resolving the Tibetan issue,” he said, “the next leadership will take the credit.” This seems to imply that Dharamsala has done the current Beijing leaders a favour by giving them the opportunity to respond positively to its proposal, and that it would be their loss if they were to refuse. But the most mystifying of the confusing signals emerging from Dharamsala is the prime minister’s assertion that, “As far as we are concerned, we are prepared for another hundred years of struggle. The inspiration is there. So we have no worry.”
This latter contention needs to be examined within the context of the primary justification for the Middle Way approach. The way that this strategy was originally sold to the Tibetan people was on the grounds that the situation in Tibet was so dire that its very existence as a culture and a nation faced imminent extinction. In order to forestall this, Tibetans had to give up the goal of independence, so that genuine negotiations over the future of Tibet could begin with China. The crux of the Middle Way approach was that it provided a compromise position that would, ostensibly, be acceptable to China and, therefore, would stand a better chance of being able to save Tibet’s culture and identity.
In a meeting with Chinese journalists in Seattle in April 2008, the Dalai Lama clearly spelled out his reasoning behind this approach. “We are not seeking independence,” he said. “We are very much happy to remain within the People’s Republic of China. We are concerned about the preservation of Tibetan culture, Tibetan Buddhism, environment.” But if this is not the case, as Samdhong Rinpoche now seems to be implying, and if the struggle can continue for another hundred years without any worry, then the question inevitably arises: Why should Tibetans spend the next hundred years struggling for genuine autonomy when they could just as easily be fighting for the very goal that all Tibetans believe in – independence?
Dharamsala’s justification for continuing with the Middle Way approach is that it is a democratically endorsed policy, and one that received renewed public support through the special meeting that the Dalai Lama convened in November. Unsurprisingly, delegates at that meeting, representing a cross-section of the exile Tibetan community, reiterated their faith in the Dalai Lama’s leadership, and a majority endorsed his Middle Way approach. But anyone familiar with the workings of Tibetan society knows that such an endorsement is not so much for the Middle Way approach as it is for the Dalai Lama himself. If, tomorrow, the Dalai Lama were suddenly to decide that the Middle Way approach was no longer a viable option, and that he would instead revert to the goal of independence, would even one Tibetan be prepared to stand up to him based on his or her belief in the principle of the Middle Way approach? The spiritual devotion to the Dalai Lama simply clouds any kind of political realism among his people.
In fact, a more significant result of the special meeting was the recommendation that support for the Middle Way approach should be made conditional on concrete results emerging within a short timeframe. Failing that, all other options, including independence, were to be discussed. Strangely, this point has neither been taken up by the government-in-exile, nor even mentioned in its subsequent statements, which only stress overwhelming support for the Middle Way approach. Why this reticence to open up the debate on the future course of action for Tibet when, patently, the current policy has run its course? What is to be gained from holding on to the Middle Way approach in this context, other than in trying to prove a moral point?
The Middle Way approach is, after all, a political strategy, and one that has not paid tangible dividends. The Kashag’s insistence on holding on to the Middle Way approach as a ‘democratically endorsed’ decision is not only disingenuous but, in the long run, dangerous. There is absolutely no guarantee that, in the Dalai Lama’s absence, there would be continuing support for the Middle Way approach and genuine autonomy.
Meanwhile, in Tibet itself the situation could not be worse. A year on from the massive protests of March-April 2008, it would appear that the spring uprising, which inspired Tibetans everywhere so powerfully and seemed to have held out so much promise, has ended in tragedy. The sacrifice of the thousands who risked their lives has today achieved nothing more than a brief, incandescent moment in the international spotlight.
In fact, however, all is not as it seems. The long-term consequences of the demonstrations may yet prove to be more significant than anyone can currently imagine, and might come back to haunt the Chinese leadership. One hint of this came during a radio call-in show on Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan language service in Washington, DC, last September. The reporter, Dolkar, was in conversation with three young Tibetan students studying in Beijing, when one told her:
The uprisings of ‘89 and ‘59 were a long time ago, and for us youngsters, these are just like stories from the past. But now, with the recent uprisings and the oppression, the story has unfolded for real in front of our own eyes. This was a reminder of our past; it woke us up. Until recently, people have been disheartened and scared to carry out any action. But with the March demonstrations, and with the coming-together of people from all walks of life, we have been reminded that the burden of the struggle for truth and freedom does not rely only on one or two persons. It isn’t just the responsibility of His Holiness or the Tibetans in exile, nor is it just the responsibility of the educated ones, but it is the responsibility of every one of us. This has become very clear this time.
This may be the real impact of the protests, and the reason why they may not ultimately have been in vain. A new generation of Tibetan activists has been born in Tibet, and it has now been empowered to carry the struggle into the future. The renewed belief and commitment of this new generation in Tibet demand that the policies made by the government-in-exile are strong and inspirational, and are designed to keep the movement alive for as long as it takes to achieve its goals. But it seems increasingly unlikely that doggedly hanging on to the Middle Way approach is the way to meet this challenge.
Given Beijing’s aggressive new strategy to neutralise the Tibet issue internationally, the only practical and effective course of action open to Dharamsala would seem to be what one long-time Tibet watcher calls the ‘Baltic solution’. This would entail shifting the goal of the struggle back to independence. It would require persevering in the international forum by repeatedly and forcefully asserting Tibet’s claim to independence, both historically and in accordance with the principles of self-determination; knowing full well that, in the short term, this would not pay concrete dividends other than keeping the idea of Tibetan nationhood alive. At the same time, it would mean building up a strong and genuinely democratic government-in-exile, which would prepare Tibetans for a post-Dalai Lama future and shift the focus of the struggle away from his person, thereby keeping it from disintegrating in his absence.
These measures would invigorate the Tibet movement, make it vibrant and unified, and help it to remain a source of hope and inspiration for the people inside Tibet. And in some distant future, when the Communist Party of China no longer holds power, these measures would also do much to prepare the ground for real negotiations, and for the possibility of either complete independence or genuine autonomy in its true sense. It took the Baltic states more than 70 years to regain their independence; today, Tibet has as much right and resilience as a nation to hope for the same. If Samdhong Rinpoche is serious about keeping the Tibetan struggle alive for a hundred years, this may be the only option he has.