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Clarity on Negotiating the Tibetan Issue

posted Mar 31, 2011, 5:52 PM by The Tibetan Political Review
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Originally published in the East Asia Forum

By Ben Hillman
My last piece on Tibet [1] brought a comment from Huw Slater [2]. Huw is right about the need to differentiate among exiles (there are many different groups and views), but what we are talking about here is the exile government’s position—the position they take to ‘negotiations’ with Beijing with the support of a majority of exiles.
That position is clearly outlined in the document I referred to which is accessible, not on the exile government’s website as I incorrectly indicated in my first post, but on the web site of the Office of Tibet—the official agency of the Dalai Lama in London ( [3]). The position is also summarized on the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s website [4]. But this is beside the point. The exile government’s official position and the Dalai Lama’s position are the same. Regardless of when the document on the Dalai Lam’s London Office’s website was first penned, the recent ‘Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People’, which is viewable on the Central Tibetan Administration’s (Tibetan exile government’s) website [5] shows that the position has not substantially changed.
The basic demands are for:
  • the creation of a new self-governing territory encompassing all areas inhabited by ethnic Tibetans—approximately 25per cent of China’s land mass
  • a legal framework which allows for the creation of new governing institutions and processes including democratically elected legislature and executive (it is inconsequential whether the exile government proposes to call the chief executive ‘president’ or something else)*;
  • restrictions on non-Tibetans moving to Tibetan areas 
  • power over all affairs within the territory (including control over the transfer of non-state owned land) except for external defense and some aspects of foreign relations.
These demands represent the Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Way’ approach—genuine autonomy for a Greater Tibet within the People’s Republic of China as opposed to outright independence. These demands are no less ambitious than they were in the early 1990s, even if even if the language now used to express the demands has been toned down. The difference between then and now is that in the early 1990s, the exile government was more confident of winning concessions from China. The exiles’ campaign to raise the international profile of Tibet, begun in 1987, was given a shot in the arm in 1989 when China became an international pariah in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre and when the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Circumstances have changed dramatically since then. China has regained its place in the international community and significantly increased its economic and political clout.
For reasons Huw has identified, the exiles now have much less leverage than they had in the early 1990s—leverage which continues to decrease as China grows stronger. As many exile leaders, including the speaker of the exile parliament, have publicly acknowledged, the ‘Middle Way’ appears to have failed. This is why 600 exile delegates from around the world were invited to attend a 6-day conference in Dharamsala in November 2008 to reconsider the exile government’s approach. Despite a range of different voices—some calling for full independence and some agitating for more aggressive resistance, the majority of the exile community confirmed its commitment to the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way.
But the official exile position remains a stumbling block to serious negotiations. China will never accept its basic premise—a self-governing Greater Tibet. Chinese authorities view it as a step towards full independence (a Greater Tibetan nation would certainly lay the foundation for more assertive Tibetan nationalism) as well as a major loss of control of strategic territory and resources.** But herein lies the dilemma: the exile government can’t back down from the Greater Tibet idea without appearing like a “sell-out” in the eyes of the exile community. So any change to strategy would likely involve an upping of the ante—something the Dharamsala conference foreshadowed if the Middle Way fails to gain traction over the next few years. After all, what is the raison d’être of an exile government if there is no national territory for them to one day govern?
Faced with this dilemma, exile government leaders retreat to the one strategy that unites them, and mobilizes international public opinion in their favor—demonizing China for human rights abuses in Tibet.
But China-bashing has alienated the broader exile movement from the Chinese government and increasingly from the Chinese population. It has eroded any chance of meaningful discussions between Dharamsala and Beijing (Beijing these days sends only junior officials to meet delegates from the exile government). It has also enabled China’s Communist Party leaders to play the nationalist card at home—territorial integrity energizes Chinese nationalism because past national suffering, including war, famine and foreign occupation, is associated with a weak and fragmented state, shoring up regime legitimacy, and providing justification for hard line policies in Tibet.
Mobilizing international public opinion to pressure China might have seemed like a good idea 20 years ago, but it hasn’t worked. To maintain their relevance, exile groups need to find ways of engaging in policy debates where they really matter—inside China. Many Tibetan exiles possess a deep understanding of contemporary China and a more nuanced position on the status of Tibet, but their voices are all too often drowned out by the ideologues. Hopefully, it will one day be possible for these educated and moderate voices in the Tibetan exile community to provide intellectual input into the ongoing efforts of many Tibetans and other Chinese citizens working to improve China’s Tibet policy from within the system.

*The Central Tibetan Administration’s website continues to refer to an interim ‘President’ appointed by the Dalai Lama for two years before general elections are held. See [6].
**Tibet contains some of the world’s largest uranium and borax deposits, one half of the world’s lithium, the largest copper deposits in Asia, as well as iron, gold, oil and gas. Greater Tibet is also home to China’s largest remaining forests and grasslands. Hydropower outputs from Tibetan areas account for more than 30 per cent of China’s total. Tibet also shares a 2115 km border with emerging power and strategic rival India.