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The Dalai Lama’s Middle-Way Approach Needs Re-adjustment

posted Mar 31, 2011, 5:53 PM by The Tibetan Political Review
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Originally published in the East Asia Forum

By Sourabh Gupta, Samuels International
On February 18th, President Obama personally welcomed His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the White House, drawing the predictable ire [1] of the Chinese leadership. As if in response, on March 1st, Beijing named its hand-picked Panchen Lama [2] to its top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. In 2013, it is speculated the young lama will be elevated to the prominent political position of vice-chairmanship of the National People’s Congress. With Beijing gradually moving towards engineering a similar schism in the revered institution of the Dalai Lama by way of issuing regulations that purport to manage the reincarnation of living lamas, an altogether more purposeful negotiating approach by the Dalai Lama vis-à-vis Beijing is imperative.
Foremost in this regard is the need for His Holiness to match rhetoric with action as he goes about securing an enhanced autonomy arrangement for the Tibetan people. Notwithstanding repeated denials of seeking separation or independence for more than a decade now, it was not until October 2008 that the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile formally came around to reconciling Tibet to being ‘a part of the multi-national state of the PRC.’ That the commitment was itself preceded just two days earlier by Britain’s recognition of Beijing full sovereignty over Tibet – setting aside its century-long anachronism of China’s suzerain position in Tibet – also suggests a measure of external coordination, if not orchestration. Further, His Holiness’ Middle-Way Approach still continues, officially at least, to levitate between the semantics of independence and autonomy.
Second, the Dalai Lama needs to eliminate the gap between his stated desire for compromise and the fundamentally variant demands presented by his negotiators to the leadership in Beijing. Even as His Holiness has professed a willingness to accept the socialist system in Tibet under Chinese Communist Party rule, the recently unveiled Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People contains no such explicit indication or reference. To the contrary, its expansive interpretation of genuine autonomy includes the right to create not only its own regional government but also ‘government institutions and processes’ suited to the needs of the Tibetan people.
This is not to discount the series of nuanced retractions that the Dalai Lama’s Middle-Way Approach has already undergone since its original articulation three decades ago. A Tibetan demand that their homeland be offered a political relationship as expansive as China’s offer in the early-1980s to Taipei was incrementally ratcheted down to an insistence on a Hong Kong-style ‘association’ relationship with Beijing. Since the early 2000s and the latest phase of Sino-Tibetan negotiations, hints about a residual international personality have been kept to a minimum. Further, the autonomy arrangement sought is an amalgam of the Hong Kong ‘one country, two systems’ formula and the existing autonomy provisions of the PRC Constitution.
Yet, at a level of basic principles, the on-going failure to pay obeisance – even on a token basis – to the prevailing Chinese political (and constitutional) system reflects poor judgment at the Tibetan end. Cursory subsequent clarification that the Memorandum ‘does not challenge the socialist system of the PRC’ is hardly likely to strike Beijing as an endorsement of the Chinese Communist Party’s supremacy.
Learning Nothing, Forgetting Nothing
At bottom though, the fundamental imperative remains His Holiness’ need to break free of the shackles of his own political irresolution and, as head of state of the Tibetan government-in-exile, translate his vast spiritual authority into decisive political leadership. An illustrative case in point is his support for the notion of a ‘Greater Tibet’ as a single administrative entity. Conceived in the mid-1960s as a unifying basis for non-communist national consciousness among émigré groups of diverse ethnic stock, the concept lacks historical basis. Even during Tibet’s existence as a de facto independent state through much of the first half of the 20th century, its rough-and-ready frontiers bore no resemblance to the Greater Tibet chimera. Rather, the zone of administrative control – partly derived from British-brokered truces – loosely approximated that of the present-day Tibet Autonomous Region.
More problematically, it was disturbances originating amongst East Tibetan tribes-people in Greater Tibet which – in cascading onward to Tibet Proper and Lhasa – had triggered the revolt of 1959. Yet rather than immunise his administrative realm against these extra-provincial passions, the Dalai Lama chose to embrace the movement – in turn, precipitating his exile and thereby extinguishing the unique experiment in self-rule in which both he and Chairman Mao were equally vested. Akin to his choice, then, of refusing to confront Greater Tibetan sentiment, His Holiness continues today to privilege the cohesion of his émigré community and its call for an expansive Greater Tibet – even at the expense of being branded as insincere by Beijing. Ironically then, even as the broad thrust of the autonomy demands of the Middle-Way Approach bear resemblance to the self-rule provisions of the (much-maligned) Seventeen Point Agreement of 1951, the lessons of the events that precipitated the latter’s demise remain unlearnt.
On each of these fronts –  sovereignty, the socialist system, territoriality-related questions – the leadership in Beijing is likely to brook no compromise. Further, with the devolution of autonomy in China’s restive peripheries intimately associated with considerations of power relations, the supremacy of the socialist system, and of the party, will have to be explicitly recognised. At bottom, the Dalai Lama’s negotiating strategy of focusing on the substantive details of autonomy while according the barest of acknowledgements to core principles/understandings sought by Beijing will have to be reversed. Perhaps His Holiness’ strategy of visibly internationalising the Tibetan struggle could provide both a cover as well as a springboard for the necessary hard-headed intra-Tibetan political bargaining as well as purposeful negotiating vis-à-vis the Chinese leadership.
A slightly lengthier version of this post appeared in the Pacific Forum CSIS PacNet newsletter on March 1st, 2010.
Sourabh Gupta is a senior research associate at Samuels International Associates, Inc.