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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The Tibetan Impasse

September 15, 2010

Are genuine negotiations possible between Beijing
and the TIbetan government in exile?  Each side
says it's up to the other to make that happen.
By Barry Sautman
The South China Morning Post
September 11, 2010

Han and Tibetan Chinese share a saying, coined by
a Tang dynasty Buddhist scholar, that could apply
to talks between the Chinese government and
Tibetan exiles led by the Dalai Lama. That
saying, "to hang out a sheep's head to sell dog
meat", is the equivalent of the English proverb
"To cry wine and sell vinegar", meaning to claim
to do one thing with the intent of doing another.
Three decades of "negotiations about
negotiations" between the Dalai Lama's envoys and
Beijing have not made progress because, although
exile leaders claim they are not separatists,
they continue with assertions and actions that belie that claim.

In their talks, the two parties have supposedly
clarified their positions, yet no formal
negotiations have taken place. Both sides tell
the world that's because the other side is
insincere, but because "Chinese propaganda" is a
stock notion in much of the world, while "Tibetan
exile propaganda" is not, the exiles' side of the
story is often assumed to be true. They say that
the Chinese government is not serious about
negotiations because it is only willing to talk
about the Dalai Lama's future and awaits his
death, hoping the Tibet issue will then fade away.

Formal negotiations with the Dalai Lama are not
being conducted, so it is not surprising that
Beijing won't discuss Tibet with his
representatives in any but general terms. The
exiles' talk of waiting for the Dalai Lama to die
is intended to make the Chinese government appear
like a vulture, but the Dalai Lama said in the
mid-1990s that the exiles' leverage would
increase once Deng Xiaoping died. Those in the
exile community who explicitly advocate Tibetan
independence have also said that their position
will improve once the Dalai Lama dies.

Beijing has repeatedly stated it will negotiate
with the Dalai Lama if he meets several
preconditions, the main one being that he
acknowledges that Tibet is an inalienable part of
China. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government
in exile refuse to do that, bizarrely claiming
that to do so would be the same as agreeing that
Tibet has always been part of China. That is one
reason Chinese leaders continue to regard them as separatists.

Recent statements by the Dalai Lama and leaders
of the Tibetan government in exile indicate that
it is not unreasonable to regard them as
separatists. They have said that Tibet has always
been independent, that it is an occupied country
or colony with a right to independence, that the
government in exile is the legitimate government
of Tibet, that not a single Tibetan considers
himself or herself Chinese, and that the majority
of Tibetans want independence. For two decades,
exile leaders have given indications that they
await the collapse of China so that Tibet can
become independent like former parts of the Soviet Union.

Chinese leaders regard claims that Tibet was
always independent and has a right to
independence as assertions that Tibet should not
be part of China. They see the Tibetan exile
leaders' friendly gestures to separatists in
Taiwan and the Xinjiang Uygur diaspora, and the
government in exile's patronage from the United
States and India - states that have conflicts
with China and political elements that want to "play the Tibet card".

When Han and people of other ethnic groups were
murdered in the streets and shops of Lhasa two
years ago, Tibetan exile leaders claimed without
evidence that the killings were carried out by
disguised Chinese soldiers. Thus, no matter how
much others, especially in the West, credit the
Dalai Lama's disavowal of independence, the
Chinese government will talk to, but not
negotiate with him - as long as he stands apart
from the United Nations and the world's states by
disavowing that Tibet is legitimately part of China.

In 1998, US president Bill Clinton stated: "I
agree that Tibet is part of China and I can
understand why the acknowledgment of that would
be a precondition of dialogue with the Dalai
Lama." Only the Dalai Lama's pronouncement of
Tibet as an inalienable (and thus legitimate)
part of China will convince its leaders that he
has abandoned any claim to Tibetan independence.
But instead of taking these steps, exile leaders
have demanded that all Tibetan areas be united
into one jurisdiction that covers a quarter of
China's territory - creating an entity that never
existed historically - and that Tibet have a US-style political system.

The exiles' demands call to mind another proverb
- "negotiating with a tiger for its skin"; that
is, demanding something that can never be
surrendered. Indeed, the Chinese government
rejects such demands as efforts to achieve
independence by stealth. If, however, the Dalai
Lama does agree to Beijing's preconditions, there
is plenty to talk about. Beijing is not about to
alter Tibet's political status, erasing the
borders between China's Tibetan areas any time
soon, or dilute the hegemony of the Communist
Party. It may, however, be willing to discuss a
gradual expansion of the autonomy of Tibetan
areas, including by incorporating non-separatist
Tibetan exiles in key positions in these areas'
governing apparatuses. It may agree to remove
restrictions on religious practice for officials,
students and others, adopt additional measures
aimed at fostering the Tibetan language and
culture, make a more targeted effort to raise the
incomes of ethnic Tibetans, and even restrict
migration by non-Tibetans into Tibetan areas.

If agreement were reached along these lines - the
complete abjuring of separatism and specific
steps to bolster ethnic autonomy and preferential
policies for Tibetans - the resulting diminution
of political tensions could lead to de facto
common policies and practices among China's
Tibetan areas. Because of the history of
separatism, Beijing is not going to make the
Tibetan areas into another Hong Kong, in which
only local people are political leaders and a
high degree of autonomy allows for a system
markedly different from the rest of the country.
In that regard, among autonomous areas of the
world's states, Hong Kong and Macau are unique.

Negotiations that follow the Dalai Lama's
acceptance of China's preconditions could,
however, lead to changes beneficial to Tibetans'
cultural and material life, especially if the
Chinese government is pressed to make good on its
claim of wanting to achieve "equality-in-fact"
among ethnic groups. The first step, however,
lies with the exiles' clear acceptance that Tibet
is legitimately part of China and that
negotiations will not be based on demands Beijing
cannot concede, as well as on the Chinese
government's clear indication that concerted, wide ranging talks will follow.

Barry Sautman is a political scientist and lawyer
at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
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