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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."

Tibetans stick to the 'middle way'

November 28, 2008

By Denis Burke
Asia Times
November 27, 2008

AMSTERDAM -- Of the 50 years since the Dalai Lama went into exile,
few years can rival 2008 as a landmark for change in the Tibetan
struggle. A year of protests, riots, fresh negotiations and strong
words on all sides has culminated in a special meeting of prominent
exile Tibetans to assess Tibet's situation and their strategy.

The exiles devised the so called "middle way" approach in the 1980s.
It was adopted by popular referendum in the mid-1990s. The strategy
calls for greater autonomy within China and demands that this goal be
pursued through non-violent means. Twenty years later, the "middle
way" has not produced any meaningful results. The latest round of
China-Tibet negotiations concluded the week before the special
meeting was convened. No progress has been reported on either side.

The outcome of the special meeting was general agreement to continue
to support the "middle way" approach, despite earlier signals that
the strategy would be reassessed. In recent months, the Dalai Lama
has suggested that continuing to negotiate with the current Chinese
leadership is likely to prove fruitless. He underscored these remarks
after the meeting when he reminded Tibetans of the importance of not
alienating the Chinese people because of the actions of their
government. The Dalai Lama, apparently wishing to give the delegates
room to discuss the issues at hand freely, had absented himself from
the meeting.

Although the meeting seemed to be a discussion aimed at the total
revision of the exiles' strategy, it has served a very different
purpose. The decision to retain the non-violent drive for greater
autonomy is surprising considering events in Tibet this year, the
ongoing failure to make progress at the negotiating table, the harder
line adopted by Beijing, and - above all - the worsening situation in Tibet.

For some time, young rural Tibetans have been moving into the cities
in search of employment. An underclass of young, unemployed Tibetans
is swelling in cities like Lhasa. Meanwhile, Han Chinese numbers
continue to increase in the area and they are finding economic
success where the Tibetans are not. Conditions for ethnic tension are
rife, as demonstrated by the unrest in Tibet this year.

It has been 20 years since unrest on the scale seen in March has
occurred in Tibet. The reaction of the Chinese police was initially
quite unusual in its restraint, signaling a pre-Olympic Games
departure from their usual zero tolerance tactics. Ethnic tensions
were clearer in the Lhasa demonstrations than in any earlier riots
that gained international attention. Significantly, the rapid and
zealous Western condemnation of the Chinese security response to the
Lhasa riots came before the situation on the ground had become clear.
Many Western media reported a harsh crackdown before it actually
happened, provoking a wave of anti-Western and anti-Tibetan diatribes
on blogs and news websites.

However, the meeting provided a forum to seriously discuss the future
of Tibet and - crucially - to practice democratic decision-making.
The Dalai Lama has repeatedly expressed concern that support for the
"middle way" was dwindling. The decision to continue the strategy
serves to strengthen not just unity among the diaspora, but the
entire political system of the exile community.

The Tibetan pontiff has been pushing the Tibetan people to be less
dependent on him for political guidance for a long time. It is very
likely that the selection of a successor for this Dalai Lama will be
complicated at best. This meeting has given the exile community a
chance to engage in meaningful political discussion in his absence -
including the possibility of selecting his successor in his lifetime.

What has not emerged from this meeting is a timetable for the "middle
way." Karma Chophel, who chaired the meeting, told Phayul news portal
that there was no reason not to pursue a policy of independence if
the Chinese leadership failed to respond to the "middle way" approach.

But the Chinese government has recently made it very clear that it
interprets the "middle way" approach as a drive for independence in
disguise. Nothing that has happened this year suggests Beijing has
any interest in discussing increased autonomy. Even Deng Xiaoping's
late 1970s statement that everything was negotiable apart from
independence has now been denied by a Chinese official.

"Comrade Deng Xiaoping had never made such statement. It is a
falsehood," Phayul reported Zhu Weiqun, executive vice minister of
the Chinese Communist Party's Central United Front Work Department,
as saying at a press conference on November 10.

Deng's original statement partially explains the Dalai Lama's
decision to pursue autonomy and not independence.

The Chinese government insists that the Tibetan administration is
still chasing independence of some sort despite persistent statements
to the contrary. The Tibetan administration, for its part, will
neither recognize Taiwan as part of China nor accept that Tibet has
always been part of China; two conditions the Chinese government has
insisted on. This stalemate has impeded any real progress for at
least six years and the latest talks were no exception.

Statements by Du Qinglin -- minister of the Central United Front Work
Department - to Xinhua suggest that the Chinese position did not move
at all during these latest negotiations. Xinhua reported Du as saying
"the Dalai Lama should respect history, face reality and conform to
the times, as well as fundamentally change his political propositions".

Several points have recurred as unacceptable to Beijing. The Tibetan
proposition includes restrictions on further migration of other
ethnic groups into Tibet. The Dalai Lama has designs to see Tibet as
a zone of peace which would see a serious reduction of the Chinese
military presence in the area.

Chinese official statements so far have not ruled out the possibility
of future talks, but it is clear that their patience is thinning.

As the Dalai Lama has suggested, the hope now for Tibetans is to
appeal to the Chinese people and not their current government.
However, popular relations have also suffered badly this year. The
protests that followed the Olympic torch around the world and the
misreporting of the Lhasa protests by many Western media have angered
many potentially sympathetic Chinese people.

Nonetheless, the Dalai Lama's absence from the meeting deliberately
or otherwise underscores the point that the exiles' policy is not his
policy, further countering Chinese official claims that he is
orchestrating "splittist" activities from abroad.

* Denis Burke is a writer and editor based in Amsterdam where he
recently completed research on Chinese-Tibetan affairs in the 21st Century.
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