Join our Mailing List

"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."

Analysis: Why has Tibet been deleted from politicians' memory?

July 3, 2008

Claude Arpi
July 3, 2008

When the Dalai Lama left Tibet for exile in March 1959, the bridges
with China were cut. Often one does not realise that soon it will be
30 years since the contacts between the Dalai Lama and the People's
Republic of China's leadership resumed.

As the Dalai Lama's envoys leave for Beijing, it is perhaps time to
look at what has been achieved and what has failed during these three
decades. Such an analysis is, of course, subjective, but hopefully
could generate a healthy debate at a time when the Tibetan issue has
again come center stage, a few weeks before the Olympic Games in Beijing.

Let us recall the facts.

In December 1978, Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama's elder brother was
contacted by Li Juisin, director of the Xinhua News Agency, in Hong
Kong, Deng Xiaoping, then the general secretary of the Communist
Party of China, wanted to meet him.

With the knowledge and blessings of his brother, Thondup made a
'private' visit to Beijing in February 1979. Was it a coincidence
that at the same time, then Indian foreign minister Atal Bihari
Vajpayee was visiting China?

During his encounter with Deng Xiaoping, Thondup was told that
Beijing wanted to invite the Tibetan refugees to return to Tibet.
Deng told the Dalai Lama's brother: 'It is better to see once than to
hear a hundred times.'

The new leader of China more importantly stated: 'The door is open
for negotiations as long as we don't speak about independence.
Everything else is negotiable.'

It is on this basis that three fact-finding delegations visited Tibet
in 1979-1980 and subsequently talks were held in 1982 and 1984
between Dalai Lama's representatives and some Chinese officials in Beijing.

* * * * * *
For the first time the Tibetan envoys' visit was acknowledged by Beijing

Some observations are necessary:


For an external observer, no progress seems to have been made since
Gyalo Thondup visited Beijing in 1979. During the 1982 and 1984
'talks', the Tibetan and Chinese negotiators were on a different wave
length. The envoys from Dharamsala still thought in terms of
'self-determination;' while for Beijing independence was not negotiable.

The Chinese leadership was only ready to discuss the status of the
Dalai Lama in case he would like to return to China (not Tibet),
while the Tibetans' interest was the fate of six million Tibetans.
The same trend continues today.

In May this year, when Lodi Gyari and Kalsang Gyalsten met Chinese
government officials Zhu Weiqun and Sitar, they were designated by
the spokesperson of the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs as 'two
of Dalai Lama's private representatives,' to show that they only
represent the Dalai Lama's interests.

One element of progress has nevertheless been made: For the first
time their visit was officially acknowledged by Beijing. However, the
existence of a Kashag or a Tibetan National Assembly in Dharamsala is
still not admitted by Beijing.


Even though the Tibetans in exile and their supporters were not
conscious of it till 1988, the Dalai Lama's renouncement of
self-determination or independence was contained in Deng Xiaoping's
statement of 1979. Whether one agrees with its contents or not, the
Strasbourg Proposal, when the Dalai Lama officially renounced
independence, is the logical conclusion of the first contacts taken
by Thondup.

* * * * * *
The Chinese would like to rewrite Tibet's past

Rewriting history or not?

Twenty years after the Strasbourg Proposal, one is always surprised
to read that the Chinese top leadership is open to talks 'if the
Dalai Lama renounces independence.' President Jiang Zemin in the
1990s, and today Premier Wen Jiabao or President Hu Jintao have
repeated the same point.

Don't they know that the Dalai Lama has renounced independence? For a
long time, I wondered if the Chinese were so intellectually bankrupt
not to understand what the Dalai Lama has declared hundred of times.

Reading whatever has been published on the subject as well as the
several interviews I had made, the real problem became clear. In a
letter sent by the Dalai Lama to President Jiang in September 1992,
the Tibetan leader wrote: 'It is an established fact that Tibet and
China existed as separate countries in the past. However, as a result
of misrepresentations of Tibet's unique relationship with the Mongol
and Manchu emperors, disputes arose between Tibet and the Kuomintang
and present Chinese governments. The fact that the Chinese government
found it necessary to conclude a '17-Point Agreement' with the
Tibetan government in 1951 clearly shows the Chinese government's
acknowledgement of Tibet's unique position.'

While history is not 'negotiable' for the Dalai Lama, this truth is
not acceptable for the Chinese who would like to rewrite the past of
the Land of Snows. Were they to accept the Dalai Lama's historical
point, it would be an acknowledgement that Tibet has not always been
theirs and that China had invaded an independent country in 1950. It
would have serious consequence in terms of international law, and
also of legitimacy for their rule, not only in Tibet, but in other
'nationalities' areas as well.

* * * * * *
Will autonomy give far less freedom that what is enjoyed today in exile?

After 30 years, is there any gain for the Tibetans?

Have the Tibetans gained anything by the talks during the last 30
years? At first sight, the answer is 'no.' But as Professor Samdhong
Rinpoche told us in an interview two years ago: "To have contacts and
to talk is much better than having no contact and not talking. In a
nutshell I can only say that we have direct contact and we have a
dialogue. A communication channel is open... From the Chinese side,
they may keep us engaged to reduce the international pressure, this
could be one reason."

Communication channels are opened since 1978, but it is difficult to
say if talks are more substantial today than in 1982 and 1984. One
point is clear, none of the serious issues have been tackled, though
the Chinese agree today to listen to all issues raised by the Dalai
Lama's representatives, not the ones related to the Dalai Lama's status alone.

What will the Tibetans gain?

For many young Tibetans the question is why ask for an autonomy which
will give far less freedom that the one enjoyed today in exile. They
have a point. For example: today young Tibetans enjoy the right to
demonstrate; in a totalitarian China, they will certainly not get the
same opportunity.

* * * * * *
Can a sustainable solution be found with a totalitarian regime


Tibet witnessed a relaxation from Chinese pressure during the first
years of the 1980s. It was due to the presence at the helm of Hu
Yaobang, a leader with an open mind. But the structure of the
Communist Party was (and is) uniquely based on a power struggle and
soon the hardliners were back at the fore, the era of glasnost was over.

It means that whatever agreement the Dalai Lama can reach with
Beijing, could equally be changed the next day with a new team in the
Politburo. The fate of the 17-Point Agreement which was never
respected by China is a case in point. The question is therefore, can
a sustainable solution be found with a totalitarian regime. It is doubtful.

* Demographic Changes in Tibet

In a recent interview, the Dalai Lama told me: "On our part, we can
wait, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, but the demographic issue as well
as the environment problems cannot wait. Once we are able to reach a
political solution, it may be too late. If Tibet is only inhabited by
Han Chinese, what is the meaning of autonomy?"

This is an important point. The hot and healthy debate amongst
Tibetans about autonomy versus independence may be completely
meaningless in five years time.

* * * * * *
US has taken the lead in getting Tibetans and Chinese around the same
table. Why not India?


Studying these 30 years of 'contacts,' the most shocking aspect is
the attitude of the Government of India that should have been fully
involved in the process, being the first stakeholder in the fate of
the Tibetan refugees. It is the far-away United States, which since
1987 has taken the lead in getting Tibetans and Chinese around the
same table. Why is it not India?

Rajiv Gandhi'S visit to China in December 1988 is typical. Two months
earlier, the Chinese embassy in Delhi had stated: 'We welcome the
Dalai Lama to have talks with the central government at any time. The
talks may be held in Beijing, Hong Kong, or any of our embassies or
consulates abroad.' When Rajiv went to China instead of gently
encouraging the dialogue, he unnecessarily stressed that Tibet was
part of China and that 'anti-China political activities by Tibetan
elements are not permitted on Indian soil.'

It was certainly a missed opportunity for India to facilitate a
progress in the 'negotiations'. Many more have been missed since
then. Other examples could be cited.

* * * * * *
The Dalai Lama could possibly melt the heart of any Chinese leader


Apart from India's involvement, the only chance to see a decisive
progress in the 'talks' would be for the Chinese leaders to accept to
meet with the Dalai Lama in person. With his warmth, his good humour,
his human qualities and sincerity, he could possibly melt the heart
of any Chinese leader.

He could at least clarify many misunderstandings (namely, he does not
ask for independence). Here again India's facilitation could be
useful. But is Beijing interested in a peaceful settlement of the
Tibetan question? This is doubtful and here lies the reason why no
progress has been made for 30 years.


When I think about the current negotiations something that the Dalai
Lama told me 15 years ago, rings in my head: 'Tibetan culture with
its unique heritage -- born of the effort of many human beings of
good spirit, of its contacts with Chinese, Indian, Nepalese and
Persian culture, and due to its natural environment -- has developed
some kind of energy which is useful, very helpful, towards
cultivating peace of mind and a joyful life. I feel that there is a
potential for Tibet to help humanity, and particularly our Eastern
neighbour, where millions of young Chinese have lost their spiritual
values. I feel very strongly that Tibetan culture will have a future
role to play in humanity.'

It is one of the most inconvenient questions of the 21st century, but
why has Tibet been deleted from politicians' memory?
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank