Time again for Beijing to directly engage Dalai Lama

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The Dalai Lama, Illustration: Mayank Chhaya

As a biographer of the Dalai Lama I have frequently advocated that China make a grand gesture and directly engage him to discuss the future of Tibet. Intrinsic to that gesture should be an official invitation to the 77-year-old Tibetan leader to visit Beijing for comprehensive talks with the specific objective of resolving the over six-decades-old Tibetan issue. Here is some of what I wrote for the IANS wire on April 18, 2010 when a major earthquake struck the Qinghai Province:

The deadly earthquake in the Qinghai Province in northwestern China, which killed 1400, mostly Tibetan people, on April 14, offers an extraordinary opportunity to Beijing to allow the Dalai Lama to make his first visit home in over 50 years.

While the Dalai Lama has been quick to request that he be allowed to visit the province, China has not so much as even taken note of that suggestion. ‘This time the location of the earthquake, Kyigudo (Chinese: Yushu), lies in Qinghai Province, which happens to be where both the late Panchen Lama and I were born. To fulfill the wishes of many of the people there, I am eager to go there myself to offer them comfort,’ the Dalai Lama said in a statement. He had expressed a similar wish in the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan which killed over 80,000 people.

Although some 800 km separate Takster in Amdo, where the Dalai Lama was born in 1935, and Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture where the earthquake hit, the tragedy has the potential to considerably narrow the distance between the two sides and begin dialogue at the highest level of the leaderships for the first time.

It is a measure how eager the Chinese leadership is to demonstrate that they care deeply about Tibet’s well-being that both President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have become personally involved in the relief efforts. While Hu cut short his visit to Brazil, where he had gone to attend a summit meeting of the Brazil-Russia-India-China (BRIC) grouping along with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Wen postponed his visit to Indonesia. That demonstration of Beijing’s commitment to Tibet could acquire a historic dimension were it to invite the Dalai Lama to be among his people at the time of their desperate need.

The reflexively adversarial Chinese leadership can score some political and diplomatic points in allowing the Dalai Lama to visit the affected area, even if it is highly controlled. For his part, the Dalai Lama could use the visit to send a strong message of hope to the Tibetan people, generations of whom have grown up thinking of him only as a fabled figure since he was forced into exile in 1959.

It is almost a foregone conclusion that Beijing will not entertain the Dalai Lama’s proposed visit because in its assessment his presence is bound to be a serious distraction. In their strategic thinking, China is better off waiting out the Dalai Lama’s death rather than giving him a chance to complicate the issue at this time. Even though at 75 the Dalai Lama remains in reasonably sound health, the Communist leadership is conscious that time is on the side of the Chinese state and not the person of the Tibetan leader. The leadership is bound to see the Dalai Lama’s presence in Tibet for the first time in 51 years, and that too in the midst of a catastrophe, of this scale as fraught with possibilities of igniting a revolt among the Tibetan people.

Also, at the operational level of bilateral diplomacy it would be unrealistic for Beijing to let him visit and not choose to engage him a substantive dialogue over the future of Tibet. Not talking directly with the Dalai Lama has been a far more effective approach so far for China. Why should an earthquake change that?

For one, it could send a powerful symbolic message about China’s sincerity in resolving the Tibetan question around the world. More importantly, it can have profound impact in the eventual peaceful integration of Tibet into the Chinese mainstream with the kind of autonomy demanded by the Dalai Lama.

Now, as The Economist reports, Chinese scholar, Jin Wei, who is director of ethnic and religious studies at the Central Party School in Beijing, has suggested that China should consider inviting the Dalai Lama to visit one of its semi-autonomous cities, Hong Kong or Macau, and eventually even back to Tibet.  “For her (Jin) to do so publicly, in an interview this month with a Hong Kong magazine, Asia Weekly, suggests that she has high-level backing,” The Economist says.

The magazine also says there may be some rethinking underway in the Communist leadership on the hardline approach to Tibet. The departure of Hu Jintao and the rise of Xi Jinping as president has been seen by some as possibly signaling a change in Tibet policy. As someone in charge of Tibet between 1988 and 1992 Hu was known to be particularly uncompromising on the hardline policy, an approach he maintained throughout his tenure. There are expectations that Xi might be different, although as The Economist notes, there are no signs to make that determination. In his defense, Xi took over only in November last year and has had to deal with more immediate crises such as a wayward North Korea and strains in relations with the United States.

I personally think it is in China’s long-term interests to invite  the Dalai Lama to Beijing for direct talks, notwithstanding that he has retired from his political role. There is nothing to stop Beijing from including the democratically elected Tibetan prime minister-in-exile Lobsang Sangay but that may be too bold for a system that calibrates every step when it comes Tibet. In fact, precisely because the Dalai Lama has given up a political role, it might make more sense to talk to him directly.

Although formal political power resides in the office of Tibetan prime minister-in-exile in a real sense, the Dalai Lama unquestionably remains an overarching influence over any negotiated future of Tibet. Beijing knows that very well.

Talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama’s representatives have been suspended since 2010 and there are no signs yet that they would be revived. Rather than talking to his representatives within a framework that is designed not to resolve anything, I think it is time for Beijing to host the Dalai Lama and have threadbare discussions.

2013 is not 1950 when China annexed Tibet, nor for that matter 1959 when it forced the Dalai Lama into exile in India. China is far more secure in its own skin now having pulled off what is widely regarded as human history’s biggest economic transformation.  The least it can do is to talk to a Buddhist monk who has officially given up his political and temporal responsibilities.

There are only upsides to this strategy, particularly when for years now the Dalai Lama has spoken specifically in terms of seeking genuine autonomy within China and not independence. The only thing standing in the way of Beijing is Beijing.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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