When it comes to Tibet in general and the Dalai Lama in particular it is best not to second-guess the Chinese leadership’s thinking. They do a pretty good job of second-guessing themselves.
It has been my experience in the last decade and half of having followed the subject closely that any seeming sign of Beijing’s softening attitude toward the Dalai Lama is almost invariably unfounded. The latest misreading of Beijing’s approach toward Tibet is evident in the rapid succession of two news reports.
On June 22, The Economist reported quoted Jin Wei, who is director of ethnic and religious studies at the Central Party School in Beijing,as suggesting 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 said there may be some rethinking underway in the Communist leadership on the hardline approach to Tibet.
It is always unwise to read the collective Chinese leadership mind on the basis of individual comments even if the individuals making them are of some standing. It turns out that Jin’s suggestion may not have much currency within the power circles that matter. The Guardian quotes a story by the official Chinese agency Xinhua which in fact suggests precisely to the contrary.
The newspaper reported yesterday, “China’s leading official in charge of religious groups and ethnic minorities has vowed to step up the fight against exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, as a rights group reported police shootings of monks marking his birthday.
The comments by Yu Zhengsheng, number four in the ruling Communist party’s hierarchy, appeared aimed at thwarting speculation that China’s new leadership could take a softer line on the Dalai Lama.”
"For the sake of national unity and the development of stability in Tibetan regions, we must take a clear-cut stand and deepen the struggle against the Dalai clique," the official Xinhua news agency cited Yu as saying.
In a sharp contrast to Jin’s apparently conciliatory views, Yu said that relations with the Dalai Lama would improve if he openly recognized that Tibet had been a part of China since ancient times and gave up his campaign for Tibet’s independence.
"The Dalai Lama’s ‘middle way’ aimed at achieving so-called ‘high-degree autonomy’ in ‘Greater Tibet’ is completely opposite to China’s constitution and the country’s system of regional ethnic autonomy," Yu was quoted as saying by Xinhua, according to The Guardian.
It cannot be that in a span of about two weeks Beijing can both harden and soften its approach toward Tibet to this degree, except that it can. That has always been the case. When I say it is best not to second-guess the Chinese thinking, this is what I mean. You will never hear anyone truly authoritative make a categorical comment on the subject. Perhaps these contradictory positions are a deliberate Chinese ploy to keep the exile Tibetan leadership confused or may be, just may be, they are reflective of a divided opinion over the dispute.
I have never fully understood whose word carries the final authority on Tibet. Can new President Xi Jinping, for instance, declare with complete clarity that the Dalai Lama will not be engaged ever or, conversely, that he will be engaged soon? The time for nuanced or subtle or cryptic or infuriatingly contradictory positions has long passed on the question of Tibet. It has been more than 60 years since Tibet was grabbed and over 50 years since the Dalai Lama was forced into exile. I know it is in China’s civilizational temperament to think long-term where a few decades mean nothing. And certainly the life of a single individual, in this case the Dalai Lama who turned 78 on July 6, means even less to them.
It cannot get any more intransigent than to ask the Dalai Lama to openly recognize that “Tibet had been a part of China since ancient times” as asked by Yu. For now, it may serve our immediate purpose to accept that coming from number four in the Communist hierarchy the official Chinese position for now is to tell the Dalai Lama to go take a hike. As an illustration of that approach, there are reports that unarmed Buddhist worshippers celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday were fired upon outside Tawu in eastern Tibet. The firing has been officially denied.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew will be part of the annual bilateral strategic and economic dialogue in Washington today and tomorrow. The Chinese delegation is headed by Vice Premier Wang Yang and State Councilor Yang Jiechi. The dialogue will be opened by Vice President Joe Biden. Of course, Biden could always ask Wang if the firing did take place and if it did why. Wang could always deny it. I think it is futile to ask for the sake of asking and deny for the sake of denying.
Washington and Beijing have much bigger bilateral issues of consequence on the table. Tibet might figure only marginally, if at all, in the context of the overall human rights issue in China. It has never even remotely defined and distracted US-China bilateral discourse.