Welcome signs that some officials are at last starting to question policies on Tibet
ON THE WEB, 24 June 2013
Few outside China think the Communist Party’s strategy for Tibet is working. A combination of economic development and political repression was meant to reconcile Tibetans to Chinese rule and wean them off their loyalty to the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader. Instead disaffection is still rife, especially among the young. And all across Tibetan areas of China, Tibetans still display the Dalai Lama’s portrait, sometimes openly. Since March 2011 more than 100 Tibetans—especially in Tibetan areas of provinces bordering what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)—have set themselves on fire. Most have done so in part to call for the Dalai Lama’s homecoming. An overwhelming security presence and the Dalai Lama’s commitment to non-violence mean that the unrest is easily contained. Hence little has suggested that China’s leaders are concerned about the bleak implications for the future: that their rule in Tibet can be maintained only by the indefinite deployment of massive coercive force.
So for a Chinese scholar, Jin Wei, who is director of ethnic and religious studies at the Central Party School in Beijing, to call for a “creative” new approach is startling. For her to do so publicly, in an interview this month with a Hong Kong magazine, Asia Weekly, suggests that she has high-level backing. A report from a Beijing think-tank in 2009 challenged the official line that rioting in Tibet the year before was instigated from abroad. But Robert Barnett, a professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York, describes Ms Jin’s intervention as a sign that, after two decades, “debate has re-emerged within China about the government’s hard-line policies in Tibet”. Ms Jin even accused former party chiefs in Tibet of being “biased against the practice of religious affairs”. This, she said, “foreshadowed the accumulation of grievances today.”
One former party secretary in Tibet (from 1988-92) was Hu Jintao, who went on to head the party nationally for ten years until last November, when he gave way to Xi Jinping. Those who have forecast that Mr Xi might prove a bolder reformer than the cautious Mr Hu have so far seen little to back them up. Here, on Tibet, is at least a hint of a crack in the hardline consensus. Some have detected another in the appointment of Yu Zhengsheng to head the party’s main policy group on Tibet and Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority region in the north-west. Mr Yu is the head of an advisory body designed to promote national unity. Previous heads of the group have been security specialists.
This is new
Ms Jin’s analysis, though couched in the terminology of party orthodoxy, is similar to that of many foreign observers. She argues that, by demonising the Dalai Lama, and viewing any expression of Tibetan culture as potentially subversive, the party has turned even those Tibetans sympathetic to its aims against it. The struggle has evolved from “a contradiction between the central government and the Dalai Lama separatist clique into an ethnic conflict between Han Chinese and Tibetans”.
She is not advocating a new soft approach to “political” issues, such as the Dalai Lama’s call for greater autonomy for Tibet and Tibetans’ hankering after a “greater Tibet”—ie, within its historic borders, beyond the TAR. But in fact, most protests in Tibet are not about “politics”, defined like this. Many have been sparked by anger at Chinese repression—of Tibetan culture, language and tradition, or of individual protesters. It is a vicious circle, made worse by anger at the large-scale immigration into Tibet of Han Chinese.
Ms Jin has ideas on how to break the impasse. Talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives, stalled since the most recent of nine fruitless rounds in 2010, should resume, she says. They should concentrate on “easy” issues first, setting contentious debate about Tibet’s status to one side for now. China should consider inviting the Dalai Lama to visit one of its semi-autonomous cities, Hong Kong or Macau, and eventually allowing him back to Tibet. It should also try to defuse the crisis his death will bring by agreeing with him on a chosen reincarnation from inside China’s borders. Otherwise, China risks having to deal with two incarnations: one it endorses and one in exile who is more likely to be revered by most Tibetans.
One of the many obstacles to Ms Jin’s unlikely vision is the identity of China’s negotiating partner. China will only talk to the Dalai Lama’s representative. But two years ago the Dalai Lama retired from his “political” role, ceding it to an elected “prime minister” of the exiles’ government, Lobsang Sangay. Mr Sangay has not done a good job of uniting the exiles and winning their trust. In any event China will not even contemplate talking to him. The Dalai Lama may need, in one respect at least, to come out of retirement.
The debate Ms Jin’s comments have provoked will not bring any immediate relief to Tibetans in Tibet. The infrastructure of Chinese repression is being enhanced and refined, with the implementation of a new “grid” system of street-level surveillance (see article). Dissenters are still locked up every week.
Moreover Ms Jin’s is still a lone voice, at least in public. Few others seem to realise that a new approach in Tibet is in China’s interest. Not only would it ease tension in Tibet; it would help relations with other minorities in China, make reunification with Taiwan more likely and improve China’s relations with the outside world. The more conventional Chinese view is the one voiced recently by a scholar at a Beijing think-tank: “The old Dalai will die soon. End of problem.” Though the Dalai Lama seems in good health, he turns 78 next month. The hope is that Ms Jin will not be the only Chinese adviser to understand that the dying in exile of this Dalai Lama would not be the end of China’s difficulties in Tibet. Rather, his death risks an explosion of violence and the rekindling of a Tibetan independence movement that is for now kept in check by the Dalai Lama’s search for a “middle way”.