Revered by Tibetans, reviled by China
ON THE WEB, 8 May 2008
Not long after calling him a “devil with a human face and the heart of a beast”, Chinese officials are talking again to representatives of the Dalai Lama. But in the Indian hill town of Dharamshala, the seat of Tibet’s government-in-exile, few believe China’s own heart has changed. “The basis of their attitude towards Tibet is … distrust and fear,” the Dalai Lama told The Economist a day after a meeting on May 4th in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen between two of his envoys and two senior Communist Party officials. It was the first contact between the two sides since unrest broke out in Tibet and other ethnic Tibetan regions of China in March.
Both sides are anxious not to appear to be closing the door. Lodi Gyari, one of the Dalai Lama’s representatives at the talks, described them as a “step in the right direction” and said more would be held, though no date has been announced. China said there could be further contact as long as the Dalai Lama showed “sincerity”. China’s surprising decision to offer renewed talks seemed aimed at deflecting foreign criticism of its handling of Tibet ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August. But officials in Dharamshala are wary. They deny the Shenzhen meeting was a continuation of six rounds of confidence-building discussions held between 2002 and July 2007. Rather, it was an “emergency conversation” about the present crisis. Mr Gyari said only the next round of talks would count as the resumption of a formal dialogue.
The Tibetans had several demands: an end to the clampdown in Tibet, including the withdrawal of security forces from monasteries; no more “patriotic education” requiring monks to denounce the Dalai Lama; an investigation by an international body into the causes of the unrest; the release of political detainees; and fair trials for those accused of rioting.
None of this will be heard sympathetically by China. The state-controlled press is still vilifying the Dalai Lama and the authorities have maintained a tight grip on Tibetan regions. Visits by foreign journalists remain largely banned and foreign tourists are barred. Late last month, at secret trials in Lhasa, 30 people were sentenced to prison terms of between three years and life for their role in rioting in March. Human Rights Watch, a monitoring organisation in New York, said lawyers in Beijing who offered to represent them were warned by the Ministry of Justice that their licences might be revoked.
The Dalai Lama tries to sound conciliatory. Tibetans, he says, should be proud that China is hosting the Olympics (though, with a characteristic chuckle, he says he does not know whether they will be happy when the Olympic torch is paraded in Lhasa in June). He says he fully supports a “one-China policy”, but that the future of Taiwan should be decided by its own people—which is anathema to China. The Dalai Lama says he is not so concerned about redrawing Tibet’s political boundaries to include all ethnic Tibetan areas adjoining it (an idea he once backed strongly, to China’s horror). The priority, he says, is to protect the culture and environment of Tibetans. But China will want a stronger retraction than this. It believes the Dalai Lama is still intent on carving out a single Tibetan territory covering a quarter of China’s land area.
According to the Dalai Lama, Chinese officials accepted in 2006 during the fifth round of talks that he was sincere in his insistence that Tibet should be part of China. But by the sixth round last year their attitude had hardened. Some of the Dalai Lama’s officials say China took fright at signs of his continuing sway over Tibetans in China and his readiness to use it—for example, to persuade them to stop wearing the skins of endangered animals and worshipping Dorje Shugden, a cultic deity.
China’s crackdown on the recent unrest in Tibet may limit the Dalai Lama’s flexibility in dealing with China. The streets of Dharamshala in the Himalayan foothills are full of Tibetan flags flown in sympathy with Tibetans in China. Ubiquitous gruesome pictures show Tibetans shot by Chinese security forces. The Dalai Lama says there has been “a lot of criticism” of his conciliatory negotiating stand with China. He says he remains fully committed to his approach in spite of recent events. So too, however, does China.