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Opinion: Beijing's Sovereignty Ruse Blocks Tibet Negotiation

March 1, 2010

By Tsering Tsomo
February 27, 2010

The concept of mianzi or "face" in dealing with
the Chinese is being stressed in many orientation
briefings to foreigners visiting China where face
is generally equated with image, reputation, prestige, pride and respect.

Losing, saving or giving face is a social concept
common in many Asian societies but for the
ever-resourceful leaders in Beijing, face takes
on political meanings such as "sovereignty" and
the "territorial integrity" of the People's
Republic of China (PRC). To save face, Beijing
uses these politically loaded words to brush off
prying questions about its authoritarian
behavior. Criticizing China's abuse of the word
"sovereignty" to escape accountability and stave
off inconvenient issues like Tibet, Liu
Jianqiang, a senior reporter with Southern
Weekend, an influential Chinese weekly, wrote
recently, "This expression is used for human
rights issues, for the Taiwan issue, and for many
other issues. Sometimes China loves sovereignty
even more than it loves the facts."

The late January discussions, the ninth such
meeting since 2002, between envoys of His
Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Chinese
leadership have achieved little in terms of
agreement on issues that the Chinese side thinks
are linked to sovereignty and territorial
integrity of the PRC. Beijing again accused His
Holiness of demanding a "high level of autonomy"
for "greater Tibet" in order to realize Tibetan
independence. In the press statements after the
talks, Du Qingli, head of the United Front Work
Department - the body tasked specifically to
handle the Tibet talks - and his deputy Zhu
Weiqun reiterated the non-negotiability of sovereign and territorial issues.

But the Tibetan proposal for genuine autonomy
calls for a uniform policy for all Tibetans in
Kham, Amdo and U-tsang provinces under a single
administration. Clearly, for Tibetans, it is less
of a territorial issue than one of administration
and policy. Meaningful autonomy is possible only
when culturally compact Tibetan communities are
allowed to create their own space within which to
preserve and promote their culture, religion,
language and identity. The reorganization of
Tibetan cultural areas under a self-governing
entity within the PRC territory should not be a
sovereignty problem. Even India since its
inception as a federal republic has successfully
negotiated with its numerous languages and
cultures by carving out states on a linguistic
basis. Events in Tibet in the last decades have
proved that direct governance from Beijing has
failed to address grievances of the Tibetan
people. The fact is that Tibet is still a hot bed
of resistance and revolt even after 60 years of
Chinese rule. No amount of money has brought
stability or Tibetan loyalty for the government.
And frankly, China wouldn't want an ignominious
remnant of its divide and rule policy reflected
in the still dismembered territory of traditional
Tibet if it was serious about respecting Tibetan
sentiments and establishing lasting stability in
PRC. Further, the Tibetan proposal makes no
mention of independence or any insinuation
thereof. The extent of autonomy that Tibetans are
asking for on specific issues is justifiable
considering their distinctive historical and cultural characteristics.

During the early years of occupation, this
distinctiveness was vital in China recognizing
the special status of Tibet as evident in the
17-point agreement China forced the Tibetans to
sign in 1951. It was the first agreement signed
by the Chinese Communists with any minority
nationality in PRC. The agreement inspired Deng
Xiaoping to devise the one-country-two-systems
policy for Hong Kong. Among Chinese leadership,
there was implicit understanding of Tibet as a
complete whole comprising of Tibetans living in
all three provinces. In the early 1950s, Premier
Chou Enlai promised Ngabo Ngawang Jigme (former
commander-in-chief of the then independent
Tibetan government) orally to return the areas
incorporated into Chinese provinces to Tibet.
Ulanfu, former head of the Nationalities Affairs
Commission who represented the Chinese side
during the first exploratory talks with the exile
Tibetan delegation in 1982 had reportedly favored
reunification of Tibetan cultural areas. In 1956,
at an internal meeting of senior party cadres,
PLA Marshall Chen Yi called for the establishment
of a "united autonomous region of Tibetan
nationalities" with Lhasa as its capital,
according to Bawa Phuntsok Wangyal, the veteran
Tibetan communist in his essay In Memory of
Comrade Tashi Wangchuk. At the time, Yi was a
politburo member and vice-premier of the State
Council. He headed the Chinese delegation at the
founding ceremony of the Preparatory Committee of
the Tibet Autonomous Region. The establishment of
Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) formally marked
China's redefinition of Tibet. The 10th Panchen
Lama - who in 1989 died unexpectedly a couple of
days after he made a speech in the southern
Tibetan town of Shigatse attacking Chinese rule -
had called the demand for a united autonomous
Tibet "fair, reasonable and legal" and in line
with "the aspirations of the Tibetan people".
Bawa Phuntsok Wangyal wrote that the Chinese
policy of "Divide Administratively for Better
Control and Sinicization" was not limited to
administrative and territorial matters in Tibet.
But it mutated into censorship tactics employed
in the case of Tsering Dhondup, a Tibetan
historian in Tibet whose book Tibetan History was
banned by the authorities who insisted the title
be changed to Tibet History, an obvious reference
to the official definition of Tibet as Tibet
Autonomous Region only. As is demonstrated by
history, the demand for "greater Tibet", as
Beijing calls it, is not a recent invention. It
is as old as the occupation itself - ever since
the Chinese Communists re-delineated the borders of traditional Tibet.

Among experts, there is a broad consensus that
Tibetans are a people with distinct identity,
culture, language and core values. "There's a
general view that the Tibetans are a distinct
nationality, and an indigenous one, and that the
Chinese government should have some obligation to
work with their leaders to sort out how they are
to be treated. Yet the Chinese government has
consistently refused to do so," Michael Davis, a
law professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong
was quoted by New York Times on Feb 2.

During the eighth round of talks in Nov. 2008,
the Tibetan side presented a copy of Memorandum
on Genuine Autonomy to their Chinese
interlocutors urging them to make it the basis
for negotiation. Earlier in July 2008, Du had
explicitly invited suggestions from His Holiness
for the stability and development of Tibet. Even
Zhu requested more information on the degree or
form of autonomy Tibetans were seeking under the
PRC. But China rejected the memorandum saying it
still contained "semi-independence" and "disguised independence".

Interestingly, in an interview last December, Zhu
said that the proposal was "good but not enough".
However, on Feb. 3 Zhu told China Daily that
Beijing wanted to "give the Dalai Lama a chance
to correct his mistakes" by holding talks with
his envoys. While such statements give rise to
that old nagging doubts of China buying time
until His Holiness' demise to "settle" the issue,
it is also symptomatic of the regime's fears and frustrations over Tibet.

The official narrative of benevolent PLA troops
liberating uncivilized barbaric Tibet has fed the
minds of many Chinese at least since 1949.
Millions of Chinese still believe that they are
doing the Tibetans a favor by their presence in
Tibet. Little wonder that in the aftermath of the
2008 protests in Tibet the Chinese chat-rooms
were filled with patronizing attacks against the
"ungrateful blockhead" Tibetans." That the
protests exposed the truth behind the official
propaganda of "happy, prosperous" Tibetans never
reached the domestic audience. Instead Beijing
exploited this nationalistic mood to hit back at
criticisms from home and abroad. Chinese
nationalism thus feeds on the government views on
Tibet and has become a potent political weapon.
Beijing is least bothered about what the outside
world thinks as long as it can maintain the
artifice on Tibet intact. This constant struggle
to preserve "liberation" tales includes the
continued paternalistic and militaristic
treatment of Tibet. For 60 years, China has tried
all sorts of violent ideological and political
maneuvers to make Tibet Chinese but each time, it
has faced rejection and resistance. It is not
that China is out of touch with reality in Tibet,
it simply refuses to accept it. Acceptance would
expose the lies beneath the stories. The stories
the regime has ingeniously constructed over the
years around the "separatist" Dalai Lama and the "splittist" Tibetans.

The proposal for genuine autonomy is perhaps the
biggest challenge yet from a minority nationality
to Beijing in implementing the rights and
freedoms enshrined in Chinese constitution. The
reasonableness of the proposal is evident in the
kind of reactions and responses it engenders
among the Chinese leadership. Without stating
their reservations in concrete and logical terms,
it rejected the Tibetan demands outright for
threatening PRC's sovereignty and territorial
integrity blocking in a few words the path to a
meaningful negotiation on Tibet. Beijing knows
going into the heart of the matter raised by the
proposal would open the Pandora's Box in Tibet.
Thus, rejecting Tibetan peace overtures with the
broad strokes of sovereignty excuse provides the
shortest escape route. When faced with questions
it cannot and will not answer, China thinks this
phrasal ruse does the trick. Still, if China
really wants to settle the Tibet issue without
losing face, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is their best bet.
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