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Opinion: Middle-Way or Muddled Way: The Dalai Lama at 50 Years in Exile

March 4, 2010

by Sourabh Gupta
(send by mail)
PacNet #9
March 1, 2010

Sourabh Gupta (
is a senior research associate at Samuels
International Associates, Inc. As the case with
all PacNets, opinions expressed are solely those
of the author. Differing opinions are always welcome.

Fifty years after a perilous escape over the
Himalayas, the third instance of flight by a
Dalai Lama in the 20th century from his seat in
Lhasa, His Holiness appears no closer to
returning -- or being allowed to return -- to his
homeland. Thirty years after resuming contact
with the Chinese Communist Party and unveiling
his "Middle-Way Approach” to resolve the Tibetan
question, the gap between the Dalai Lama and
Beijing remains as wide as ever. A rewarding
expression of support recently for Tibetans’
unique identity and human rights by President
Obama notwithstanding, His Holiness’ strategy of
bringing to bear the full rhetorical weight of
the Western world to wring political concessions
from Beijing continues to show little results. As
Tibet reverts to a more settled phase following a
series of sensitive anniversary dates or events,
a more persuasive approach by the Dalai Lama is imperative.

Foremost in this regard is the need for His
Holiness to negotiate purposefully with the
leadership in Beijing, to match rhetoric with
action as he goes about securing an enhanced
autonomy arrangement for the Tibetan people.
Notwithstanding repeated denials of seeking
separation or independence for more than a
decade, it was not until October 2008 that the
Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile formally came
around to reconciling Tibet to being “a part of
the multi-national state of the PRC.” That the
commitment was itself preceded just two days
earlier by Britain’s recognition of Beijing full
sovereignty over Tibet -- setting aside its
century-long anachronism of China’s suzerain
position in Tibet -- also suggests a measure of
external coordination, if not orchestration.
Further, His Holiness’ Middle-Way Approach still
continues, officially at least, to levitate
between the semantics of independence and autonomy.

Second, the Dalai Lama needs to eliminate the gap
between his stated desire for compromise and the
fundamentally variant demands presented by his
negotiators to Beijing. Even as His Holiness has
professed a willingness to accept the socialist
system in Tibet under Chinese Communist Party
rule, the recently unveiled "Memorandum on
Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People" contains
no such explicit indication or reference. To the
contrary, its expansive interpretation of genuine
autonomy includes the right to create not only
its own regional government but also “government
institutions and processes” suited to the needs of the Tibetan people.

This is not to discount the series of nuanced
retractions that the Dalai Lama’s Middle-Way
Approach has undergone. A Tibetan demand that
their homeland be offered a political
relationship as expansive as China’s offer in the
early-1980s to Taipei was ratcheted down to an
insistence on a Hong Kong-style "association"
relationship with Beijing. Since the early 2000s
and the latest phase of Sino-Tibetan
negotiations, hints about a residual
international personality have been kept to a
minimum. Further, the autonomy arrangement sought
is an amalgam of the Hong Kong “one country, two
systems” formula and the existing autonomy
provisions of the PRC Constitution. Yet, at a
level of basic principles, the on-going failure
to pay obeisance -- even on a token basis -- to
the prevailing Chinese political (and
constitutional) system reflects poor judgment at
the Tibetan end. Subsequent clarification that
the Memorandum “does not challenge the socialist
system of the PRC” is hardly likely to strike
Beijing as an endorsement of Chinese Communist Party’s supremacy.

Learning Nothing, Forgetting Nothing

The fundamental imperative remains His Holiness’
need to break free of the shackles of his own
political irresolution and -- as head of state of
the Tibetan government-in-exile -- translate his
spiritual authority into decisive political
leadership. An illustrative case in point is his
support for the notion of a "Greater Tibet" as a
single administrative entity. Conceived in the
mid-1960s as a unifying basis for non-communist
national consciousness among émigré groups of
diverse ethnic stock, the concept lacks
historical basis. Even during Tibet’s existence
as a de facto independent state through much of
the first half of the 20th century, its
rough-and-ready frontiers bore no resemblance to
the Greater Tibet chimera. Rather, the zone of
administrative control – partly derived from
British-brokered truces -- loosely approximated
that of the present-day Tibet Autonomous Region.

More problematically, it was disturbances
originating amongst East Tibetan tribes-people in
Greater Tibet which -- in cascading onward to
Tibet Proper and Lhasa -- triggered the revolt of
1959. Yet rather than immunize his administrative
realm against these extra-provincial passions,
the Dalai Lama chose to embrace the movement --
precipitating his exile and thereby extinguishing
the unique experiment in self-rule in which both
he and Chairman Mao were equally vested. Akin to
his choice, then, of refusing to confront Greater
Tibetan sentiment, His Holiness continues today
to privilege the cohesion of his émigré community
and its call for an expansive Greater Tibet, even
at the expense of being branded as insincere by
Beijing. Ironically then, even as the broad
thrust of the autonomy demands of the Middle Way
Approach bear resemblance to the self-rule
provisions of the (much-maligned) Seventeen Point
Agreement of 1951, the lessons that precipitated
the latter’s demise remain unlearnt.

On each of these three fronts -- sovereignty, the
socialist system, and territoriality-related
questions -- Beijing is likely to brook no
compromise. Further, with the devolution of
autonomy in China’s restive peripheries
intimately associated with considerations of
power relations, the supremacy of the socialist
system, and of the party, will have to be
explicitly recognized. While the
internationalization of the Tibetan cause can
lend useful political cover to this process, the
flamboyant inauguration of sensitive negotiating
offers on Capitol Hill, in Strasbourg, or in its
entirety on the internet also needs to be frankly
reassessed. In any case, internationalization per
se of the Tibetan struggle is not to blame.
Rather, it is the Dalai Lama’s inability to use
internationalization as a springboard for
hard-headed intra-Tibetan political bargaining as
well as purposeful negotiating vis-à-vis the Chinese.

As Beijing ups-the-ante yet again by issuing
regulations that purport to manage the
reincarnation of living lamas, including the
successor of the 14th Dalai Lama, there is not a
moment to lose. At China’s 12th National People’s
Congress in 2013, the Beijing-proclaimed Panchen
Lama -- unbeknownst to and remote from much of
his flock -- is expected to be elevated to the
post of vice chairman of that body, given that he
will have attained the minimum age requirement.
That the revered institution of the Dalai Lama,
down the line, be spared a similarly sad
spectacle of schism necessitates that His
Holiness fully internalize and act upon the
fundamental premise that the road to greater
autonomy runs through Beijing, not the West.
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