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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

A pragmatic solution - OPINION

March 25, 2008


By Malcolm Rifkind
International Herald Tribune
Sunday, March 23, 2008

If recent history is a guide, the people of Tibet could be forgiven
their anger about the present and pessimism for the future. It has been
over half a century since China sent troops into Tibet, which was at
that time self-governing. A policy of repression and brutality ensued.
The Dalai Lama fled his homeland in 1959 and has not returned since. Nor
is there much hope that he will anytime soon.

But the answer to the Tibet question lies in China itself. China
contains regions that operate their own economic, political and cultural
systems. Hong Kong is one, Macao is another. Both these territories have
dynamic economies and Deng Xiaoping invented the "one country, two
systems" concept to ensure their prosperity and pluralist traditions. It
is even conceivable that Taiwan may choose to rejoin the mainland on the
understanding that its free-market system and democracy is protected.
The Chinese can be very pragmatic when they wish and the practice of
autonomy within China has been established. Now it needs to be applied
to Tibet.

Why, one wonders, has Tibet not joined Hong Kong and Macao as the third
Special Administrative Region? After all, the plight of the Tibetan
people has been a running sore on the reputation of Beijing that has
created a global protest movement. The answer is that China has never
considered such a move necessary. Repression is a blunt instrument, but
one that, in Beijing's eyes, has worked well enough in Tibet.

Part of China's strategy has been to treat the Dalai Lama as persona non
grata, hoping that he would be forgotten by his own people. Another
aspect of the policy has been to encourage a massive migration of over
seven million Han Chinese into Tibet, changing the demographic
composition in the territory. In 1951, there were virtually no Han
Chinese in the province, but now they are the majority. A 710 mile
railroad has just been built connecting the Tibetan capital Lhasa with
Beijing. That will only strengthen China's grip.

China must now acknowledge that this policy has failed and that it will
not work in the future. The Dalai Lama, far from being marginalized, has
become an Asian Nelson Mandela, celebrated around the world as a symbol
of freedom and not simply as a leader of his people. Young Tibetans have
become radicalized and are taking to the streets in a way not seen for
many years. And with the arrival of mobile phones and the Internet, it
is becoming harder for the Chinese to seal Tibet off from the outside
world. The choice for Beijing is between increasing repression or
political and cultural reform. Choosing repression would incur a high
price, and the problem would still not go away.

That leaves reform. On the face of it, an autonomous, self-governing
Tibet should not be difficult for the Chinese to accept. The Dalai Lama
is clear that he is not demanding independence. And although that
disappoints some of his followers, the vast majority of Tibetans would
be delighted to be granted self-government again.

Such a move would also dramatically boost China's reputation around the
world. It is widely seen as acting like a colonial empire, and a
softening of its approach in Tibet would help reduce some of the anxiety
that people feel about China's emergence as a superpower.

At the moment, the Chinese are planning to carry the Olympic torch
through Tibet on its way to Beijing. As things stand, that would be
obscene and a betrayal of the values of the Olympic Games. But a serious
offer of dialogue with the Dalai Lama would take much heat out of the
situation. In return, Tibet's leadership would have to renounce
independence and violence. A new relationship would not only delight the
Tibetans, it would also diffuse some of the poisonous political
atmosphere that will otherwise descend on the Beijing Olympics.

It is important to be realistic. China will violently clamp down on
Tibet if it fears that it is breaking away. In that instance, Beijing
would accept the global outrage, continuing its repressive policies
until the day that China itself embraces democratic reform.

Until that point the best option is for a Tibetan province to be granted
cultural freedom and a significant degree of political autonomy. That is
no more than is currently enjoyed by Hong Kong and Macao. It would be a
Chinese solution to a Chinese problem.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind served as Britain's defense minister and foreign
secretary under Prime Minister John Major.
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