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Blog: Are the Tibetans to blame for the failure of negotiatons?

September 15, 2010

By Otto Kerner
Tibet Talk
September 14, 2010

Barry Sautman’s recent column in South China
Morning Post is hard to stomach. Sautman is one
of the most notable Western academic defenders of
Chinese policies in Tibet. This is a fine thing,
since he tends to make rational arguments in
favor of his opinions. Even if we don’t agree
with his conclusions, his arguments give us an
opportunity to reflect more deeply on our own
opinions and so see the world more clearly.
Obviously, that doesn’t put him above critique,
which is richly deserved in the case of his new
article, "The Tibetan Impasse,"
a response to an earlier article by Lodi Gyari.
Sautman’s basic thesis, as stated in his first
paragraph, is that, "Three decades of
‘negotiations about negotiations’ between the
Dalai Lama’s envoys and Beijing have not made
progress because, although exile leaders claim
they are not separatists, they continue with
assertions and actions that belie that claim."
Thus, he places blame squarely on the shoulders
of the Tibetans. Now, I agree that the
government-in-exile has not been an ideal
negotiating partner. The Dalai Lama and his aides
are in an extremely delicate position and face
various competing pressures, with the result that
they send mixed messages. Let’s remember that
this doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The Tibetans have
faced years of intransigence from the Chinese
government, and in response to this they have sent mixed messages.

Sautman writes, "Formal negotiations with the
Dalai Lama are not being conducted, so it is not
surprising that Beijing won’t discuss Tibet with
his representatives in any but general terms."
Okay, fine, but is there any evidence that
Beijing would ever have any interest in formal
negotiations with the Dalai Lama? Hasn’t the
Chinese government always been perfectly clear
that they are interested in talking to
representatives of the Dalai Lama about his
personal status, and not about anything else? The
Tibetan exiles have been less-than-perfect
negotiating partners, but the Chinese have not
been negotiating at all. The "negotiations" that
the world requests China to hold with the Dalai
Lama are about political reforms in Tibet. The
Chinese government has said many times that they
will not discuss that. Yes, the Chinese
government has said that they want the Dalai Lama
to do certain things, such as declaring that
Tibet is an inalienable part of China, but when
have they ever said that they will negotiate with
him about autonomy if he complies? Granted, one
would not necessarily expect them to say it in so
many words, but is there any reason to think it’s true?

As an aside, I understand why the Chinese
government wants the Dalai Lama to say that Tibet
is an inalienable part of China, but that doesn’t
change the fact that this is an incoherent
concept. How can any place ever be an inalienable
part of any state? You might argue that a
government rules legitimately by consent of the
governed, or by force, but either of those can
change over time. Clearly what they want is for
the Dalai Lama to promise not to agitate for
independence in the future, but also they do not
trust him and would not accept a promise. Also,
I’m not sure why Sautman thinks it’s "bizarre"
for the Tibetans to think that admitting Tibet is
inalienably Chinese is tantamount to admitting
that it is eternally Chinese. That sounds like
exactly the sort of thing that Chinese sources
could conflate, just as they are sloppy about the
claims "Tibet has been part of China since the
Qing dynasty" vs. "Tibet has been part of China
since the Yuan dynasty" vs. "Tibet has always
been part of China." Would the Chinese government
really be satisfied with a statement that Tibet
suddenly became an inalienable part of China in
1951 or 1965, having been an independent country before that?

The Tibetan government-in-exile’s position is
highly ambiguous, but it seems to boil down to
the implication that they are currently the
legitimate government of a rightfully independent
Tibet, but they are willing to immediately and
permanently cede their independence to China in
return for genuine autonomy and democracy" as
well downplaying their independence in the
meantime. This position is a tricky balancing act
and is not always graceful. It’s clear why they
keep it up, though. They need something to put
some pressure on China. They don’t want Beijing
to simply ignore them. They need some kind of
basis to justify negotiations when talking to
other governments, the UN, and NGOs. If the CTA
is not a government-in-exile, then what is it?
Maybe this isn’t the best strategy, but simply to
insist that they surrender what little leverage
they have without suggesting an alternative doesn’t make much sense.

Sautman writes, "When Han and people of other
ethnic groups were murdered in the streets and
shops of Lhasa two years ago, Tibetan exile
leaders claimed without evidence that the
killings were carried out by disguised Chinese
soldiers." Okay, sure, people shouldn’t claim
things with no evidence. But, within days of the
March 14 violence, the Chinese media was claiming
that that was all a plot by the Dalai Lama, also
with no evidence. We could say that both sides
are equally sloppy, except that the Chinese
government has gone on to make the "Dalai plot"
theory the central element of its media response
to those protests and riots, repeating it ad nauseam.

"Thus, no matter how much others, especially in
the West, credit the Dalai Lama’s disavowal of
independence, the Chinese government will talk
to, but not negotiate with him -- as long as he
stands apart from the United Nations and the
world’s states by disavowing that Tibet is
legitimately part of China."Clearly, Beijing is
unwilling to negotiate with the Dalai Lama now.
Once again, where is the evidence that they would
become willing to negotiate if he had a more
consistently favorable attitude toward Chinese rule in Tibet?

One more thing about this passage: it’s true that
the world’s governments and the UN have agreed
that Tibet is part of China, but whoever said
anything about "legitimate"? When did that enter
into it? The international community has been
very consistent about criticizing Chinese
policies in Tibet and insisting that they
liberalise and negotiate. Only China holds the
position that the situation in Tibet is ducky. In
this regard, they "stand apart" from the rest of
the world just as much as the Tibetan government-in-exile does.

Sautman takes a moment to take a shot at the
popular punching bag of "Greater Tibet," "an
entity that never existed historically,"
according to Sautman. Of course, it did exist,
albeit 1,300 years ago, but that’s not the point.
The request for an unified Tibetan region is
justified on the grounds of the current interests
and aspirations of the Tibetan people, not on the
basis of history. Historical political
arrangements are a red herring. The fact is that
more than half of the Tibetan people live in
Tibetan areas outside of the TAR. A plan that
doesn’t do anything for them is no solution to
the Tibet issue. As a compromise a solution, I
suggest that the same reforms toward autonomy
could be implemented in each of the Tibetan
autonomous areas, even if they are not united into a single jurisdiction.

Sautman calls the Tibetan negotiating position,
"negotiating with a tiger for its skin." Really,
though, Tibet is not a large part of China in
terms of dollars or people, and an expanse of
sparsely-populated land that isn’t very good for
agriculture just isn’t worth much. China would
hardly be left skinless even if it had a moment
of conscience and allowed complete independence
for Tibet. To talk about autonomy in these terms is hyperbolic.

"If, however, the Dalai Lama does agree to
Beijing’s preconditions, there is plenty to talk
about." Indeed, there is plenty to talk about.
But, at the risk of sounding like a broken
record, what makes us think that Beijing actually
will talk about those things if their
preconditions are met? It’s true that the Dalai
Lama could do more to show good faith. But when
was the last time that the Chinese side did
anything to show good faith? What argues against
the conclusion that the Chinese are just
interested in delaying and getting the Dalai Lama
to help with their public relations problems while giving nothing in return?

Fortunately, Sautman gives us some details on
what he expects the Chinese will be willing to
talk about. "Beijing is not about to alter
Tibet’s political status, erasing the borders
between China’s Tibetan areas any time soon, or
dilute the hegemony of the Communist Party."
Okay, that rules out a lot that one might want to
talk about it. If I lived under the hegemony of
the Communist Party, I sure would be interested
in talking about getting rid of that, but let’s
see what I might more realistically be able to
expect. "It may, however, be willing to discuss a
gradual expansion of the autonomy of Tibetan
areas, including by incorporating non-separatist
Tibetan exiles in key positions in these areas’
governing apparatuses. It may agree to remove
restrictions on religious practice for officials,
students and others, adopt additional measures
aimed at fostering the Tibetan language and
culture, make a more targeted effort to raise the
incomes of ethnic Tibetans, and even restrict
migration by non-Tibetans into Tibetan areas."
Okay, so that’s what we’re left with. A few
things. Sautman keeps saying, "may." I realise
that he’s speculating here, so he can’t say for
sure what might be agreed upon at the talks.
That’s the problem. The Dalai Lama makes
concessions up front, and Beijing makes
concessions maybe in the future. Let’s make a
leap of faith and assume that that’s what
transpires. Now, then, what’s this business about
“gradual expansion” of autonomy? So, even after
the talks are completed, Tibet would still have
to wait for these hypothetical Chinese
concessions to be gradually implemented. Does
that inspire confidence? Let’s remember that,
according to the Chinese government, Tibet
already enjoys autonomy. Who knows what “gradual
expansion of autonomy” would really mean coming from them?

"... incorporating non-separatist Tibetan exiles
in key positions in these areas’ governing
apparatuses" totally misses the point, which is
to reform the nature of the apparatus itself.
What is the current "governing apparatus" of
Tibet? Tibet is ruled from the center, so, in
practice, its governing apparatus is the
Politburo of the Communist Party of China. Is the
Tibetan branch of the party going to become
independent from the central party, or is the
Tibetan "people’s government" going to become
independent of the party? Remember, we are not
supposed to be diluting the party’s hegemony
here. Without cutting the puppet-strings that
lead from Lhasa to Zhongnanhai, the fact is that
having “key positions” in the governing apparatus
means nothing. Back in the 1950s, the Dalai Lama
was the chairman of what became the TAR
government, and that proved to be a position of
very little authority. Richard McGregor’s recent,
much-lauded book The Party details the complex
strategies the Chinese Communist Party uses to
maintain their grip on power. They know how to
work around any number of figurehead officials.

Sautman then observes, "Because of the history of
separatism, Beijing is not going to make the
Tibetan areas into another Hong Kong, in which
only local people are political leaders and a
high degree of autonomy allows for a system
markedly different from the rest of the country."
Which I think is what this comes down to. Beijing
has no interest in high-level autonomy for Tibet,
like what Hong Kong currently has, because they
don’t trust the Tibetan people. The fear is that
any concessions in the direction of autonomy will
simply make the Tibetan public more assertive;
the more they loosen their grip, the more likely
the situation is to spiral out of control,
leading either to independence or a renewed
crackdown. The alternatives are to figure out a
deal with the Dalai Lama now, since he can keep a
lid on things, or continue with the status quo.
The current Chinese leadership is committed to
the status quo option, apparently with the idea
that the issue will fade away once the 14th Dalai
Lama is out of the picture. That’s wishful thinking.
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