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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Tibet's most practical solution lies in meaningful autonomy

April 6, 2008

BY DAMIEN P HORIGAN
Khaleej Times Online - OPINION
5 April 2008


During the past few days the scenes of unrest in Lhasa and elsewhere
have reminded the world of the Tibetan problem despite efforts by the
Chinese government to restrict media access. Some Tibetans do want
complete independence from China.

Indeed, there are historical and legal arguments supporting claims for
Tibetan independence. However, other Tibetans including His Holiness the
Dalai Lama, who has long lived in exile in northern India, have been
more pragmatic. Contrary to the often bizarre claims of Chinese
propaganda, the Dalai Lama has continually stated that he would be
willing to accept something less than full independence.

In true Buddhist fashion, the Dalai Lama repeatedly stresses nonviolence
even if a few individual Tibetans may have occasionally resorted to
violence out of frustration. He advocates a “Middle Way” between the
ideal of Tibetan independence and the current reality of strict Chinese
control. Specifically, as a compromise, the Dalai Lama has called for
“meaningful autonomy” for Tibet.

Although a portion of what was traditionally Tibet forms the entity that
the Chinese government calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), large
parts of the territory of Greater Tibet are not included in the TAR.
Moreover, recent events have tragically shown that there is precious
little autonomy even in the TAR today. Clearly, something needs to be
done. Under the present circumstances, meaningful autonomy sounds
attractive.

So, what might such meaningful autonomy look like? The Dalai Lama seems
to have places like Hong Kong in mind. Certainly, Hong Kong could be a
model for the future of Tibet that should prove to be acceptable to many
Tibetans and Chinese alike.

Since the British handover in 1997, Hong Kong has been a Special
Administrative Region of China. Under the late Deng Xiaoping’s principle
of “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong has been able to maintain its
own free market economy, its status as a member of international
economic bodies like the World Trade Organisation, the Asian Development
Bank, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and even its own
currency in the form of the Hong Kong dollar.

Hong Kong has retained the English common law as the basis for its legal
system in contrast to the mixture of socialist and civil law found on
the Mainland. Hong Kong has also kept its own police force along with
its own immigration authority. Both Chinese and English are official
languages today in Hong Kong.

Politically, the people of Hong Kong enjoy a local government that is
much more open than that of Mainland China. Moreover, the government in
Hong Kong is generally viewed as lacking the widespread corruption found
among many public officials on the Mainland.

All of these factors together with a strategic location, talented
workforce, and excellent infrastructure have helped Hong Kong to
continue to flourish as important commercial and financial hub in East Asia.

Macau is another example of meaningful autonomy within China. Although
smaller than Hong Kong in terms of both population and geographical
size, Macau is also a Special Administrative Region. Since Portuguese
colonial rule ended in 1999, Macau has enjoyed a status roughly
comparable to that of Hong Kong with its own currency, legal system,
etc. In fact, Macau’s economy has grown considerably in recent years.
Arguably, Macau is better off now at least economically than it was
under Portugal. Generally speaking, the concept of one country, two
systems appears to be working in Macau as well as in Hong Kong. Could it
be applied elsewhere?

For Hong Kong and Macau, economic freedom was especially important given
the higher standards of living in those territories compared to the
Mainland. While there are certainly some economic aspects to the Tibetan
problem, many ethnic Tibetans seem to be more concerned about human
rights in general and issues like cultural survival, language
preservation, and religious freedom in particular.

If Tibet were to become a Special Administrative Region or something
very similar, then some controls over migration would appear to be in
order to ensure that Tibetans avoid becoming a minority in their own
land. Among other things, Tibetan should function as a true official
language and comprehensive education should be made available to Tibetan
children in their mother tongue. The important role of Tibetan Buddhism
in shaping Tibetan culture should be recognised somehow. Human rights
including religious freedom should be protected for all in Tibet,
Buddhists and non-Buddhists, Tibetans and non-Tibetans.

Meaningful autonomy would be good for Tibet. But, such a major change
would also be a positive thing for China as a whole. The global image of
China as a rising power would surely improve if Beijing were to follow a
peaceful and flexible right path when dealing with the legitimate
grievances of Tibetans.

Damien P. Horigan is an international lawyer teaching at the American
University in Dubai.
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