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Cultural Autonomy for Tibet

April 9, 2008

April 8, 2008


Given the scrutiny Beijing faces for its handling of the recent uprising
in Lhasa, it may come as a surprise that there is a relatively simple
solution to the problem: China need only implement existing laws on
cultural autonomy. Doing so is not only the best way to preserve Tibetan
culture. It would also address international criticism, while providing
a lever with which to encourage the Dalai Lama to fully, formally and
forever renounce Tibet's claim to independence.

After the Communist Party came to power in 1949, China recognized the
advantages of providing minority groups with self-government, and
adopted extensive provisions for regional autonomy. Article 4 of China's
constitution affirms the equality of the country's 55 ethnic groups and
requires the state to adopt policies advancing their "special
characteristics and needs." Not only does the constitution prohibit
discrimination, it also guarantees minorities the same freedom of
thought, expression, assembly and religion as the majority Han Chinese

China has since added to its body of laws aimed at protecting and
promoting minority rights. At least 160 rules and regulations have been
adopted by provincial, prefectoral and county authorities in the ethnic
Tibetan areas of Western China. The scope of these laws is far-reaching.
In Tibet, regulations require hiring ethnic Tibetans in security roles.
They provide for the use of Tibetan language in education and local
government. Regarding education and language, authorities are mandated
to provide curriculum in both Chinese and Tibetan, and to provide
textbooks in the Tibetan language. Signage, street names and judicial
proceedings must also be posted in Tibetan. Public health institutions
must have Tibetan medical personnel and a dispensary offering
traditional Tibetan medicines.

Autonomy arrangements governing religious practices are more
problematic. Whereas regulations guarantee the observance of minority
holidays, dietary restrictions and religious practice, religious freedom
is restricted. Rules require monasteries to be managed by "patriotic
religious groups" whose members "support the Party" and the "unity of
the state." Owning or displaying images of the Dalai Lama is prohibited.
The Chinese government interfered in the traditional process of
selecting a reincarnate Panchen Lama by arresting the Tibetan boy
identified by the bona-fide search committee and anointing their own
choice. It is certain to do the same when the Dalai Lama passes on.

Beijing fears that implementing China's autonomy laws would compromise
national sovereignty. But genuine autonomy need not be a half-step
toward independence. On the contrary, meaningful autonomy would enhance,
not impair, China's sovereignty. For example, the Hong Kong Basic Law
affirmed Beijing's willingness to come up with a formula that allows a
degree of self-rule while asserting the central government's control
over defense and foreign affairs. The Hong Kong experience demonstrates
that territorial integrity can be strengthened through a policy of "one
country two systems."

Resolving the Tibet issue peacefully and through negotiations would also
send a positive message to Taiwan, thereby positioning China to further
consolidate its territory. And an agreement on cultural autonomy would
enhance stability in China's other minority areas – such as Xinjiang,
where six Uighur protesters were killed and 400 arrested during
demonstrations last week. In the event of an agreement, China could
expect greater foreign direct investment in western China with benefits
to Tibetans, Uighur, Han and other residents. Without one, China will
continue to bear extraordinary expenditures on education, infrastructure
and development. The cost of maintaining security is also an unnecessary
drain on China's resources that could be better spent, for example,
addressing the country's energy needs and pollution problems.

The best way to achieve a more desirable arrangement is to engage the
Dalai Lama. Such a step would also silence much of the international
community's justifiable criticism on the Tibet issue. Having clearly and
repeatedly stated that Tibet is part of China, the Dalai Lama is best
placed to endorse an agreement that advances China's interests as well
as the interests of Tibetans. Absent progress, however, even he will not
be able to prevent Tibetans from becoming radicalized. The opportunity
to negotiate an autonomy arrangement that strengthens China's
territorial integrity would thus disappear.

Before the window of opportunity slams shut, the Chinese government
should reconsider its approach. It is not too late to calm the situation
by rescinding its declaration of martial law, withdrawing soldiers to
their barracks, and releasing monks as well as other political
prisoners. President Hu Jintao has said that, "It is essential to stick
to and improve the system of regional ethnic autonomy." To this end,
China should establish a Special Commission on Cultural Autonomy
including representatives from the Tibetan government-in-exile. The
commission would be mandated to draft governance, economic and cultural
autonomy measures to be uniformly implemented in the Tibetan Autonomous
Region as well as ethnic Tibetan areas in the provinces of Gansu,
Qinghai, Yunnan and Sichuan.

Many countries are watching to see how China harmonizes its goal of
territorial integrity with the need to satisfy the aspirations of ethnic
or religious minorities. If China chooses negotiations over violence,
other states – such as Indonesia, India and the Philippines – may
emulate its conciliatory approach with their own restive minorities. The
best way to resolve the Tibet problem, as well as to set a good example
to its neighbors, is through talks resulting in Beijing's verifiable
commitment to upgrade and fully implement its own laws on autonomy.

Mr. Phillips is a visiting scholar at Columbia University's Center for
the Study of Human Rights.
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