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Editorial: Talks With Dalai Lama

May 1, 2008

Arab News - Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
27 April 2008

At last the Chinese government has proposed reopening talks with the
Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. The mystery is that
Beijing did not realize the necessity months ago, long before the
Olympic torch began its controversial world tour past crowds of
pro-Tibetan protesters. By some vagary of the political system, no one
in the government seems to have realized what a publicity disaster the
torch carrying would become. Given that both the government and ordinary
Chinese people have invested such effort and hopes in the Summer
Olympics, this was an extraordinary piece of bad judgment.

However, those outside China who are now suggesting that had Beijing
been talking the Dalai Lama, there would have been no protests at all,
are very probably wrong. So emotionally charged has the issue of Tibet
become for the Western liberal establishment (which at the same time
wholly ignores a similar issue among China’s Muslim Uighur population in
Xinjiang) that the multicountry procession of the Olympic torch was
bound to be used as an excuse for demonstrations.

The irony is that the Dalai Lama himself, though obviously heartened by
the renewed spotlight on Tibet, has not changed his life-long commitment
to peaceful protest. He seeks not Tibetan independence but rather
autonomy within China that will permit his people to live according to
their ancient traditions. Nor has he ever disapproved of China’s staging
of the Olympics.

Rather than demonizing the Tibetan leader, the Chinese should have been
negotiating with him these past months. Now they enter into talks as if
under duress and are strongly suspected of seeking merely to assuage
international opinion until the Games are over. The Dalai Lama’s people
are hoping that the proposed discussions will amount to more than a
temporary publicity sticking plaster. Were Beijing to offer to review
its entire policy of the enforced integration of Tibet within China,
with large-scale immigration by Han Chinese, and even produce an outline
agreement on the eve of the Olympics, the current public relations
disaster would be transformed into a triumph.

This is, however, to ignore the visceral views of the majority of
Chinese, who regard Tibet as an integral part of the country. Thanks to
60 years of Communism, there is also a strong ethic of conformity and an
inherent disapproval of diversity. This is applied as much to China’s
Muslim and Mongol communities as it is to the Tibetans. With its
newfound confidence and rising economic power, China is not in the mood
to compromise. What is more, in its long history, the rise of regional
powers has always spelt disaster for central government.

Nevertheless, as it once again achieves great-power status, Beijing must
learn to compromise, albeit from a position of strength. It did it
successfully in taking back Hong Kong and benefited hugely from the
former British colony’s financial expertise. It could do it again
through a wise accommodation with the Dalai Lama over the future of an
autonomous, but still Chinese Tibet.
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