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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."

Review: Tibet's Conundrum

July 9, 2008

By JONATHAN MIRSKY
The Wall Street Journal (USA)
July 8, 2008

China's Tibet?
By Warren W. Smith Jr.
(Rowman and Littlefield, 313 pages, $49.95)

"China's Tibet?" is an admirable, if discouraging, book. Admirable
because it lays out in jargon-free language the political and
cultural nature of the China-Tibet relationship. Author Warren Smith,
who writes for Radio Free Asia's Tibetan Service, is also
scrupulously fair, including complete policy statements from Beijing
and the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile. The conflicting issues --
of China's claims on Tibet, and the Tibetans' wishes for more
autonomy -- are plain.

But "China's Tibet?" will depress those who believe that the Dalai
Lama's abandonment of Tibetan independence in exchange for a measure
of internal autonomy will persuade Beijing to change its tack. Mr.
Smith's argues that "the legitimacy of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet
is so sensitive for China that it cannot be flexible on any issue
relevant to that legitimacy, including the nature of Tibetan autonomy
within the Chinese state."

This means Tibet's inevitable assimilation into the Chinese nation on
Beijing's terms, under which Tibet would retain only those aspects of
its traditional culture that Beijing allowed. Visitors to China's
"minority regions" today see what this means: singing, dancing,
costumes and other colorful characteristics designed to persuade
tourists that their culture and religion survive -- but little real autonomy.

Historically, as Mr. Smith explains, Tibet and China co-existed from
the seventh century until the Manchu collapse in 1911, with various
forms of menace from each side: stronger or weaker forms of Mongol or
Manchu authority on one side, and similarly weak or sturdy forms of
Tibetan autonomy on the other. Direct Chinese rule over Tibet never
existed, but apart from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Chinese
interest in Tibetan affairs rarely disappeared.

Something like that traditional relationship, Mr. Smith suggests, is
what the Dalai Lama has in mind when he speaks of Tibet as part of
China, but hopes for considerable autonomy so that Tibetan culture,
especially its religion and language, will prosper and Tibetans will
be "happy." In a statement released on Saturday, for instance, the
Dalai Lama's envoy, Lodi Gyari, wrote that, "His Holiness has
repeatedly and clearly stated publicly he is not seeking separation
and independence of Tibet."

The Dalai Lama's views and tactics are perfectly understood in
Beijing. But the Beijing documents will convince most Chinese that
Tibetans are ungrateful for the influx of modern-minded Hans. "The
Chinese have now reverted to Mao's more honest statement to
Tibetans," writes Mr. Smith, "that Tibet should fulfill China's need
for natural resources while China would fulfill Tibet's need for people."

In Beijing's view, whenever China gave an inch to the Tibetans --
even promising the Dalai Lama the retention of his traditional role
together with that of his government -- Tibetans responded with
outpourings of devotion to the Dalai Lama and the other aspects of
their culture that Beijing despises. This, Mr. Smith contends,
reveals one of the Dalai Lama's weaknesses. He may claim that he is
now a democrat, but until recently Tibetans doggedly supported
anything he suggested. That, Beijing, correctly judges, is pure
Tibetan nationalism.

Hence, China conducts negotiations with the Dalai Lama's envoys
solely to appear reasonable in Washington and London, while making it
clear that there is nothing to discuss except the status of the Dalai
Lama. As for his envoys, Beijing often dismisses them as mere
"private visitors." The latest round of formal talks, held last week,
drove home this point: The two sides failed even to agree to issue a
joint statement committing to further talks.

The Dalai Lama's pleas for some sort of autonomy fail with Beijing
because, Mr. Smith emphasizes, there can be only be one identity, and
that is Chinese. Nowadays, many Tibetans both inside Tibet and in the
exile community worry that His Holiness has offered too many
concessions to Beijing.

So if autonomy is 100% bound to fail, Mr. Smith asks, because
granting it depends on one side only, as with Quebec in Canada, why
shouldn't the Dalai Lama demand self-determination, even if it has
only a one percent chance of success? Most Tibetans want it, and it
is internationally agreed to be a legitimate aspiration. Since
Beijing is now deciding even which Buddhist incarnations are
legitimate, autonomy is a dead end. Tibetans must either insist that
they alone can decide how they must survive, or else, Mr. Smith
bleakly says, "they will be unable to do so."

Mr. Mirsky is a London-based journalist specializing in Chinese affairs.
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