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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

An Olive Branch From the Dalai Lama

August 10, 2008

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
August 7, 2008

When the Olympics open on Friday, the Dalai Lama won't be there. Each
side put out feelers about his attendance and was tantalized by the
idea, but in the end the mutual distrust was too great to overcome.

Tibet is one of the major shadows over the Olympics and over China's
rise as a great power, sullying its international image and
triggering unrest that is likely to worsen in coming years. Yet that
doesn't have to be.

In June, I sat down for a private meeting with the Dalai Lama, and we
talked at length about what kind of a deal he and China might be
willing to accept. He was far more flexible and pragmatic about a
resolution of the Tibet question than public statements had led me to
believe. But he also wonders if his engagement policy with China is
getting anywhere: If the stalemate continues, he may just give up on Beijing.

I have continued the discussion with Tibetan officials since then
(just as I have had similar discussions with Chinese officials), and
China's perception of the Dalai Lama as sticking rigidly to old
positions is mistaken. The Dalai Lama recognizes that time is running
out, and he is signaling a willingness to deal — comparable to the
way President Richard Nixon sent signals to Beijing that he was ready
to rethink the China-U.S. relationship before his visit to China in 1972.

One signal is this: For the first time, the Dalai Lama is willing to
state that he can accept the socialist system in Tibet under
Communist Party rule. This is something that Beijing has always
demanded, and, after long discussion, the Dalai Lama has agreed to do so.

"The main thing is to preserve our culture, to preserve the character
of Tibet," the Dalai Lama told me. "That is what is most important,
not politics."

That is a significant concession, and China must now reciprocate. The
present track of talks between the Communist Party's United Front
Work Department and the Dalai Lama's representatives will never get
anywhere. The only hope is for Beijing to pluck Tibetan affairs from
the United Front officials and hold direct talks between the Dalai
Lama and either President Hu Jintao or Prime Minister Wen Jiabao,
negotiating until a deal is reached.

In one sign that Chinese leaders are also thinking creatively about
new approaches, Beijing secretly raised the idea of the Dalai Lama
visiting China and participating in a memorial service for those who
died in May's Sichuan earthquake. That was bold; the Dalai Lama has
not entered China since 1959. Both sides should now aim for a visit
to mark the earthquake's six-month anniversary in November, followed
by serious negotiations.

It's possible to devise an agreement that leaves both China and the
Tibetans much better off — if they hurry. Once the Dalai Lama dies —
he is 73 — then a deal could be impossible for another generation
because no one would be able to unify the Tibetan people behind a new
plan. By then much of Tibet is likely to have been drowned in a sea
of Chinese migration, and some frustrated young Tibetans may have
turned to terrorism. In my interviews in Tibetan areas of China this
year, young people told me repeatedly of their frustration that the
Dalai Lama is too conciliatory and that a violent liberation movement
would be necessary after his death.

Here is one plausible outline of what a settlement might look like,
although both sides would surely flinch at some terms:

The Dalai Lama would dial back to some degree on demands for
political autonomy for Tibet, while the Chinese government would
offer more cultural and religious freedoms. There would be no "one
country, two systems" approach as there is for Hong Kong, and the
existing Communist Party control mechanisms would remain in place.

As the Dalai Lama has said, he would play no political role after a
settlement, but he would be free to enter and leave China with his
aides and to communicate freely. He could travel within Tibetan
areas, in coordination with the Public Security Ministry, to ensure
that there are no upheavals. China would also release all Tibetans
imprisoned for political offenses — though not for crimes of violence
— upon the signing of a deal.

Much more sensitive is the Dalai Lama's call for all Tibetan areas to
be placed under one administration. That is usually interpreted to
mean a huge expansion of the political boundaries of the Tibet
Autonomous Region to encompass about one-fourth of China, taking in
parts of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces. Chinese
leaders were open to redrawing the boundaries in the past, but today
China is as determined not to make such changes as Tibetans are to get them.

One way to bridge that gulf would be to create a Regional Authority
for Tibetan Affairs that would administer key aspects of life in all
Tibetan areas, particularly education, culture and religion. Already,
for example, Tibetan-language school textbooks are harmonized in
different provinces, and this regional authority would likewise
oversee practical aspects of life in areas with Tibetan populations,
all under Chinese law. This would allow Tibetan areas to be placed
under a single administration without changing political boundaries.

On the Chinese side, the crucial concession would be to restrict
migration into all Tibetan areas, inside and outside the "autonomous
region," through China's existing system of residence permits. The
Chinese authorities would stop issuing resident permits, known as
hukou, to non-Tibetans for any Tibetan area, and would grant
temporary residence permits, or zhanzhuzheng, only when no Tibetan is
available to take a job. This would halt the flood of Han Chinese
into Tibetan areas.

The Chinese government would also ease restrictions on monasteries
and on the intake of monks, and curb the mandatory "patriotic
education" campaigns that only leave Tibetans feeling less patriotic.
Young boys would be allowed to enter monasteries, but the monasteries
would then be obliged to teach the boys the Chinese state curriculum,
including Chinese language, in addition to religious education.

The Tibetan language would also be used in government offices in all
Tibetan areas, alongside Chinese, and there would be a new push (as
there was in the 1980s) to increase the proportion of ethnic Tibetans
holding government and party positions. The upshot would be a Tibet
that remains politically under the control of the Communist Party. It
would not be a democracy or a multiparty system, but it would be able
to preserve its character indefinitely as a distinctly Tibetan and
Buddhist region, both inside and outside the formal Tibet Autonomous
Region. And Tibet can be free only if it is first preserved.

For the Chinese, such an agreement would resolve the Tibet question
and end an international embarrassment, as well as prevent the rise
of protests and terrorism for decades to come.

My conversations with both sides make me think that this is
achievable. The Dalai Lama recognizes that his past efforts haven't
worked in the face of increasingly hard-line Chinese policies, so he
is willing to try new approaches.

As for China, it has raised Tibetan standards of living impressively
over the last 20 years, but its repression has lost Tibetan hearts
and minds. Vicious Chinese denunciations of the Dalai Lama, and
particularly the contempt that some local Chinese officials display
toward Tibetan culture, exacerbate the resentment. As a start, China
should remove the hot-headed Communist Party secretary for Tibet,
Zhang Qingli, who brightens any room by leaving it.

The Dalai Lama knows that other peacemakers have broken the ice with
bold initiatives to prove their seriousness; we discussed Sadat's
visit to Israel as one such move. So the Dalai Lama is reaching out.
That is one reason he agreed that I could report his acceptance of
Communist Party rule.

"On account of Buddhism's emphasis on rational thinking, the Tibetans
are capable of embracing reality by accepting some of the de facto
situation on the ground," added Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's envoy to
talks with China.

The senior Chinese leadership should respond by expressing serious
interest in talks at the presidential or prime ministerial level. In
ancient days, the Olympics were a time to suspend conflict. In that
spirit, the two sides should get to work to prepare for a visit by
the Dalai Lama in November, followed by top-level negotiations aimed
at a historic resolution of the Tibet question.

The ball is in the Chinese court.
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