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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."

30 years on, will China keep its promises?

January 12, 2009

January 7, 2009
Claude Arpi
Hardly two years after the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (and Mao Zedong's death), a diminutive man climbed the rostrum for the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
He was to change the face of China.
On December 18, 1978, Deng Xiaoping, the new strongman of the Middle Kingdom, proposed to the Central Committee an the 'open door' policy as well as drastic economic reforms.
The new path chosen by Deng would later be known as 'socialism with Chinese characteristics'. Since then, China has maintained an average annual growth rate of 9.8 percent over the past three decades, making the developed world dream of a miracle a la the Chinese for their own economies.
Thirty years later, China celebrates what its official news agency Xinhua terms the 'decision to open up the once-secluded country and reform its moribund economy.'
On the occasion, President Hu Jintao told an audience of more than 6,000 assembled in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, 'Standing still and regressing will lead only to a dead end.'
'China,' he added, 'must continue the reform and opening-up drive, which in the past 30 years turned the once poverty-stricken country into one of the world's largest economies.'
He admitted the challenges facing his country, particularly 'a weak agricultural foundation and less-developed rural areas' as well China's inability to innovate in many domains.
More interestingly, Hu suggested that the 'reforms of the political system be pushed in keeping pace with economic reforms.'
This is a rather surprising statement and only the future will reveal what political reforms he has in mind.
Deng's promise to Tibet
In the first years, Deng Xiaoping had given this advice to his countrymen: 'Keep cool-headed to observe, be composed to make reactions, stand firmly, hide our capabilities and bide our time, never try to take the lead, and be able to accomplish something.'
Mao Zedong's death in September 1976 had brought winds of change and ushered the beginning of a new era for China. Deng formalised it.
Those who had suffered the brutal repression of Mao's follies during the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward began dreaming of a brighter and more harmonious future.
Soon after Jiang Qing, Mao's disgruntled widow, and her colleagues, who were known as the Gang of Four, had been forcibly removed, Deng walked onto the political stage. He had himself suffered, been 'purged' and disgraced several times. The years which followed Deng's return were years of hope for the people of China.
Things moved very fast after the Third Plenum.
On January 1, 1979 the United States officially recognised the People's Republic of China.
At the end of the month, Deng made a historic trip to the United States. Richard Holbrooke, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, recently wrote in The Washington Post: 'At Zbig's (Brzezinski) house, Deng ...was ready to cooperate on containing the Soviet Union, even agreeing to the installation of secret American intelligence listening posts along the Chinese border to track Soviet missiles.'
Deng later met US President Jimmy Carter. A joint press communique demonstrated the revolutionary changes in the offing: 'Both sides are of the view that differences in social systems of the two countries should not impede the enhancement of mutual friendly relations and mutual cooperation.'
He also wanted to move fast to solve certain problems inherited from the past -- primarily the Tibet question.
In November/December 1978, Li Ju-sheng, a Deng confidant (designated as 'Xinhua Director No 2' in Hong Kong) met Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama's elder brother, several times in the then British colony.
The encounters lasted five or six weeks, at the end of which Li recommended to Deng to invite Thondup for further talks in Beijing. Thondup reported the offer to his brother, who gave his green light.
Even Deng's 'reforms' had limits
The meeting between the supreme leader of the People's Republic of China and the Dalai Lama's brother took place in Beijing on March 12, 1979. Deng immediately blamed the Gang of Four for the difficult situation in Tibet. It was then the standard excuse for all what had gone wrong in China (and in Tibet) since the mid-1960s.
Deng said he was keen to improve the lot of the Tibetan population. He told Thondup that he would like to invite the refugees in India and abroad to return to Tibet. He told the Dalai Lama's brother: 'It is better to see once than to hear a hundred times.'
It was during this encounter with Gyalo Thondup that Deng Xiaoping said: 'The door is opened for negotiations as long as we don't speak about independence. Everything else is negotiable.'
It is in these circumstances that three delegations were sent by the Dalai Lama in 1979 and 1980 to visit their native land after a gap of 20 years and much suffering.
A few months earlier, the Panchen Lama, the second-most important Tibetan religious figure, and Bapa Phuntso Wangyal, the 'first Tibetan Communist' who led the Chinese troops into the Tibetan capital in September 1951, had been released after more than 15 years in Chinese jails.
Wangyal still remembers Deng Xiaoping's return: 'He changed the course of Chinese history, ushering in a new era in politics, society, and the economy. The kind of ultra-leftist thinking that had produced the anti-rightist campaign and the disastrous Cultural Revolution was now suppressed, and those who had had previously been imprisoned were being released -- if, like me, they were still alive. One dimension of Deng's new policy was the attempt to resolved outstanding international issues, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetans.'
But many in China would soon discover that Deng's 'reforms' had limits.
The first were the Tibetans.
Based on Deng's statement to his brother, the Dalai Lama decided to drop the independence of Tibet from his agenda and instead seek 'genuine' autonomy.
Despite several rounds of talks and contacts, the Chinese did not budge. Exactly 30 years after Gyalo Thondup had met Deng's representative for the first time, Zhu Weiqun, the head of the United Front Work Department, stated in Beijing on November 10, 2008, 'Comrade Deng Xiaoping had never made such statement. It is a complete distortion of Deng Xiaoping's statement.'
So much for the reforms!
Beijing's double-speak
A few weeks before the Deng-Thondup meeting, India had also been at the receiving end of the Chinese leaders' double-talk. In February, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then the external affairs minister, was the first senior Indian official to visit Beijing after the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict. The relations between Delhi and Beijing had begun to improve, when in the midst of Vajpayee's official visit, Beijing chose to attack Vietnam.
A few days later, the future Indian prime minister told Parliament: 'When reports confirmed these grave developments, I decided immediately to cancel the remaining programme of my stay in China... This escalation, with massive armed incursion across the Sino-Vietnamese frontier, must be arrested and reversed as soon as possible, lest there should be further widening of the conflict and danger to world peace.'
Another example demonstrates the limitation of the new wind blowing over China: Wei Jingsheng, one of the leaders of the Spring of Beijing and editor of the magazine Exploration, was arrested on March 29, 1979.
He was accused of 'passing military secrets' and condemned to 15 years of prison. Wei had made the mistake of writing slogans on the Wall of Democracy in Beijing and publishing editorials to denounce the inhuman conditions at the Qincheng prison, where the Panchen Lama and Phuntsok Wangyal spent so many years.
Paraphrasing Deng's slogans about The Four Modernisation, he had written about The Fifth Modernisation, the democratic one.
When Hu Jintao recently spoke about 'reforms of political system in pace with economic reforms', did he mean the Fifth Modernisation? And what about Deng's promises to the Dalai Lama: 'Everything except independence'?
On December 10, 2008, 303 prominent Chinese lawyers, academics, writers and artists signed a Charter 08 (modelled on the Charter 77 written by Vaclav Havel and his friends in former Czechoslovakia). It said that political democratisation cannot be delayed any longer.
The charter demanded sweeping changes to create a 'free, democratic and constitutional State.'
The answer did not take long to come.
Several of the signatories, including the dissident writer Liu Xiaobo and the scientist Zhang Zuhua, were arrested. Is history repeating itself?
Will 'killing some chickens to frighten the monkeys' work like 30 years ago or will this usher in a Fifth Modernisation?
We may not have to wait long to know.
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