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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Some Tibetan lessons for Taiwan

February 9, 2009

By J. Michael Cole
Taipei Times
Sunday, Feb 08, 2009, Page 8

NEXT MONTH WILL mark the 50th anniversary of the “liberation” of Tibet
by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As Beijing — and purportedly all
Tibetans — ready themselves to rejoice in the festivities surrounding
“Serf Emancipation Day” on March 28, people in Taiwan would be well
advised to turn to the history books.

For starters, the so-called liberation of Tibet did not occur in 1959,
but rather nine years earlier, when the PLA made its first incursion
into Tibet. Along with thousands of soldiers, the liberators brought the
Seventeen-Point Agreement, a document that was purportedly intended as a
blueprint for the “modernization” of “backward” and “barbaric” Tibet by
a benevolent China and which called for the ouster of “reactionary
governments” and “imperialist” forces that had thrown Tibet “into the
depths of enslavement and suffering.”

It is less well known that, although the Seventeen-Point Agreement was a
creature of Beijing in which Tibetans had had no say, Tibetan leader the
Dalai Lama sought to make the best of the situation by agreeing to give
China’s “offer” a chance and to facilitate the implementation of the
agreement. This was a decision that, as it turns out, essentially
spelled the death of Tibet as a sovereign country. Seeing no
incompatibility between Buddhism and communism, the young Dalai Lama
accepted an invitation to visit Beijing, where he held talks with the
upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), including personal
meetings with Mao Zedong. During a succession of banquets, the Dalai
Lama also had exchanges with “chew and lie” — the Tibetan delegations’
telling sobriquet for then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai — and other CCP
cadres.

Soon enough and in spite of the many attempts by the Tibetan leadership
to make the best of a difficult situation, Beijing began reneging on its
own agreements and cracked down on the growing number of Tibetans who
felt betrayed by the turn of events. Aside from a few improvements in
certain technical sectors, it was becoming increasingly evident that the
benefits of modernization were mostly being enjoyed by the Chinese
settlers, while the environment and cultural heritage of Tibet were
being dismantled one piece at a time. The Tibetan leadership appealed to
Beijing, which cajoled and threatened while painting an optimistic
portrait of the situation in Tibet. All was well and in time Tibetans
would prosper, Beijing officials said, a lie that failed to deceive the
Dalai Lama and his entourage.

Things came to a boil in 1955 after Beijing imposed collectivization on
Tibet, sparking an uprising in the eastern part of the country. With
that began a long succession of demonstrations and uprisings, to which
the PLA responded with increasing force. Monks were arrested,
humiliated, tortured and murdered, as was anyone who opposed Chinese
benevolence. Surrounded by the PLA, facing certain arrest (or death) and
amid preparations for a major uprising in Lhasa, in March 1959 the Dalai
Lama and his followers fled Tibet and were granted asylum in India,
ending, in Beijing’s view, years of “theocratic slavery” in Tibet, hence
the “Serf Emancipation Day” holiday. For those who still care about
history, March 28, 1959, is the day China dissolved the Tibetan
government after 18 days of uprising.

During the ensuing half-?century, China continued to dismantle and
disfigure the Tibetan state, poisoning parts of its territory with
uranium and nuclear weapons tests, while crushing anyone who stood in
its way. As of the early 1990s, when the Dalai Lama published his
autobiography Freedom in Exile, more than 1 million Tibetans had died as
a result of PLA violence, starvation or suicide, while hundreds of
thousands were forced to flee to refugee camps abroad. Symbols of
Tibetan spirituality — temples, practices and so on — were for all
intents and purposes extinguished, and the country was virtually
isolated from the outside world. Through population transfers,
meanwhile, China turned Tibetans into a minority group within their own
country, adding yet one more violation of international law to an
already towering list.

 From his exile, the Dalai Lama was accused by Beijing of being a
“splittist” for refusing to go along with China’s destruction of his
native land — an irony that was not lost on the Tibetan leader, as prior
to liberation China had inked official documents, such as the “perpetual
treaty” of 821AD, which clearly referred to Tibet as an independent
country. A report by the International Commission of Jurists issued
after Tibet’s “return to the motherland” also attested to Tibet’s
existence as a sovereign legal entity. But in China’s world,
international law was a very malleable concept indeed.

The lessons for Taiwan at this juncture in its history could not be any
starker, nor the need for a close reading of historical precedents any
greater. Under President Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan has embarked on efforts to
improve ties with Beijing, in the process inking its own series of
agreements, first in November during the visit to Taipei by Association
for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin,
with more agreements expected for April, probably in Nanjing or Beijing.

So far, the agreements have covered economic matters, with both sides
leaving the more contentious political discussions for future
consideration. What we should bear in mind as Taipei welcomes Beijing’s
goodwill and signs official pacts with China, however, is that even when
the other side participates in good faith and willingly — as Tibet did
in the early 1950s — Beijing has a propensity to break agreements and to
bully the other party when the latter raises objections.

In his memoirs, the Dalai Lama makes the observation that behind the
reveling, toasts and smiles at the many banquets he attended, Chinese
diplomats had a tendency to intertwine handshakes with threats and
laughter with bullying, especially when they regard their counterpart as
an inferior (including Taiwanese, as demonstrated by the long ?history
of discrimination by Chinese against Taiwanese). There is no reason to
believe that Chinese diplomats have grown any less perfidious, or that
the meetings between ARATS and Straits Exchange Foundation officials
were a departure from that age-old practice.

The Dalai Lama came close to making the mistake of believing that change
within the CCP was possible when Deng Xiaoping — as moderate and
pragmatic a CCP leader as there ever was — seemingly extended a friendly
hand in the late 1970s, only to realize that the offer was nothing more
than a trap. To this day, nothing the Chinese government has done, what
with the Tiananmen Square Massacre almost 20 years ago to its more
recent crackdowns in Xinjiang and Tibet, would indicate that the CCP has
abandoned the duplicitous mindset that marked the Mao era, when Tibet
was taken over.

The implications for the future of Taiwan are therefore of the utmost
seriousness. Even if Taipei negotiates in good faith and sticks to its
side of the agreements it reaches with Beijing, we can expect that in
time China will alter, reinterpret or moot those pacts and make short
shrift of anyone who stands in its way.

Regardless of whether the agreements are perceived by Taipei as means to
“reduce tensions in the Taiwan Strait,” “reunify” the two sides,
“modernize” or simply rescue the economy, Ma and his negotiators had
better tread cautiously, for through CCP eyes and the historical
revisionism the party has refined into an art form, Taiwan is just like
Tibet half a century ago, “lost” property that needs to be “liberated.”

Taiwan is blessed with a substantial Tibetan refugee population. As
China prepares to celebrate the “liberation” of Tibet, Taiwanese would
benefit tremendously from listening to what Tibetans have to say about
what “liberation” meant for them, or just how trustworthy a negotiator
Beijing can be.

J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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