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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."

China’s Tibet: Question With No Answer

April 22, 2009

Li Datong

China’s Tibet: Question With No Answer

Beijing’s official doctrine and the political system built around it
conspire to freeze progress on the Tibet issue

China’s Tibet has been given a new holiday to mark the passing of a
half-century since the events it commemorates: Serfs’ Emancipation Day.
Several groups of senior politicians, including Hu Jintao - general
secretary of the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee - have
attended an exhibition marking these fifty years of democratic reform in
Tibet. The official media have decried the evils of “serfdom” in
historical Tibet, while trumpeting the accomplishments of today. China’s
foreign minister and prime minister have presented criticisms of the
Dalai Lama’s “independence stance” (one he has long since renounced) to
reporters both foreign and domestic.

This orgy of celebration of the moment in 1959 when Chinese troops
“liberated” Lhasa and sent the Dalai Lama and many of his followers into
exile in India shows that the Beijing leadership has abandoned the
policy of “negotiations” with the Tibetan figurehead, one it was forced
by world opinion to undertake in the run-up to the Olympic games. The
successful completion of the games is itself one reason for the
government’s tougher position; the western countries’ search for help
from China to survive the ongoing global financial crisis is another.
China no longer need bite its tongue. The Tibet question is deadlocked.

The hard line reflects widespread misunderstanding of the Tibet
question; even those in China who do understand the issue seem not to
know where the crux of the problem lies. After all, the Dalai Lama has
abandoned calls for independence; repeatedly stated that Tibet is a part
of China; accepted the rights of Beijing over foreign relations and
national defence (including, naturally, the right to station troops in
Tibet); and agreed to seek greater autonomy only within the framework of
China’s constitution and “law of regional national autonomy”. So why
does the Chinese government refuse to acknowledge even the basis for
negotiations? What happened to Deng Xiaoping’s approach - stated when he
met the Dalai Lama’s brother in 1979 - that “everything can be
discussed, bar independence”?

An ideology against itself

The Communist Party had an entirely different stance on national
autonomy before it came to power in 1949. It adopted wholesale as part
of its ideology the idea of “national self-determination”. This arose
from the modern European idea of the nation-state, and was given its
widest interpretation in Lenin’s essay “The Right of Nations to
Self-Determination” (1914): that any group with common cultural
characteristics and regarding itself as a nation had the right to
autonomy in its permanent homeland, and to found an independent
sovereign state.

It is clear that for any empire this can end only in fracture. The
Soviet Union made strenuous efforts to avoid this fate. It identified
one hundred different nationalities, each of which on paper had the
constitutional right to leave the Soviet Union; but sought to create the
image of a happy socialist family in which all these national members
were united by ideological belief in a higher, unifying goal. In
reality, the “multinational family” was held captive by single-party
rule, violent suppression and economic exploitation; not even autonomy
was granted.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) followed closely the Soviet blueprint.
In 1928 its sixth congress (held in Moscow) declared “only when we admit
the right of nationalities to independence and separation, that all
nationalities within China’s borders can secede from China and form
their own countries, will we be true communists.” On 7 November 1931,
the party founded the Chinese Soviet Republic in Jiangxi. Article 14 of
the 1934 constitution of this republic reads: “The Chinese Soviet
Republic acknowledges the right to national self-determination of
minority nationalities within China’s borders, to the extent that even
minor nationalities have the right to secede and found independent

The party’s years in power after 1949 saw it continue to learn from the
Soviet Union by “identifying” - or inventing - nationalities. The five
nationalities of the Republic of China - the Han, Man, Mongolian, Hui
and Tibetan - had by 1986 become fifty-six. The arrangements for
regional national autonomy were also adopted from the Soviets, although
China’s historical tradition of unification meant “countries” became
“regions”. This creation and strengthening of national differences meant
that members of minority nationalities came to identify more with their
ethnicity than their country. Even today not one single party secretary
of a national autonomous region is actually of that nationality - the
so-called autonomy is always under the leadership and supervision of a
Han party secretary. If the party is so worried about fragmentation or
loss of authority, what was the point of the system in the first place?

A policy against movement

There are two issues at the heart of the “national autonomy” issue. The
first is the relationship between different nationalities (for if the
principle of national autonomy is accepted, this creates the possibility
of friction and logically includes national independence). The second is
the issue of political mechanisms that might become a route to
self-determination (for the will of the majority of the nationality is a
permanent threat - since autonomy can only be founded on democracy, on
voting for a leader and his or her policies). Both aspects of “national
autonomy” thus pose difficulties for official policy: the first is
incompatible with the ideal of a unified China that the party inherited
and carries forward, the second is incompatible with the one-party
political system.

In this light, whatever the Dalai Lama does - proclaims himself a loyal
Chinese citizen, refutes independence, or declares himself willing to
achieve Tibetan autonomy within the scope of the Chinese constitution -
the Chinese government cannot respond. It is bound by the contradictions
of its official ideology to evade the question.

The policy is stuck in another way too. It lacks any foundation to
engage with the Dalai Lama’s view of the Tibetan government-in-exile as
the natural representative of the Tibetan people. For fifty years the
party has been carefully selecting and training a Tibetan elite, many
members of which have been educated in China or even Beijing before
returning to take up government posts, and are bilingual in Chinese and
Tibetan. Many of these are the descendants of past “serfs”.

By contrast, those in the exile government have often never lived in
Tibet, have been educated in India or the west, and speak fluent English
but not a word of Chinese. Even in a free election the local elite may
have the advantage - they would have arguments to persuade people not to
hand over power to those “incomers”. I suspect the greatest opposition
to the return of the Dalai Lama is that rising Tibetan elite. Chinese
control of Tibet relies on them; they are able to influence central
policy on the region; they have a stake in power.

The accumulated result is stasis. China’s political systems and
institutions of nationality mean that the Tibetan issue cannot be solved.
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