Join our Mailing List

"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

May 3, 2009

Beijing's official doctrine and the political
system built around it conspire to freeze
progress on the Tibet issue, says Li Datong.
Li Datong
openDemocracy
April 23, 2009

(This article was first published on 16 April 2009)

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

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and former
editor of Freezing Point, a weekly supplement of
the China Youth Daily newspaper "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 countries."

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.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank