Join our Mailing List

"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."

Tackling Tibet

January 14, 2008

By Thomas Laird
TIME, Wednesday, Jan. 09, 2008


Since 2002, a little-known academic ritual has taken place each year 
at Harvard University. Academics of every stripe, from historians to 
constitutional lawyers, gather to discuss Tibet's past, present and 
future. Uniquely, these intellectual debates have brought together 
Chinese and exiled Tibetan scholars. In the real world, the simplest 
facts about Tibet are so divisive that dialogue is impossible. 
Chinese speak of the 1950 peaceful liberation of the Chinese province 
of Tibet, and of its subsequent modernization; Tibetans speak of the 
invasion of an independent nation, and the suppression of its 
religious and cultural traditions. The polite rules established at 
Harvard, however, at least allow the two sides to exchange views. In 
fact, a senior Chinese scholar attending the first Harvard event met 
with the Dalai Lama's envoy. That secret meeting birthed the official 
Sino-Tibetan dialogue between the Dalai Lama's representatives and 
the Chinese government, which still takes place annually in Beijing.

The most recent Harvard Tibet conference, late last year, occurred 
amid a hurricane of news events. The Dalai Lama met the leaders of 
Germany, the U.S. and Canada in quick succession. Headlines trumpeted 
Beijing's angry response. In Tibet, 4,000 armed police confronted 
monks at Lhasa's venerated Drepung Monastery when they tried to 
celebrate the Dalai Lama being awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold 
Medal. Then the Chinese government announced that it must certify all 
new reincarnations of Tibetan Buddhism's top clerics, signaling its 
firm intention to select and control the next Dalai Lama when the 
current 14th Dalai Lama passes away. He, in turn, announced that he 
was considering the idea that he might select his successor before he 
died. At the Harvard conference, you could see these news events 
landing like mortars amid the polite dialogue. The scholars carried 
on, reflexively, trying to peel away each other's assumptions, 
looking for any sliver of space where a beachhead of shared meaning 
might be established.

Can reconciliation ever be achieved? Beijing first needs to give 
Tibetans, in exile and in Tibet, at least a hint of mutuality in 
their relationship. China could start by listening to Tibetans like 
Phuntso Wangye. He founded the first Communist Party in Tibet in 
1940, which he merged with the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, and 
then helped lead Chinese troops into Tibet in 1951. Mao Zedong 
trusted Wangye so implicitly that he selected him as the translator 
for his 1954-55 meetings with the Dalai Lama. Today, the 85-year-old 
Wangye lives in Beijing. He believes that those Tibetan leaders 
collaborating with Beijing are misleading the Chinese leadership by 
claiming the Dalai Lama no longer has much sway over Tibetans. Wangye 
has urged Beijing to invite the Dalai Lama to China. Only the Dalai 
Lama has the standing among Tibetans to convince them to give up 
their hope for independence (it's self-deceiving to think such 
feelings do not exist).

The Dalai Lama has clearly indicated that he wants to negotiate 
meaningful autonomy, not independence, for Tibet. Yet the hawks in 
Beijing refuse to deal with him; they believe China can solve its 
Dalai Lama problem by letting the current one die in exile. However, 
history proves no power has ever successfully imposed a fake Dalai 
Lama on the Tibetan people.

Harvard's professor emeritus Ezra F. Vogel - who has enjoyed good 
relations with many of China's leaders, past and present - chaired 
several sessions during the Tibet conference. Beijing might want to 
consider Vogel's opinion regarding the 15th Dalai Lama: "If the Dalai 
Lama passes away without agreement with China, then you could have 
someone Beijing selects, who would not be acceptable to Tibetans. 
Then China could be in for a long-term problem, like Russia has in 
Chechnya."

Today's sporadic Sino-Tibetan dialogue continues not because China 
wants to use it to reach some accommodation with the Dalai Lama, but 
because China does not want to be blamed for ending it. Yet Beijing 
needs to engage the Dalai Lama because only he has the legitimacy 
among Tibetans to negotiate, and sell, genuine autonomy to the 
Tibetans. Inviting the Dalai Lama to China would do more to burnish 
the country's international image in this Olympic year than any other 
single step. When the Dalai Lama departs the scene, things will 
become harder, not easier, for China to deal with Tibet.

With reporting by Journalist Thomas Laird's latest book is The Story 
of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama
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