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A New "Middle Way" Approach

March 29, 2009

YANG Jianli (Chinese pro democracy activist)
March 26, 2009

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the 1959
Tibetan uprising, we can only hold the deepest
respect for the Tibetans’ extraordinary struggle
for freedom and democracy under the leadership of
the Dalai Lama. Ever since the 1989 Democratic
Uprising and the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the
future of Tibet and the Chinese’s struggle for
democratic reform has become intertwined. In
recent years, these issues have generated
increasing attention and critical reflection
among people within China. Despite the continued
efforts by Chinese Communist Party continues to
block the free flow of information, and to
promote discord by flaming the fires of
nationalism, the taboo of debating the issue of Tibet is gradually dissipating.

Today, innumerable articles exist regarding
Tibet’s history, culture, religion, the Dalai
Lama’s efforts at reconciliation, and the Chinese
Communist Party’s Tibetan policies. Therefore, I
will not elaborate on these issues here. Instead, I will look at the future.

For several reasons, the events of March, 2008 in
Tibet (hereafter referred to as 3.14) have become
a new watershed moment in the course of this
struggle. First of all, the Tibetan upheaval, and
its subsequent brutal suppression, explicitly
demonstrated the failure of the Chinese Communist
Party’s policies on Tibet; secondly, the riots
stimulated many Han Chinese pro-democracy
activists to examine more closely the Tibetan
status quo. This reexamination led many to
realize that to truly accomplish China’s
democratization they must incorporate the issue
of Tibet into the pro-democracy movement;
finally, the events of 3.14 led the Dalai Lama
and his Tibetan compatriots to reevaluate the
concept of the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” approach.

The Dalai Lama’s "Middle Way" concept for Tibet
proposes the pursuit of genuine autonomy instead
of outright independence. This pursuit is guided
by the principles of peace and non-violence. This
approach reflects both pragmatism and
extraordinary wisdom. Combined with his humility
and commitment to non violence, the Dalai Lama
has earned worldwide admiration and has become a
moral inspiration for China’s pro-democracy
movement. For the past three decades, Despite
numerous setbacks, the Dalai Lama has always
hoped to realize the “Middle Way” through good
faith negotiations with the Chinese government.

However, I cannot but say the Dalai Lama made a
strategic mistake that doomed his efforts.
Because, under China’s current political system
of a Communist one-party dictatorship, it is
simply impossible for any ethnic or pro-democracy
group alone to reach any reliable agreement with
this dictatorship. The logic is quite simple: if
the Chinese government grants true autonomous
rights to Tibet and freedom to the Tibetan
people, it is impossible for the Chinese
government not to give freedom to the Han Chinese
and other ethnic groups. However, if the
government does grant freedom to everyone, it
basically means the dissolution of China’s
one-party dictatorship and the establishment of a
democratic government, which, ironically, is what
the Chinese government resists at all costs.
After 3.14, the Dalai Lama has also recognized
this past strategic flaw. In the past year, he
has said on various public and private occasions,
including a meeting I personally had with him in
July, 2008, that he has given up on the Chinese
government. Instead, he has turned to the Chinese
people as the source for his hope.

Since 3.14, the call for Tibet’s independence has
become louder and stronger. In the First Special
General Meeting of the Tibetans-in-Exile held on
November 17th 2008, the Tibetan representatives
recommended that: “1. [The] [majority [decide] to
continue the policy of Middle-Way-Approach.
Besides that, looking at the Chinese Government's
behavior in the past, views to stop sending
envoys and to pursue complete independence or
self-determination, if no result comes out in the
near future were also strongly expressed. 2. The
Middle-Way-Approach, independence or
self-determination, whatever is pursued in the
Tibetan struggle, we shall not deviate from the
path of non-violence to achieve our aims (Item 2,
5th Resolution, 1st Special General Meeting of
the Tibetans-in-Exile).” This recommendation is
rather reasonable. Both the ethnic Han Chinese
and the Tibetans have suffered tremendously under
the Chinese government’s dictatorship. However,
as ethnic Han Chinese, we cannot but feel ashamed
because of the ethnic discrimination we have
practiced, adding to the torment to which the
Tibetan people have been subjected. We cannot but
feel heartbreak due to the suffering of our
Tibetan brothers’ families, religion, culture,
environment and economic well-being. Because of
these particular reasons, we feel even stronger
sympathy and compassion towards the concept of
ethnic self-determination, which conforms with
the general trends of the civilized world to
pursue governance that respects individual
freedom as well as ethnic and racial equality.

Unfortunately, every dictatorship always lives
with a despicable dilemma by which any plans for
realizing such just goals are simply not feasible
because the pursuit of such goals undermine the
very existence of the dictatorship. Every
individual, group (including religious group) or
ethnic community under dictatorships is stuck
with this predicament without any exception. The
Dalai Lama deeply understands the core nature of
the Chinese Communist Party’s dictatorship, He is
also aware of the perspective of the ethnic Han
Chinese after several generations of education
(or brain-washing if you want to call it) on the
“mono-China” propaganda generated by the CCP. The
Dalai Lama is aware that if Tibet ever pursues
full independence, war is unavoidable. Yet,
violence and bloodshed violates the core
principles of the Dalai Lama. In addition,
through his broad and long-term perspective, the
Dalai Lama realizes that the pursuit of
independence is indeed not the best path toward
happiness for the Tibetan people. Based on all
these concerns, the Dalai Lama proposal of a
“Middle Way” approach toward solving the Tibet
issue is extraordinarily wise and courageous.

However, whether the issue is Tibet’s "unity" or
"independence," there is simply no common ground,
or constitutional foundation for the resolution
of these issues. As a matter of fact, over the
past one hundred years, the ethnic Han Chinese
and the Tibetans have never had any legal
foundation for governing mutual relations which
reflected free will of both parties. As everyone
knows, the current Han-Tibetan relations were
imposed by the Chinese constitution. In fact,
even the forcibly imposed Han-Tibetan relations
written into the Chinese constitution haven’t
been fully realized. However, the imposed
relations have become reality. All countries have
established diplomatic relations with the
People’s Republic of China have de facto
acquiesced to the current Tibet-China status.
Moreover, the two peoples have been mingled
together for so long under the concept of “one
country”, that any relationship other than the
status quo appears to have no legal ground.

In order for future relations to be convincing
and acceptable, a process involving all parties
must be established. This process begins with a
starting point agreeable to all. The most
plausible "common ground” from which to start is
for all parties to agree on a goal toward which
they will work together to achieve. I submit that
this goal should be to establish a constitutional
democracy. Once the goal is established, then all
parties will work together to establish a legal
and binding process for achieving this goal.

For example, following the constitutional
procedures agreed to by both the Han Chinese and
the Tibetans, laws and protocols can be
established for building better Han-Tibetan
relations based on mutual trust and respect.
Without such a constitutional foundation, any
imposed unity or forced independence without the
participation of the people will be perceived as
unconvincing by both the international community
and the two ethnic groups involved.

Obviously such a constitutional foundation cannot
be obtained through negotiating with the current
Chinese government. It can be achieved only
through China’s constitutional democratization
pushed by a pro-democracy movement consisting of
all ethnic groups. This strategy differs from
that of the Dalai Lama in the past. But I believe
it is what the Dalai Lama meant when he talked
about “depending on the Chinese people”. In fact,
following 3.14 all parties have been moving
towards this idea of establishing a united
movement under a constitutional foundation on
which all parties will participate in
constructing a just and sustainable society.

Without this consensus, we will only have the
ideology of equality, freedom and democracy, but
no practical constitutional basis to ground our
practice. Also, lacking such common ground will
allow the current oppressor to continue to divide
and conquer and thereby defeat our fight for our
respective freedom. Or we could even end up in a
“whoever has the right to vote can decide who has
the right to vote” type of vicious cycle within
the country. The former Yugoslavia was a typical
negative example, while the Canadian model with
respect to the issue of Quebec provides us a
perfect model of how a constitutional democratic
foundation can lead to a successful resolution.
Thus, a new “middle way” approach with its key
premise of a united movement under a commitment
to constitutional reform promises the best path
for success. How to enrich its meaning, how to
let more and more ethnic Han Chinese understand
its true definition and how to put the new
“Middle Way” approach into practice now becomes increasingly imperative.

Some Tibetan friends used to question the
concepts of "constitutional democratic
foundation" and "a united pro-democracy
movement," they said, "we Tibetans have been
deceived and unfairly treated for so long by the
Han Chinese rulers, why should we trust you Han
Chinese this time?” In fact, such distrust still
exists among many Tibetans today. The distrust is
quite understandable and surely cannot be
eliminated by someone’s or some political party’s
empty verbal promises. But trust can be nurtured
little by little through communication and
cooperation. We should try to initiate more
activities like the “Interethnic Leadership
Conference” (the fourth assembly was recently
held last in November, 2008 by Initiatives for
China). By doing so, we can gradually eliminate
the ethnic divides and animosities between the
Tibetans and the Han Chinese. Meanwhile, in order
to achieve this trust, Han Chinese pro-democracy
activists should first get rid of their own
ethnic Chauvinism and “mono-China” mentality.

In addition, during the process of forming the
constitutional foundation and designing the
actual constitutional democratic mechanism, it is
equally important for the Han Chinese, who
account for majority of the total population, to
minimize the possibility of their becoming the
tyranny of the majority. Otherwise, it will be
impossible for them to win trust among the
Tibetans and other ethnic minority groups. For
example, in the mid-1990s, the Foundation for
China in the 21st Century organized a series of
research and discussions with many constitutional
scholars and composed a “Draft Constitution of a
Federal China”, in which it said, two decades
after China’s implementation of a constitutional
democratic federal system, whether Tibet remains
within the Chinese federation or claims
independence will be subjected to a referendum by
Tibetans. Such a proposal will undoubtedly
formalize the incentive for the Han Chinese to
win Tibetans’ trust. Some people say as long as
we achieve democracy, we do not need to establish
a federal system to solve issues regarding Tibet
and other minority ethnic groups. This argument
is largely flawed. If we only achieve democracy
without establishing federalism which is based on
true autonomous rights, the “tyranny of majority”
will be extremely difficult to avoid. For
example, if a region occupied by an ethnic
minority group has abundant mineral resources,
under a political system only with democracy
based on majority rule yet no federalism granting
true autonomous rights, the Han Chinese who
account for the majority of the population can
easily pass some economic development policies
granting them rights to unlimitedly exploit the
mineral resources from the minority group. In
fact, such a political system also has no true
democracy. We need to understand that the
advantage of democracy is based on the fact that
“the majority” as a group constantly alternates.
If “the majority” always remains the same, then
“the majority” becomes the tyranny. The so-called
constitutional democracy aims to reasonably
define the scope of application for every
democratic procedure. For example, in the “Draft
Constitution of Federal China” produced by the
Foundation for China in the 21st Century, Tibet
is granted all autonomous rights including
legislative right and judicial right, except
rights to establish diplomatic relations or
national defense. This is actually a
constitutional democratic system featured with
federalism with different degrees of autonomy. It
is because of these guidelines that the “Draft
Constitution of Federal China” was approved by
many Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama himself
(I personally presented the Draft to the Dalai
Lama in 1996 in an audience with him and had a
thorough discussion on it in 1999 in another
meeting). And the “Draft Constitution of Federal
China” became a positive example which achieved
trusts among the minority and the disadvantaged
groups. Although the Charter 08 did not
specifically discuss the ethnic minority issues,
it proposed the idea of China establishing its
federal constitutional system which intends to
seek critical constitutional democratic foundation for all ethnic groups.

To conclude, for the sake of Tibet’s future, I
strongly recommend to the Dalai Lama and his
Tibetans followers to adopt the new "Middle Way"
approach. The new "Middle Way" approach is defined as:

1. Pursuit of true autonomy for the Tibetan
people. This autonomy will be guaranteed under a
Federal constitutional framework and will provide
for future referendums that will permit the
possibility for independence. This principle is
similar to the covenant between the province of
Quebec and the Canadian Commonwealth.

2. Abandonment of the expectation that the
Tibetan issue can be solved through bilateral
negotiation with the current Chinese government
in favor of the formation of a united
pro-democracy movement, which includes the Han
Chinese and other like minded ethnic communities.

3. Close cooperation with the Han Chinese and
other ethnic groups seeking a mutual
constitutional democratic foundation that will
ensure the rights of all people to live, worship,
and speak according to their conscience and their customs.

4. Establishment of various channels facilitating
broad and in-depth dialogue with the Han Chinese
to build mutual understanding and trust.

5. Commitment to the principles of peace, rationality, and non-violence.

This New Middle Way approach recognizes the
current realities and reflects the concepts of
strength in unity and the power of citizens to
guide their destiny. The New Middle way presents
another watershed moment, which can no longer be
ignored and which will lead the citizens of China
into the mainstream of nations that rule by law
and respect, rather than fear and repression.

written on March 10, 2009

The writer is a Chinese dissident, who a student
protester at the Tiananmen Square 1989. He came
to the United States, earned two Ph.D. degrees.
He founded the Foundation for China in the 21st
Century. Given his political activism, he was
blacklisted by the Chinese government who also refused to renew his passport.

Jianli returned to China in April, 2002 on a
friend's passport to view labor unrest in the
northeastern part of China. He was detained when
trying to board a domestic flight. On July 14,
2003, Yang Jianli is indicted by the Chinese
government on charges of espionage and crossing
the national border illegally. He currently lives in Boston.

The views expressed in this piece are that of the
author and the publication of the piece on this
website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.

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