September 24, 2002


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The Rediff Special/Claude Arpi

A few days ago, various news agencies flashed the news that a Tibetan team led by Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's special envoy to Washington, had left for Beijing to negotiate with the Chinese government.

It started with a brief communiqué from the Dalai Lama's private office in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh: 'During the visit, Mr Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari and the team will also visit Lhasa. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is very pleased that the team is able to make such a visit.'

Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, described the visit of his government's team to Beijing as 'a culmination of efforts over the years to reach out to the Chinese government.' Tibetan officials in Dharamsala remained tightlipped.

Chinese officials confirmed the visit but described it as private and a chance for exiled Tibetan leaders to see the progress in their homeland under Chinese rule. They did not accept the designation of Gyari and his colleague Kelsang Gyaltsen as the Dalai Lama's special envoys.

This event has rightly raised hope amongst exiled Tibetans but also brought forward several questions. The first is the timing of the visit.

The visit comes at a time when there is speculation in the media on China's future leadership. A meeting of the 16th Communist Party Congress, starting November 8, is supposed to choose a successor to Jiang Zemin who presently wears three caps: secretary general of the Communist Party; president of the People's Republic of China and chairman of the Central Military Commission. The last post, perhaps the most coveted for retiring officials, was the one Deng Xiaoping, the Last Emperor, had kept after he 'left' the political scene.

While most observers agree that Jiang may hang on for another term, some believe the opposite. Susan Lawrence, senior analyst at The Wall Street Journal, argues: 'According to some Chinese with knowledge of high-level party discussions, as well as to certain diplomats with senior party contacts, a consensus is growing around the idea that Jiang might stay on as party general secretary.'

The logic is that China has a bumpy road ahead with growing social unrest, spreading corruption, environmental problems like the recent floods, and its tortuous relations with the United States. If China changes all its leaders at this particular time, more chaos may result.

There is another view also. A former party insider has written a book titled Disidai [The Fourth Generation] under the pseudonym of Zong Hairen, and which is to be published in Chinese in the US in November. Claiming to possess confidential reports of the party's secretive organisation department, Zong said it has already been decided that Jiang will leave his three jobs to Hu Jiantao who was the general secretary of the party for the Tibetan Autonomous Region from 1988 to 1992 and as such responsible for clamping martial law in Lhasa in 1989.

Zong's book, presented by China expert Andrew Nathan who had earlier edited the Tiananmen Papers, also identifies the seven party officials who will take over as members of the politburo's all powerful Standing Committee in the next few months.

According to Nathan, Zong describes the new politburo members as 'leaders bent on modernisation through tough authoritarian rule.' He adds they are ready to crush any open dissent against communist rule, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang.

Now whom should we believe?

We will have to wait for November and then March for the election of the new president to see who is right. However, for sure the competition is not over and different tendencies within the politburo are probably still struggling hard to reach the ultimate heaven.

Interestingly, the authorities had banned Google, the most popular Internet search engine in China, at the beginning of September. Associated Press wrote: 'As China's government prepares for its annual Communist Party meeting in November and clamps down on various media sources, the country has been left without major Internet access: popular search engine Google.'

Not even a week later, the ban was suddenly lifted and the 30 million Chinese Internet surfers could use their favourite search engine again: 'As mysteriously as it began, blocking by Chinese authorities of the Internet search engine Google was suddenly lifted.'

All this demonstrates the lack of resolute leadership. It is therefore doubtful if the new generation of leaders have already taken their seats.

The visit of the Dalai Lama's delegation should be seen against this backdrop.

While one cannot prognosticate the result of the Tibetan officials' present visit, it would be interesting to look at the last visit by a Tibetan envoy to Beijing.

In 1993, Sonam Tobgyal, then chairman of the Tibetan government-in-exile's council of ministers, re-established contact with Beijing and visited China for a week. Like now, it was also Gyalop Dhondup, the Dalai Lama's elder brother, who had prepared the ground by making several 'private' visits to China.

A few years ago, in an interview to me, Sonam Tobgyal said his visit was in continuation of two earlier visits by senior Tibetan officials in 1982 and 1984. The earlier talks had been a dialogue of the deaf: the Chinese wanted to discuss the Dalai Lama's personal status in case of return while the Tibetans wanted to talk about the fate of the Tibetan people in a future dispensation. The Tibetans had come with the understanding that the basis set by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 was still valid: 'The Chinese Government is willing to discuss and resolve any issue with us except total independence.'

Between the 1984 and the 1993 negotiations, during a visit to the US in 1987, the Dalai Lama had presented his 'Five-Point Peace plan' in which he had given up independence for 'genuine autonomy' within the Chinese Republic and proposed to demilitarise Tibet to make it a 'Zone of Ahimsa.' The Dalai Lama had written a long memorandum to Deng in September 1992 on the same lines after having again received assurance that "everything except independence" was the basis of the discussions.

Sonam Tobgyal, accompanied by Gyalo Dhondup, left for Beijing in July 1993 with the intention to negotiate for 'genuine autonomy for Tibet:' "His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] always believes that the problem between China and Tibet can be resolved through negotiations," he explained to me.

They stayed for about a week in China and met mainly the officials of the United Front Department that looks after the affairs of what the Chinese call their 'minorities.' The talks were restricted to these officials though, according to Tobgyal, "One thing was clear: the officials with whom we were talking, did not have the authority to decide anything on their own."

In fact there were no real talks, Tobgyal explained: "If one analyses what they were saying, there was no clear points, they were only saying that their position vis-à-vis the Dalai Lama was very clear, they were very happy to keep contact with the Dalai Lama, they were keen that these contacts should go on." They also said "they were glad that the Tibetans spoke in a very frank and precise manner."

Perhaps the main bone of contention between the Dalai Lama and Beijing is the geographical definition of Tibet. The Dalai Lama had made clear in his Peace Plan that Tibet meant the traditional three provinces of U-Tsang (Central Tibet), Kham, and Amdo while the Chinese were only talking of the Tibetan Autonomous Region corresponding more or less to Central Tibet, which is only a third of pre-1950 Tibet.

In the 1960s, the Chinese had cleverly divided Tibet administratively and amalgamated the provinces of Kham and Amdo into the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Ganzu, and Qinghai.

When the Tibetan delegates "proposed that the three provinces of Tibet be reunited and there should be only one Tibet," the Chinese answered that this position was 'not realistic'. They told the Dalai Lama's delegates, 'Tibet is already divided; these administrative arrangements have already been made long ago. This has been ratified by the People's Congress. It is in the [Chinese] Constitution.'

Tobgyal felt "they were always repeating the same thing…I did not feel that a very substantive discussion was taking place."

However, Tobgyal believed it was a positive experience and though none of the major hurdles could be removed, the mere fact that contact had been renewed was very positive.

When they left, the Chinese officials told them. "Please come again, you are always welcome, especially Gyalo Dhondup." They added, "He was always kind to them."

This time, it is again Gyalo Dhondup, who by a visit to Beijing and Lhasa reopened the doors to negotiations and for Gyari's visit. The current talks may follow the same pattern than the 1993's one, but once again, the fact that both parties are meeting and exchanging views can only generate good will. Many observers believe if the Dalai Lama could have personal contact with Jiang or any other future leader of China and with his personal warmth express his readiness to find a 'genuine' solution, old rancour and many misunderstandings could evaporate.

However, for this we will have to wait for China to find a new stable leadership with an open mind to solve all pending problems 'except independence'.

The questions of the geographical definition of Tibet, as well as the colonization of the high plateau by Chinese Han people are issues that cannot be solved by one visit.

As for declaring Tibet as a 'Zone of Ahimsa,' it may be the greatest opportunity for achieving a durable peace in Asia, but here it is not the Dalai Lama's delegate alone who will be able to solve the problem.

India, with 2,500-kilometre border with Tibet, will have to be involved. Many other problems would have to be solved before or at the same time. The border issue in particular is a vexed one. Can we envisage, one day, tripartite talks between India, China and some Tibetan representatives to fix once and for all the Himalayan borders and define the parameters for a demilitarisation of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau?

Before it happens, years of groundwork will have to be done and confidence-building actions taken. But it is perhaps the most important task for the future of Asia.

Also by Claude Arpi:

American dichotomy

While the wise men of India talk and sleep

The land of passes

True friendship begins by getting to the bottom of yesterday's problems

Other reports and specials:

Vajpayee's China visit may be delayed till December

'It is out of respect for the Dalai Lama that we are restraining ourselves'

Li Peng's visit to India, January 2001: The Complete Coverage

40 years after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet

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