Is Tide Turning for Tibet Policy?

After a scholar at Beijing’s called for a new approach to policy in an interview with a Hong Kong magazine, the Economist explored whether her ideas signal a shift in strategy among the Chinese leadership:

Ms Jin’s analysis, though couched in the terminology of party orthodoxy, is similar to that of many foreign observers. She argues that, by demonising the , and viewing any expression of Tibetan culture as potentially subversive, the party has turned even those Tibetans sympathetic to its aims against it. The struggle has evolved from “a contradiction between the central government and the separatist clique into an ethnic conflict between Han Chinese and Tibetans”.

She is not advocating a new soft approach to “political” issues, such as the Dalai Lama’s call for greater autonomy for Tibet and Tibetans’ hankering after a “greater Tibet”—ie, within its historic borders, beyond the TAR. But in fact, most protests in Tibet are not about “politics”, defined like this. Many have been sparked by anger at Chinese repression—of Tibetan culture, language and tradition, or of individual protesters. It is a vicious circle, made worse by anger at the large-scale immigration into Tibet of Han Chinese.

Ms Jin has ideas on how to break the impasse. Talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives, stalled since the most recent of nine fruitless rounds in 2010, should resume, she says. They should concentrate on “easy” issues first, setting contentious debate about Tibet’s status to one side for now. China should consider inviting the Dalai Lama to visit one of its semi-autonomous cities, Hong Kong or Macau, and eventually allowing him back to Tibet. It should also try to defuse the crisis his death will bring by agreeing with him on a chosen reincarnation from inside China’s borders. Otherwise, China risks having to deal with two incarnations: one it endorses and one in exile who is more likely to be revered by most Tibetans. [Source]

Jin Wei’s comments diverge from the hardline stance typically taken by Chinese leaders, who portray the Dalai Lama as a separatist responsible for inciting unrest in the Tibetan region. Most recently, Chinese state media blamed the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile for encouraging the growing wave of self-immolations in the territory.

Given the sensitivity of the Tibet issue to the Communist Party, however, the Economist notes that Jin’s interview “suggests that she has high-level backing.” But Jin’s proposals will likely face “a backlash from hardliners,” according to a separate piece in this week’s print edition, which advises the West to “tread carefully:”

For both China’s and Tibet’s sake, it is to be hoped that Ms Jin’s proposals gain a wider currency. The idea of a Communist government sitting down with a holy monk to discuss his own reincarnation seems bizarre. But Ms Jin’s proposals are in fact far more pragmatic than the hardline ideological approach to Tibet that has succeeded only in alienating a people China claims as its own. [Source]

The director of a think tank for the Central Tibetan Administration, the official name of the Tibetan government-in-exile, wrote last week that Jin’s comments reflect “two sharply differing views” on how China should deal with the issue of Tibet:

The official Chinese hardline reaction to Professor Jin Wei’s seemingly conciliatory remarks was not long in coming. Zhu Weiqun, who was the principal interlocutor in talks with the envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama from 2002 to 2010 as the executive vice-minister of the United Front warned against changing the Party’s attitude to the spiritual Tibetan spiritual leader. In an interview to China News Weekly of 16 June, Zhu Weiqun, who is now the director of the ethnic and religious affairs of the Chinese People’s Political Consulatative Conference, an organ of the party, made these remarks: “When we refer to Mr. Tenzin Gyatso as the Dalai Lama we are recognising his spiritual rank. However, in the course of time, he has acquired another label which we should never forget. Because of his efforts to split China he has become a political refugee.” [Source]

For Zhu Weiqun there can be no talks on Tibet. He said, “The future of Tibet, since 1951 with the peaceful  liberation to 1959 with democratic reforms, has been decided by the Tibetan people themselves. The Dalai Lama cannot change this situation.”

In the past, on Tibet and all other issues, China spoke with one voice.  Either in writing or orally, policy statements on sensitive issues like Tibet carried the same turn of phrase or tone of voice. The party, state and military carried the same coherent message.

For observers, the question is why is China’s previously internal Tibet debate now out in the open? Which view will prevail? How should Dharamsala respond?

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