Barry Sautman’s recent column in South China Morning Post is hard to stomach. Sautman is one of the most notable Western academic defenders of Chinese policies in Tibet. This is a fine thing, since he tends to make rational arguments in favor of his opinions. Even if we don’t agree with his conclusions, his arguments give us an opportunity to reflect more deeply on our own opinions and so see the world more clearly. Obviously, that doesn’t put him above critique, which is richly deserved in the case of his new article, “The Tibetan Impasse”, a response to an earlier article by Lodi Gyari. Sautman’s basic thesis, as stated in his first paragraph, is that, “Three decades of ‘negotiations about negotiations’ between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and Beijing have not made progress because, although exile leaders claim they are not separatists, they continue with assertions and actions that belie that claim.” Thus, he places blame squarely on the shoulders of the Tibetans.Now, I agree that the government-in-exile has not been an ideal negotiating partner. The Dalai Lama and his aides are in an extremely delicate position and face various competing pressures, with the result that they send mixed messages. Let’s remember that this doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The Tibetans have faced years of intransigence from the Chinese government, and in response to this they have sent mixed messages.
Sautman writes, “Formal negotiations with the Dalai Lama are not being conducted, so it is not surprising that Beijing won’t discuss Tibet with his representatives in any but general terms.” Okay, fine, but is there any evidence that Beijing would ever have any interest in formal negotiations with the Dalai Lama? Hasn’t the Chinese government always been perfectly clear that they are interested in talking to representatives of the Dalai Lama about his personal status, and not about anything else? The Tibetan exiles have been less-than-perfect negotiating partners, but the Chinese have not been negotiating at all. The “negotiations” that the world requests China to hold with the Dalai Lama are about political reforms in Tibet. The Chinese government has said many times that they will not discuss that. Yes, the Chinese government has said that they want the Dalai Lama to do certain things, such as declaring that Tibet is an inalienable part of China, but when have they ever said that they will negotiate with him about autonomy if he complies? Granted, one would not necessarily expect them to say it in so many words, but is there any reason to think it’s true?
As an aside, I understand why the Chinese government wants the Dalai Lama to say that Tibet is an inalienable part of China, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is an incoherent concept. How can any place ever be an inalienable part of any state? You might argue that a government rules legitimately by consent of the governed, or by force, but either of those can change over time. Clearly what they want is for the Dalai Lama to promise not to agitate for independence in the future, but also they do not trust him and would not accept a promise. Also, I’m not sure why Sautman thinks it’s “bizarre” for the Tibetans to think that admitting Tibet is inalienably Chinese is tantamount to admitting that it is eternally Chinese. That sounds like exactly the sort of thing that Chinese sources could conflate, just as they are sloppy about the claims “Tibet has been part of China since the Qing dynasty” vs. “Tibet has been part of China since the Yuan dynasty” vs. “Tibet has always been part of China”. Would the Chinese government really be satisfied with a statement that Tibet suddenly became an inalienable part of China in 1951 or 1965, having been an independent country before that?
The Tibetan government-in-exile’s position is highly ambiguous, but it seems to boil down to the implication that they are currently the legitimate government of a rightfully independent Tibet, but they are willing to immediately and permanently cede their independence to China in return for genuine autonomy and democracy… as well downplaying their independence in the meantime. This position is a tricky balancing act and is not always graceful. It’s clear why they keep it up, though. They need something to put some pressure on China. They don’t want Beijing to simply ignore them. They need some kind of basis to justify negotiations when talking to other governments, the UN, and NGOs. If the CTA is not a government-in-exile, then what is it? Maybe this isn’t the best strategy, but simply to insist that they surrender what little leverage they have without suggesting an alternative doesn’t make much sense.
Sautman writes, “When Han and people of other ethnic groups were murdered in the streets and shops of Lhasa two years ago, Tibetan exile leaders claimed without evidence that the killings were carried out by disguised Chinese soldiers.” Okay, sure, people shouldn’t claim things with no evidence. But, within days of the March 14 violence, the Chinese media was claiming that that was all a plot by the Dalai Lama, also with no evidence. We could say that both sides are equally sloppy, except that the Chinese government has gone on to make the “Dalai plot” theory the central element of its media response to those protests and riots, repeating it ad nauseam.
“Thus, no matter how much others, especially in the West, credit the Dalai Lama’s disavowal of independence, the Chinese government will talk to, but not negotiate with him – as long as he stands apart from the United Nations and the world’s states by disavowing that Tibet is legitimately part of China.” Clearly, Beijing is unwilling to negotiate with the Dalai Lama now. Once again, where is the evidence that they would become willing to negotiate if he had a more consistently favorable attitude toward Chinese rule in Tibet?
One more thing about this passage: it’s true that the world’s governments and the UN have agreed that Tibet is part of China, but whoever said anything about “legitimate”? When did that enter into it? The international community has been very consistent about criticizing Chinese policies in Tibet and insisting that they liberalise and negotiate. Only China holds the position that the situation in Tibet is ducky. In this regard, they “stand apart” from the rest of the world just as much as the Tibetan government-in-exile does.
Sautman takes a moment to take a shot at the popular punching bag of “Greater Tibet”, “an entity that never existed historically”, according to Sautman. Of course, it did exist, albeit 1300 years ago, but that’s not the point. The request for an unified Tibetan region is justified on the grounds of the current interests and aspirations of the Tibetan people, not on the basis of history. Historical political arrangements are a red herring. The fact is that more than half of the Tibetan people live in Tibetan areas outside of the TAR. A plan that doesn’t do anything for them is no solution to the Tibet issue. As a compromise a solution, I suggest that the same reforms toward autonomy could be implemented in each of the Tibetan autonomous areas, even if they are not united into a single jurisdiction.
Sautman calls the Tibetan negotiating position, “negotiating with a tiger for its skin”. Really, though, Tibet is not a large part of China in terms of dollars or people, and an expanse of sparsely-populated land that isn’t very good for agriculture just isn’t worth much. China would hardly be left skinless even if it had a moment of conscience and allowed complete independence for Tibet. To talk about autonomy in these terms is hyperbolic.
“If, however, the Dalai Lama does agree to Beijing’s preconditions, there is plenty to talk about.” Indeed, there is plenty to talk about. But, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, what makes us think that Beijing actually will talk about those things if their preconditions are met? It’s true that the Dalai Lama could do more to show good faith. But when was the last time that the Chinese side did anything to show good faith? What argues against the conclusion that the Chinese are just interested in delaying and getting the Dalai Lama to help with their public relations problems while giving nothing in return?
Fortunately, Sautman gives us some details on what he expects the Chinese will be willing to talk about. “Beijing is not about to alter Tibet’s political status, erasing the borders between China’s Tibetan areas any time soon, or dilute the hegemony of the Communist Party.” Okay, that rules out a lot that one might want to talk about it. If I lived under the hegemony of the Communist Party, I sure would be interested in talking about getting rid of that, but let’s see what I might more realistically be able to expect. “It may, however, be willing to discuss a gradual expansion of the autonomy of Tibetan areas, including by incorporating non-separatist Tibetan exiles in key positions in these areas’ governing apparatuses. It may agree to remove restrictions on religious practice for officials, students and others, adopt additional measures aimed at fostering the Tibetan language and culture, make a more targeted effort to raise the incomes of ethnic Tibetans, and even restrict migration by non-Tibetans into Tibetan areas.” Okay, so that’s what we’re left with. A few things. Sautman keeps saying, “may”. I realise that he’s speculating here, so he can’t say for sure what might be agreed upon at the talks. That’s the problem. The Dalai Lama makes concessions up front, and Beijing makes concessions maybe in the future. Let’s make a leap of faith and assume that that’s what transpires. Now, then, what’s this business about “gradual expansion” of autonomy? So, even after the talks are completed, Tibet would still have to wait for these hypothetical Chinese concessions to be gradually implemented. Does that inspire confidence? Let’s remember that, according to the Chinese government, Tibet already enjoys autonomy. Who knows what “gradual expansion of autonomy” would really mean coming from them?
“… incorporating non-separatist Tibetan exiles in key positions in these areas’ governing apparatuses” totally misses the point, which is to reform the nature of the apparatus itself. What is the current “governing apparatus” of Tibet? Tibet is ruled from the center, so, in practice, its governing apparatus is the Politburo of the Communist Party of China. Is the Tibetan branch of the party going to become independent from the central party, or is the Tibetan “people’s government” going to become independent of the party? Remember, we are not supposed to be diluting the party’s hegemony here. Without cutting the puppet-strings that lead from Lhasa to Zhongnanhai, the fact is that having “key positions” in the governing apparatus means nothing. Back in the 1950s, the Dalai Lama was the chairman of what became the TAR government, and that proved to be a position of very little authority. Richard McGregor’s recent, much-lauded book The Party details the complex strategies the Chinese Communist Party uses to maintain their grip on power. They know how to work around any number of figurehead officials.
Sautman then observes, “Because of the history of separatism, Beijing is not going to make the Tibetan areas into another Hong Kong, in which only local people are political leaders and a high degree of autonomy allows for a system markedly different from the rest of the country.” Which I think is what this comes down to. Beijing has no interest in high-level autonomy for Tibet, like what Hong Kong currently has, because they don’t trust the Tibetan people. The fear is that any concessions in the direction of autonomy will simply make the Tibetan public more assertive; the more they loosen their grip, the more likely the situation is to spiral out of control, leading either to independence or a renewed crackdown. The alternatives are to figure out a deal with the Dalai Lama now, since he can keep a lid on things, or continue with the status quo. The current Chinese leadership is committed to the status quo option, apparently with the idea that the issue will fade away once the 14th Dalai Lama is out of the picture. That’s wishful thinking.