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A Look at Chinese-Tibetan Relations - 2003-09-12

In September 1987, Robert Barnett was visiting Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. But instead of sightseeing, he found himself watching a riot. In front of the local police station, a group of Tibetans was demanding the release of Buddhist monks who had been jailed the previous week for supporting Tibetan independence. The demonstrators tried to force their way into the police station and eventually burned down the station's front door. Police opened fire, and at least six Tibetans were killed.

What Mr. Barnett remembers most vividly is not the violence: “What was much more surprising to outsiders like me was the days afterwards when the police moved in slowly, and people became very frightened to talk or be seen with westerners. So I saw this kind of climate of fear that people sometimes refer to. It was so vivid at that time because people were very nervous. You still come across that with some people in some situations in Tibet.”

Political contact between China and Tibet started more than 1,300 years ago. Tibet remained a largely self-governing Buddhist region through the centuries. But in the 20th century, Tibet became a province of the People's Republic of China in 1951 when Chinese troops forcibly occupied it. Analysts say the demonstrations in 1987 marked a further deterioration in Tibet-China relations. In 1989, the Chinese government began a crackdown on Tibet that continues today.

“Tibetans are still chafing under Chinese rule,” says Mr. Barnett, now a lecturer in Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University. “It is a country that is still in a way reeling from the impact of that initial Chinese takeover fifty years ago. It's there under the surface every minute of every day that you are there, even now. The Chinese have never managed to establish themselves as somehow the natural rulers of that country.”

But supporters of China's policy towards Tibet think differently. They say China is merely asserting control over a rebellious province. Mr. Sun Wei De is press counselor at the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Washington: “Actually, it is known to all that Tibet has been part of China for 700 years. Now, that's not only the official view of the government, but actually that's the fact. The United States and many other countries around the world recognize Tibet as a part of China, but there are obviously some people in the world who try to make Tibet an issue.”

Mr. Sun is referring to the Tibetan Government in Exile, which China has never recognized. The Dalai Lama established his exile government in India after he fled Tibet in 1959 following a failed uprising. Some analysts say the stand-off between Beijing and the Dalai Lama is China's biggest headache.

“There is no issue that bedevils China that is more sensitive and more controversial than Tibet,” says Orville Schell, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley and author of Virtual Tibet.

He says keeping Tibet has become central to the identity of China's ruling communist party: “When Mao Zedong came to power in 1949 with his revolutionary program, one aspect of that revolution was reunifying the motherland, bringing back all the constituent parts -- Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang -- the Muslim areas in the west, Tibet, and Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao. Almost every plank of that revolutionary platform has been abandoned now except this one keeping China strong, proud and unified as a multiethnic state.” But the two gatherings in the past year have some analysts thinking China and Tibet may be moving toward negotiations. The meetings between Chinese officials and representatives of the Dalai Lama are the most significant talks about Tibet's future in decades.

Bhuchang Tsering participated in both visits. He is Director of the International Campaign for Tibet, a private organization in Washington which promotes human rights and democracy in Tibet:

“The two visits, the first one in September of last year and the second one in June this year, are mainly to reestablish contact and to build confidence,” says Mr. Tsering. “Formal talks are yet to begin. That will take several more such visits because right now clearly the Chinese authorities are still not clear about His Holiness' ‘middle way’ approach. Despite this suspicion, the main fact that the Chinese authorities invited the Dalai Lama's envoys for a second time clearly reflects that the new leadership in China, which came into being after the first visit, clearly wants to continue with the process to establish continued contact.”

The "middle way" approach is the cornerstone of the Dalai Lama's policy toward China. Rather than pressing for an independent Tibet or succumbing to a subjugated Tibet, the Dalai Lama advocates a middle alternative: Tibet as part of China with a high degree of autonomy.

“The Dalai Lama is adopting a Buddhist approach towards peaceful resolution of the Tibetan issue which follows a path that is neither to the extremes but which takes into consideration both sides of the issue,” says Bhuchang Tsering.

But Mr. Sun of the Chinese Embassy doesn't believe the Dalai Lama is sincere: “In the past few years, the Dalai Lama has further intensified his separatist activities. He actually continues to advocate Tibet's independence.”

Some analysts say the Chinese Government is taking a hard-line because it thinks the Tibet problem is improving on its own without the participation of the Dalai Lama. China has pumped billions of dollars into Tibet in a bid to modernize the mountainous province and connect it to the rest of the country. Ethnic Chinese are settling in Tibet. It's part of a strategy to raise living standards and make Tibet more a part of China. Robert Barnett says China's policy sounds like benevolent colonialism: it may improve people's lives, but it can't erase their resentment:

“There is a two-part reality there. One is the reality that the Chinese have created very energetically and with a lot of commitment in the last 10 to 15 years, which is they have tried very hard to get away from the political problem by boosting the economy. So they have poured a lot of money into the towns in Tibet. You see hundreds of new buildings, new roads, many of them very ugly but, nevertheless, very modern and efficient. And at the same time, if you speak Tibetan, you come across this world of really extraordinary lingering discontent. People just regard the Chinese presence as a kind of lie, an entity that is telling them they are happy when they are not happy.”

Some analysts believe new Chinese President Hu Jintao, who once served as Tibet's communist party chief, may be more open to solving the Tibetan problem. But they say he still hasn't made his views clear on the issue.

Orville Schell thinks that if President Hu doesn't move quickly, he may lose an opportunity to reach an agreement with the Dalai Lama: “The Chinese incompletely understand the degree to which the Dalai Lama is actually a moderating influence on the exile community rather than an influence that excites their nationalist passions and excites the tendency towards independence, and I think it would be a tremendous loss if they don't avail themselves of his presence now that he is alive and capable of putting his shoulder to the wheel.”

Even Mr. Sun of the Chinese Embassy has not ruled out negotiations: “I think the door for negotiations remains open. The matter of the fact is that as our late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said, the Dalai Lama may return to China but only as a Chinese citizen. So we have but one demand: that is patriotism.”

The Chinese and Tibetans appear to be starting on a path of reconciliation. Whether that path will break down decades of mistrust remains to be seen. But by talking to one another, they are, at least, giving themselves a better chance.