President Obama’s long-awaited meeting with the Dalai Lama takes place this week. And one can expect that the Washington media and punditocracy will be focused on the political calculus by Beijing and the Obama administration, as they wonder how this session factors into the increasingly fractious U.S./China relationship. But there is something else, arguably more important, at work here: the Dalai Lama's own political calculations. For him, this meeting will take place against a backdrop of renewed talks with China, and a new push by Beijing to pacify Tibet through a combination of increased economic development and continued repression. While it might be merely an entertaining sideshow in Washington’s political circus, this meeting plays a significant role in the Dalai Lama’s ongoing efforts to engage Beijing in serious negotiations on the future of Tibet.
The Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese government recently concluded their ninth round of talks since 2002 (the first session since Sino-Tibetan dialogue was suspended in November 2008). These talks broke down 15 months ago amid acrimony and recrimination, with the Tibetans frustrated by Beijing’s intransigence, while Beijing accused the Tibetan side of operating in bad faith. Based on the statements from both parties, it was clear that the latest talks did not meaningfully change those dynamics. The Tibetans told Reuters that there was “no shift in Beijing's stand,” while Chinese officials continued their attacks on the Dalai Lama and warned President Obama that he would “seriously undermine the political foundation of Sino-US relations” by meeting with him. Nonetheless, both sides also expressed a continued willingness to keep talking.
These talks occurred on the heels of the Fifth Work Forum on Tibet, a major conference on the Chinese Communist party’s management of Tibet policy that took place in Beijing January 18-23. Reporting in China’s state-run press on the Work Forum featured the usual glowing stories about the party’s “totally correct” approach to Tibet since its “peaceful liberation” by the People’s Liberation Army in 1949. President Hu Jintao spoke of a “special contradiction” that remained in Tibet, which he characterized as a conflict between the loyal multi-ethnic citizens of China and the “separatist forces led by the Dalai clique.” When Hu said that the party’s work on Tibet was vital to a “favorable international environment” for China, President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama was likely on his mind.
Notwithstanding this rhetoric, there are hints that the party’s “totally correct” policies are undergoing some subtle but potentially important changes. The conference pointedly covered not only the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), but also Tibetan areas in the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan – together often referred to as historic or (derisively by the Chinese) “greater” Tibet. This is a potentially important development, since it relates to a major point of contention between Beijing and the Tibetans.
The Dalai Lama has strongly criticized the division of Tibet into 13 separate administrative units, rather than a single entity encompassing all Tibetan communities. Nearly all of Tibets autonomous counties and prefectures experienced protests during the 2008 uprising, including Tibetan areas in Qinghai and Gansu that were considered to enjoy relatively less repressive rule. Chinese officials characterize calls for a single Tibetan entity as an attack on Chinese sovereignty, often pointing to the Dalai Lama’s support for a single Tibetan entity for evidence of his efforts to “split” China and seize 30 percent of Chinese territory. Nonetheless, any move toward harmonization of policies for these areas would be a tacit recognition that the Tibetans’ arguments on this point have some validity.
Press reports indicate that the Work Forum called for greater emphasis on improving the livelihoods of farmers and herdsmen and improving social services such as access to health care, education, and protection of the environment. The PRC has spent billions of yuan to promote rapid economic development in Tibet under the theory that Tibetan “separatism” would melt away as Tibetans become more prosperous. This model of development -- relying heavily on top-down planning, extractive industry, large-scale infrastructure projects, and influx of low and semi-skilled Chinese migrants -- has not only failed to pacify the local population, but has become itself a source of Tibetan discontent. From nomad resettlement programs to the strip-mining of sacred mountains (and the resulting pollution of sacred lakes), the government’s many schemes for improving Tibet have served primarily to alienate Tibetans and enrich non-Tibetan migrants to the plateau. Even worse, these schemes are carried out with a patronizing attitude, suggesting that Tibetans should only be grateful for the beneficence of the Chinese state. And they have been accompanied by political campaigns that have more in common with the heights of the Cultural Revolution than the skyscrapers of Shanghai. As a result, Tibetans have seethed as their homeland is transformed through rapid, unsustainable development that hardly benefits them, destroys their pristine ecosystem, and threatens their unique culture.
If Beijing began to change its current colonialist economic policies in Tibet, it would be a major welcome development. If, on the other hand, this talk of focus on livelihoods is a smokescreen for perpetuating and expanding the CCP’s worst policies to the whole Tibetan plateau, the situation promises to get worse.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of China’s leadership is deeply wedded to the current dead-end policies, while fearing the blinkered Chinese public’s reaction to any whiff of compromise with the Dalai Lama. By keeping up the tough public stance toward the Dalai Lama, they may be attempting to give themselves cover to start sneaking out of their current policy dilemma through quiet but significant changes on the ground in Tibet. However, it remains unclear that they seek to create the internal political space necessary for a more honest appraisal of the situation in Tibet. Regardless, the public demonization of the Dalai Lama only further reinforces cynicism, ignorance, and “big Han chauvinism,” formed through decades of propaganda on Tibet, making reconciliation ever more problematic.
While soberly recognizing that the overall dynamics of the talks with the Chinese remain poor, the Dalai Lama’s negotiating team highlighted the positive elements of the new Chinese policy guidelines for Tibet. They believe there remains common ground for cooperation with Beijing. On this last trip, those representing the Dalai Lama proposed a joint fact-finding mission to Tibet and asked the Chinese side to stop the personal attacks on the Dalai Lama. These modest requests are not new, and the Chinese side has rejected them on previous occasions, even though both could easily fit within Beijing’s framework for the talks. But the Chinese relentlessly insists that these are just discussions about the personal status of the Dalai Lama. Beijing’s response this time will be a useful indicator of its intentions for these talks.
This week in Washington, the Dalai Lama will have an opportunity to share his analysis of China’s latest moves with President Obama and to suggest how the U.S. should support the shaky dialogue process. The Dalai Lama’s patient approach to China should resonate with President Obama, but sixty years is a long time to wait for the other party to move past the name-calling stage. As evidenced by his very public frustration in the fall of 2008, even the extraordinary patience of the Dalai Lama has limits. The people he leads are likewise becoming less serene, and they are increasingly looking for options other than his Middle Path of non-violence and outreach toward Beijing.
Given the circumstances surrounding this meeting and the urgency of the overall situation, the Dalai Lama is well positioned to push President Obama to do more than his predecessors. He should come prepared with specific deliverables and timetables in mind. The Dalai Lama will also likely reiterate in person the comments he made last fall, saying that American policy toward China should be more rooted in American values. A more realistic and principled U.S. policy toward Tibet and China is certainly an element of the Dalai Lama’s calculus for dealing with Beijing, and he has an important role to play in nudging President Obama in that direction.
Kelley Currie is a Senior Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington DC-based think tank that focuses on Asia.