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The Tibetan Agenda

Meeting with President Obama is a means to an end for the Dalai Lama, too.

7:00 AM, Feb 17, 2010 • By KELLEY CURRIE
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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.

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