China: The Dalai Lama's New Initiative for Autonomy [Part One of a Two Part Series]


Dr He Baogang

In 1987 and 1988 the XIV Dalai Lama proposed that the Government of the People's Republic of China could remain responsible for Tibet's foreign policy while Tibet would be governed by its own constitution or basic law under a popularly elected chief executive, a bicameral legislature and an independent legal system.

Recent evidence indicates that the Dalai Lama has since made a number of significant concessions. It is noticeable that the original proposal included a directly elected chief executive. In recent talks and interviews, the Dalai Lama has been emphasizing cultural autonomy and playing down the political dimension of autonomy. He has shown a respect for the Chinese constitution in saying that 'within the Chinese constitutional framework, I see there is a way to solve this unhappy situation'.

According to the idea of a 'Greater Tibet', Tibet comprises some areas now in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Ningxia. In 2003, the Dalai Lama was no longer using the concept of 'Greater Tibet'. Instead, he emphasized the protection of Tibetan culture within a Tibetan cultural zone.

The original autonomy proposal demanded the withdrawal of Chinese troops so as to transform the whole of Tibet into a zone of peace. In 2003, the Dalai Lama stated that the number of the People's Armed Police should be reduced in Tibetan cities, implying his acceptance of the deployment of Chinese troops.

The significant move was that the Dalai Lama sent his delegation led by Lodi Gyari to Beijing, Chengdu, Lhasa and Shanghai between 9 and 25 September 2002. A year later Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, accompanied by Sonam N. Dagpo and Bhuchung K. Tsering, visited the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Yunnan from 25 May to 8 June 2003.

There are some positive effects from these two visits. On the Tibet side, the Tibet government in exile adopted a moderate policy and ordered Tibetans in exile not to protest against Chinese leaders who visit Western countries. The delegation was impressed by China's rapid economic development, thus strengthening the idea that Tibet is better off staying within China than attempting to become an independent country. As the Dalai Lama said, 'the best guarantee for Tibet' is to 'remain within the People's Republic of China'.

On China's side, the local leaders in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) regarded the first visit as purely private in nature. However, Beijing acknowledged the second visit and the existence of 'official' contact between the two sides. The harsh criticism of the Dalai Lama as a divisive element seeking to split Tibet from China was reduced. The Chinese side explicitly acknowledged the positive efforts of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan leadership towards creating a constructive environment for the continuation of the present process. In August 2003, the governor of the TAR told foreign journalists that China welcomes the Dalai Lama to visit Tibet.

These two visits have given Tibetans in exile the opportunity to re-establish contacts, to explain His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Middle Way Approach towards resolving the Tibet issue, and to engage extensively with the new Chinese leaders and officials responsible for the Tibet-China relationship. The two visits were aimed at building mutual trust and confidence by dispelling misconceptions and distrust; they touched little on the real question of autonomy. It is too early yet to hold a dialogue on this issue.

WATCHPOINT: Of special concern should be an aging and ill Dalai Lama whose life was in danger in January 2002. The question is whether both sides are able to contain the radical groups or hardliners so as to prevent political violence from occurring, and work towards a cooperative and interactive future.


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