In the end, China was right. It is all about the Dalai Lama. Following a week-long “special meeting” to discuss the future of the Tibetan movement, delegates from various points in the Tibetan exile world agreed, more or less, to continue with the Dalai Lama’s 30-year-old policy of accepting Tibet’s place as a part of China while seeking greater autonomy within the Chinese state. One says “more or less” because reports have emerged that the meeting was weighted against those groups most obviously dissatisfied with the policy.
It was not the policy that sold itself but the person from whom it emanates. China has long placed the Dalai Lama’s status at the centre of its negotiation stance, offering him a nominal position should he return. And while the Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated that the Tibet issue is not about him but about all Tibetans, the end result of the special meeting bears out China’s stance: in spite of his democratic rhetoric, the Dalai Lama has never empowered Tibetans to feel comfortable taking stands at variance with him. Accusations of disloyalty to the Dalai Lama remain a weapon in political and personal feuds in Dharamsala.
But several weeks before the meeting the Dalai Lama stated that he was losing faith in China, and many Tibetan exiles energetically responded with calls, not for violence, but to make Tibet’s independence once more the official Tibetan position. They certainly felt there was good reason for concluding that negotiations with China had reached a dead end and that the Tibetans should minimally reclaim the legitimacy that their cause had lost through years of the Dalai Lama asserting (often at China’s prodding) that Tibet should not be independent and that it was to Tibet’s benefit to be a part of China. As far as the advocates for Tibet’s independence are concerned, those benefits had been on ample display in Tibet during March and April.
In 2002, following a decade without direct talks, Dharamsala once more began sending delegations to Beijing to discuss the Tibet issue. Periodically the Tibetan representatives delivered cautious assessments, citing the positive steps taken by both sides to better understand each other’s position. For many observers, however, it seemed clear that these talks were never meant to go anywhere. They were, rather, devices for marking time while China waited for the Dalai Lama to pass away. The talks also provided a convenient display of engagement at times when it was expedient to deflect international concern over China’s policies and human rights violations in Tibet.
That China was uninterested in reaching an arrangement with the Dalai Lama became obvious before discussions began. But after the latest round concluded earlier this month their futility was obvious. The perennial Tibetan delegates, Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, returned to India, vowing to make no statement before the special meeting. But there was no need for them to speak. Within days, Zhu Weiqun and Sithar, their Chinese counterparts in the meetings, held a press conference and bluntly said the talks had gone nowhere. They rejected any compromise with the Dalai Lama on any of his proposals about the nature of autonomy within Tibet and stated that, while the door was open for him to return, he must reflect on his mistakes “and return to the correct and patriotic stance”. And so, after almost 30 years of contacts China signaled that they had never advanced beyond square one. It’s only about the Dalai Lama; otherwise there is no Tibetan issue. And the signals were given without any attempt to disguise China’s awareness of holding the upper hand: having successfully staged the 2008 Olympics and poised now for a major role in addressing the global financial crisis, China thumbed its nose at the Tibetan delegates who returned to India in silent embarrassment while Chinese officials let the global media in on the failed discussions.
Naivete has marked the Dalai Lama’s dealings with China. At China’s insistence he long ago repudiated Tibetan independence, delegitimising the concept in a way no Chinese leader could ever do. But he has yet to understand that he was willingly led to a dead end. Under present-day conditions, it is unlikely that demands for Tibetan independence would have brought the movement any closer to a resolution of the issue. But they could not have left Tibetans in a weaker position than they are now in; indeed, the international taint that attached to China’s possession of Tibet would have remained an advantage.
The Dalai Lama has helped remove that taint and now, after the special meeting, he remains the arbiter of the Tibetan position. Noticeably gloomy, he opined a few days ago that at least he still has faith in the Chinese people. One must ask whether he is aware of the vast groundswell of popular Chinese antipathy to Tibetans that came in the wake of the March events. In the 1990s he was in the habit of referring to Deng Xiaoping as his old friend. If Deng knew of this, he must have been bemused (or baffled) by such professions of friendship. Throughout the abortive negotiation process the Dalai Lama would seem to have been similarly speaking to imaginary friends, something most people stop doing at around age five.