Every day, Tibetans risk their lives to speak up for the Dalai Lama’s return and against Chinese policies that constrain their free access to their spiritual leader. But Beijing so far hasn’t budged. The last request made by the Dalai Lama to return, to be with his people after a devastating earthquake in Tibet two years ago, was left unanswered. So it’s interesting that a Communist Party official said last week that the door is open for the Dalai Lama to go home anytime he likes subject to certain conditions, of course.
Could this indicate any further consideration of the Dalai Lama’s possible return? Many have speculated that the Dalai Lama’s decision this year to retire from his political duties would remove some obstacles. If so, this opening is worth exploring.
There already exists a clear basis for negotiations between the two sides to end the impasse over the fate of Tibet. Last week’s “open door” announcement was made at a Beijing press conference held to set the stage for the 60th anniversary of “the peaceful liberation of Tibet.” The celebration marks the day, May 23, 1951, when a “17-Point Agreement” was signed between representatives of the Tibetan and Chinese governments.
That agreement changed Tibet’s status from an independent nation to a theoretically autonomous part of the People’s Republic of China. It includes provisions that the central authorities would not alter the existing political system in Tibet; would allow the local Tibetan authorities to carry out reforms in consultation with the people; and that the unique religious and cultural identity of the Tibetans would be protected. This was the first instance of “one country, two systems,” a model Deng Xiaoping later championed with respect to Hong Kong.
In the decades since the agreement was signed, much has changed. After the 1959 escape of the Dalai Lama into exile in India, both sides renounced the agreement. And whatever initiatives both sides used to get the Dalai Lama back to Tibet since 1959 were either bungled, mistimed or, in the case of his own request following the 2009 earthquake, ignored.
One problem is that the Chinese seek to limit the scope of their confrontation with Tibet to the status of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama, of course, considers the well-being of some six million Tibetans living in Tibet as the defining issue but Beijing is loath to discuss this matter.
What’s worse is that Beijing has reneged on what it offered in 1951 and systematically undermined Tibetan autonomy. Tibetans have experienced the slow degradation of their distinct identity. The Buddhist culture is deliberately undermined Tibetan lamas can reincarnate only with the permission of the Chinese Communist Party while freedom of expression is blocked. Hundreds of Tibetans are imprisoned for non-violent dissent and many are broken by torture. Last month, two elderly Tibetans were reportedly killed by paramilitary troops while trying to prevent the forcible removal of hundreds of monks from Kirti monastery to be subjected to “patriotic education.”
While Beijing tries to break Tibetans’ spirit, the government is forcing the people towards assimilation into the greater Chinese state. Massive development projects facilitate unchecked Chinese migration and resource extraction.
At this impasse, a fresh and realistic look at the 1951 agreement is what’s needed, with the Dalai Lama’s return home the perfect time to push for a return to the diplomatic status quo ante. It could prove instructive for moving forward on Tibet. If Beijing was once comfortable giving Tibetans “the right of exercising national regional autonomy” in exchange for unification with “the big family of the Motherland,” both sides should try proceeding from this negotiating position. Tibetans’ demands that they not adopt Beijing’s economic or religious diktat could then follow logically.
The burden of the Chinese military occupation on local resources, competing and unequal governing authorities and the trauma of thousands of internal refugees from Communist aggression thwarted the “peaceful coexistence” that the Dalai Lama had hoped for in the 1950s. Decades of Chinese rule in Tibet are still characterized by instability, inequality and unmet grievances. Yet, watching China rise, the Dalai Lama sees the promise of a better life for all its citizens. Under circumstances that would provide Tibetans an equal footing and sufficient safeguards for their identity to thrive within the People’s Republic of China, the Dalai Lama has proposed a “Middle Way” with the hope that Chinese leaders will again opt for an accord with the Tibetans.
Indeed, the elements of the original 17-point document track very closely the “Middle Way” proposal that the envoys of the Dalai Lama have placed on the table for discussion since 2002. The Chinese government has identified a “core interest” in sovereignty and territorial integrity. An accord reached with the involvement of the Dalai Lama, who is integrally linked with the welfare of Tibet in the Tibetan psyche, would be broadly accepted and ensure stability based on the will of the people rather than on coercion or force.
The issue of Tibet has generated angst abroad and paranoia in Beijing. Now is a rare opportunity for a negotiated solution, one that could be achieved with the participation of the Dalai Lama. If sold correctly, the leaders of the Communist Party should jump at the chance to declare that the Tibet’s national leader is once more within Chinese borders indicating that Tibetans can live in harmony in China. And, for Tibetans, it could be a chance to gain the genuine autonomy they have been aspiring to.
Ms. Markey is the president of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.