Heads of State Must Be Aware of the Facts on Tibet and China

The protests marking the 49th anniversary of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet have returned the attention of the world to the region and the question of its long-term relationship with China. These protests regrettably have brought with them the loss of life, emotionally charged exchanges between Tibetans and Chinese, and over the last week, a series of violent pro-Tibet protests in London and Paris disrupting the Olympic torch relay, the symbolic inauguration of the 2008 Beijing Games.

While this latest round of protests has further threatened to tarnish the image of the Games themselves, we must not allow this to take us away from the fundamental issue at hand–the work needed to be done to develop a solution for the status of Tibet within China, while fostering the conditions for peace and stability between the Tibetans and Chinese, now and into the future.

We have to ask, why is it so important to work toward this solution now, rather than wait another two or three or five years? What makes this moment so vital? I would argue that it is not simply because of the added political leverage gained from the Beijing Olympics. Indeed, this reality is removing us from reasonable and rational dialogue on the issue. Remember, His Holiness has not called for a boycott of the Games. In the end, however, the far broader threat to Tibetan culture as a result of globalization, economic expansion and migration is real.

His Holiness has stated that neither he nor his government were responsible for the March 10 protests. This statement raises the question as to the extent of his authority over a younger generation of the Tibetan independence movement–one that is less willing to follow the route of non-violence as part of a “Middle Way” approach. We must avoid a turn to violence and radicalism from these groups at all costs. We cannot afford another Northern Ireland or Palestine.

Since these protests, two sets of demands have been made. First, from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has called for renewed dialogue with China on the basis of cultural preservation and cultural autonomy for all Tibetans, both inside and outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region–this has been described as “meaningful autonomy” and not independence.

Second, from the Chinese, in particular Premier Wen Jiabao, who while responding quite forcefully to the protests has said the “door of dialogue still remained open,” on the condition that His Holiness renounces both his claims for Tibetan independence and violent political action. There also have been numerous calls from heads of state for renewed dialogue, most recently on April 9 from President Bush.

Taken at face value, both of these demands seem compatible–His Holiness has stated repeatedly that he stands neither for political independence nor for violence.

However, ambiguity appears to creep in when we look at the direct demands that make up the Middle Way, which were updated as recently as 2006 and call explicitly for the creation of Tibetan political institutions to govern all Tibetan populated areas within China, as opposed to specific demands concerning cultural protections. Taking this ambiguity into account, the restart of substantial negotiations between His Holiness and the Chinese is not a foregone conclusion.

While six meetings have taken place between the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Chinese government since 2002, none of these meetings has featured direct negotiation on key issues with His Holiness despite a request by the Chinese, nor have they resulted in any progress concerning the fundamental issue of the status of Tibet within China.

I believe that this lack of progress is due to unrealistic demands made by His Holiness as part of his proposal for “meaningful autonomy” that extends the reach of Tibetan governance far beyond the borders of the Tibetan Autonomous Region to apply to all Tibetan populated areas. This extension has been conveyed to me by both the Chinese government in a white paper on the Tibet issue, and in a recent letter received from New York Tibetan representative Tashi Wangdi. While protections for Tibetan culture and environment need to be created and economic opportunity given, these protections need to be both realistic and pragmatic.

Still, I remain convinced that substantial negotiation is possible if His Holiness directly engages the fundamental issues concerning Tibet. I am further convinced that His Holiness will find a willing and serious partner in negotiation with the Chinese.

Why do I believe this to be the case? As part of the mandate of our LTB Foundation and our Global Creative Leadership Summit and its platform, we have been in contact with the Chinese Minister of Information–now the current Minister of Culture–Cai Wu, who is directly involved in the Tibet issue.

In meetings and correspondence since last November, Cai Wu has indicated that China is willing to host serious negotiations with His Holiness, and to focus these negotiations on the preservation of a distinct Tibetan culture within a greater China. He has also indicated that throughout the previous negotiation process, invitations for direct talks with the Dalai Lama went unanswered, which I believe was due to the personal pain felt by His Holiness over Tibet. Our meeting with Cai Wu ended with an understanding that China would provide us with further information on its position regarding Tibet. Once we received this information on paper, we agreed that our foundation would reach out to His Holiness in an effort to renew a dialogue with the Chinese.

This proved to be more difficult than anticipated. Since June 2006 we have made numerous attempts to speak with His Holiness and to develop a working relationship with his representatives. The first attempt was in Petra, Jordan, where I was the guest of King Abdullah as part of a Nobel Laureates conference. There, our foundation was turned away by the representatives of His Holiness as we sought an audience. A second attempt was made immediately following my contact with the Chinese Minister of Information last November, to no avail.

Recently, in the wake of the March 10 protests, we have been able to make more substantial contact with his representatives and discussed the Tibet issue with them, but again failed to obtain an audience with His Holiness who we were told had a tightly booked schedule over the next months.

In the intervening months, it had become increasingly clear to me that China was making an investment in culture on a scale unlike any other in the world. Moreover, Wu told me that the Chinese people deeply regretted the Cultural Revolution and were doing their best to make amends. With this we can see that China places great importance on the role of culture within society. What does this mean in terms of Tibet? The Chinese have come to recognize the need for the preservation of Tibetan culture.

It is understandable that His Holiness might be reluctant to meet and be party to a direct negotiation process on the Tibet issue. After all, His Holiness only made first contact with the Chinese over this matter in 1978, some 19 years after his flight from Tibet into exile abroad. This is certainly an extremely difficult and delicate process where there is much fear, remorse and recrimination on both sides. But it is a step that must be taken.

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux has shown that fear has the ability to monopolize the brain’s resources, since it evolved as a defense mechanism against losing concentration in the face of a threat. Furthermore, fear is seen to be self-perpetuating and contagious among a population.

Clearly, there is much fear surrounding the concerns that have set Tibet and China at odds with each other, though lately there have also been signs of reconciliation. Still, if we let this window of opportunity for renewed negotiation and renewed action close, only further catastrophe for Tibetan culture will follow.

Renewed and substantial negotiations must be sought now because the threats to Tibetan culture are real. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has explicitly said that traditional and sacred Tibetan culture, as well as its delicate environment, are under threat from economic development.

Whether it is from Western tourists seeking spiritual solace in Tibet, or Chinese nationals moving to the region in order to open businesses (two-thirds of Lhasa’s population of 300,000 is now ethnically Chinese, owning much of the business and industry), Tibetan culture is being pressured from all sides. This pressure will only continue to mount unless protections are put in place.

We must work together to find a practical and realistic solution to the long-term preservation and protection of Tibetan culture. We must find a way to restore harmony to Tibetan society and defuse the resentment felt toward the Chinese. His Holiness the Dalai Lama must be a part of this process.

If the Dalai Lama cannot be part of this process or is unwilling to take part, then we must devise an alternative way to create protection for Tibetan culture and environment–which are as deeply threatened as Tibetan society at large.

With this goal in mind, the Louise T. Blouin (LTB) Foundation, through its cultural and globalization platforms, has been working toward developing a solution to create cultural protections for Tibetans in cooperation with international heads of state and the Chinese government.

Our aim is to be a neutral party in this ongoing conflict, but we recognize that the only way to change the situation and to bring about peace is to act in a positive way toward the preservation of Tibetan culture–both inside Tibet and internationally. (We have already sent a letter to the Chinese government outlining this exact proposal.)

One potential model, in a distant corner of the globe, was the project “Bring Back New Orleans.” For this project, the LTB Foundation sponsored research and brought together the right people in Washington to make the argument that culture is in the DNA of New Orleans and that the cultural restoration of the city is vital to its future growth and sustainability.

With this initiative, we were able to obtain a Federal Appropriation of $300 million to help with rebuilding efforts. We feel that we can be successful in launching a similar campaign for the promotion and protection of Tibetan culture.

But we cannot expect substantial talks for even such a first-step project to take place if China continues to be demonized abroad. Yes, China needs to be taken to task over its human rights record, but we must understand it is a nation in transition, incrementally moving toward greater openness. We cannot let the pace of these steps blind us from addressing, rationally and realistically, what is at stake in Tibet–and to take into consideration the fact that the Chinese are willing to work on the issue.

We can also recognize that human rights abuses are not only a problem in China, but also in Africa and Latin and North America. These abuses–and the loss of lives–are not acceptable in any region.

Furthermore, world leaders, including President Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, need to be aware of several realities.

While protections of Tibet’s culture and environment are a necessity, the formal demands made as part of a “Middle Way” approach seek to establish Tibetan governance beyond the boundaries of the Tibetan Autonomous Region to include the provinces of Amdo ( Qinghai) and eastern Kham (western Sichuan)–a geography that represents approximately one-quarter of China. How different would this be from creating something called a European Union including such disparate states as Britain and Portugal, Germany and Romania?

We have also recently found out in an April 10 statement from His Holiness that this approach must also include Tibetan control over its own foreign affairs and military defense: “Tibet must have real autonomy. That means deciding defense and foreign affairs and maybe some others, but those themes that Tibetans can work [with] better.”

Are we to assume from this statement that cultural “autonomy” and the protection of Tibetan culture and environment advocated by His Holiness also require a Tibetan defense force? I have to admit that I am very confused by this statement since it was never included in the description of “meaningful autonomy” as expressed in a letter to our Foundation from New York’s Tibetan representative, Tashi Wangdi.

Yes, Tibetan culture needs to be protected and minority rights ensured. But this political process must be measured and realistic. Still, time is of the essence, and we cannot stand still while Tibetan culture and environment is further diminished by economic development, and the Tibetan movement becomes further radicalized.

Violence from both sides is not a viable and acceptable way forward. We need to encourage a renewed and informed dialogue, one that is based on flexibility, empathy and respect in order to ensure peace and coexistence not just for the present, but into the future.

This encouragement, however, must be well-informed. My plea is that world leaders prepare themselves thoroughly concerning Tibet to best address the various issues presented by both the Tibetans and the Chinese. We must not lose sight of the reality of the Iraq War–a conflict based on information that was deeply flawed. We can’t risk further destabilizing this situation in the heart of Asia by making rash judgment and decisions that lack sufficient foresight. We can’t risk a slide into catastrophe.

We also must work to ensure a successful Beijing Olympics, respecting both the Olympic “spirit” and the effort made by each individual athlete, representing his or her nation at these games.

[The following table represents the official political demands of the Tibetan Government in Exile as part of the “Middle-Way” approach, last updated in 2006; and from the Chinese government white paper provided to our Foundation on relation to the Tibet issue in 2007.]

Political Demands: Tibetan Government in Exile / People’s Republic of China

Tibetan Government in Exile(TGIE)

Middle-Way Approach (2006)

People’s Republic of China(PRC)

Tibet Policy (2007)

1. Without seeking independence for Tibet, the Central Tibetan Administration strives for the creation of a political entity comprising the three traditional provinces of Tibet.

1. Dalai Lama must abandon his independence goal and stop his separatist activities

2. Such an entity should enjoy a status of genuine national regional autonomy.

2. Must recognize that Tibet is an inalienable part of China and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.

3. This autonomy should be governed by the popularly-elected legislature and executive through a democratic process and should have an

Independent judicial system.

3. Must recognize that the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China.

4. As soon as the above status is agreed upon by the Chinese government, Tibet would not seek separation from, and remain within, the People’s Republic of China.

5. Until the time Tibet is transformed into a zone of peace and non-violence, the Chinese government can keep a limited number of armed forces in Tibet for its protection.

6. The Central Government of the People’s Republic of China has the responsibility for the political aspects of Tibet’s international relations and defense, whereas the Tibetan people should manage all other affairs pertaining to Tibet, such as religion and culture, education, economy, health, ecological and environmental protection;

7. The Chinese government should stop its policy of human rights violations in Tibet and the transfer of Chinese population into Tibetan areas

8. To resolve the issue of Tibet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama shall take the main responsibility of sincerely pursuing negotiations and reconciliation with the Chinese government.

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