A New Chance for Peace in Tibet

The death of Deng Xiaoping creates an opportunity by which China can solve one its most vexing problems: the status of Tibet. 

Next to Taiwan and Hong Kong, Tibet remains China’s greatest challenge, domestically and internationally. Instead of the peace, stability and economic development to which both Chinese and Tibetans aspire, there is continued unrest and open opposition to Chinese rule. Despite increased repression, public expressions of Tibetan nationalism continue–even terrorism, with a few bombs exploding in Lhasa. In addition, the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual and lay leader, has successfully internationalized the question of Tibet, resulting in universal condemnation of Beijing’s human rights practices.

Since the 1951 incorporation of Tibet into the People’s Republic of China (the only province incorporated through a treaty) Tibetans, who are only 0.3 percent of China’s population, and Chinese have never gotten along. Beijing has tried two approaches. During the decades of the 1950s and the 1980s liberal policies were pursued; Tibetan language, traditions, and religion thrived with diminished restrictions. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s hardline policies led to increased repression and restrictions on Tibetan culture. Regardless of policy, unrest never abated and Tibetan-Chinese relations never improved significantly.

Both sides have long known that the solution lay in compromise and talks have endured intermittently, and unsuccessfully, for more than 20 years. Negotiations broke off in 1989. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly proclaimed his willingness to talk, but Beijing has dragged its feet. Deng Xiaoping’s declining health and the uncertainties of a succession struggle inhibited Chinese leaders from making any momentous decisions. Moreover, Deng Xiaoping had been personally formulating policies towards Tibet since 1950 and that personal involvement, while he lived, may have restricted his own flexibility on the issue.

However, quite recently, and very quietly, talks resumed–perhaps in anticipation of Deng Xiaoping’s death and a perception by China’s current leadership that it is secure enough in its succession that making a momentous decision on an issue as important as Tibet will not undermine their power. There is hope that now a solution may be at hand.

The Dalai Lama is now 62 years old and has lived in exile since 1959. His return to Tibet under the auspices of the Beijing government would go a long way toward achieving the goals to which both sides aspire. The major divide remains the issue of Tibetan independence.

Compromise is essential. China must openly embrace the Dalai Lama and welcome him back to Lhasa and Beijing, free political prisoners, stop the massive emigration of Chinese into Tibet and adhere (in more than name) to its own constitution, which allows for “autonomy” in regions such as Tibet. It will also have to allow the Dalai Lama the freedom to speak out and to have a free hand in the religious and cultural lives of Tibetans.

The Dalai Lama has repeatedly agreed to return to a Tibet that is less than independent. His public statements of late, including his comments upon Deng’s death, have been exceedingly conciliatory. He will be expected to dissolve the Tibetan independence movement, call on world governments to reaffirm their acknowledgement of Tibet as part of China and publicly support that position himself. He will also have to give up the idea of a greater Tibet encompassing the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan.

Through such a deal, Tibet could possibly achieve peace and cultural and religious freedom. The return of the Dalai Lama will almost certainly induce foreign investment and economic progress. Political repression could end. The Dalai Lama will be able to directly influence the lives of most Tibetans and China will solve a complex dilemma while winning international accolades for its diplomatic endeavors.

The peaceful resolution of the Tibet issue would reinforce the credibility of the current leadership and immeasurably strengthen its hand when it tackles the far more difficult issue of Taiwan. Now that Deng has died, both sides now appear determined to find a solution. The question is whether they have the courage to make the hard decisions that will allow them to move ahead.

A. Tom Grunfeld is a professor of history at SUNY/Empire State College, the author of "The Making of Modern Tibet" (2nd edition, 1996), and a writer for the History News Service.

March, 1997