Dispatch

Why the Dalai Lama Needs to Get Real

Advocates of Tibetan rights are disappointed that Barack Obama has chosen not to meet with the holy man who carries their banner. But they should be learning from the U.S. president's pragmatism instead.

Just as a prophet is without honor in his homeland, a holy man is mostly unwelcome in the realm of international realpolitik. In the 50th year of his exile from Tibet, the Dalai Lama is undoubtedly familiar with that unofficial diplomatic wisdom. But the idealists who supported Barack Obama in his presidential campaign received a rude lesson last week when the U.S. president declined to meet the Dalai Lama. The pragmatism that is Obama's diplomatic lodestar, it seems, comes at a price: Illusions must be abandoned. Publicly recognizing China's territorial unity is the sin qua non for effective bilateral diplomatic relations, and Obama knows it.

The Bush administration made much of the idea of China becoming a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system, but actually did little to implement that goal. But in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, and given China's vastly increased importance to global economic stability, the Obama administration must recognize China's enlarged role in international decision-making. Antagonizing China's government over Tibet is no way to get it to act responsibly, whether on economic issues or on climate change. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled her recognition of this reality earlier this year when, on her first visit to China, she deliberately avoided the issue of human rights in Tibet.

Why does Tibet matter so much to China? Sixty years ago, when Mao proclaimed the birth of a new China, he did so in the name of reasserting not only the country's independence from colonial influence, but also its unity. Coherence is a key concept in a country that, as recently as the Warlord Period of the early 20th century (1916-1928), was splintered into separate, rival regions. And territorial integrity is all the more important to the government's legitimacy now that Maoist ideology has been jettisoned.

So, while loudly proclaiming the unity of the Chinese state, China's leadership is obsessed with workinh to reduce tensions between its provinces.

Official rhetoric does not admit this fear, insisting instead that all of China's peoples, including non-Chinese in Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang, are firm and loyal patriots. But the government's frequent rotation of local officials tells a different story. Keen to prevent any coalescence of regional identity and local authority, senior officers in China's seven military districts are also transferred regularly.

The central government also takes care to shape the country's military districts so that they do not overlap with regional or economic divisions. This is meant to ensure that military and economic regionalism cancel each other out and thus pose no risk to the country's unity. If China's rulers are so cautious to ensure obeisance in regions peopled by the dominant Han population, they are even more anxious to make certain that regions where ethnic minorities reside -- such as Tibet -- remain quiescent.

But the Tibetans have been anything but silent in their quest to proclaim the independence of "Greater Tibet," a territory that includes not only the autonomous region of Tibet but also any neighboring territory within China that has Tibetan inhabitants. Last year, the Chinese government was forced by the violent pre-Olympic protests in Tibet and other ethnic Tibetan parts of China to take some action, reviving confidence-building talks with envoys nominated by the Dalai Lama. Neither side placed much hope in the process: China was patently concerned with preventing the protests from disrupting the Olympics, while Tibetans were divided about what they wanted the talks to achieve.

In the discussions, China's negotiators asked the Tibetans to present their demands. Most people around the world think that these demands reflect the Dalai Lama's desire for an autonomous Tibet within China, which he has advocated since 1988 -- and which China's lead representative denounced as amounting to "disguised independence." But autonomy means something slightly different for the Dalai Lama.

The "Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People," which guides the Tibetan government-in-exile's policy, calls for major concessions including  the creation of a new self-governing territory encompassing all areas inhabited by ethnic Tibetans (approximately 25 percent of China's total territory); restrictions on non-Tibetans moving to Tibetan areas; and power over all affairs within this "Tibetan" territory (including control over the transfer of non-state-owned land), except for external defense and some aspects of foreign relations.

China will never accept the basic premise of this demand -- a self-governing Greater Tibet. For China's leadership, that demand amounts not only to a step toward full independence (a Greater Tibetan nation would almost certainly fuel an even more assertive Tibetan nationalism than exists today), but also as incitement to others -- such as the Uighurs of Xinjiang -- to demand equal independence.

Moreover, the Chinese view the very concept of Greater Tibet as one that reveals the Dalai Lama's hidden intentions. Many of the Tibetans who live in the Chinese provinces that border Tibet and would be part of a Greater Tibet arrived in these areas only in the last 50 years. So to ordinary Chinese it seems hypocritical that Han Chinese shouldn't be allowed to move to Tibet, but that Tibetans who emigrate into other Chinese provinces somehow gain a claim to self-government in those regions.

Unfortunately for the Dalai Lama, he will find it hard to retreat from the idea of a Greater Tibet without appearing to sell out his followers. Indeed, his failure to make progress in negotiations with China has encouraged some exiled Tibetans to demand full independence.

Faced with this dilemma, leaders of the Tibetan exile government retreat to the one strategy that both unites them and mobilizes international public opinion: demonizing China for human rights abuses in Tibet. But this strategy is increasingly alienating the Chinese population, which senses a growing anti-Han racial rage. This racial antagonism, moreover, only serves to energize grassroots Chinese nationalism, because past national suffering, including war, famine, and foreign occupation, is associated with a weak and fragmented state.

The only solution for the Tibetans is to engage with China in ways that do not conjure up visions of disintegration and ethnic separatism. Here the crucial first step is for the Dalai Lama to reconsider the scope of the autonomy for which the Tibetans are asking. Demands that Tibetans living outside the boundaries of Tibet should fall under the autonomous structure the Dalai Lama seeks are, quite simply, not acceptable for the Chinese.

If the Dalai Lama is to be taken seriously by China as a negotiating partner, in fact, he must emulate President Obama and learn realpolitik. That means acknowledging that he is negotiating only over the territory contained within the borders of the Tibet that he fled 50 years ago. Only by limiting Tibetan demands in this way will it be possible to begin to convince ordinary Chinese that he is not hellbent on splitting their country.

MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

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