Olympics may make China more obdurate over Tibet (Commentary)

August 14th, 2008 - 12:32 pm ICT by IANS  

By Mayank Chhaya
The Dalai Lama’s reported acceptance of Communist Party rule in Tibet as a gesture of sincerity to bring the resolution of the Tibetan issue within grasp is bit of a non sequitur. In an op-ed piece headlined ‘An olive branch from the Dalai Lama’, Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times quoted the Dalai Lama as having accepted Communist rule as a major concession to elevate the dialogue to a far more efficacious level than it has been in the past six years. Then he quoted the Tibetan leader as making an assertion that is the real crux of the dispute now. “The main thing is to preserve our culture, to preserve the character of Tibet. That is what is most important, not politics,” the Dalai Lama said.

In China’s view the Dalai Lama’s acceptance is really no concession since in Beijing’s view Tibet’s subservience to its overarching political socialist ideology was not up for any discussion in the first place.

The real question is: can Communist Party rule be so accommodating as to allow the Tibetans to preserve a culture and character which so fundamentally diverge from the established wisdom in Beijing? The question goes to the heart of broader religious, cultural and political freedoms for not just Tibetans but for the Chinese generally that the Communist Party has so severely restricted.

Tied to the question of Tibetan culture and character is the very definition of China which officially recognises 56 distinct ethnic groups, Tibetan being one of them. Would Beijing indulge the six million Tibetans with such freedoms as it has continued to deny other much larger ethnic groups? The notion that all these ethnic groups flourish under one benign and predominantly Han Chinese umbrella was rudely disproved in the recent deaths of 16 armed policemen in the restive Xinjiang region where some nine million Uighur restive Muslims live.

It is true that in terms of their sheer demographic muscle the 55 non-Han Chinese ethnic groups constitute barely eight percent or some 112 million out of the 1.3 billion Chinese. Beijing cannot grant the Tibetans any special favours in the name of preserving their culture and character without running the risk of creating similar expectations among the other ethnic groups. Of course, one can reasonably argue that the case of Tibet is distinct and unique inasmuch as it once constituted a living nation of its own strength and rich history. But that is an argument China settled in its own mind over five decades ago when it annexed it.

On the face of it the Dalai Lama’s acceptance of the socialist system under Communist rule in Tibet seems like a major offer. But seen in the context of his insistence on maintaining his homeland’s cultural and religious uniqueness it may not amount to much as a negotiating device. Assimilation of sub-nationalities has been one of the core principles of Chinese Communist thinking.

Although China ostensibly celebrates the majesty of its multi-ethnic character, in reality the minorities are merely one more prop in its well-oiled PR machine that projects the country as a picture of harmony. Even special rights such as being able to have more than one child that the minorities enjoy much to the resentment of the majority Han Chinese do not do much to help their real plight.

It is anybody’s guess whether China will treat the Dalai Lama’s overtures with any degree of seriousness or merely interpret them as a sign of his growing exasperation. On his part, the Dalai Lama has really made some very serious efforts to find a solution to the dispute of which he is the most high profile victim. Even a Buddhist monk as full of equanimity, compassion and detachment as the Dalai Lama has to operate within the limits of reasonableness set by his people. It is more than likely that the younger generation of Tibetans, particularly those in exile, will be less than pleased with his offer.

More than any other politically well-defined nation-state, China is astute at spotting a weakness and exploiting it. It is possible that the latest move by the Dalai Lama will be seen as a sign of weakness by Beijing. The Dalai Lama may be making that gesture out of a genuine wish to move the dialogue forward but there is nothing to suggest that the Chinese leadership will choose to view it in that light.

In this context, a successful execution of the 2008 Beijing Olympics could well make China more obdurate in dealing with its many unsettled disputes, of which Tibet is the most prominent one.

(Mayank Chhaya is a Chicago-based journalist whose book “Dalai Lama: Man Monk Mystic” has been published in over a dozen languages worldwide. He can be reached at contact@mayankchhaya.com)

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