Sunday, April 13, 2008

Let's Make a Deal - PRC and the Dalai Lama

Comment is Free -the Guardian 11 April
Ian Williams

It's absurd to claim the Olympics are not political. They are clearly designed to showcase the host country - and its government. No one knows which party will be in government in Whitehall for the London Olympics, but very few doubted which regime would be in charge in Beijing when the international Olympic committee picked it as the venue for this year's games.

It was equally clear that there were many interest groups eager to use China's concern that no one rained on its big parade to get leverage. The Olympic committee itself secured commitments on freedom of expression for the press, and NGO pressure has already secured weakening of China's support for Sudan. Watch out for similar processes and protest if Beijing protégé Robert Mugabe tries to hang on in Harare.

But over Tibet, Beijing is missing a serious opportunity. The Dalai Lama has made it clear all along that he would cut a deal with Beijing short of independence - which is not necessarily true of younger Tibetan activists suffering under Chinese occupation tactics. However, the Dalai Lama has enough clout to swing a compromise.

He is, after all, no longer young. In fact he is older than the People's Republic itself. Technically, when he dies, he enters the Celestial Olympic relay race. The monks in Tibet will go on their cross-country run to see into which newborn his soul has sprinted. At the risk of violating the new strictures from the UN human rights council on disrespecting religions, I may say that I doubt this myself.

Indeed even the Dalai Lama himself seems agnostic on the question, since he has been suggesting elections and similar un-heavenly ways of appointing a successor. The atheists in Beijing indignantly condemned any hint that reincarnation was not the way to go, waving the Book of the Dead with the fervour with which they once brandished Mao's Little Red Book.

Of course, some Chinese and their apologists claim that the Chinese occupation freed the Tibetans from religious obscurity and backwardness. They may even have a point. But then the British claimed to be rescuing Ireland from the backwardness of obscurantist papism - but forgot to ask the Irish about it. China is making the same mistake, and flooding the Himalayas with Han settlers is unlikely to help.

It is in the nature of totalitarian thought processes that they do not have to connect the dots between their dicta. If the Dalai Lama is a living, divine reincarnation, then they really should talk to the one they have now. He is urbane, reasonable and pragmatic by most quasi-divine standards,

When he dies, there will almost certainly be a schism: one effectively nominated by the Commissars, and another by the Tibetan Diaspora. The "Chinese" one will be rather young and inexperienced by definition, not to mention somewhat tainted by Beijing's hand in the selection, while the exterior one, if elected, would lack the traditional authority.

The existing Dalai Lama could accept a Hong Kong-style deal, albeit with real autonomy, in return for a Chinese flag and token garrison in Lhasa. Beijing allows Hong Kong to control the admission of other Chinese citizens, even though they share an ethnicity and languages. Tibet, and indeed the Uyghurs in Xinxiang should have the same privilege of controlling immigration. Hong Kong has its own representative offices around the world. Of course one presumes that the Tibetans want no sunset clause on their autonomy and democratic elections - which would give Beijing good reason to control the border to stop the infection spreading.

It would certainly be cheaper than the PRC's costs to maintain the occupation, which brings no economic return for the occupiers.

The alternative is that eventually China will have to accept that sovereignty is not a divine mandate from heaven, but derives from the consent of the government, and that Beijing's behaviour in Tibet is boosting the calls for independence. History proves that denying a people a say in their future reinforces their demands.

Time to talk to the Dalai Lama.

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