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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

China's Hold on Tibet Unlikely to Loosen

November 11, 1998|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — It's a heart-warming thought, the notion that there might be a settlement between the Dalai Lama and China to resolve the future of Tibet. But chances are it's not going to happen.

The Dalai Lama has spent the last few days in Washington pursuing the wispy prospects of a deal with China. He would like to return to Tibet, from which he fled for exile amid an unsuccessful Tibetan rebellion in 1959. He is also seeking some measure of autonomy (under overall Chinese rule) for his homeland.

The Clinton administration is all for the idea of a deal. It has, in fact, devoted more effort to Tibet than any of the last five administrations. President Clinton gives the issue a high profile. John Ackerly, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, says Madeleine Albright "has been more supportive than any previous secretary of State."

Indeed, realpolitikers such as Henry A. Kissinger would be appalled at the extent to which the Clinton foreign policy team has pushed Tibet, a worthy issue on which the United States may have little to gain and a lot to lose with China's top leaders.

Yet in the end, all this flurry of activity by the Dalai Lama and the Clinton administration could come to nothing. Why? Because the idea that China is ready to make peace with the Dalai Lama rests on three assumptions, each shakier than the last.

Assumption No. 1: Chinese President Jiang Zemin really wants a deal.

Hopes were raised by the seemingly mild tone of Jiang's remarks about the Dalai Lama during his joint press conference with Clinton in Beijing last June.

But did Jiang's words reflect a change in Chinese policy, or merely a desire to please Clinton and the American audience watching that press conference? One of the several reasons Jiang has China's top job is that other Chinese leaders think he's good at handling visitors from strange lands.

Assumption No. 2: Jiang (if he really wants a settlement) will be able to enforce his will on the rest of the Chinese leadership.

Over the past few years, Jiang has shown a surprising ability to get his way in Beijing. He's outmaneuvered such potential political rivals as Qiao Shi and Li Peng.

But if he seeks some historic change in China's policy on Tibet, Jiang may find himself taking on not just other individuals in the leadership, but the Chinese People's Liberation Army.

China's interest in Tibet, after all, has been mostly strategic. It wants to prevent other countries, especially India, from gaining a foothold over Tibet's huge expanses of territory. In this view, holding Tibet helps protect China from military attack from its west.

Assumption No. 3: China will pursue a farsighted solution in Tibet, even if it causes short-term problems.

Sure, the political argument for China to come to terms with the Dalai Lama seems compelling in the long run. China gets peace in Tibet. It may win a greater degree of loyalty from Tibetans. This in turn could help in dealing with India.

China would avert the danger of a civil war or some other low-intensity conflict in Tibet. Resolving the future of Tibet might even put some new pressure on Taiwan to come to terms with the Beijing government.

But who says Chinese leaders will base their policy on what will be good for China in the long run? The immediate hassles might be too great.

If he returned to Tibet, the Dalai Lama would be mobbed by delirious crowds. China's claims of the last four decades that Tibetans are losing their enthusiasm for the Dalai Lama would be shown to the world to be the utter fiction everyone knows them to be.

Moreover, look at the impact on other parts of China that are sometimes at odds with Beijing. If Tibet won self-government under Chinese rule, what would the Uighurs of Xinjiang want? Or the Mongolians of Inner Mongolia? Or, for that matter, the residents of Shanghai, or of Guangdong Province?

"Chinese nationalism is not one of singing the praises of a richly diverse culture but one of insisting that all should 'march to the baton' of a single political authority," observed China scholar Lucian W. Pye in his book "Asia Power and Politics." Beijing's biggest fear, he said, is that "independent kingdoms will be formed" outside its centralized control.

Over the last few decades, pacifying Tibet has been an ugly and expensive problem for China. But, hard as it may be for outsiders to believe, the problem has been, in China's terms, a manageable one. By its own calculus, China may figure that a deal with the Dalai Lama is not worth the costs.

Anyone who has ever been to Tibet discovers quickly that many of the Chinese sent to work there are miserable. The high altitude, to which Tibetans are accustomed, gives many Chinese severe and chronic headaches. To Chinese, preoccupied with becoming a modern country, life even in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa seems backward and stultifying.

It is truly ironic that China, a country so sensitive to the impact of Western imperialism upon its own history, should be seeking to perpetuate some of the same ideas and concepts on an unwilling Tibet.

Yet this is the unpleasant reality the rest of the world must face, if China spurns the Dalai Lama's peace overtures. China will be choosing to keep on having headaches in Tibet, even when a cure is offered.

I hope I'm proven wrong, but the guess here is that the Dalai Lama will stay in exile and that Tibet will remain under China's tight control. American presidents come and go. Some things in China don't change so easily.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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