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Tibet Issue Is Ripe for Solving

October 27, 2002|Orville Schell | Orville Schell is a longtime writer about Chinese and Tibetan affairs and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.

BERKELEY -- A great opportunity was lost Friday when President Bush met with Chinese President and Communist Party Chairman Jiang Zemin without taking up the situation in Tibet.

China held out a tantalizing hope last month in hosting a delegation from the Dalai Lama's government in exile on a visit to China and Tibet. Now would have been the moment to advance that initiative.

But it is still not too late to take up the challenge of resolving Tibet's status, a problem that has long bedeviled Tibetans and ethnic Chinese alike. In fact, Hu Jintao, who appears slated to assume leadership of China next month when Jiang steps down, was China's party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region from 1988 to 1992. Understanding the complexities of Tibet's difficult relationship with China puts him in an excellent position to distinguish the beginning of his tenure as supreme leader of China by helping to untie this Gordian knot.

If Hu fails to address issues of human rights in Tibet and the region's desire for autonomy, his country will be the worse for his lapse. In the Palestinian territories, in Kashmir, in the former Yugoslavia, we have seen how unattended conflicts with ethnic subtexts can erupt in ways that make them virtually impossible to solve. It's in China's interest not to let that happen in Tibet.

When Jiang's government met last month with Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, representatives of the Dalai Lama's government in exile, it seemed to indicate a new flexibility on the part of Beijing -- a flexibility that will be necessary if China wants to resolve its long-standing differences with Tibet. On assuming office, Hu should follow up on this initial olive branch with further initiatives aimed at advancing the situation toward a truly durable solution.

Fortunately, Tibet is not beyond remedy. And one can hardly imagine a better way for a Chinese leader to establish himself in office than to offer a peaceful solution.

The Dalai Lama has proposed a reasonable compromise: In return for a high degree of Tibetan autonomy and permission to return home to Lhasa, his government in exile would yield to the Chinese government's claim of sovereignty and its desire to continue controlling Tibet's foreign affairs and defense.

This is clearly a win-win-win proposition. China gains the Dalai Lama's acknowledgment that Tibet is in fact a part of a multiethnic China, thereby removing the contentious issue of independence from the board. Tibet wins China's agreement to allow the Dalai Lama to return home and help stem the erosion of Tibetan Buddhism and traditional culture that, with the large influx of Han Chinese, has drawn the region ever deeper into the pull of Chinese cultural and political gravity. And the world gains by being relieved of the burden of a major point of global tension.

A solution to the Tibet problem would greatly improve China's global image. The situation in Tibet, which many around the world see as a form of quasi-colonial occupation, has been an ongoing stain on China's international reputation. Working out a solution that would facilitate the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet would not only help remove much of the stigma of the last half-century but would also allow the Dalai Lama to help soothe and manage the tensions that have built up over the years.

While the situation may appear to have been superficially quiet of late, it is no secret that smoldering resentments remain, and that these resentments could easily lead to yet another overt conflict. Should that happen, it might then be too late for the kind of peaceful reconciliation that now offers itself as a real possibility.

I have often, and only half-jokingly, noted to Chinese friends who are wary of the Tibetan government in exile that most non-Chinese world leaders would be only too happy to have the Dalai Lama as an adversary. He is, after all, renowned for his tolerance, his good sense and his compassion. Chinese officials must realize, having recently hosted a Tibetan delegation, that in the Tibetans they have an immensely reasonable partner for negotiation.

Solving the Tibet problem in a peaceful, equitable and magnanimous way would provide an extraordinary beginning to Hu's tenure as China's leader. It would also be an astute way for China to continue cementing better relations with the U.S.

For those of us watching around the world, a creative, new solution to this long-stalemated issue would serve as a very convincing sign that China was changing, maturing and becoming more receptive to assuming a greater role on the global stage as a constructive, reliable and forward-looking power. During this time of deep anxiety over international terrorism and ethnic strife, such an expression of Chinese leadership would go a long way to impressing and reassuring the world. Hu could leave no greater legacy.

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