It wasn't really surprising that the Dalai Lama finally announced this weekend that he's given up on talks with China. But it's pretty sad nonetheless. And it means that unless there's a fundamental change in the PRC's attitude toward Tibet, the Dalai Lama is likely to die outside of China and Tibetan culture will, like so many others around the world, just fade away.
"I have been sincerely pursuing the middle way approach in dealing with China for a long time now but there hasn't been any positive response from the Chinese side," the Dalai Lama said in Tibetan at a public function Saturday, according to the AP. He made his remarks in the north Indian mountain town of Dharmsala that has been home to Tibet's government-in-exile ever since the Dalai Lama fled China in 1959.
"As far as I'm concerned I have given up."
This is extremely blunt stuff from a leader who is always holding open the door to compromise and almost preternaturally optimistic. But it's also an accurate reflection of reality. The Chinese government has been dabbling in talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama for years. But at no point was there ever really a sense that the Chinese were sincere in their attempts to solve the Tibetan problem.
At regular junctures during the talks, Chinese government spokesmen would issue a set of demands. On a regular basis, the Chinese upped the ante. First they wanted the Dalai Lama to accept Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. He did. Then they wanted him to announce that Tibet was not only part of Chinese territory but that Taiwan was, too. (This was to punish him for traveling to Taiwan.) Then they wanted him to pretty much confine his potential role in Tibet to that of a religious or cultural figure. He said he would do that as well. In June, he told Nick Kristof of the New York Times that he could accept the socialist system in Tibet under Communist Party rule.
"The main thing is to preserve our culture, to preserve the character of Tibet," the Dalai Lama told Kristof. "That is what is most important, not politics."
The latest demand was that the Dalai Lama confine his focus to what is known as "political Tibet." The Dalai Lama has also expressed concern about the destruction of Tibetan culture in areas outside of Tibet, in Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces, for example. The Dalai Lama has been reluctant to accede to this demand because a large percentage of the 200,000 some Tibetans in exile hail from those provinces.
Following the Tibetan riots in Lhasa and Tibetan protests in many other provinces this year, China resumed "talks about talks" with representatives of Dalai Lama. The Chinese government did this in the run-up to the Olympics as a political measure to take the heat off. But it's clear now that the PRC was never really interested in a solution.
So what is China's policy towards Tibet? I've had several long discussions with Chinese officials about this issue over the years. Each time I've laid out my analysis and asked them to disagree with it. Each time, they have not challenged me. My analysis is simple: China's government is waiting for the Dalai Lama who is 73 to die. When he does, their calculus is that the Tibetan movement, denied a charismatic leader, will split into factions. The romantic idea of Tibet, which has been so important to the movement over the years, will lose its traction in Hollywood and among the jet setting cognescenti. The Tibetan movement will devolve into just another movement of a minority culture in a very big world. And China will be essentially off the hook.
To be sure, there are optimistic Westerners as well who think that China will do the right thing and let the Dalai Lama return to China to attend to his people and attempt to preserve what remains of their culture. But I think the optimists are wrong for two reasons. First is that currently (and I'd wager for the foreseeable future) no leader in China will have the heft to push such a big change like this through a party-state structure hardwired to be cautious.
Over the past 70 years of history, China's leaders have grown increasingly weaker. Mao was a supremo; Deng was pretty tough; Jiang grew in power over time, but still could not compare with Deng; and Hu Jintao, the current No. 1, runs the show with eight other guys looking over his shoulder.
Second, China's security services are deathly afraid of the Dalai Lama because he retains enormous influence among his people. In the late 1990s, the Dalai Lama asked to visit a Buddhist center in northern China called Wutai Shan. The security services nixed the trip because, as one official told me, "there would be a line of 2 million praying Tibetans stretching from Lhasa across my country." He and others predicted that If the Dalai Lama returned, Tibet would most surely rise up against Chinese rule.
The Dalai Lama has called for a special meeting of Tibetan exiles in the second week of November to discuss the future of the Tibetan movement. It's a grim future no matter how you cut it.