By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
One June 3, 2012, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile (TGIE) announced that Kalon Tripa Lobsang Sangay had accepted the resignations of Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen as the envoys for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in negotiations with the Chinese authorities.[i]
In their resignation letter the two envoys stated:
“Given the deteriorating situation inside Tibet since 2008 leading to the increasing cases of self-immolations by Tibetans, we are compelled to submit our resignations. Furthermore, the [China’s] United Front did not respond positively to the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People presented in 2008 and its Note in 2010. One of the key Chinese interlocutors in the dialogue process[ii] even advocated abrogation of minority status as stipulated in the Chinese constitution thereby seeming to remove the basis of autonomy. At this particular time, it is difficult to have substantive dialogue.”
The Kashag responded by reiterating that the “Tibetan leadership remains firmly committed to non-violence and the Middle-Way Approach, and strongly believes that the only way to resolve the issue of Tibet is through dialogue.” However, the TGIE did not address why it remains committed to the Middle Way Approach when two of the Middle Way’s leading proponents have apparently given up on it due to the lack of positive response from China and the deteriorating situation inside Tibet.
The resignation of Gyari and Gyaltsen is a watershed event in the decades-long process of Chinese-Tibetan negotiations. To be clear, Gyari and Gyaltsen did not specifically say they personally no longer support the Middle Way. Nevertheless, their resignations strongly signal a lack of meaningful results under the Middle Way Approach and demonstrate a loss of faith in the dialogue process by two of its most visible proponents.
Kalon Tripa Lobsang Sangay was elected on a platform of “change”. Many of his supporters said they voted for Sangay because they thought he would bring change to the TGIE and come up with new ideas in Tibet’s struggle for freedom. However, since his election, Sangay has maintained a very solid and consistent position supporting the Middle Way Approach.
The Middle Way has been the TGIE’s policy since the Dalai Lama’s Strasbourg Proposal and Five-Point Peace Plan, which called for genuine Tibetan autonomy as part of People’s Republic of China. Over time the Middle Way proposal has been whittled down from essentially “everything except defense and foreign affairs” to accepting Chinese Communist Party rule while focusing more on Tibetans’ cultural rights. In 2008 the TGIE formally presented China with the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People (the Memorandum) and clarifying Note, which together present the most detailed explanation of the Middle Way to date. Sangay has repeatedly thrown his support fully behind the Memorandum.
Sangay said he is for dialogue with China at any time and any place. China responded by saying they would never negotiate with Sangay or the TGIE, and referred to him as a “terrorist.”[iii] Sangay may be hopeful for dialogue with China, but it is clear it will never negotiate directly with him or TGIE representatives. How Sangay’s administration intends to get China to the negotiating table with the TGIE, or even with Gyari’s and Gyaltsen’s possible replacements as envoys, is not clear – nor has the TGIE yet elaborated on this point.
In any event, China has said it will only negotiate with His Holiness’ representatives and will only discuss the conditions for His Holiness’ return to Tibet, never Tibet’s current or future political status.[iv] China has repeatedly said His Holiness must also give up the claim for Tibetan independence (which He has) and recognize Tibet and Taiwan as inseparable parts of China.[v] Chinese officials have also stated they would never agree to re-unite Amdo and Kham areas (where approximately 4 million Tibetans live) with the present-day Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).
For the Tibetan side, the TGIE wants genuine internal autonomy for the entire Tibetan Plateau, which includes the TAR and all Tibetan autonomous areas in Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces, as one autonomous region. In exchange, the TGIE would recognize Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and “not challenge the socialist system of the PRC” (as stated in the Note, meaning that the Chinese Communist Party would remain in control). Yet China refuses to even acknowledge that there is an issue beyond His Holiness’s personal status.
It is abundantly clear that the two sides remain vastly far apart on many issues. China has not agreed to any points proposed by the TGIE in the Memorandum. It often seems the Chinese and Tibetan delegates are talking past each other as they cannot even agree on what the dialogue is for, even though they have had nine and a half meetings in the last decade (counting the informal May 2008 meeting). This divide has been clear to many observers. However, until now, the TGIE and the envoys maintained that despite no positive movement from Beijing, they were firmly committed to the Middle Way Approach and the dialogue process.
The resignations of the leading envoys and their reasons for their resignations are a serious blow for the future of the Middle Way. If His Holiness’ leading representatives, who were deep in the trenches in dialogue with the Chinese, essentially no longer believe the Middle Way is feasible, then what (beyond inertia) is driving the TGIE’s support for the Middle Way?
Yet the TGIE remains firmly committed to the Middle Way Approach, even if it cannot clearly articulate why it supports it. Since the TGIE cannot provide a rationale, one can only conclude that it is because it is still the policy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In fact, in recent tours in the US and Europe, His Holiness again publicly supported the Middle Way.[vi] In an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan, His Holiness even said the majority of Tibetan people support the Middle Way (however, we have not seen any evidence to support this claim as it applies to inside Tibet, and polls suggest only a minority of Tibetans outside Tibet support the Middle Way as such.).
We believe His Holiness wants the TGIE, as a now fully-elected democratic government, to make its own decision about whether to pursue autonomy or independence for Tibet or some other option. Since His Holiness’ devolution of political power in 2011, He has made it abundantly clear that He is no longer the political head of the TGIE and the elected Tibetan leaders must decide political policies. The Middle Way Approach, though supported by His Holiness, is no longer His policy. The Middle Way is now TGIE’s policy and therefore, the TGIE can change the policy if it wishes. Indeed, any results, or lack of results, are now the responsibility of the TGIE.
The TGIE should not use His Holiness as an excuse to maintain a policy that does not appear to be working and has not achieved any meaningful results in the last quarter-century. If the TGIE continues the Middle Way Approach, it must justify that approach for its own reasons and explain those reasons to the Tibetan public. The Middle Way Approach, as a political policy, should rise or fall on its own merits. Deference to His Holiness, while understandable in the context of traditional Tibetan culture, should not be a basis to maintain a political policy that appears increasingly unrealistic.
Looking Back on the Middle Way
This is not to say the Middle Way Approach was a waste of time or was a mistake from the beginning. There was a potentially rational reason to support the Middle Way at one time, when China was liberalizing before the Tiananmen Massacre, and Deng Xiaoping supposedly suggested that anything but Tibetan independence was negotiable. To its credit, the TGIE patiently tried for many years to negotiate a resolution to the Tibetan issue that, in theory, would satisfy China and achieve self-rule for Tibetans.
However, in the last ten years the human rights situation in Tibet has greatly deteriorated. There was a nationwide uprising in 2008 and since 2009 Tibet has been convulsed by a wave of self-immolations. Hundreds of Tibetans have been imprisoned for expressing their support for a free Tibet and China has turned the entire Tibetan Plateau into a giant police state. China’s policies on Tibet have not become more liberal; instead they have become hardline and more draconian.
China has unequivocally rejected the Middle Way Approach, has refused to negotiate Tibet’s political status, and now high-ranking Party leaders are arguing that China should even eliminate ethnic regional autonomy from China’s Constitution and laws. Perhaps it is time the TGIE took an introspective look at the Middle Way Approach and decide whether it really is the best policy to pursue for the Tibetan people.
The Tibetan side’s exhaustive efforts to reach a negotiated compromise via the Middle Way Approach will leave at least one crucial positive legacy. Now, no one can deny that the Tibetans tried their utmost for a quarter-century, and the Chinese refused an eminently reasonable compromise. The fact that Tibetans can say “we tried” can now serve to justify a shift towards re-embracing Tibet’s historic right to independence and sovereignty, should the Tibetan people so choose.
[ii] Referring to Zhu Weiqun, the head of the United Front Department and a Politburo member.
[v] China also demands His Holiness recognize Tibet as a historical part of China, but His Holiness has never done so and has maintained that Tibet was independent prior to 1950.