Why won't Beijing make peace with the Dalai Lama?

Orville Schell San Francisco Chronicle Sunday, June 24, 2001

Dear Comrades: It may strike you as presumptuous for an uninvited outsider to address the Standing Committee of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo. Through long experience in China, I am well aware of the sensitive reaction to foreigners appearing to "interfere" in "internal affairs."

It is said in your country that Americans and Chinese tongchuang yimeng -- "sleep in the same bed but dream different dreams." This is often true. However, sometimes an independent view can help break a stalemate.

And so I offer an outsider's perspective on Tibet, not as interference but as an effort to look pragmatically at this intractable problem in a different way. As Deng Xiaoping reminded us some years ago, "Black cat, white cat, what does it matter as long as it catches mice?"

I am aware that as Chinese officials, you view His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama as a die-hard "splittist" dedicated to "dismembering China." You see his public advocacy of autonomy for Tibet as little more than a smoke screen for independence. I am also aware of the fractious nature of impassioned feelings on both sides of this divide -- and how they have hopelessly deadlocked the situation.

But, cognizant of your own deep skepticism about the motives of the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, I nonetheless want to suggest that insistently clinging to this bias is not in China's best national interests, never mind the interests of Tibet and Tibetans. Moreover, I would like to suggest that without bold thinking, Chinese and Tibetans are unlikely to find the common ground necessary to make China a multiethnic state that is comfortable with itself.

So what is to be done?

Since Beijing has just held a major celebration in Lhasa to mark the 50th anniversary of "the peaceful liberation of Tibet," this is a timely moment to look for a new approach.

As members of the most powerful governing council in China, it may strike you as heretical, but in resolving the standoff with Tibet, the People's Republic of China actually has no greater potential ally than the Dalai Lama.

Instead of continuing to see him as an implacable foe and an impediment to your efforts to maintain stability and create a better life for your citizenry, you might ponder how he could be catalyzed into an asset who could serve the interests of Han Chinese and Tibetans alike.

Moreover, he is the only person capable of convincing Tibetans to express their disaffection nonviolently, thereby preventing further bloodshed and suffering. His Holiness is the only leader with sufficient credibility, stature and powers of persuasion to convince alienated Tibetans that it is in their best interest to remain citizens of sovereign China.

One can, of course, argue the history of China and Tibet in many contradictory ways. But the reality now is that if a fair and just accommodation can be worked out between Tibetans and Han Chinese, it will behoove Tibet to remain part of China.

Your challenge is to make Tibetans feel more comfortable within "the Motherland." On the Tibetan side, only one man has the moral suasion to effect such a partnership, and that is the Dalai Lama.

The greatest current danger is that cultural disenfranchisement and political alienation will lead again, as in 1987 and 1989, to violent demonstrations in Lhasa and elsewhere in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. While substantial elements of the People's Liberation Army, Public Security Bureau and the People's Armed Police have prevented large-scale incidents over the past 12 years, constabulary control is not a long-term solution. One has only to look at what is happening in Israel or Kosovo to see how unhealed ethnic strife almost inevitably leads to eruptions of violence.

Now, you may object that the Dalai Lama is part of an unalterable "antagonistic contradiction," to put it in the words of Mao Zedong. In the United States, those who believe in "engagement" argue sensibly that if the People's Republic of China is treated as an adversary by hostile Americans, it will become just such an adversary, possibly even an enemy. The same dynamic holds true for Tibetans and Chinese.

If the Standing Committee is unable to find a way to cultivate the goodwill of His Holiness -- if it can't begin cautiously to trust his good intentions and to experiment with his eagerness to work toward reconciliation -- foes will remain foes. Then, it is hard to imagine how the Tibetan impasse will ever be resolved.

The most frightening prospect is that, as leaders, you will miss the opportunity to avail yourself of the Dalai Lama's considerable acumen and powers of conciliation. He is now 64. After his death, you will suddenly find yourself deprived of a potential ally for whom there will be no replacement. So, now is the moment to summon the wisdom, strength and vision to attempt to turn what may look like a liability into an asset.

The hallmark of greatness in leadership is almost always the ability of new leaders to cast aside old attitudes and policies when they no longer serve the best interests of the people.

The challenge is to experiment with new ways of solving old problems: to imagine the Dalai Lama as a constructive rather than a destructive force, begin a dialogue with him, grant him a new dignity in the eyes of your people and find a mutually agreeable way for him to return to Lhasa as a religious and cultural avatar.

By doing so, not only would you begin to resolve one of the most dangerous and debilitating problems confronting China today, but you would win the immediate acclaim and gratitude of people everywhere in the world. What is more, China would almost certainly find that unrelated issues that depend on international trust -- such as entrance into the World Trade Organization, Beijing's bid for the summer Olympic Games and myriad other issues in China's foreign relations, especially Sino-U.S. relations -- would suddenly be cast in a very different light.

The undeniable truth is that China's impasse with His Holiness significantly harms China's acceptance as a great and respected power. And so, if for no other reason than to help your country gain the kind of stature it truly deserves, the Tibet problem must be solved.

What perplexes many American politicians is: Why does the Tibet situation remain so intractable when a solution is so clearly in the interest of all parties?

After all, this is an era of self-determination. Most colonies and territories have been granted independence. Quebec is regularly allowed to vote on secession from Canada. Scotland holds referendums on autonomy from Great Britain. Why should Tibet not have the right to determine its future relationship to China?

Is not Tibet geographically separate, ethnically distinct, linguistically different and culturally unrelated to China? Of course, such talk makes you nervous, even angry. But it should be emphasized that members of the Dalai Lama's government in India are not now insisting on independence. And most of his supporters applaud his efforts toward working out a truly "autonomous" new status for Tibet under Chinese sovereignty.

Before it's too late, you should realize that despite your government's considerable efforts to promote its policies through propaganda here in the West, the battle is being lost. Unlike President Clinton, President Bush just recently invited His Holiness for an official White House visit.

Even loyal "friends of China" find themselves ever more at odds with both the theory and practice of your Tibet policies.

Dianne Feinstein, the U.S. senator from San Francisco, is co-author (along with Rep. Tom Lantos of San Mateo County) of the Tibetan Policy Act of 2001. The legislation would help Tibetans "safeguard their distinct identity" and "initiate a dialogue between the Chinese leadership and Dalai Lama."

The bill reflects growing frustration among politicians in the United States.

For many years, Feinstein and her husband, financier Richard Blum, have worked quietly behind the scenes to cut the knot that binds Tibet and China in such a deleterious way. She has talked frequently both with the Dalai Lama (with whom she became acquainted through her husband's long association with the Himalayan region) and with the Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin (whom she came to know through a sister-city relationship when she was mayor of San Francisco and he of Shanghai).

Now, she doesn't mask her disappointment.

"I have worked for the past 10 years to implore the Chinese leadership to enter into a constructive dialogue with the Dalai Lama," she says, "but Beijing has consistently ignored promises to preserve indigenous Tibetan political, cultural and religious systems."

Like so many other global leaders who want nothing but the best for China and Tibet, Feinstein sees the Dalai Lama not only as an eminently reasonable man committed to the principles of nonviolence but also as a powerful potential partner for you to team up with in a process of peaceful reconciliation.

It is a great challenge. But it would be a great shame if, during this era of reform and opening up, leaders of China don't find a way to "seize the moment," as Chairman Mao once said. If you succeed, your political legacy would be a Tibet at peace and a more unified China.

Orville Schell is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and a longtime China observer.