China agrees to talks

Wen Jiobao agreed today, after pressure from the world community, to hold talks with the Dalai Lama. His position, however, is that the Dalai Lama needs to drop the idea of an independent Tibet.  He linked it with Taiwan’s situation.

It’s been a long time since the Dalai Lama has made independence one of his demands. The Tibetan community in exile continues to make this demand; it remains a highly emotional issue. But the Dalai Lama says he will accept being part of China as long as it has cultural and religious freedom. We’ll have to see how these talks work things out.

Emotions are high on both sides; nationalism does this to people! Nationalism is a Western idea that has seen its day. In a world where we are increasingly interdependent, nationalism makes less and less sense.  But how can you blame “emerging nations” like China (and India) who are modernizing at an astonishing pace; they feel a sense of pride.  And hosting the Olympics is their great “coming out” party and they don’t want it ruined by “criminal elements”. 

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Reflecting on what’s happening in Tibet

I recently returned from another trip to Kham, the eastern Tibetan plateau – now Gansi Prefecture in Sichuan Province, China. I’ve been taking groups of high school students up there each March since 2004. Our trip this year was 2 weeks earlier than usual and we were back in Hong Kong on March 8, 2 days before protests began in Lhasa. Ours was the last group of foreign tourists in the area. Since then Kangding and all points West of there have been closed to foreigners. 

The calm before the storm . . .

It is difficult to say when things will settle down but this has been a confrontation waiting to happen. Now it has happened and has forced an issue that must be resolved. For a thorough report on what’s happening read the article in AsiaTimes online: Tibet, China and the West: Back to Stereotypes by Kent Ewing.

Historically China has been built up by a series of conquests. Powers have attacked and conquered the fertile plains and river valleys of China but stayed on to become part of a new mix of peoples. Tibet at its height of empire was one of these conquering powers.  Tibet’s conquest of China had a unique twist: instead of assimilation, an interesting relationship developed in which the Dalai Lamas become spiritual mentors to Mongol and Chinese rulers. This relationship started with the Mongols and continued throughout the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Tibet, for the most part, has always managed its own affairs and pursued its own culture due, to a great extent, to its geographic isolation. (Read China-German relations cool over Dalai Lama, by Manik Mehta in Taiwan Journal for more historical background.)

With the appearance of communism – a Western idea, by the way – Chinese rulers refused Tibetan spiritual authority over them, of course, and laid claim to Tibet as part of “the motherland”.  Modern technologies breached the geographic barriers and Tibet’s isolation ended.

In my opinion, the way forward for both Tibet and China is to re-establish the special pre-communist relationship they once enjoyed.

Tibet, and especially the Tibetan community in exile, has preserved an inestimable body of spiritual wisdom that the people of China have already begun to appreciate. Thousands of Chinese are turning to Tibetan Buddhism to quench their spiritual thirst. Well educated people from Beijing and Shanghai have begun to visit monasteries and lamas in all parts of the Tibetan areas in search of spiritual practices, understanding and reconciliation. 

Let Tibet be autonomous rather than independent. Fine. It can be argued that that’s how things have historically been. After all, Hong Kong is part of China but continues to enjoy an open society and an open market. One country, two systems. Give Tibetans the same opportunity to have their own local government while remaining part of the larger China. I don’t think the Dalai Lama would be opposed to this proposal.

Let Tibetans flourish in their own way. Let the Han Chinese stay. Open Tibet up to the rest of the world. I think we’ll all be amazed what could develop. And the Chinese people, with access to Tibetan spiritual teachers, will likewise benefit.

This is all very wishful thinking unless the current Chinese leadership drastically changes its stance and can welcome frank, open dialog with the Dalai Lama.