Solving the Tibetan Problem

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Tibet is everywhere these days. Its images are used to sell insurance; the Dalai Lama's face appears on billboards to promote computers; there are countless Tibetan festivals and exhibitions. But Tibet as an issue in global politics has gone nowhere.

China's leaders lose no sleep over Tibet. They have invested huge amounts of money to improve internal security, making it almost impossible for Tibetans to stage any kind of protest. (Torture and imprisonment inevitably follow any such attempt.) The flight of the 17th Karmapa to India embarrassed China's leaders, providing them with further evidence of what they see as the Dalai Lama's "intrigue" and "insincerity." As a consequence, contact between Beijing and the Dalai Lama has been cut, effectively ending any hope of a negotiated settlement.

Within Tibet the political situation has worsened. The campaigns against the Dalai Lama, his so-called "splittist" followers and religious activities continue. The neighborhood committee meetings are as intense as those during the Cultural Revolution. In March at a meeting of China's National People's Congress, Zhou Yongkang, the Communist Party secretary for Sichuan province (which incorporates large parts of eastern Tibet), announced that the teaching of Tibetan in schools was a drain on government resources.

The flight of the Karmapa and other senior religious leaders and the continual flow of Tibetans over the Himalayas to Nepal and India constitute clear proof of China's failure to win over Tibetans. China has not learned from the Cultural Revolution, the most violent period in Tibetan and Chinese history. The people's religious faith was not even dented, and when the party partially relaxed its control, Tibetan Buddhism rebounded with a vitality that shook the authorities. The party can coerce Tibetans, but it cannot win their hearts and minds. Only a wise and tolerant policy can do that.

The Chinese are confident about their rule in Tibet: they know that however much Tibetans might protest, neither the Dalai Lama nor the Tibetans themselves have the power to dislodge them. Given Beijing's intransigence and the failure of the Tibetan government-in-exile to arouse the people, China's lack of interest in a negotiated settlement has left the Tibetans hopeless and dejected. Their depression has been further deepened by the Dalai Lama's public statements that he has done his best to find a solution but has so far failed. Among the Tibetan refugee community there is a sense of despair about ever returning to the homeland. An increasing number of Tibetans are looking overseas, especially to the United States, for their salvation. Prospects of a bleak future are driving hundreds of young Tibetans to the West, where they often end up washing dishes in New York, London or Paris.

Hope that international pressure on China could bring change remains unfulfilled. Despite growing popular support for the Tibetan cause in the West, there are no signs that governments are willing to take up the cause in earnest. The Tibetan problem lies at the bottom of the heap. And it is likely to remain there for the simple reason that Tibet has no economic or strategic value for Western governments, and China is not a country that can be bullied. It's not that Beijing is immune to international persuasion—there simply is no concerted pressure on China to relent on Tibet.

The gulf between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese leadership is not insurmountable. A solution can be reached that meets Beijing's security concerns and gives Tibetans a homeland. However, it will require courageous and imaginative decisions on both sides. Deng Xiaoping's bold "one country, two systems" policy has gone a long way in meeting China's claim to sovereignty while leaving people in other parts of the country to run their own affairs. If Beijing insists that it will talk with the Dalai Lama only in person, refusing to recognize officials appointed by him, he should be prepared to meet with China's leaders. The Dalai Lama has declared he does not want independence for Tibet and is willing to meet Beijing's security concerns by agreeing to relinquish control of foreign and defense policy to China. Beijing in return should recognize that by giving Tibet genuine autonomy its security and status in the world will not be endangered. If anything it will be enhanced.