The terse start of the China-Tibet talks was expected. To impress domestic opinion Beijing must proceed reluctantly with the dialogue. Between 2002 and 2007 six meetings were held between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama's representatives. There are just over three months left before the Olympic Games start in Beijing. China would like to defuse international tension created by the Tibet issue, in order to exhibit its progress to the world. The Games provide an ideal opportunity. The Tibetans would be wary of defusing tension without substantive progress in the talks. If China is merely stalling for time the Tibetans could abort the talks before the Games. That would make things worse for Beijing. One may conclude, then, that with global attention on the talks, Beijing would know it must address the issue seriously. President Bush, China's best friend in the west, has urged as much while welcoming the resumption of talks.
Is there any real prospect of an amicable China-Tibet settlement? If the leaders in Beijing were a little less sensitive about saving face, and the Dalai Lama just a little more accommodating than he has already been, a settlement might be on the cards. Its basis is not difficult to fathom. The hurdle of full independence for Tibet has already been surmounted, thanks to the Dalai Lama's unequivocal acceptance of autonomy within China. What remains to be settled is the quantum of autonomy.
There is no legal impediment to China's granting any quantum of autonomy to Tibet. Article 31 of the constitution of the People's Republic of China says: "The state may establish special administrative regions where necessary. The systems to be instituted in special administrative regions shall be prescribed by law enacted by the National People's Congress in the light of the specific conditions." After the Dalai Lama's acceptance of an autonomous Tibet within the framework of the Chinese constitution, the decks for a settlement have been cleared.
Nor is there any ideological or historical impediment to Beijing granting Tibet full autonomy. In an enlightening article Claude Arpi, an expert on China-Tibet relations and author of The Fate of Tibet, recently revealed how Mao Zedong endorsed autonomy for Tibet and Xingjian. Arpi recalled Phuntso Tashi Takla, Dalai Lama's brother-in-law, telling him how Mao, during a meeting with the Dalai Lama, said: "Don't you have a flag of your own? If you have one, you can hoist it here." At that time the Dalai Lama was staying at the Guest House.
This account was confirmed in the biography of Phuntso Wangyal, the leader of the Tibetan Communist Party who led Chinese troops into Lhasa in 1951. Arpi in his article quoted the following passage from the biography: "During their [Mao's and the Dalai Lama's] conversation, Mao suddenly said, 'I heard that you have a national flag, do you? They do not want you to carry it, isn't that right?'
The Dalai Lama replied diplomatically: "We have an Army flag." Mao perceived that the Dalai Lama was being cautious. Mao said: "That is no problem. You may keep your national flag." Mao added that in the future the Communist Party of China would also allow Xingjian and Inner Mongolia to display their own flags. It is clear from this that the founder of the People's Republic of China had no problem granting autonomy to its minority regions. If both legal and ideological hurdles are cleared, why does the Hu Jintao regime hesitate? Do inhibitions arise from a sense of insecurity?
From credible but unofficial sources one learnt that during Beijing's earlier parleys with the Dalai Lama the Chinese had offered to hand over the administration in Lhasa to the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala. It is possible that Beijing may repeat the offer publicly during the present talks. This would bring China very good global publicity. But the Tibetans would be unlikely to accept the offer for the same reason that they rejected it earlier.
It is not sufficiently appreciated that the Dalai Lama's prime concern is not politics but the preservation and flowering of Tibetan culture and religion. That is why the Tibetans insist upon autonomy for all the area under the Tibet Autonomous Region where Tibetans reside. Lhasa falls in the U-Tsang province which is the cultural heartland of Tibet. There is also the region of Kham which comprises 50 contemporary counties. These have been incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Quinghai. Then there is the region of Amdo which has been incorporated in the Chinese provinces of Quinghai, Gansu and Sichuan. Amdo County itself is not part of the Amdo cultural province. It was directly administered by the Dalai Lama from Lhasa. Today it is part of Chanthang province. The Dalai Lama seeks to consolidate the sparse population of Tibetans to keep alive Tibetan identity and tradition. Beijing is reluctant to allow the Dalai Lama to administer all areas of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
There is a way out. The areas of Kham and Amdo need not be under the Lhasa group. They could be governed by separate Tibetan administrations run by Tibetans of the respective regions. All three autonomous administrations could be overseen politically by Beijing, while all three could owe spiritual allegiance to the Dalai Lama. It remains to be seen whether this, or any similar formula, can become the basis of an agreement between Beijing and the Dalai Lama. What is clear is that the problem is far from being intractable. A little flexibility on the part of both sides could result in an agreement in principle before the Olympic Games begin. If this opportunity is not seized it may never recur. Both sides should know this.