🇬🇧 Sino-Tibetan dialogue should look to the Roma, Mongolia & Bhutan for new inspiration


By Mette Holm, Copenhagen

Imagine the Dalai Lama in the Chinese province of Sichuan, participating in a memorial for victims of the devastating earthquake in May, as suggested recently by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. It would constitute the perfect opportunity to start reconciliation beyond the meaningless “dialogue” that China claims to be leading with representatives of the Dalai Lama. Many ethnic Tibetans were among the tens of thousands of victims of the earthquake; it would be natural for the Dalai Lama to be present at such an event – his presence would elevate it into one of truly historic dimensions. The Dalai Lama has not set foot in his homeland since his flight into exile almost 50 years ago.

There are huge stumbling blocks on the road to a harmonious relationship between China and the Tibetans. One is the actual size of Tibet – is it the present lesser Tibet (China’s stand) or the original greater Tibet (Dalai Lama’s position), including parts of neighbouring provinces or autonomous regions like Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu that have large Tibetan populations. The Dalai Lama regards himself as the religious leader of all Tibetans; not only the 2,4 million living in Tibet Autonomous Region, but all Tibetans in China (in total 5,2 million in the 2000 census) as well as in exile (another 110 000+).

The Roma in Europe consider themselves a nation – to my knowledge the only nation in the world that does not lay claim to physical land or borders, but only to their right to exist as a people, with the same national rights and status as other nations.

This feature of being a national entity without laying claim to borders – or at least separating the two issues in order to perhaps agree on one of them – could bring new life into the literally frozen “dialogue.” Developments in other countries could also serve to justify a new beginning.

Mongolia is gelugpa Buddhist like Tibet. I happened to be in the Mongolian capital Ulaan Baatar two years ago in the main temple Gandantegchinlen Khiid when the Dalai Lama came to visit and meet his many devoted followers. Less than a month earlier I was in Lhasa experiencing the icy prohibitive exclusion that surrounds the most present, though officially non-existing individual I have ever encountered: the faithful Tibetans’ deep love for their leader, whom they are not allowed to worship and not even allowed to own an image of in any shape or form, but who is so obviously present in their every deed and thought.

In Ulaan Baatar I witnessed what it should be like in Lhasa. The large expectant crowd’s intense humming, the resulting deep resonance an almost physical bond between people; the warmth and spiritual depth of the Dalai Lamas arrival and the following ceremony; a perfectly natural encounter between a religious leader and his followers – more so in the light of 70 years of extreme suppression of religion in Mongolia, climaxing when thousands of monks were forced to dissemble their monasteries and temples before they were marched off to be massacred in the 1930es. Religious belief was only allowed again in 1990 after the collapse of communist rule.

Rather than trying to understand the situation immediately north of its border, China throws fits of rage every time the Dalai Lama visits his followers in Mongolia. One should rather imagine that the Chinese leaders offered some thought to the fact that 70 years of violent and brutal suppression of faith in Mongolia didn’t eradicate it, only deepened it.

Another small neighbour is Bhutan, where religion (a similar line of Buddhism) has been encouraged to the extent that public administration and worship took – and often still takes – place in separate ends of the same temple cum city hall. Bhutan has been ruled by an absolute monarch for 100 years. After 25 years of careful preparation by his predecessor and father, the Fourth king Jigme Wangchuk, and himself, the present fifth king dismantled absolute monarchy this spring in favour of constitutional monarchy.

I visited Bhutan shortly after the first parliamentary election last spring. The Bhutanese are somewhat sceptic of democracy, but went through with the election, gently prodded on by their beloved king and his father. Prior to the Chinese “liberation” of Tibet in 1951 Bhutan and Tibet were much the same. As it turned out Bhutan rid itself of the feudalism that China claims it is still “liberating” the Tibetans from – by entirely peaceful means as is the way of Buddhists. This too, might serve as inspiration for future dialogue.

The “dialogue” between China and representatives of the Dalai Lama is hardly worthy of its name. One certain outcome of each meeting is that Chinese media shower the Chinese with reports that the Dalai Lama is a vicious “splittist” only wanting to tear the Motherland apart and many other weird accusations that could easily be disregarded as jokes, were they not of such enormous sad consequence. The Chinese people have not been informed that the Dalai Lama is a devout pacifist, and demands autonomy along the lines of the Chinese constitution with Beijing in charge of foreign and defence policy. They are being led to believe that he is an international terrorist.

This summer I saw big tents at one of the sightseeing points of the Great Wall outside Beijing. When I asked what they were for, the answer was, “You know, the Dalai Lama has many terrorists that want to bomb the Olympics;” terrorist police used the tents to search cars for Tibetan terrorists. Ignorant as it was, this answer was sincere. Due to state media reports many Chinese believe that all Tibetans are dangerous terrorists as well as ungrateful citizens of the Motherland who are totally unable to appreciate the many great developments that China and the ruling Communist Party (CPC) have generously showered on the backward autonomous region.

When visiting Tibet, and having the good fortune to meet Tibetans off the track that the CPC has beaten for visitors, it is obvious that Chinese development in Tibet mainly benefits Chinese settlers and the huge presence of the army. I mean, the herder with goats or cattle hardly needs the highway which he and his herd are not allowed to use, etc. etc. The new railway to Lhasa reminded me of the railroad built across America (also by Chinese labourers) 100 years ago – the materialistic, industrious invaders that reduced the spiritual indigenous population to spectacular “natives,” and fenced them in in reserves. When the decision to build the new railway was made China’s then president, Jiang Zemin, was quoted in the New York Times for saying this was a political decision that had to succeed at any price – even with economic loss.

Interestingly, many of the Chinese – “ordinary” citizens as well as officials – whom you talk to about Tibet and the Tibetan “issue” have never been there. In most cases they seem to truly believe all the official “truths” they have read and heard and now pass on to you.

I have met many Chinese who were sincerely sad and totally unable to understand why the Tibetans were not “grateful” for all the Chinese have done for them; and I have met many Tibetans who regard all these “developments” as perfectly aimed at ruining their culture and entire existence.

One can almost not think of a greater misunderstanding – and one of larger, and sadder, consequence. Although it is close to impossible for the parties to rid themselves of their recent common past, one wishes that they would be able to start anew in the quest for a future of peaceful, “harmonious” co-existence that doesn’t call for hundreds of thousands of Liberation Army soldiers’ permanent presence in Tibet (to protect whom from what?).

After all China is showing many signs of progress in the fields of environment, rule of law, against torture and death penalty, research, education and more; there is much to gain for everyone, the Chinese, the Tibetans and the world if Tibet could be a harmonious part of China rather than one on the brink of cultural extinction.

Ms. Holm is a journalist and writer in Denmark. She has studied, worked and lived in China over the last 30 years, covering Chinese affairs for major Danish print and electronic media. She has written several books, most recently China  (in Danish) along wither husband, former minister of foreign affairs in Denmark Mr. Mogens Lykketoft. The book has also been published in French: La Chine – chemin faisant.