China and the Dalai Lama must negotiate   

By Tashi Rabgey   

Taipei Times, November 6, 2000

One Beijing intellectual has defied the official line on China's policy towards Tibet and has called for the Communist Party to sit down at the negotiating table with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader

The removal of Chen Kuiyuan from the top leadership post in Tibet on Oct. 17 has reinvigorated debates over the direction of China's Tibet policy. While it may be too early to discern the intent of the Chinese leadership, there is at least one voice from inside China who has made his position on the issue clear and unambiguous.

Wang Lixiong, a prominent Beijing-based writer and intellectual, has become the most vocal critic of China's Tibet policy to emerge in recent memory. In his article, The Dalai Lama is the Key to the Tibet Problem, Wang draws on his firsthand investigative research to make the case for a serious rethinking of the political arrangement between the region and the Chinese leadership.

China's Tibet policy over the past two decades has been a failure, he contends, and the only way forward now is to open negotiations with the Dalai Lama.

Wang is not new to controversy or public debate.

He rose to national prominence after revealing himself to be the author of the provocative political novel Yellow Peril. In what might seem like an odd career move, he then took up writing about Tibet -- its history, culture, economy, and above all, its political future.

While his book-length treatment of the subject, Sky Burial: The Fate of Tibet, caught the attention of Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet, Wang has also published several extensive and exhaustively researched essays, as well as a pair of short stories that vividly depict two alternatives for Tibet's future. It is not much of a stretch to say that Wang has single-handedly put the question of Tibet on the radar screen of important segments of the Chinese public.

All this is quickly creating a buzz throughout the Tibetan community.

Why would a well-known and respected writer publicly take an unorthodox stand on an issue as volatile as Tibet? What is the extent of his influence on the political leadership and how is his work being read by local elites, whether Tibetan or Chinese? What might this mean for the current stalemate in discussions on the possibility of dialogue? To what extent does his prolific writing on Tibet reconfigure the political terrain that must be navigated?

Wang's most recent article confirms that he represents a distinctly new approach to the Chinese engagement with Tibet.

To begin with, he starts with getting a lot of the facts right. This in itself is a remarkable development. The steady stream of nonsense that appears in the state-run media, or that surfaces occasionally in quasi-academic writing on Tibet, is not only a reflection of willful distortion. It is also in part an indication of just how separated most Chinese observers and decision-makers are from the sentiments of ordinary Tibetans. The Chinese leadership's lack of engagement with actual political reality constitutes one of the key problems in its inability to resolve the Tibet issue.

In contrast, Wang's writing captures Tibetan perspectives with a refreshing sense of realism. In his recent article, he comments that while this is no doubt a period of unprecedented prosperity for many Tibetans, even those who have benefited most from official policies continue to pledge their allegiance to the Dalai Lama. He quotes a local Tibetan official who explained to him that, "If you believe that Tibet is more stable today than during the era of turmoil in the late 1980s, you are mistaken. In those years, the troublemakers were monks and youths who were incited to violence by others. But nowadays, cadres, intellectuals and state workers are all part of the opposition. The present stability is only superficial."

Radical departure

Simply recognizing this political reality is a radical departure from the current discourse on Tibet among Chinese commentators.

Another significant development is Wang's willingness to take considerable political risk in his analysis. In his recent paper, for example, he directly admonishes then Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) party secretary Chen Kuiyuan, among others, for being authors of ill conceived polices regarding Tibet.

He also argues that the failure of the Sino-Tibetan talks in the 1980s was not on the part of the Tibetan government-in-exile -- a favorite thesis of certain American Tibet experts--but rather mainly on the part of the Chinese leadership, who misunderstood the larger political significance of the Dalai Lama to Tibetans and their sense of national consciousness.

Thinking against the grain, Wang predicts the failure of the current policy of managing the Tibet question through rapid economic development.

In his view, a lasting solution can only be achieved in partnership with the Dalai Lama. He argues that the Chinese leadership should take this historic opportunity to begin formal talks and to accept the Tibetans' relinquishing the goal of independence while the offer is still on the table.

He further contends that the widely held view that the Chinese leadership can simply wait for the Tibet issue to disappear naturally is misguided. In a quirky inversion of conventional wisdom, he maintains that the odds are against the Chinese leadership in the waiting game. He points out that the Dalai Lama might easily live another ten to twenty years, while the current Chinese leadership might very well confront a major political crisis before that time.

What accounts, in part, for the novelty of Wang's writing is that his time horizon stretches far beyond that of virtually all other Chinese commentators and decision-makers.

His recommendation that the Chinese leadership strike a deal with the Dalai Lama now is based less on a concern for stability in the region today, than in the interest of maintaining the unity of the Chinese state years down the road. He warns that unless a preemptive intervention is made now, Tibetans will, in the event of the collapse of the current political regime, very likely seize control of the region and separate from the rest of China.

The crucial point here is that while he takes a critical position against the official line, Wang's analysis is clearly premised on the need to protect the long-term interests of the Chinese government. His objective therefore is to resolve the Tibet question within the political framework of the Chinese nation-state.

From Beijing's point of view, Wang's singular contribution to the current stalemate on China's "Tibet problem" has thus been to explain in powerful terms exactly why it is in China's interest to meet the Dalai Lama at the negotiating table.

For Tibetans, the looming question is now: will this become an influential view within Chinese leadership circles in the near future?

For advocates of a negotiated settlement, this would certainly be a welcome development. After all, it is far easier to engage with a perspective that is rational and upfront with its partisan commitments than it is to do so with one that is, at best, in denial of basic reality. But for those who believe that the only acceptable option for the future of Tibet is complete independence, Wang Lixiong's "liberal" ideas may in fact pose a far greater threat than the ultra-leftist policies in practice today.

Tashi Rabgey is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University.

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