Breaking the Deadlock in Tibet

Jun 17, 2011 | Uncategorized

Following the visit of David Alton and David Steel to Tibet in 2009 they published the following report setting out a series of recommendations:
Breaking The Deadlock in Tibet:
Reflections from Tibet and China, September 2009.
This week’s column comes from the holy city of Lhasa, in Tibet. With the encouragement of both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese authorities I have been travelling with a small delegation looking at political and human rights issues including religious freedom. Although Tibet is a remote Himalayan fastness, perched on the top of the world, Britons have been visiting it for over two hundred years – and, a century ago, we came as invaders.
Since 1774, when George Bogle became the first British traveller to reach Tibet, British interest in the Tibetan plateau has been influenced by politics, trade, culture and religion. Bogle represented the East India Company. At the Panchen Rinpoche’s historic seat of Shigatse (west of Lhasa) the young Scot met the second most powerful lama in Tibet and had some minor success in promoting trade between India and Tibet. Bogle’s fascination with Tibetan culture was such that he married a Tibetan and had their daughters educated in Scotland.
In his reports to Warren Hastings, India’s British Governor-General, Bogle described the presence of “two Chinese viceroys, with a guard of a thousand soldiers stationed at Lhasa, and are changed every three years. The Emperor of China is acknowledged as the sovereign of the country…but the internal government of the country is committed entirely to natives; the Chinese in general are confined to the capital, no tribute is exacted, and the people of Tibet, except at Lhasa, hardly feel the weight of a foreign yoke.”
Tibet’s precise historical status – was it ever truly independent or always a Chinese vassal? – remains the subject of vituperative propaganda and a degree of distortion with both sides becoming prisoners of their own history: a phenomenon with which Britain is painfully familiar, not least in the disputed context of Northern Ireland.
Britain must take some responsibility for the role it has played in the shaping of Tibet’s twentieth century history and be willing to assist both sides in searching for just and enduring new relationships. We also need to be conscious of the deep and unhealed historical barriers that can lie between peoples – for instance, Britain’s role in the Opium Wars or the effects of China’s Cultural Revolution – and the misunderstandings that can arise between peoples.
When, in 1903-04, at the instigation of Lord Curzon, the Indian viceroy, and under the leadership of Sir Francis Younghusband, a British military expedition invaded Tibet, we did so to protect colonial interest in India. It was justified by “the Great Game” of late Victorian and early Edwardian England – curtailing Russian influence, creating a buffer state, clarifying borders, imposing diplomatic relations, asserting British influence. Despite 3,000 Tibetan soldiers being killed during the campaign, the British believed that they were welcome liberators. Lhasa’s inhabitants greeted the British force with clapping. In reality, in Tibetan culture the clapping gestures were a hostile rebuke and an attempt to fend off the unwanted effects of occupation – but on such misconceptions are differing forms of history based.
Following the British invasion, the thirteenth Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia. He returned after a treaty was concluded and the withdrawal of the British force. In 1910, emulating the British, the Chinese sent soldiers to Tibet, forcing the Dalai Lama into exile once more. This time (as his successor would do fifty years later) he came to India. He was befriended by Charles Bell, a British official who spoke fluent Tibetan, who became a trusted mentor spending a year in Lhasa ten years later.
Bell later wrote that he believed Tibet had been “clearly independent” of China until 1720, and that it had reasserted that independence in 1912 when the thirteenth Dalai Lama expelled China’s troops and proclaimed Tibet’s freedom – a tentative independence that lasted until October 1950 when 40,000 Chinese troops invaded Kham. The young fourteenth Dalai Lama appealed to the United Nations describing the invasion as “the grossest instance of the violation of the weak by the strong.”
Although Britain had entered treaty relations with Tibet its representative on the Security Council, Gladwyn Jebb, told the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that “What we want to do is to create a situation which doe not oblige us in practice to do anything about the Communist invasion of Tibet.”
After the Dalai Lama escaped into exile in 1959 Britain blocked a UN resolutions calling on China to respect “the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people.” An internal memorandum candidly and baldly stated that Britain would leave itself open to criticism in territories such as ” the Rhodesias and Oman” if it adopted resolutions about human rights: “we should not have a leg to stand on.”
Charles Bell’s successor as British representative in Lhasa, Hugh Richardson, later recorded that “The British government sold the Tibetans down the river…I was profoundly ashamed of the government and continued to be ashamed of their unwillingness to recognise that Tibet has a right to self-determination.”
China has frequently argued that its occupation liberated Tibet from backward feudalism. Bell wrote that in comparison with the standard of living in China and India “the Tibetan standard of living is higher” and, in particular, ” the status of women is higher.”
Notwithstanding this the Dalai Lama says that in 1950 “I had enthusiasm that Tibet could transform itself under Communist leadership. Chairman Mao Zedong made a lot of promises…The reason I left Tibet was not because I was against reform in principle. The problem was the way the Chinese were handling reform.”
Mao’s most significant “reform”, the Great Leap Forward of 1958, led to all rural families being forced to live in ideological communes, and to the deaths of at least thirty million people during the resultant famine. This was followed , in 1966, by the depredations of the Cultural Revolution – a period of intense cruelty, disruption and violence. Previously loyal cadres and servants of the State were vilified in pubic “Struggle Sessions”, thousands were sent to re-education centres, and there are countless reports of murders, live burials and even cannibalism. In one county, Binyang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, in the space of one week in 1968 more than 3,000 people were murdered. In Tibet, monasteries and shrines were destroyed and looted (from 1950 onwards some 6,000 monasteries were reduced to rubble) and the Panchen Rinpoche, having published a full account of starvation and the countless vicissitudes faced by Tibetans, was himself forced through struggle sessions and spent the following fifteen years under detention. The numbers of Tibetans who died during this period is unknown but estimates vary between half a million people and 1.2 million people.
Next Week: David Alton examines the conflicting claims of China and Tibet about Independence and Autonomy.
Universe Column
September 27th
David Alton
In talking to Tibetans and Chinese officials it rapidly becomes clear that there is no agreement about what actually constitutes Tibet. In addition to conflicting accounts about the history of Tibet, there are conflicting views about its geography and the territory. Population figures and demographic data are similarly disputed – and, as I have been learning during my travels in Tibet and China, these contested positions fuel the arguments about Tibetan independence and autonomy. Fundamental disagreement is why Tibet still has a Government-In-Exile, based in Dharamsala, in India, and why China regularly deploys force to quash insurrections and riots.
The Dalai Lama says there are “six million Tibetans.” In 1950 it is thought that this figure (which represents Tibetans living in the Tibet Autonomous Region and the neighbouring Chinese provinces) was around 2.5 million. The figure of six million is said to comprise 2.5 million people in the Autonomous Region, 2.9 million people in the neighbouring Chinese provinces of Quinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan, along with 120,000 Diaspora Tibetans living in exile. More Tibetans live in the nominally autonomous Tibetan counties of the neighbouring provinces than Tibetans living within the Autonomous Region. This led the Tibetan Government-in-Exile to lay claim to all land on which Tibetans are living (2.5 million square kilometers), double the territorial size of the Autonomous Region, and predominantly territory that was never administered by the Lhasa Government, even during its forty years in independence (although always under Tibetan influence).
Within China’s landmass there are over fifty distinct ethnic minorities and, as recent Uighur unrest has underlined, how the authorities in Beijing – and the Han majority – accommodate the aspirations of their minorities will determine the future cohesion and stability of the State.
How to meet legitimate aspirations for autonomy without endangering the unity of the State is not a problem unique to China – nor, in their case, a new one. In 1922 at the Second Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (when it was a fledgling organisation with fewer than two hundred members) it declared that one of its aims was to “establish autonomous rule in Mongolia, Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang to turn them into democratic autonomous republics.” In 1929 it asserted “the right to self determination of Manchu, Hui, Tibetan, Miao, and Yao nationalities”; and in their putative State Constitution they said that the State must recognise “the right to self-determination of the national minorities of China, their right to complete separation from China and to the formation of an independent state for each national minority.”
By 1933, and with the tensions created by the Long March, Tibetan independence was interpreted by the Communist Party leadership as a foreign attempt to destabilise China and Britain was specifically accused by Chairman Mao Zedong of attempting to “turn western China into a British colony.”
It was in this climate of mutual suspicion and hostility that the seeds of today’s continuing dispute were sown.
During the early 1980s, in the post-Mao period, President Deng Xiaoping made a genuine attempt at conciliation, when he invited Tibetan exiles to return and offered direct negotiations with the Dalai Lama and the right to visit Tibet. It was in the words of the historian, Tsering Shakya (“The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947”) a decision which was “badly misjudged”: “Beijing’s commitment had underlined the involvement of Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader, and of Hu Yaobang, the most senior Party official. Once the Chinese leaders lost interest in the issue any possibility of reaching a compromise was effectively ended.”
There is some danger that some of the officials representing Dharamsala and Beijing – and some of those involved in campaign organisations and non-governmental organisations – may end up fighting the last battle in the wrong ditch – as they fail to see the changing atmosphere and the possibilities that now exist. It is striking that senior Chinese officials now feel able to speak openly and critically of the disasters that befell the country during the Cultural Revolution. One senior diplomat told me: “I can talk openly about the catastrophe that befell China – including my own family, and the wasted years, but the scars of Tiananmen, 1989, are too recent and unhealed to be discussed yet.”
Whilst critical of China for its use of capital punishment and on a number of issues related to human rights, it would be absurd to suggest that China has only made progress on the economic front and that it incapable of finding new ways forward. China and its leaders’ attitudes have been changing – but so have Tibet’s.
In recent years, and in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Dalai Lama has frequently talked of finding “a middle way” and has tempered talk of Tibetan independence stating that this is no longer his aspiration, but seeking autonomy within the Chinese state (a Scottish solution within a United Kingdom). He has also been outspoken against the use of violence in Tibet and outside it to bring about political change. Beijing has reiterated its scepticism about the sincerity of the Dalai Lama’s words and has been unwilling to renew its invitation to speak with him directly.
Britain’s own experience in dealing with demands for independence or devolution in Scotland and Wales and the demand for cessation of the Union by the minority in Northern Ireland (and conflicting calls for greater integration by the majority Unionists) was a theme touched on in 2000 by President Jiang Zemin the State Banquet at Buckingham Place which took place during his State Visit to Britain. The President’s wife, Zhou Hanqiong, upbraided the Prince of Wales about the evils of British imperialism and about the British treatment of Northern Ireland. Prince Charles conceded that there might be truth in these complaints but Britain was “at least attempting to address the problem of Northern Ireland.” It was an attempt which has reaped a good harvest and which was dependent on engaging directly with the leaders of all the factions involved.
The Northern Ireland Peace Process, the creation of the North’s Assembly, attempts to end discrimination and cultural humiliation, and the righting of old wrongs, all hold clues as to what might now be done in Tibet.
China is an extraordinary country, rich in diversity, imbued by fascinating history and civilisation stretching over several millennia, and animated today by a new economic confidence and spirit of progress. The creative peaceful solution which has been found for Hong Kong – “two systems within one country”- and which paves the way for a similar settlement with Taiwan, should spur the Chinese and Tibetans to use their native genius to find a workable solution to the Tibetan problem..
One thing is for sure, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, now aged 75, is willing to find a solution and is in a position to make a lasting settlement. His word and his judgement will be accepted by disparate groups of Tibetans. When he dies, there will be no similar focus for unity – risking a more radical and intractable conflict. This is the time to act.
Next week: David Alton continues his reports from Tibet by examining Religious Liberties.
Universe Column
October 4th 2009
David Alton
It would be impossible to travel in Tibet without trying to understand the nature of Tibetan Buddhism. It infuses every aspect of the lives of indigenous Tibetans – with its belief in reincarnation, karma, and a celibate hierarchy – and its incorporation of many of the deities of the earlier Bon religion – became the formal religion of Tibet in the seventh century.
The Dalai Lama is revered as a reincarnation of his predecessors and has become the principle exponent of Tibetan Buddhism. A central principle is that all pleasure passes while suffering affects us all and may not be evaded.
The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha are that the things we most desire “not least our own lives, must eventually come to an end”; that true liberation comes through surrendering our desires; that our present lives are affected by karma – that our actions in earlier lives will affect our present ones; and a stress on compassion for all living beings.
The Dalai Lama, during addresses given in Britain, has stressed that he does not wish to proselytise stating, for instance, at Liverpool Cathedral, that “Christians should try to become better Christians, incorporating some of the teachings of the Buddha in their lives.” He also says “Changing religions is not like changing professions. Excitement lessens over the years and soon you are not excited, and then where are you? Homeless inside yourself.”
As Western society has become more secularised and lost contact with its own spiritual roots and mystical traditions, where the traditional beauty and harmony of rituals and the rhythm of feasts, seasons, and prayers are experienced by very few, eastern mysticism has increased its appeal. Beyond the romanticised and ephemeral interest that this often implies, the Dalai Lama’s teaching has a solidity and character that addresses some of the fundamental issues that face us today.
In “Freedom in Exile” – a title that points to his own paradoxical position – he argues that materialism is not leading to fulfilled or happy lives; that prosperous, atomised, individualism is just one side of a coin that, on its reverse side, reveals isolation, low self esteem and deep personal unhappiness: “This indicates a lack of spiritual values, I feel. Part of the problem here is perhaps the intense competitiveness of life in these countries, which seem to breed fear and a deep sense of insecurity.”
Elsewhere he has pointed to the great disparities that exist between the prosperous parts of the world and the disadvantaged ones and he has commented on the way in which political power has often been exercised on the basis of might and access to force: “There are two great forces in the world today. One is the force of the people with power, with armies to enforce their power, and with land to recruit their armies from. The other is the force of the poor and dispossessed. The two are in perpetual conflict, and it is certain who will lose. Unless this is changed the world will perish. Therefore every poet, every religious man, every political leader, should fight against this division until he dies.”
The Dalai Lama left Lhasa in 1959 on the eve of the Great Leap Forward. Four years earlier, in an encounter with Mao Zedong – Mao told him “religion is poison”. In 1966 the Red Guards did their best to eradicate all remaining traces of religious belief in China and a wave of persecution followed.
Given the fate of the Panchen Rinpoche – who stayed, and who was arrested, publicly interrogated in struggle sessions and then kept under arrest for fifteen years – the Dalai Lama’s decision to go into exile appears to have been vindicated. The Panchen, in a report prepared in 1962 for Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Prime Minister, detailed the consequences of the Great Leap Forward, and the starvation, cruelty, and corruption which had followed. He said that “a fierce wind of ignorant commands” from Communist officials had led to starvation: “there was a phenomenon of whole families dying out.”
He also catalogued the destruction of scriptures “used as fertilisers”, prayer books made into shoes, statues of the Buddha looted or destroyed, nuns and monks driven from religious life, and monasteries and nunneries closed. He detailed the way in which the intellectual heart-beat of Tibetan Buddhism – its teachings, debates, writing – had been wiped out: “This is something which I and more than 90 % of Tibetans cannot endure.”
Four years later, with the Panchen no longer at liberty, the depredations of the Cultural Revolution led to the wrecking of Tibet’s three most important monasteries along with Lhasa’s holiest shrine. Throughout China religious believers were labelled as enemies of the state: anti-social reactionaries, backward-looking bad elements. The control and registration of religious belief – through State arms such as the three-self Patriotic churches – has continue to exacerbate communal tension in China.
Whether religion is Marx’s opium of the masses or Mao’s poison it cannot be denied that it retains an extraordinary potency and appeal. There is a certain irony that the collapse of Marxist States in Europe , and the end of the ideological Cold War that divided Europe, has been replaced by terror that has its genesis among alienated Islamic radicals. From Israel to Iran, from the United States to China, from Russia to Pakistan, there are few countries that are not having to grapple with the problem of how to create societies that allow for religious pluralism and that promote the cause of religious co-existence in the place of strife.
How China deals with the Dalai Lama and adherents of his faith will be a test of their statecraft. The Dalai Lama may be seen as a political problem but this is to ignore his role as one of the world’s foremost spiritual leaders.
Is it so far fetched to consider the making of a religious Concordat with the Dalai Lama which designated Lhasa as a holy city, comparable to the standing enjoyed by the Pope and the Holy See in Vatican City?
Were the Chinese to initiate such a move it would show a new and welcome openness to the principle that each man and woman should be free to determine the religious belief of their choice. Where such liberties are enjoyed and conferred by the State, instead of undermining its unity, the State invariably becomes the beneficiary of the good which that religion is then free to promote. In countries such as the United States religious organisations provide an engine for social, charitable, and voluntary endeavour. China knows, through its own experience in Hong Kong, what an important part free religious belief plays in the make -up of its character.
Where, alternatively, a religion and its leaders are vilified, imprisoned, regulated, or driven under-ground, it turns the adherents of that faith into enemies of the State. The younger generation of believers, especially, are invariably alienated and radicalised. Their grievance becomes a causus belli against the State. For China’s long term harmony and stability, the accommodation it reaches with those who wish to freely embrace religion will be crucial.
The Chinese ideogram for “crisis” also means “opportunity”; the Hebrew word for “crisis” – mashber – can also mean “childbirth chair.” Out of a crisis something new may be born.
Next week: In his concluding article, following his visit to Tibet, David Alton writes about the immediate challenges facing Tibet and the prospects for finding a solution.
Universe Column (October 11th 2009)
Tibet (4: Final)
David Alton
In the aftermath of the March 2008 riots, the Dalai Lama trenchantly condemned violence as a means of procuring change in Tibet. He has also accepted (as the British Government did earlier this year, although without any parliamentary debate) that Tibet is part of China – but believes that it should be allowed significant autonomy. He has repudiated any return to feudalism and stated that he is willing to accept a spiritual role, rather than a political one.
With sufficient goodwill and determination on both sides, these four principles could form the basis of a firm settlement with the Government of China.
Since the riots, when an estimated 200 people died and 1200 people were detained, very few visitors have been permitted to enter Tibet. Recent requests for travel visas by the Ambassadors of France, Germany and the United States, have, along with requests from the international media, all been refused.
More than anything, this underlines the significance of the recent visit by Ivan Lewis, a British Foreign Office Minister and, during the week which followed, an all-party visit by four British Parliamentarians – two members of the Commons and two from the Lords.
We did not go with naive expectations – and knew that our opportunities for private discussions and evidence taking would be circumscribed – but we were promised the opportunity to hold frank discussions and to visit notable sites. The Dalai Lama encouraged us to make the visit and the Chinese authorities could not have been more helpful in facilitating it.
Coincidentally, at the end of our visit preparations were taking place in Beijing for the commemoration, on October 1st, of the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. After midnight, close to Tiananmen Square, all of Beijing’s roads were closed off and we witnessed an extraordinary rehearsal as a vast convoy of tanks, inter-continental missiles, and military personnel trundled their way into the night.
At one level, any crude, belligerent display of military might can be interpreted as aggressive and threatening and rightly so when it is used against a country’s own citizens to crush internal dissent. Lord Mandelson, the British Business Secretary, might bear this in mind in the light of his recent comments in an interview with China Daily when he redefined Britain’s arms sales as “equipment sales”: “What you choose to call an arms fair, we would call an equipment fair.” he said.
A second interpretation of the vast display of China’s military which we witnessed would be to put it into the context of the humiliations inflicted on China by outside powers – from Britain’s role in the Opium Wars of 1839-42, through the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, to the Japanese invasion and seizure of Beijing, from 1937 until 1945. These events still leave a taint of insecurity and, like any other nation, China rightly and jealously guards her sovereignty.
It is conceivable, but unlikely, that the Chinese military might one day be used externally – for instance, to curtail and occupy North Korea, should that small but troublesome neighbour’s failure to reform itself lead to internal collapse and a mass exodus of refugees across China’s borders; but it is difficult to imagine many other situations where her military might would be used to impose hegemony..
To her credit, China now provides more military personnel for peace keeping operations in some of the world’s hot spots than any other country.
These ambiguities underline the sense of China being “a work in progress” – these are, after all celebrations to mark the passing of only sixty years since the revolution – and China today is a very different place from the China of twenty years ago, let alone sixty years ago. What rapidly becomes apparent is that this vast country of 1.2 billion people (half the size of which is equal to the European Union’s twenty seven member states) change moves at different rates – with some of the old guard clinging to old attitudes and old slogans.
For instance, when China is criticised for using her military power to intimidate or brutalise dissenters she invariably asserts the frayed doctrine that it is an internal matter – “none of your business.” However, wiser minds at the top of China’s government know that this is no longer a tenable position in a world which places a premium on upholding universal human rights, and via phenomenal developments in information technology has the ability to communicate those concerns from person to person, this is no longer a tenable position. China may try to hold back global communications but, in this respect, she has about as much chance of success as King Canute.
In the aftermath of the tragic earthquake in Sichuan Province and in the aftermath of the demonstrations and unrest by China’s Muslim Uighur people in Xinjiang in July, China showed commendable openness and transparency.
There are over 24,000 mosques in Xinjiang and around 28,000 Islamic clergy. Learning how to integrate its 56 ethnic minorities is going to be as great a challenge for China as it is for the United Kingdom. Even in overwhelmingly Buddhist Tibet we were told that there are 43 ethnic or religious groups – from the growing number of Han Chinese to a Catholic community of 700 in the Mangkang County of the Chando Prefecture. The need to create social harmony was specifically underlines by Premier Wen and President Hu at the seventeenth Party Congress of China’s Communist Party in November 2007
China’s openness in accepting this challenge and in dealing with the ethnic problems highlighted by the Uighur unrest contrasts markedly with the way in which she has restricted diplomats, journalists and non-governmental organisations from visiting Tibet. The suspension of the dialogue between Chinese officials and representatives of the Dalai Lama sent many negative signals, both internally and externally.
Perhaps the decision to facilitate our own visit represents a new willingness for frank, open and objective evaluation – although some vituperative personal comments about the Dalai Lama from some Communist Party officials were neither sensitive or constructive: “When he dies Tibet will go forward much faster. He is a criminal of history”; “he will never be pardoned unless he understands his own crimes well”; “he has never done ay good for the unity of the country.” Mr. Nima Ciren, Vice President of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress in the Tibet Autonomous Region was, however, more conciliatory, stating that he believed dialogue was the way forward: “We will always keep the door open for dialogue with the Dalai Lama.” Such face to face dialogue must surely be the rational way forward. It would match the strides China is making in so many other ways and it would be a constructive move towards social harmony.
Although China has been the second largest economy in the world in 2007 she knows that economic progress can only ever be just a part of the story.
There are phenomenal economic disparities that could lead to social tensions.
Demographic trends have been radically distorted by the coercive one child policy.
And the aspiration to be both proudly Chinese while simultaneously able to exercise genuine autonomy in matters of governance and personal beliefs will be just as important as economic progress.
It would be an unmitigated tragedy for China, and for those who admire and respect her culture and native genius, if the unresolved issue of Tibet became an insurmountable road-block; preventing her emergence as a civilising, great global power. That would be a tragedy for the rest of the world.
In Africa – where she is now the key player – and to dark corners of the world, such as Iran, North Korea and Burma, it is to China that we must look for leadership. Increasingly petty little European countries – such an the Netherlands – who have tried to cling to seats at the economic top tables, thereby denying China her rightful place, need to understand more clearly the shape of the new world map.
We must accommodate the different dynamics which now prevail in international relationships. There have been too many closed doors in China’s past.
Between 1966 and 1976, during the disastrous Cultural Revolution, China locked her gates and closed out the world. She followed a ruinous path that inflicted great pain on her own citizens. After the death of Mao Zedong, President Deng Xiaoping ushered in a new era. In the case of Tibet, he famously said that “everything other than independence may be discussed.” Negotiators on both sides need to make a reality of that welcome assertion.
It must also be conceded by those who claim that China has starved the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of resources that there is ample contrary evidence; and militant, inflammatory anti-China rhetoric will only heighten tensions, not bring about a solution.
Millions of Chinese Yuan have been spent in Tibet on the rehabilitation of religious shrines and monasteries which were wantonly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The construction of the railway route to Lhasa (on which we travelled) and other major infrastructure projects ( for instance, the impressive new campus of the University of Tibet, which we visited, and programmes to address high levels of illiteracy and primitive housing, should not be dismissed as irrelevant. These are welcome and hugely significant achievements.
The major sticking point, however, still remains the question of the status of the Dalai Lama; what is actually meant by Tibetan autonomy; and the protection of human rights.
In resolving these issues, China is adamant that it does not want outside mediation – such as that provided by Senator George Mitchell in Northern Ireland. But whether it is with the help of third parties, or by direct negotiations, it needs to put more of its time into resolving this situation (as it was able to do with skill and pragmatism in Hong Kong).
While the fourteenth Dalai Lama is alive and able to use his authority to advance his “middle way” China has a partner with whom she can do business. The former British Foreign Minister, Lord Malloch Brown, correctly summed this up when he said: “In the Dalai Lama China has a partner for peace….I say again that the Chinese are looking a gift horse in the mouth: they are remarkably lucky to have a partner such as the Dalai Lama.” Although the Buddhist leader believes in reincarnation, he will not live for ever. Failure to resolve this issue during his life time could have calamitous consequences.
Meanwhile, we must take every opportunity to engage with China on unresolved questions of human rights.
While in Tibet we went to Drepung Monastery – where the 2008 riots began. 500 monks from Drepung staged a demonstration demanding religious freedom and the release of monks arrested in 2007. There was still an edgy and fearful atmosphere and no-one could provide facts about the monks who had disappeared or what had happened to them. A senior official, Pse Pa, told us that “no one is missing in Tibet” but we were unable to obtain details of the whereabouts of individuals whose cases had been drawn to our attention. Around 1200 Tibetans disappeared after the 2008 protests and remain unaccounted for.
We went to Lhasa’s Johkang Temple where monks from the Sera Monastery were beaten and arrested. During our own visit we visited Sera and witnessed a fascinating debate between novice monks. At the meeting with Mr.Nima Ciren we specifically appealed for clemency in the cases of Lobsang Gyaltsen and Loyak – both arrested for arson and sentenced to the death. We raised the detention of the film maker Dhondup Wangchen, whose film “Leaving Behind Fear”, has been shown in 30 countries, and we called for the release of Wangdu, a Tibetan public health official, who relayed events in Tibet to the outside world, and has been given a life sentence as a consequence. We registered concern about the use of torture to extract confessions and a palpable lack of due process in dealing with a number of cases which have come before closed courts have simply led to an increased sense of alienation and marginalisation. We raised the programmes of “patriotic re-education” for monks and other dissenters (which smacked of the “struggle sessions” of the Cultural Revolution) and we questioned the decision to ban citizens from keeping photographs of the Dalai Lama.
Back in Beijing I was able to hold talks at the Foreign Ministry with Dr.Shen Yongxiang, who is responsible for the Chinese-British dialogue on human rights.
I believed him when he said he had been given a mandate to “deepen and extend human rights.” He gave an extensive response to cases I raised – including the imprisonment of the blind barefoot lawyer, Chen Guang Cheng. Chen was given a four year prison sentence for exposing the forced abortion or sterilisation of 30,000 women in Shandong. Dr.Shen told us that “those allegations were basically true and local officials were punished.” However, Chen remains in jail, convicted of organising a gathering of people and damaging a police car. His lawyer was beaten up and left on the roadside.
I also raised the plight of the twelve “underground” Catholic bishops held in Chinese jails and the recent arrest of house church leaders such as Hua Huiqi and human rights lawyers, like Gao Zhisheng, as well as the repatriation of North Korean refugees who face imprisonment or execution for leaving their country.
The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee was right to suggest that it is futile to go on raising cases such as these unless we have benchmarks to note where progress – or the lack of it – takes place.
Although it may seem like two steps forward and one step back, the willingness of officials like Dr.Shen to listen to these concerns is encouraging. There are other straws in the wind.
The decision of the Vatican and Beijing to both recognise Joseph Lishan – whom I met during my visit – as Catholic Bishop of Beijing, is a hopeful sign. But the arrest and incarceration of Bishop Julius Zhiguo, Bishop of Zhending, in Hebei Province, and the slow progress in normalising relations between Beijing and the Holy See, illustrates the patchiness of China’s approach to religious liberties.
China needs to disentangle religion from politics and to disentangle the insistence of religious registration (State control) from regulation (issues such as planning permission for buildings). China needs to liberate her religions, enabling them to become an engine of charitable and social endeavour, and not seek to suffocate them by rigid control. At one stroke, by implementing the provisions of her Constitution, which guarantee religious freedom, China could create a new plurality and undermine those who exploit religion or ethnicity to destabilise the State.
At a series of high level meetings in Lhasa and Beijing our delegation argued that, from our own experience in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, the use of excessive and lethal force, and suppression of human rights, exacerbates the problem rather than solving it. The banning of pictures of the Dalai Lama, the searching of thousands of people’s homes, compulsory re-education programmes, attempts to suppress internet and mobile phone communications, closure of house churches and the imprisonment of bishops and priests, should have no place in the modern China. Such actions only allow China’s enemies to discredit her.
In January of this year the Lhasa Evening News said a “strike hard campaign” had been launched. Perhaps a “think hard” campaign would be more apposite.
In the case of Tibet, China should be fearful that, in the absence of a wise conciliatory figure like the Dalai Lama, future opposition could be radicalised and degenerate into long term terror and instability. How much better it would be if the Dalai Lama were invited to direct discussions in Beijing with President Hu Jintao.
How much better it would be if the wonderful Potala Palace in Lhasa was given status comparable to that of the Vatican – and the Dalai Lama allowed to return there as a great religious leader. And, how much better it would be if genuine autonomy, accompanied by the Dalai Lama’s stated renunciation independence, could become a model for other equally fraught situations in our troubled world. Genuine friends of China will be hoping for a display of hard thinking and diplomatic might which matches the awesome display of military hardware which was evident at the sixtieth anniversary events.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

Social Media

Site Search

Recent Posts

Share This