China's Tibet: question with no answer

Li Datong
23 April 2009

China's Tibet has been given a new holiday to mark the passing of a half-century since the events it commemorates: Serfs' Emancipation Day. Several groups of senior politicians, including Hu Jintao - general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party's central committee - have attended an exhibition marking these fifty years of democratic reform in Tibet. The official media have decried the evils of

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and former editor of Freezing Point, a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Among Li Datong's articles in openDemocracy

"Xiamen: the triumph of public will" (16 January 2008)

"China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

"China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)

"China: after the quake, the debate" (16 June 2008)

"China's leaders, the media, and the internet" (4 July 2008)

"China's digital nationalism: Kung Fu Panda under fire" (16 July 2008)

"Death in Shanghai, law in China" (15 September 2008)

"China's power, China's people: towards accountability"
(29 September 2008)

"China's stalled transition" (19 February 2009)

"The CCTV fire: a voice without restraint" (5 March 2009)

"China: democracy in action" (19 March 2009)

"serfdom" in historical Tibet, while trumpeting the accomplishments of today. China's foreign minister and prime minister have presented criticisms of the Dalai Lama's "independence stance" (one he has long since renounced) to reporters both foreign and domestic.

This orgy of celebration of the moment in 1959 when Chinese troops "liberated" Lhasa and sent the Dalai Lama and many of his followers into exile in India shows that the Beijing leadership has abandoned the policy of "negotiations" with the Tibetan figurehead, one it was forced by world opinion to undertake in the run-up to the Olympic games. The successful completion of the games is itself one reason for the government's tougher position; the western countries' search for help from China to survive the ongoing global financial crisis is another. China no longer need bite its tongue. The Tibet question is deadlocked. 

The hard line reflects widespread misunderstanding of the Tibet question; even those in China who do understand the issue seem not to know where the crux of the problem lies. After all, the Dalai Lama has abandoned calls for independence; repeatedly stated that Tibet is a part of China; accepted the rights of Beijing over foreign relations and national defence (including, naturally, the right to station troops in Tibet); and agreed to seek greater autonomy only within the framework of China's constitution and "law of regional national autonomy". So why does the Chinese government refuse to acknowledge even the basis for negotiations? What happened to Deng Xiaoping's approach - stated when he met the Dalai Lama's brother in 1979 - that "everything can be discussed, bar independence"?

An ideology against itself

The Communist Party had an entirely different stance on national autonomy before it came to power in 1949. It adopted wholesale as part of its ideology the idea of "national self-determination". This arose from the modern European idea of the nation-state, and was given its widest interpretation in Lenin's essay "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination" (1914): that any group with common cultural characteristics and regarding itself as a nation had the right to autonomy in its permanent homeland, and to found an independent sovereign state.

It is clear that for any empire this can end only in fracture. The Soviet Union made strenuous efforts to avoid this fate. It identified one hundred different nationalities, each of which on paper had the constitutional right to leave the Soviet Union; but sought to create the image of a happy socialist family in which all these national members were united by ideological belief in a higher, unifying goal. In reality, the "multinational family" was held captive by single-party rule, violent suppression and economic exploitation; not even autonomy was granted. 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) followed closely the Soviet blueprint. In 1928 its sixth congress (held in Moscow) declared "only when we admit the right of nationalities to independence and separation, that all nationalities within China's borders can secede from China and form their own countries, will we be true communists." On 7 November 1931, the party founded the Chinese Soviet Republic in Jiangxi. Article 14 of the 1934 constitution of this republic reads: "The Chinese Soviet Republic acknowledges the right to national self-determination of minority nationalities within China's borders, to the extent that even minor nationalities have the right to secede and found independent countries." 

The party's years in power after 1949 saw it continue to learn from the Soviet Union by "identifying" - or inventing - nationalities. The five nationalities of the Republic of China - the Han, Man, Mongolian, Hui and Tibetan - had by 1986 become fifty-six. The arrangements for regional national autonomy were also adopted from the Soviets, although China's historical tradition of unification meant "countries" became "regions". This creation and strengthening of national differences meant that members of minority nationalities came to identify more with their ethnicity than their country. Even today not one single party secretary of a national autonomous region is actually of that nationality - the so-called autonomy is always under the leadership and supervision of a Han party secretary. If the party is so worried about fragmentation or loss of authority, what was the point of the system in the first place? 

A policy against movement

There are two issues at the heart of the "national autonomy" issue. The first is the relationship between different nationalities (for if the principle of national autonomy is accepted, this creates the possibility of friction and logically includes national independence). The second is the issue of political mechanisms that might become a route to self-determination (for the will of the majority of the nationality is a

permanent threat - since autonomy can only be founded on democracy, on voting for a leader and his or her policies). Both aspects of "national autonomy" thus pose difficulties for official policy: the first is incompatible with the ideal of a unified China that the party inherited and carries forward, the second is incompatible with the one-party political system.  

In this light, whatever the Dalai Lama does - proclaims himself a loyal Chinese citizen, refutes independence, or declares himself willing to achieve Tibetan autonomy within the scope of the Chinese constitution - the Chinese government cannot respond. It is bound by the contradictions of its official ideology to evade the question.  

The policy is stuck in another way too. It lacks any foundation to engage with the Dalai Lama's view of the Tibetan government-in-exile as the natural representative of the Tibetan people. For fifty years the party has been carefully selecting and training a Tibetan elite, many members of which have been educated in China or even Beijing before returning to take up government posts, and are bilingual in Chinese and Tibetan. Many of these are the descendants of past "serfs".

By contrast, those in the exile government have often never lived in Tibet, have been educated in India or the west, and speak fluent English but not a word of Chinese. Even in a free election the local elite may have the advantage - they would have arguments to persuade people not to hand over power to those "incomers". I suspect the greatest opposition to the return of the Dalai Lama is that rising Tibetan elite. Chinese control of Tibet relies on them; they are able to influence central policy on the region; they have a stake in power.  

The accumulated result is stasis. China's political systems and institutions of nationality mean that the Tibetan issue cannot be solved.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Tibet and China:

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2009)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

Donald S Lopez, "How to think about Tibet" (28 March 2008)

George Fitzherbert, "Tibet's history, China's power" (28 March 2008)

Dibyesh Anand, "Tibet, China, and the west: empires of the mind" (1 April 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

openDemocracy, "Chinese intellectuals and Tibet: a letter" (15 April 2008)

openDemocracy, "Tibet scholars and China: a letter" (22 April 2008)

Chang Ping, "Tibet: looking for the truth" (8 May 2008)

Fred Halliday, "Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

Woeser, "The Fear in Lhasa" (10 March 2009)

Tsering Shakya, "Tibet and China: the past in the present" (11 March 2009)

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