Tshering Chonzom, PhD, Associate Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies
Credible sources have confirmed that Samdhong Rinpoche, a prominent Tibetan leader, recently visited Gyalthang (redubbed as Shangri La recently), his hometown in Yunnan province of China. According to the source, the purpose of the visit was to meet his family. In all likelihood, the visit took place sometime in November; specifically mid-November, according to the article in The Wire that first broke the news about the visit. Earlier, on November 6, the Dalai Lama appointed Samdhong Rinpoche, along with Sikyong Lobsang Sangay (the current president of the Central Tibetan Administration, or CTA, in Dharamsala) as his trusted “representative” or “personal emissary” for an indefinite period.
Samdhong Rinpoche preceded Lobsang Sangay as head of the CTA and played an instrumental role in pushing for the Dalai Lama’s middle way approach (MWA) during his tenure as president. It was during his leadership of the CTA that Sino-Tibetan talks resumed in 2002, after almost a decade of impasse. He also has a close bond with the Dalai Lama; Samdhong Rinpoche’s residential quarters are located within the premises of the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala.
So, given Samdhong Rinpoche’s recent trip to China, is a formal Sino-Tibetan meeting in the offing? Is it possible for China to take up the Tibet issue so promptly just after the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party? For a long time, many of the Tibetan leaders in exile have held the belief that Xi Jinping was waiting for his second term to initiate a major change in Tibet policy. The 19th Party Congress is now over and Xi has more or less reigned supreme, with Xi Jinping Thought now comfortably enshrined into the Party Constitution. Xi was already designated as a “core” leader at the sixth plenum of the 18th Party Congress in October 2016. Further, his pet project, “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) or the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) that he announced in 2013, too made it into the Party Constitution. Xi also sought to redefine the “principal contradiction” facing the Party, which had been done by none other than Mao Zedong himself. Notably, Xi refrained from designating a successor by limiting the entry of sixth generation leaders, who could have been eligible to succeed him in 2022, into the Politburo Standing Committee.
While it is still too early to tell what tricks Xi may have up his sleeve with respect to resolving the Tibet question, the visit of Samdhong Rinpoche to Gyalthang suggests that something may be brewing in the background. Rumors that his visit may have been facilitated by the newly appointed head of the United Front Works Department, You Quan, increase the possibility of a formal meeting between the two sides sooner than later. How long before a formal meeting materializes?
The last time formal contacts resumed between the two sides, in September 2002 after a decade of impasse, that step was preceded by an array of informal meetings in 1997-1998. Reportedly, there were about “five channels” of communication and three “direct-face to face meetings.” Two high level meetings took place in July and October 2000 between Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, and Chinese officials. The final meeting before the formal resumption of dialogue took place in January 2002 outside China between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and Chinese officials. About nine rounds of annual meetings and discussions were held between the two sides from 2002. These also reached an impasse following the 2008 Tibet protests. The last round of talks were held in 2010.
Fresh speculations about informal channels of communication between the Dalai Lama and China emerged in mid-2014. Wu Yingjie, the then deputy Party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) – and the current Party secretary – is reported to have told a visiting media delegation from India, Nepal, and Bhutan that talks with the Dalai Lama were “ongoing and always smooth but we are discussing only his future, not Tibet’s.” Three years down the line and with Xi seemingly comfortable in his second term, he may be ready to take up the vexing issue of Tibet as the Tibetan leadership in exile had been hoping all along. However, being asymmetrically placed in the power equation, is the Tibetan leadership ready to strike a deal and on what terms?
A recent conference in Dharamsala that was organized by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) serves as a useful entry point to understand the current Tibetan position and thinking. Held from October 5-8, 2017, the conference was titled “The Five-Fifty Forum: Shaping Tibet’s Political Future.” To quote from the background note, “‘Five’ is derived from the commitment of the CTA that Tibet’s political future and His Holiness’ return to Tibet should be resolved in the next five years… ‘Fifty’ indicates that the CTA must equally focus on the survival and strengthening of the Tibetan people and community inside and outside of Tibet over the next fifty years if this is needed.”
Without doubt, the conference’s theme of Five-Fifty (5-50) conveys a sense of strategic mindedness, with the exile leadership giving itself and China five years toward “resolving the issue of Tibet and Tibet’s political future.” However, the Tibetan leadership stopped short of issuing an ultimatum, which ideally should have been the case if they wanted China to take them more seriously. Notwithstanding, the goals set for the next five years seems rather clear, if not ambitious – both sides are expected to “resolve” the Sino-Tibetan problem.
The background note, the official statements during the forum, as well as the meeting of the task force on Sino-Tibetan negotiations that was held from October 9-10 reiterated the Tibetan commitment to the middle way approach (MWA). The background note states, “We have followed the Middle Way Approach (‘MWA’) for many years, and we will continue to follow this Approach going forward.” The MWA basically encapsulates the Tibetan approach to resolving the Tibet issue through dialogue. In essence, it originated in the 1970s as the Tibetan leadership decided that dialogue was the best way to come to a mutually agreeable solution with China. Along with being a means to achieve the given end, it also delineates the goals and objectives from the dialogue process. Hence, it is both the means as well as the end.
After many adjustments throughout the intermittent dialogue process, which has lasted about three decades or so, the current Tibetan position of MWA is captured in the “Memorandum for Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People” that was submitted to the Chinese leadership during the ninth round of talks in 2008. The Memorandum is indeed a comprehensive document putting forward a more nuanced set of demands before the Chinese leadership, seeking to explain Tibetan concerns as well as reframing Tibetan demands in accordance with China’s constitutional guarantees. The core Tibetan demand has been “genuine autonomy” for all Tibetans under a “single administration” – which is to say that the current demarcation of Tibetan areas into autonomous regions, autonomous prefectures, autonomous counties, and autonomous villages or townships that are spread across five provinces of southwest China in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Gansu need to be reconfigured and brought under the jurisdiction of a single administration, as constitutionally mandated.
The question is whether the Chinese government, which has not relented on these core and consistent Tibetan demands during the last three decades of dialogue, will suddenly come around to conceding to the MWA in its current form just because of the time pressure imposed by the CTA. The thrust of the White Paper published on April 15, 2015 during Xi’s first term, titled “Tibet’s Path of Development Is Driven by an Irresistible Historical Tide,” was to discuss, or rather, denounce the Dalai Lama’s MWA. Time pressure theoretically is supposed to induce concessional behavior; however, the question is does China feel the sense of time pressure as the Tibetans do?
For the Tibetans, there seems to be a combination of time pressure and lack of an alternative. Quite a few of the speeches by Tibetan officials at the Five-Fifty forum carried a sense of foreboding and the need to arrive at a solution. The background note affirms this: “‘Five’ thus expresses an urgency and a focus that will drive CTA priorities and activities over the near term.” The urgency could be motivated by the fact that the Dalai Lama may withdraw from the scene in the short term either owing to ill health or other reasons.
Further, the Five-Fifty documents deliberated on the changed circumstances internationally, primarily owing to “the growing economic, political, and military power of the PRC and its increased assertiveness and influence.” Alongside a sense about the much talked about rise of China, the note talked about a “decline in influence and power of the Western governments and institutions in relation to PRC.” With this understanding, it perceived a decline in international support when stating that the previous talks “between 2002 and 2010 came at a time when the international movement for Tibet was very active and effective.” This assessment aligns with the Chinese rhetoric about how the Tibet issue is on the decline internationally as fewer and fewer foreign leaders are meeting the Dalai Lama.
In hindsight, the Tibetan side has generally tended to display a sense of urgency and pessimism about its position. Earlier, even if they did not see the international situation as unfavorable or China’s rise as certain, they always spoke about Tibet facing “cultural genocide” and “annihilation.” The Dalai Lama in 1996 argued that “the very existence of a distinct Tibetan national and cultural identity” was under “threat” – hence, the decision “to take whatever steps I must to save my people and our unique cultural heritage from total annihilation.”
In this context, one of the highlights of the Five-Fifty forum was the points made by the Chinese and Taiwanese participants. They provided an interesting contrast to the Tibetan way of dealing with the problem. The contrast is encapsulated in the differing expectations from the Chinese Party-state and with respect to the CCP’s identity, intention, and potential. The Chinese and Taiwanese participants were more or less unanimous (on separate occasions, during individual presentations) in underscoring the futility of relying on the CCP to deliver on talks. One even went to the extent of saying: nothing can be achieved now; stay healthy and wait out the CCP. Indeed, the second part of the forum’s theme – 50 years – was to draw attention to the need to systematically plan for the future if the Tibet issue remains unresolved. Whether the Tibetans will be successful is something that cannot be foretold; however, the Chinese government seems to be relying on Tibetan failure on this front. In addition, Beijing is deploying its resources on other fronts internally as well as externally – such as efforts to control the reincarnation process of Tibetan lamas, fight “ethnic separatism” inside Tibet, combat the Tibetan exiles’ international campaign, and disseminate “propaganda” abroad, among others.
Regarding the visit of Samdhong Rinpoche, even if Sino-Tibetan talks were to restart now, there are a lot of issues that need consideration by both sides, apart from coming to a consensus on the agenda for discussion. Third-party stakeholders may play an important role in creating an enabling environment for any kind of deal. For example, P. Stobdan, a former ambassador and senior fellow at the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis, makes a pertinent point that “any Sino-Tibetan deal would seriously risk undercutting India’s position on the boundary dispute with China.”
The Tibetans realize “India’s special role in shaping Tibet’s political future” (as described in one of the Five-Fifty documents), which is why a complete session out of the four plenary sessions was devoted to the theme “Core Relationship with India and Asia.” While acknowledging that “Tibet remains at the heart of current border disputes and other tensions between India and China,” the Five-Fifty document argues that these problems emerged “largely because Tibet is no longer able to play its historical role as a buffer and bridge between them” — by implication, arguing that the border-related problems between India and China would dissipate if Tibet’s historical role were to be restored. But will a Sino-Tibetan deal be able to restore Tibet’s position to its pre-1951 or ‘59 state?
If not, while continuing to argue the need to make Tibet a core issue in India-China relations, perhaps the Tibetan leadership needs to ascertain how a genuinely autonomous Tibet within China would be in India’s interest. China’s reassurance to India in this regard is also an important prerequisite as a test and reflection of India’s place in China’s diplomacy, and also the state of India-China relations. Beyond such considerations, those concerned about a Sino-Tibetan deal and its implications for India must ask whether the various players are better off with or without a deal.
A version of this article was published as, ‘A Secret Visit and Sino-Tibetan Dialogue’, The Diplomat, 19 December 2017.