Middle Way Approach: A Dialogue Matters

The “Middle Way Approach” is a brainchild of His Holiness the Dalai Lama which received a huge mandate from Tibetans inside Tibet and in diaspora.
Keywords: Tibet, China, India, Middle Way, Constitution, Autonomy, Framework, Dialogue, Beijing, US, Sikyong, Stalemate, CCP
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Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Kasur Lodi Gyari (center), with Envoy Kelsang Gyaltsen (left) during their meeting with Vice Chairman of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Du Qinglin (right) during their afternoon meeting on 30 January 2010. (Photo credit DIIR/CTA) 

The newly elected Sikyong — President of Central Tibetan Administration — Penpa Tsering said that he would work to start the Sino-Tibetan dialogue in an interview to The Week.  From 2002 to 2010, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s envoys had nine rounds of talks and one informal talk with Chinese representatives. After 2010, the Sino-Tibetan dialogue remained a stalemate so far. Sikyong Penpa Tsering’s remarks indicate that Beijing too must work to start the dialogue — a dialogue based on the ‘Middle Way Approach’ which demands a genuine autonomy for Tibetans within the framework of China’s constitution. The “Middle Way Approach” is a brainchild of His Holiness the Dalai Lama which received a huge mandate from Tibetans inside Tibet and in diaspora. It was Deng Xiaoping whose remarks produced a ray of hope for “Middle Way Approach” and channelized a process of dialogue between Beijing and His Holiness. This article is an attempt to highlight how Beijing approached His Holiness; the tenets of “Middle Way Approach” and what role could the Government of India play in producing a conducive environment for the resumption of the dialogue.

Beijing’s interest in Dialogue in 1970s

In 1979, Deng Xiaoping proposed a proposal to Gyalo Thondup — elder brother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama — saying that “The door is opened for negotiations as long as we don’t speak about independence. Everything else is negotiable”. This rather liberal gesture, somehow, allowed the Tibetan Government-In-Exile to send ‘Fact-Finding Delegations’ to Tibet. After three rounds of ‘Fact-Finding Delegation’ in Tibet, the overall situation in Tibet was summed up as “sad conditions” by the delegates. On this serious note, His Holiness the Dalai Lama sent a letter to Deng Xiaoping on 23rd March, 1981 and stated the following:

In early 1979, at your invitation, Gyalo Thondup visited China. Through him you had sent a message saying that we should keep in contact with each other. You had also invited us to send fact-finding delegations to Tibet. Thereafter, three fact-finding delegations were able to find out both the positive and negative aspects of the situation in Tibet. If the Tibetan people’s identity is preserved and if they are genuinely happy, there is no reason to complain. However, in reality, over 90 percent of the Tibetans are suffering both mentally and physically, and are living in deep sorrow. These sad conditions have not been brought about by natural disasters, but by human actions. Therefore, genuine efforts must be made to resolve the problems in accordance with the existing realities in a reasonable way.

Since Beijing showed interest in negotiation with Tibetan Government-In-Exile, His Holiness has presented “A Five-Point Peace Plan” on solving the Tibetan issue to the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1987. The fifth point of the peace plan stands for “for earnest negotiations on the future of Tibet”. As His Holiness is a staunch believer in “dialogue”, he elaborated how the negotiation would help solve Sino-Tibetan issue: “We wish to approach this subject in a reasonable and realistic way, in a spirit of frankness and conciliation and with a view to finding a solution that is in the long-term interest of all: the Tibetans, the Chinese, and all other peoples concerned.” Then, His Holiness made his Strasbourg Proposal in 1988 where he strongly elaborated on the fifth point of peace plan on negotiation as follow:

We, have therefore, taken the initiative to formulate some thoughts which, we hope, may serve as a basis for resolving the issue of Tibet. I would like to take this opportunity to inform the distinguished gathering here on the main points of our thinking. The whole of Tibet known as Cholka-Sum (U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo) should become a self-governing democratic political entity founded on law by agreement of the people for the common good and the protection of themselves and their environment, in association with the People’s Republic of China.

Here, the idea of genuine autonomy popped-up is, to my understanding, referring to three traditional regions (U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo) as a whole Tibet to have a self-governing democratic political entity within the Chinese constitution.

On 23rd September, 1988, Chinese Government released the following press:

We welcome the Dalai Lama to have talks with the central government at any time. The talks may be held in Beijing, Hong Kong, or any of our embassies and consulates abroad. If the Dalai Lama finds it inconvenient to conduct talks at these places, he may choose any place he wishes. But there is one condition, that is, no foreigners should be involved.

Even in 1992, Ding Guangen — head of the United Front Department of the CCP Central Committee — met Gyalo Thondup and reiterated their 1979 statement i.e. “The door is opened for negotiations as long as we don’t speak about independence. Everything else is negotiable.” Moreover, even China’s President Jiang Zemin said that “door to negotiation is open” when US President Bill Clinton urged the former to have dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1998.

A Genuine Autonomy For Tibetans

Since Chinese side seemed to have interest in having dialogue with Tibetan Government-In-Exile, Tibetans in diaspora had a poll where 64 percent respondents supported the ‘Middle Way Approach’ vision of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Later, Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile adopted a unanimous resolution in support of this approach which then became the official policy of Central Tibetan Administration. In reality, the seed of this approach was actually sowed all the way from 1974 when His Holiness — after having internal discussions with cabinet and Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies (Tibetan Parliament-In-Exile) — decided not to pursue independence and seek an opportunity for negotiation if arises.

An opportunity came in 2002 when, for the first time, the formal dialogue between Beijing and Dharamshala happened. A four-member delegation led by special envoy Lodi Gyari went to Beijing. There were two purposes of the visit: One, “to  re-establish direct contact with the leadership in Beijing and to create a conducive atmosphere enabling direct face-to-face meetings on a regular basis in future; Two, to explain His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach towards resolving the issue of Tibet.”

During the 7th round of talk, Mr. Du Qinglin — Vice Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the Minister of the Central United Front Work Department — invited suggestions from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And Mr. Zhu Weiqun — the Executive Vice Minister of the Central United Front Work Department — said that they would like to hear views on “the degree and the form of autonomy” Tibetans are seeking.  

Therefore, during the 8th round of talk, His Holiness’ envoys presented “A memorandum on Genuine Autonomy” to the Chinese side in order to dispel a notion in Chinese side that “Tibetan leadership’s intention is to expel ‘all Chinese’ from Tibetan areas”.

The “Middle Way Approach” means that Tibetans do not accept the status quo of Tibet under the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, Tibetans are not seeking independence for Tibet which is an indelible historic fact. It seeks to avoid these two extremes and find a middle way to solve the issue of Tibet by achieving a genuine autonomy for all Tibetans living in the three traditional regions of Tibet within the Chinese Constitution.  The approach seeks to gain a genuine autonomy for all Tibetans of three traditional regions and protect 11 basic needs of Tibetans — which are “subject-matters of self-governing” — enshrined in the memorandum. For instance, Tibetan language — the first need of Tibetans — seeks the full right to preserve it under the Article 4 of Chinese Constitution which stipulates “All ethnic groups shall have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own traditions and customs.” Religion — the third need of Tibetans — is the fundamental identity of Tibetans. If Article 36 of Chinese Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to the freedom of religious belief, it has to be applied to Tibetans as well. However, Chinese Government does not execute the said articles in the constitution and they are just on paper. According to Kelsang Gyaltsen — former envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama — expressed the following in an article:

These documents put forth in detail how the basic needs of the Tibetan people for self-government can be met through the application of the principles on autonomy contained in the Constitution of the PRC and the Note clarifies and dispels misunderstandings and concerns that the Chinese side had expressed with regard to the Tibetan memorandum on genuine autonomy.

But, the Chinese side rejected the document by saying that Tibetans are seeking “semi-independence” and “disguised independence”. For this act, Kelsang Gyaltsen believes that “then Chinese leadership lacked the political will to address the issue of Tibet in earnest”.  The question before us is that was this lack of political will from Chinese side the reason behind the dialogue stalemate so far? It is now high time Beijing must realize the importance of solving Tibet’s issue and correct their image at international fora.

Indian Government can be a mediator

India — a home away from home for majority of Tibetans in Exile — can play a key role in pushing forward the resumption of dialogue between Beijing and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. As India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed that “Tibet is a part of China” in 1954, the subsequent government held the same stance. In 2003, PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao recognized Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as part of People’s Republic of China. This recognition was a complete surprise that scholars like Brahma Chellaney wrote “Mr. Vajpayee has implicitly conceded the forcible incorporation of Tibet’s large outer territories into the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan”. The so-called demarcated TAR region has “less than half of all ethnic Tibetans live”. This particular recognition raised big questions: What about the Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan? Were they already part of China?

It implicitly meant that Indian Government accepts the “One China Policy”. But how China reciprocates “One India Policy” is debatable to the date.

So, the Government of India must produce a conducive environment for the resumption of dialogue between Beijing and His Holiness. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Dr. Lobsang Sangay — then Sikyong of Central Tibetan Administration — to his swearing-in ceremony, which sprouted a huge hope amongst Tibetans in diaspora. But that hope didn’t last long. In the span of 7 years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there wasn’t a single word uttered on Tibet.

As Holiness turns 86 this year, Chinese Government never stops a single minute to claim the rights to choose the next reincarnation. The recently published White Paper on Tibet imposes the same idea and asserts more authoritative power to claim the rights to choose the next Dalai Lama. Many scholars believe that it is high time the Government of India must interfere in the reincarnation of His Holiness by saying the right to reincarnate is solely the prerogative of the Dalai Lama himself. According to a Bloomberg report, various senior Indian officials including Prime Minister’s office seemed to have been discussing how the country can influence the choice of the next Dalai Lama. The interference of Indian Government on the matter of reincarnation might be viewed as political move. However, Indian Government must understand the ramifications if China succeeds in choosing the next Dalai Lama.

The newly elected Sikyong Penpa Tsering’s priority is to resume dialogue with Beijing. So, the Government of India must take this opportunity to push harder to bring China on a table with His Holiness. If Tibet’s issue is solved, India will surely have a more secure and stable relation with China. First, China’s hydro-power dam projects may cause troubles for Indians depending on rivers originating from Tibet. Second, India will not have to spend US$ 7.16 billion annually on border expenditures. China’s expansionist ambition does not have any limits at all. When the world is suffering from a coronavirus pandemic, China left no stone unturned to assert her hegemonic power in Asia. India is no exception at becoming the receiving end of this expansionist ambition. For instance, the Ladakh standoff is a clear indication of China’s obsession in claiming territories of India. This intransigent and pro-longed border dispute could only be solved if Tibet’s issue is solved via “Middle Way Approach”. Indian Government must assert her power as mediator in this deadlock situation between Beijing and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Because India has the moral as well as strategic reasons to ensure support and urge the Chinese Government to resume dialogue at the earliest. Since the Government of India recognizes Tibet as part of People’s Republic of China, it is also mandatory to state that Tibetans must have a genuine autonomy withing the frame work of Chinese constitution in order to safeguard their basic needs. India — being a super power in Asia — can influence China if there is a political will to solve the issue of Tibet.

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Yeshi Dawa

Mr. Yeshi Dawa is a Former Academic Administrator of the Institute of Leadership and Governance at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. He is currently an Affiliated Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute and Anchor at Tibet TV.

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