I’m just back from spending four days in the Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India visiting my Tibetan friends exiled there.
As is well known, the Chinese army marched into Tibet in October 1949 and routed the Tibetan army a year later. In 1951 China and a Tibetan delegation signed the “seventeen point agreement” codifying the new status of Tibet as a national regional autonomy within the People’s Republic of China. As conditions worsened, a Tibetan national uprising broke out in 1959, which was crushed by the Chinese, resulting in an estimated eighty-seven thousand Tibetan deaths. After that time, the Dalai Lama escaped to India, where he was granted asylum, and China assumed an ever more dominant role in Tibet.
Historians have debated for decades the strength of China’s historical claim on Tibet. One of the best short editorials I’ve read on this subject, linked here, ran in the New York Times in 2008. I personally agree with the conclusion that Tibet was neither always 100 percent independent nor 100 percent part of China. The truth lies, in my opinion, somewhere between the two poles along the lines outlined in the editorial. That China and Tibet were both conquered by the Mongols in the thirteenth century establishes as much of a Chinese claim to Tibet as Poland would have on France because both were conquered by the Nazis.
In some ways, however, the historical question has been put to rest by the Dalai Lama himself. In the 1970s, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans began speaking publicly about the “middle way policy,” which sought meaningful autonomy for Tibet within the People’s Republic of China. Since then, with an almost entirely peaceful approach and in the face of harsh suppression, population transfer, environmental degradation, and cultural pressure by China, this peaceful approach has been maintained by the Tibetans.
The Dalai Lama, who has been the champion of this peaceful approach, has nevertheless been repeatedly vilified by the Chinese. The Tibetan civil/political authority in exile, the Central Tibetan Administration, has continued to press for the middle way approach of autonomy for the Tibetans with China, but to no avail.
Having spent time with the incredibly impressive leaders of the Tibetan authority, particularly my dear friend and former Harvard Law School classmate Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, I can say without hesitation that the Tibetan leadership seeks accommodation with China that will allow the type of meaningful autonomy outlined in China’s own Constitution.
I Dharamsala, I had my fourth meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and every time I meet him I am blown away by the purity of his spirit and the quality of his character. The Dalai Lama is seventy-eight years old and I hope he lives another seventy-eight years (and he has an incredible ebullience, but China is losing the incredible opportunity to negotiate a meaningful settlement to the Tibetan problem based on real autonomy within China while he is still with this world. Strategists in Beijing may feel they can just wait him out and move aggressively when a transition may happen in the future but I see that as a high risk, low reward approach.
I’ll even go one step further.
China today is facing a spiritual crisis. For more than thirty years the government has promoted economic growth and getting rich has become not just a national obsession, but almost a national religion. Getting rich may be glorious, paraphrasing Deng, but it is not ultimately fulfilling. Am I too much of a dreamer to imagine a rapprochement between China and the Tibetans that would allow for meaningful autonomy for Tibet, for the return of the Dalai Lama to Lhasa, and for the Dalai Lama to become a national spiritual leader within China helping the country come to terms with its own destiny values which have laid dormant for so long?