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What Future for the Sino-Tibetan Dialogue?

By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review

“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  This Zen Buddhist koan is sometimes cited by those who follow the ups and downs – mostly downs – of the Sino-Tibetan dialogue.  The Tibetan side wants to negotiate a political resolution; the Chinese side either refuses to discuss anything beyond the personal status of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or refuses to even acknowledge that there is a dialogue.

Now, there are two questions of new urgency that Tibetans must address in relation to the future of this dialogue.  First, Tibetans must clarify internally who will decide Tibetan policy on the dialogue process and control the envoys.  Second, Tibetans must decide how to respond externally to China’s growing intransigence in restarting talks.

The first question is illustrated by a November 2011 statement by Lodi Gyari, the Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  The second question is illustrated by some December 2011 statements by Zhu Weiqun, the Communist Party official responsible for the Tibet talks.

Besides these two main topics, the end of this editorial has some new questions for future consideration by the Tibetan people.

Tibetans’ Internal Question: Who Decides, Who Controls?
Gyari’s November 11 statement declared: “With the changes in the CTA’s structure, the Kashag [Cabinet] informed me in May 2011 of its
intention to appoint me to a position under it…  I responded by reminding the Kashag that I had retired from the CTA civil service long time back…  Following the recent changes in the governance system, I have ceased any involvement with issues relating to the Central Tibetan Administration.”

While this may seem out of the blue, it followed the devolution of power from His Holiness to an elected leadership.  Gyari noted that with the devolution, he could no longer operate as essentially the CTA’s envoy as well as His Holiness’s.  (This problem would have been prevented if His Holiness had remained ceremonial head of state as advocated by some.)

A close reading of Gyari’s statement also suggests that his position as Special Envoy did not automatically end when His Holiness devolved his powers.  Legally, this may be a solid argument.  Gyari was appointed as His Holiness’s envoy in the early 1990s through the then-proper procedure, i.e. nomination by the Kashag and formal appointment by His Holiness.  His Holiness remains His Holiness.  Thus, Gyari’s term as Special Envoy arguably continues until his resignation or removal by His Holiness.

   1. What Went On? 

The Kashag’s May 14, 2011 statement, to which Gyari refers, announced that Gyari and his colleague Kelsang Gyaltsen “will hold their posts until further notice.”  The Kashag’s announcement took for granted that it has the power to appoint (or dismiss) Gyari.

Gyari’s response apparently was to “remind” the Kashag that it had no such power over his position.  However, it is also important to note that this reminder was apparently delivered in private, as implied by a close reading of Gyari’s statement.  Gyari did not say anything publicly until November 11.

On August 8, Lobsang Sangay formally took the reigns as Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile.  During his first press conference that same day , he declared, “We will appoint an envoy in the name of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and send him or her to Beijing to talk about the substantive issues.”  Thus, it was announced in a prominent public forum that Sangay intended to appoint an envoy (presumably but not necessarily Gyari) who would wear two “hats”: one as the CTA’s envoy, and one as His Holiness’s envoy.

On October 13, Sangay further stated his “firm commitment in finding a mutually acceptable solution in the spirit of the Middle-Way Approach.  I have therefore asked the two envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to make efforts to resume the dialogue at the earliest convenience.”

Gyari’s statement came on November 11.  Essentially, he declared that he does not work for the Tibetan Government-in-Exile.

  2. What Now? 

We believe that the elected Tibetan leadership should be in charge of the dialogue process to the maximum extent possible.  The leadership has the popular mandate from the electorate, and they also can be held accountable for the success or shortcomings of their policy.  The problem comes with defining what is the “maximum extent possible”.

In an ideal world, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile would decide dialogue policy, and would appoint and instruct the representatives to any talks that take place.  However, this is not an ideal world.

The reason is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) categorically refuses to talk with Tibet’s exiled government.  (Note: the Tibetan dialogue is with the United Front Work Department of the CCP, not the Chinese government.  The CCP also has a Tibet Work Coordination Group where the United Front has a major voice.)  Simply put, the CCP is afraid of implying any sort of legitimacy for the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, because it knows that its own rule over Tibet comes only through force.  Tibetans should always be mindful that the real cause of the democratic deficit in the dialogue process is the CCP’s immature and intransigent attitude, not any power contest internal to the Tibetan side.

It is also important to note that the formal policy of the U.S. government is also to support negotiation between Beijing and “the Dalai Lama or his representatives”.  Because the U.S. executive branch does not recognize the exiled Tibetan government, it acknowledges no Tibetan government role in the Sino-Tibetan dialogue.

       A. Who Decides the Dialogue Policy? 

From an internal Tibetan perspective, there may be a cooperative solution to these non-ideal circumstances.  The exiled administration will recognize that His Holiness retains unparalleled devotion inside Tibet, and the CCP will only talk (if at all) with His Holiness’s envoys.  Yet at the same time, the elected Tibetan leadership holds the popular electoral mandate, and is the legal continuity of the sovereign government of Tibet.

Thus, at the level of deciding dialogue policy behind closed doors, it makes sense for the exiled leadership to informally coordinate with Gyari and other officers in the Ganden Phodrang Trust (previously called His Holiness’s Private Office).  This may already occur through the mechanism of the Task Force, though we have no inside information.

The parties involved might consider refraining from public statements about who is in charge.  This admittedly hurts democratic accountability, and maybe pride, but it might be the price of dealing with an anti-democratic CCP.

       B. Who Controls the Envoys? 

The next question is: who should have the power to appoint and direct the envoys?  When the exiled government insisted that it controls the envoys, it asserted itself as the legitimate representative of the Tibetan people.  The danger, however, is that the CCP will seize on the excuse to petulantly reject all further talks.  Indeed, it is our speculation that Gyari’s November 11 statement sought to repair some damage by refuting the exiled leadership’s assertions of control.
Now, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile must choose a better balance between principle and pragmatic flexibility.  It could continue to claim power over the envoys, resulting in a deadlock, or it could embrace flexibility, potentially opening up diplomatic possibilities (but with an opponent who states that it is unwilling to discuss anything of substance).

Specifically with respect to Gyari, the exiled government must also make a decision.  It can continue to claim power over his position or perhaps state that Gyari is only His Holiness’s private envoy, competent to discuss only issues related to His Holiness.  Or alternatively, it can alter its position and acknowledge Gyari as His Holiness’s envoy, who is also competent to represent the Tibetan side in any dialogue, with no public role for the exiled government.

If the exiled government takes a more flexible route, this would not mean it renounces its claim to be the legitimate representative of the Tibetan people.  It would be entirely appropriate for the government to ask His Holiness and his envoys to take on the formal role of representing the Tibetan people in dialogue with the CCP.  Other governments have turned to distinguished persons to resolve conflicts.  As stated above, the exiled government could continue to quietly consult with His Holiness’s envoys behind closed doors, and devote its public energies to the equally vital task of domestic improvement and societal resource-building.

From the constitutional perspective, the Tibetan Charter is notably unclear as to whether the Kashag has a role in the appointment of the next Special Envoy of His Holiness (note again that Gyari’s role probably continues until his resignation or removal).  The amended Article 1(3) gives His Holiness the right to “give the title/position of envoy of His Holiness to the Kashag-appointed Office of Tibet Representatives/Envoys and Special Envoys.”  From the Tibetan text, it is unclear whether it is only an Office of Tibet Representative who is “Kashag-appointed”, or also a Special Envoy: kashag gyis bsko-‘dzugs byes-pai’ sku-tsab don-chod dang dmigs-sel sku-tsab.  Depending on whether or not the ambiguous language was intentional, this clause’s drafting was either masterful or negligent.  In any case, the Charter is not much help in resolving this question.

The overall choice between principle and flexibility, deadlock and pseudo-dialogue, is one that the Tibetan people should carefully consider.  This much is clear: if the Tibetan people want to seek dialogue with the CCP, it will likely be fatal for the exiled government to continue to claim to be in charge.  Whether the Tibetan people decide that it is worth this price is another question, for the sake of a dialogue that may or may not happen, and which may or may not go anywhere.  There is no easy answer for a people who have compromised and given up so much already, and for whom dialogue may hold out only a thin hope, one that has been dashed so many times before.

Tibetans’ External Question: How to Respond to China?

As if the dialogue process were not hard enough, the Tibetan people face an opponent who has repeatedly claimed that it is uninterested in talking (ideal for establishing a strong bargaining position).  The Chinese side is led by a Communist Party official named Zhu Weiqun (vice-director of the CCP’s United Front Work Department).

Comrade Zhu has recently made some rather acerbic and inflammatory statements, which is what one would expect from scorched-earth Chinese negotiating tactics.  Indeed, it is perhaps unsurprising that he uses the language of a leftist hack, since so far it has worked.  To date it has been the Tibetan side that has given all the concessions, which strengthens the Chinese position and weakens the exiled Tibetan government in its domestic constituency.  Presumably, Comrade Zhu has enjoyed some bureaucratic rewards for that.

In relation to the self-immolation crisis in Tibet, Comrade Zhu noted in December that “I can honestly say to our friends that even if such a thing happens again, the direction of the Chinese government’s policies in Tibet and our attitude toward the Dalai clique’s struggle will not change in any way.”

He declared categorically that China would never speak with the CTA, arguing that it “lacked legality”.  He also blamed “interference” by the Kalon Tripa for the failure of the talks to restart, likely referring to the envoy issue.

Speaking to European Parliament members in December, Comrade Zhu complained about Europeans being willing “to accept what the Dalai Lama says rather than what we are saying”.  However, in a comment lacking any sense of civility, he stated that there is “little we can do to change this mentality but the thing I would say is that time is on our side.”

So how should the Tibetan side respond to a dialogue “partner” who declares that his side will never change their policy, will never talk with the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, and intends to simply outlive His Holiness?

This is a discussion the Tibetan people should have. Among the related questions that need asking:

  • Should Tibetans carry on as before, asking the CCP to restart talks led by Comrade Zhu?  One should doubt the prospects for a negotiated solution under Comrade Zhu.  A Canadian intelligence commentary calls United Front work “China’s version of psychological warfare”: it serves to co-opt non-Communist leaders and use them to neutralize CCP critics, including among ethnic and religious groups.  The Tibetan envoy is currently faced with the near-impossible task of seeking modification of the very “ethnic” policies designed by the United Front itself.  Presumably, any United Front official concerned about his career would not repudiate his department’s own work.  From the perspective of bureaucratic interest, there is a problem expecting the “anti-splittist” bureaucracy to resolve the very issue that its power and resources are based upon.  On the contrary, Comrade Zhu’s interest is likely in fulfilling his mission to protect the Party, guarding his department’s policy decisions and bureaucratic prerogatives, and advancing his career, not in solving a larger problem in the interests of the Chinese and Tibetan people.
  • Should Tibetans push for a good-faith (or less bad-faith) dialogue partner other than Comrade Zhu, perhaps someone in the CCP Politburo Standing Committee or the government’s State Council?  The CCP’s United Front department has historically dealt with Hong Kong and Taiwan, but China’s State Council also formally or informally has offices that manage relations with those territories.  Couldn’t there be a similar State Council office to institutionalize the Tibet dialogue and transfer the process away from the very department who bureaucratically benefits from continuing the “anti-splittist” crusade: i.e. the leftist United Front department?  For Tibet, whether this unlikely change becomes possible may indicate how serious the Chinese side is about actually resolving the issue.
  • Should Tibetans say “we tried”, and state that they remain open to dialogue but that the Chinese side is unwilling to reciprocate?  By honestly acknowledging the impasse, would this open up the discussion to considering other options, including reasserting Tibet’s claim to sovereignty and independence for a reinvigorated long-term freedom struggle?  Certainly, the experiences of numerous countries like Lithuania and East Timor serve to remind that all empires crumble, and there are many ways for small colonized nations to lay the groundwork to seize such an opportunity if they wish.
  • Should Tibetans consider a really “outside the box” idea?  What about accepting a division between the questions of His Holiness’s personal status and the political situation in Tibet?  Previously, His Holiness has always stated that the real issue is the 6 million Tibetan people, which the Chinese side always rejected.  With the devolution of power, the responsibility for the 6 million Tibetan people primarily rests with the Tibetan Government-in-Exile (though His Holiness remains the spiritual leader and source of refuge).  Now, with the exiled government carrying on the political struggle, is His Holiness free to consider under what circumstances he would be willing to return to Tibet, separate from the issue of reaching a permanent political solution?  Since the CCP says they will only discuss His Holiness’s status and return, how would the dynamics change if His Holiness’s reply as a private citizen was to take China up on its offer?


Certainly, there are sensitive issues involved here, and officials in the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and Ganden Phodrang Trust will (or should) speak cautiously.  However, nothing should stop the Tibetan people from debating this topic, since the dialogue process is carried out from the Tibetan side in their name.

The Taiwanese experience shows that democratic debate is possible even on “sensitive” issues dealing with China.  Taiwan and China have developed the so-called “1992 Consensus”, which sidesteps (some would say obscures) the dispute by allowing both sides to pretend that they are the “real” China.  Neither government will admit openly that this is a bit of a word game, but the Taiwan-China agreement works even with open discussion and criticism by the Taiwanese people.  Indeed, the journal Foreign Affairs even reports that Taiwanese officials “privately acknowledge the absurdity” of the consensus, which is a “kind of mantra the Taiwanese government must chant in order to have good relations with China”.  Surely, there is a lesson somewhere in there.

In the Tibetan case, this editorial doesn’t claim to have any answers, and merely poses some questions that we believe are important to ask.  Furthermore, we take no position on what outcomes we support.  Instead, we have tried our best to present the issues as we see them, and their logical consequences, based on publicly-available information.  These are difficult issues requiring sustained democratic discussion by the Tibetan people.  Hopefully at the end of this discussion lies a better policy and a stronger democracy.

Tibetan Political Review – February 6, 2012 http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.com/editorials/whatfutureforthesino-tibetandialogue


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