China Finally Realizes How Badly It Bungled Tibet

After the mass riots there in March 2008, Tibet faded once again into relative obscurity—the province of foreign-affairs wonks, adventure tourists, and a few well-organized protest groups who object to China's rule there. But during that time, Beijing has come slowly to two painful realizations. First, the restive plateau it had treated for decades as a colony is central to its national plan: development and stability are "vital to ethnic unity, social stability, and national security," President Hu Jintao recently told his Politburo. And second, a corollary realization: China's government has been mishandling the issue of Tibet all along.

It's true that the government in Beijing bridles at anything that reeks of secessionism. Just last week, Hu kept up his public attack on the "separatist forces led by the Dalai clique." The Chinese leadership is against the "meaningful autonomy" demanded by the Dalai Lama, who is described over and over as a "separatist" bent on fomenting trouble and splitting Tibet from China.

But though local riots looked bad in the press, they never really threatened control of Tibet. And the Dalai Lama has consistently maintained that he does not want to separate Tibet from China. World leaders who have met him seem convinced of his sincerity and nonviolent approach to solving the Tibet issue.

So as concerns about actual separatism receded, China's leaders recognized they really need a plan to govern the province. The money they had spent to buy the loyalty of Tibetans ($45.6 billion since 2001 for roads, trains, and housing complexes) had more or less come to nothing. "Even the most massive infusions of funds have never been able to buy the affection of the people," says Tibetologist Parvez Dewan, who has just coauthored a book called Tibet: Fifty Years After with Siddharth Srivastava. "You can't get rid of the alienation of a people through development." Even in the less-authoritarian neighboring Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan, and Qinghai—where a majority of the 6.5 million Tibetans live—discontent among ethnic Tibetans is widespread. (Nearly 1,500 monks from the famous Labrang Monastery in Gansu province took to streets in the 2008 uprising that also sparked Tibetan protests in Qinghai and Sichuan.)

That's why last week, after nearly 15 months of trading barbs—Beijing had shut down relations after the Olympic spotlight went dark—China's leadership invited the Dalai Lama's government in exile (based in the north Indian town of Dharamsala) back to talks about the province's future. Soon, two of the Dalai Lama's representatives, Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, left for China along with three of their aides.

These talks are not going to solve the 50-year-old problem, which began with the Dalai Lama's escape from Tibet after a failed uprising against the invading Chinese Army in 1959. But the administration of President Hu (who was himself in charge of Tibet in the late 1980s) seems serious about helping to develop the province.

Fifty Years After brims with surprise at the affluent, breathtakingly planned city that Lhasa has become—with sparkling six-lane roads and glass-front shops that sell all the top international designer labels. "But we could not find any Tibetan who showed his loyalty to the Chinese," says Dewan. The authors also found that Tibetans remained excluded from most senior-level jobs. For example, of the nine top officials in the Tibet Mineral Development Co. Ltd., seven are ethnic Han Chinese, the largest group in China. (Officially the province is run by an ethnic Tibetan governor named Pema Thinley, a hawkish military commander, but real power lies with Communist Party Secretary Zhang Qingli, an ethnic Han.) Similarly, they point out that of the nearly 13,000 shops and restaurants in Lhasa, barely 300 are owned by Tibetans. "And despite the threat of punishment, we found deep respect and admiration for the Dalai Lama," says Dewan. Tibetan exiles say that nearly 60 percent of Lhasa's more than half a million people are now Han Chinese immigrants, although the Chinese-government census disputes that claim. But Dewan and Srivastava point out that the vast number of Chinese troops and officials, as well as the floating population of Chinese traders and businessmen, are not counted in Tibet's census. "You can see nattily dressed handsome Chinese men and women everywhere in Lhasa," says Dewan.

Suddenly, then, the Dalai Lama is not the problem but rather a pivotal part of the solution. As Tibet expert and author Robert Thurman says, the Dalai Lama is the key to giving China legitimate sovereignty over Tibet as an autonomous region within China because he would inspire his people to stay inside China in case of a referendum on independence. His growing following within mainland China (the number of Chinese Buddhists attending the Dalai Lama's teaching sessions in Dharamsala is growing quickly) can also help calm the simmering discontent among the Chinese who have been left untouched by the benefits of China's impressive economic growth, which has created a hunger for spiritual growth.

The Dalai Lama will be 75 in July. He is revered by the Tibetans and admired around the world. Any deal with him will have the unquestioned legitimacy and support that is so vital to China's aspirations. And his absence will spell uncertainty and a lack of moral authority over Tibetans—which can only hinder China's aim of becoming a global superpower.

It would be naive to expect President Hu to recant overnight the Tibet policies that he himself devised and executed over the years. But it's not quite so farfetched to see him inching in that direction during his last few years in office as China's supreme leader, or even organizing a face-to-face meeting with the Dalai Lama before he leaves. It would not only make him a frontrunner for a Nobel Prize but also bring China the respect and admiration that it so acutely lacks.