Sino-Tibetan Dialogue in the Post-Mao Era: Lessons and Prospects


Tashi Rabgey and Tseten Wangchuk Sharlho

Policy Studies, No. 12


Washington, D.C.: East-West Center

Publication Date: 2004
ISBN: 1-932728-22-8
Binding: paper
Pages: x, 74
Free Download: PDF


This paper analyzes the dialogue process in the Sino-Tibetan dispute, examining the relationship between Beijing and the Dalai Lama from their initial engagement in the early post-Mao years through the protracted stalemate of the 1990s and on to the current experimentation with direct contacts. In addition to drawing on lessons from the past, the study surveys the major factors that are likely to impact the future dynamics of engagement. It thereby provides an assessment of the current prospects for dialogue and for settling the longstanding dispute.

The authors question the view that important opportunities for negotiations were missed in the 1980s. Rather, they argue that even when Beijing appeared most inclined to enter into dialogue, the gap between the parties was too wide for meaningful engagement. Thus, for example, Deng Xiaoping's historic gesture toward reconciliation in 1979 was made on the basis of strategic miscalculations of the political stakes. The PRC had assumed its position in Tibet to be secure, but the exiles' fact-finding missions exposed the nationalist sentiment among Tibetans in the region, causing Beijing to reassess its strategy toward both Tibet and the Dalai Lama. The formal talks of the early 1980s thus proved fruitless, and by 1984 the door to dialogue was no longer open. In September 1988, Beijing's interest in direct talks was rekindled following the Dalai Lama's success in raising the profile of Tibet in international forums. The Chinese openness to dialogue was indeed greater than it had been during the talks of 1984. However, internal Chinese politics undermined this initiative. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown, those in Beijing who had been promoting talks were shut out of power.

A bitter standoff between the parties prevailed through most of the 1990s, fueled both by Beijing's hard-line policy on Tibet and by the exiled Tibetan leadership's uneven commitment to engagement. But as Beijing regained its political confidence and as Sino-US relations moved to the center of China's foreign policy, some in the Chinese political elite began to reconsider the strategy of isolating the Dalai Lama from the Tibet policy. In early 1997, direct channels between Dharamsala and the Chinese leadership were quietly re-established. After three rounds of informal meetings, Jiang Zemin publicly acknowledged in 1998 that contacts with the Dalai Lama were underway. However, within weeks of the announcement the channels of communication broke down. Jiang's exploratory initiative was derailed by institutional resistance to talks and by political rivalry within the Chinese leadership. Chinese openness to dialogue soon regained momentum, and, in 2001, in the wake of the highly visible departures of Arjia Rinpoche and the young Karmapa—both key figures in the PRC's Tibetan elite—the official policy of excluding the Dalai Lama was formally overturned at the Fourth Work Forum on Tibet. Since then, the parties have again been experimenting with talks. Within months of this decision, direct contacts between the parties had been re-established, and delegations of Tibetan exiles have been invited to visit China.

The experimentation remains tentative, however. While the exiled Tibetan leadership has been cautiously optimistic about the significance of their recent visits, Beijing has been sending mixed signals. For instance, though Beijing demonstrated uncharacteristic flexibility on the membership of the Tibetan delegations, it has declined to acknowledge publicly that discussions are even taking place. In light of this public ambivalence, how should the PRC's shifting stance on Sino-Tibetan engagement be understood? Several factors favor increased engagement. Pressure to renew contacts with the Dalai Lama has come not only externally from international sources, but also internally from domestic critics. The willingness of Chinese scholars and strategic analysts, in particular, to criticize the prevailing hard-line policies suggests that the move toward talks is motivated not just by short-run political goals but also by a reasoned and sober consideration of China's long-term interests. As well, there are growing concerns about the longer-term effects of the accelerated economic development program. Not only has economic development come at an extraordinarily high cost, but, contrary to expectations, the rapid economic expansion in Tibet appears to be creating a heightened sense of ethnic cleavage and dispossession among the Tibetans.

Other developments have more complex implications for the dialogue process. China's changing global position, shifts in the regional strategic balance, and the changing role of religion are among the complicating factors. One of the most striking developments has been the institutional restructuring of Beijing's decision-making process for managing the Tibet issue. China has created an elite "leading small group" on Tibet, drastically expanded the Tibetan units in the United Front (the Party organ charged with establishing alliances with non-Party interest groups), and overhauled the key personnel dealing with Tibetan policy and administration. These developments have made Beijing's institutional management of Tibetan affairs more complex and considerably less predictable.

In many ways, prospects for Sino-Tibetan engagement are better now than they have ever been. Greater access to information, increased professionalization, and two decades of experience with hit-and-miss talks have prepared both parties for the development of more informed and serious relations. Nevertheless, prospects for a negotiated solution are still limited, as it is unlikely that the two sides can overcome their differences on the substantive issues. The Dalai Lama's Strasbourg proposal of 1988 conceded Tibet's right to independence by calling for the "genuine autonomy" of a unified Tibet within the framework of the People's Republic of China (PRC). It seems improbable that the Tibetan exiled leaders would be willing to make further concessions. As for Beijing, current political realities militate against acceding to Dharamasala's demands for meaningful autonomy. Unless the Tibet issue should erupt as a violent conflict, the factors pushing Beijing to negotiate are likely to be regarded as insufficiently compelling to justify the risks entailed. On the other hand, if the current talks break off, Beijing will be going it alone as it manages the chronic threat of ethnonationalist discontent.

Thus the new round of talks involves complex issues for both sides. As the Chinese leadership defers addressing its problem of legitimacy in Tibet indefinitely into the future, the push for greater autonomy and local rule is likely to intensify on the plateau. This, no doubt, is being contemplated in Beijing, as the window of opportunity to negotiate a lasting solution draws to a close. Under the present unpromising circumstances, the challenge for the exiled Tibetan leadership will be to determine whether it makes sense for Tibetans to bargain seriously with Beijing instead of preparing for a better day to strike a deal. For the time being, the two sides are most likely to continue simply talking about talks. The current dialogue process provides Beijing a risk management strategy for the region, while presenting exiled Tibetan leaders a new opportunity to play a role in the deliberations over issues facing contemporary Tibet. Whether the opportunity will also be used to push for the creation of conditions more conducive to substantive negotiations remains to be seen.