An Overview of Sino-Tibetan Dialogue

It has been the consistent position of His Holiness the Dalai Lama that the question of Tibet must be resolved peacefully through dialogue with the best interest of the Tibetan people in mind. His Holiness already engaged the Chinese commanders in Lhasa in dialogue in 1951, immediately after China invaded Tibet, and held talks with Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai in 1954 in order to avoid confrontation and bloodshed. Following his flight to India during the bloody suppression of the Tibetan national uprising of 1959, His Holiness continued to call for a peaceful negotiated solution, but in the years of radical communist reforms and the so-called Cultural Revolution, the Chinese leadership was in no mood to dialogue.

The death of Mao Zedong and the end of Cultural Revolution ushered in a period of liberalization and open-door policy. The new Chinese leadership took a bold step of reaching out to the Tibetan leadership in exile. Towards the end of 1978, Li Juisin, the then head of the Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong (de facto embassy of the PRC) contacted Gyalo Thondup, elder brother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and invited him for a private visit to Beijing. Thondup, in turn, sought the approval of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and visited Beijing in February-March 1979. There, he met a number of Chinese leaders, including the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping on 12 March 1979. Deng told Thondup that “apart from independence, all issues can be discussed”. He even invited the Tibetan leadership to send delegations to Tibet and see things for themselves. As a result, the exile leadership dispatched three fact-finding delegations to Tibet in 1979 and 1980. To the bafflement of China, crowds besieged the delegates wherever they went and poured out stories of “hell-on-earth” tragedies that had befallen on them and their families over the past two decades.

In 1980, Communist Party Secretary Hu Yao-bang made a historic trip to Tibet and recognized the mistakes that had been made by his government and announced major changes in policy, including the withdrawal of most Chinese cadres from Tibet. In 1981 the Chinese government expressed its willingness to allow the Dalai Lama to return to the “Motherland” (to China but not to Tibet) but refused to acknowledge the need for any political negotiations, thus attempting to reduce the Tibetan issue to the conditions for the Dalai Lama’s return. Two senior Tibetan delegations were sent to Beijing for exploratory talks in 1982 and 1984, respectively. They insisted the issue was not the Dalai Lama but the welfare of the six million Tibetans and proposed earnest political negotiations on a status short of independence for the entire Tibetan people, comprising the three provinces of U-tsang, Kham and Amdo. But hopes for substantive talks came to an end with the firing of Hu Yao-bang (among other reasons, for his willingness to address the Tibetan issue) and the turning back of announced reforms.

The Tibetan leadership was then left with only one option: to appeal directly for the assistance of international community. Addressing the United States Congressional Human Rights Caucus on 21 September 1987, His Holiness the Dalai Lama announced his Five Point Peace Plan for Tibet. The five points are: (i) Transformation of the whole of Tibet into a zone of peace; (ii) Abandonment of China’s population transfer policy which threatens the very existence of the Tibetans as a people; (iii) Respect for the Tibetan people’s fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms; (iv) Restoration and protection of Tibet’s natural environment and the abandonment of China’s use of Tibet for the production of nuclear weapons and dumping of nuclear waste; and (v) Commencement of earnest negotiations on the future status of Tibet and of relations between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples.

His Holiness did not call for a restoration of Tibetan independence in this speech, rather he implied that a solution that would not require separation from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and would be based on cooperation. China’s reaction was negative, and its criticism of the Dalai Lama blunt. This precipitated large-scale demonstrations in Tibet, which were violently repressed by the Chinese armed forces. The cycle of resistance and repression culminated in the declaration of martial law in March 1989. Despite the worsening situation in Tibet, His Holiness persisted in his efforts to seek dialogue with China.

On 15 June 1988, His Holiness the Dalai Lama elaborated on the fifth point of his Five Point Peace Plan in an address to members of the European parliament in Strasbourg, and laid out a framework for negotiations with the PRC on the future status of Tibet. In what came to be known as the Strasbourg Proposal, His Holiness called for the unification of the three provinces of Tibet and its transformation into “a self-governing democratic political entity founded on law by agreement of the people for the common good and protection of themselves and their environment, in association of the People’s Republic of China.” The essential characteristics of His Holiness’ proposal were that Tibetans would govern themselves and be responsible for their internal affairs under a democratic system and leaders of their choice, while the government of the PRC would be responsible for foreign affairs and would be permitted to maintain a limited military presence in Tibet for defence purposes only.

Beijing’s reaction to this and subsequent initiatives was mixed at best. On 23 June 1988 China’s foreign ministry issued a press statement, saying that the PRC would not accept Tibet’s “independence, semi-independence or independence in disguised form”. But, a few months later, on 21 September the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi told the representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama that its government was interested in direct talks with the Dalai Lama. A press statement to this effect was issued the following day which said, “The talks may be held in Beijing, Hong Kong, or any of our embassies or consulates abroad. If the Dalai Lama finds it inconvenient to conduct talks at these places, he may choose any place he wishes.” However, no foreigner, the release further added, should be involved and that the new proposal put forward by the Dalai Lama in Strasbourg could not be considered as the basis for talks. The Tibetan leadership reacted on the same day by issuing a press release, which stated, “Though we have different views and stands on many issues, we are prepared to discuss and resolve these through direct dialogues”.

On 25 October 1988, the Tibetan leadership gave a message to the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, proposing Geneva as a venue for talks. The Chinese government rejected the Tibetan choice of venue and blamed the Dalai Lama of insincerity. Refusing to accept the negotiating team proposed by the Tibetan leadership, Beijing said it would rather talk to the Dalai Lama in person.

On 28 January 1989, the Panchen Lama, one of the most influential Tibetan leaders in Tibet, passed away suddenly, and under mysterious circumstances. On 7 February China invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama to attend the Panchen Lama’s cremation ceremony, due to take place on 15 February. Because of the short notice, His Holiness was unable to accept the invitation. Nevertheless, on 21 March 1991, His Holiness the Dalai Lama offered his assistance in the search for the reincarnation. Similarly, in his address to Yale University on 9 October 1991, His Holiness the Dalai Lama made a proposal to visit Tibet in the company of some senior Chinese leaders and international media. This visit, His Holiness said, would help him to ascertain the situation inside Tibet and persuade the Tibetan people in Tibet not to renounce non-violence as a means of their struggle.

In December of the same year (1991), His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked for a meeting with the Chinese Premier Li Peng during the latter’s visit to New Delhi. Thereafter, on 26 February 1992, the Tibetan leadership released a document, entitled Guidelines for Future Tibet’s Polity and Basic Features of its Constitution. The document states that the present Tibetan administration-in-exile will be dissolved the moment the Tibetans in exile return to Tibet, and that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will then hand over all his traditional political power to an interim government. The interim government, it explains, will be responsible for drawing up a democratic constitution, which will pave the way for a direct election of the new government of Tibet. Even this failed to interest the Chinese leadership.

Under the circumstances, the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies, elected representatives of the Tibetan Diaspora, passed a resolution on 23 January 1992 stating that the Tibetan administration-in-exile should not initiate any new move for negotiations with China unless there was a positive change in the attitude of the Chinese leadership.

In April 1992, the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi contacted Gyalo Thondup and told him that the Chinese Government’s position in the past had been “conservative”, but that it was willing to be “flexible” if the Tibetans were prepared to be “realistic”. He invited Thondup to visit Beijing once again. But when Thondup met the Chinese leaders in Beijing in June 1992, he was treated to a litany of accusations against His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He did not hear anything signalling flexibility in Beijing’s stand.

His Holiness felt that the accusations indicated the Chinese leadership’s lack of understanding of his views and stand on the Tibetan issue. His Holiness, however, renewed his efforts to open dialogue by sending a personal letter and a detailed memorandum to Chinese leaders, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, in September 1992, reiterating his preparedness to accommodate China’s interest and calling for negotiations. At the end of that memorandum His Holiness stated: “The time has come now for the Chinese to show the way for Tibet and China to live together in friendship. A detailed step by step outline regarding Tibet’s basic status should be spelt out. If such a clear outline is given, regardless of the possibility or non-possibility of an agreement, we Tibetans can then make a decision whether to live with China or not. If we Tibetans obtain our basic rights to our satisfaction, then we are not incapable of seeing the possible advantages of living with the Chinese.”

His Holiness also decided to dispatch a three-member delegation to China to clarify his views. Beijing accepted only two members of this delegation. In June 1993 the delegates discovered in Beijing that the Chinese leadership’s hardline attitude towards His Holiness had remained unchanged.

On 4 September 1993, His Holiness the Dalai Lama issued a brief press statement and released to the press the text of his letters to Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. His Holiness once again unequivocally called on the Chinese government “to start negotiations without delay and preconditions”. His Holiness reiterated the Tibetan willingness to negotiate a “reasonable and just solution within the framework formulated by Mr. Deng Xiaoping” and clarified: “I have never called for negotiations on independence of Tibet.” On numerous occasions since then, His Holiness made clear that he was not seeking independence, but “genuine autonomy for Tibet within the framework of the Chinese Constitution.” This stand His Holiness most recently reiterated in the 10 March 2005 statement: “I once again want to reassure the Chinese authorities that as long as I am responsible for the affairs of Tibet we remain fully committed to the Middle Way Approach of not seeking independence for Tibet and are willing to remain within the People’s Republic of China.”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s tireless efforts were amply recognized with the award of the 1989 Nobel Prize for peace. Many other awards were bestowed on the Tibetan leader, but the Nobel Prize and the overwhelming reaction to it demonstrated the international community’s recognition and support for His Holiness’ steadfast commitment and activities in pursuit of a peaceful negotiated solution to the suffering of the Tibetan people.

On 27 June 1998, US President Bill Clinton and President Jiang Zemin held a live televised joint press conference in Beijing. During this TV appearance (broadcast worldwide) Clinton asked Jiang to open dialogues with the Dalai Lama. Jiang replied, “As long as the Dalai Lama makes a public commitment that Tibet is an inalienable part of China and Taiwan is a province of China, then the door to dialogue and negotiation is open.” The Taiwan issue surfaced this time as a new pre-condition to negotiation.

Then again, in a written interview to the French daily, Le Figaro, on 25 October 1999 President Jiang Zemin repeated all the earlier pre-conditions and added: “The Dalai Lama must truly give up his advocacy of independence of Tibet and stop his activities to split the motherland; and declare the Government of People’s Republic of China is the legitimate government representing whole China.”

Over many years His Holiness did his best to engage the Chinese leadership in an honest dialogue. Unfortunately, a lack of political will and vision on the part of the Chinese leadership resulted in their failure to reciprocate the numerous initiatives of His Holiness. Finally, in August 1993 the Tibetan leadership’s formal contact with the Chinese government came to an end.

Since then to September 2002, the two sides did not have any formal and direct contact. It was only on 9 September 2002 that Beijing hosted a four-member Tibetan delegation, headed by Special Envoy Lodi G. Gyari. During the visit, the delegates met a number of Chinese and Tibetan leaders both in China and Tibet. As outlined in the press statement issued by the delegation on their return from Beijing, the purpose of the visit was two-fold: One, to re-establish direct contacts with the leadership in Beijing and to create a conducive atmosphere for direct face-to-face meetings on a regular basis; Two, to explain His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach towards resolving the issue of Tibet.

In order to sustain the new contact, the same delegation visited China and Tibetan areas for the second time from 25 May to 8 June 2003. The visit followed the changes in leadership of the Chinese Communist Party as well as of the Chinese Government and had given the delegation the opportunity to engage extensively with the new Chinese leaders and officials responsible for Tibet and relationship with the leaders of the Tibetan people in exile. In Beijing the delegation met with Ms. Liu Yandong, head of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China, Mr. Zhu Weiqun, deputy head, Mr. Chang Rongjung, the Deputy Secretary-General, and other senior officials.

The Tibetan delegation had the third round of meetings with their Chinese counterpart in Beijing in September 2004. At this meeting, both sides acknowledged the need for more substantive discussions in order to narrow down the gaps and reach a common ground. This was followed by the fourth round of meetings that took place on 30 June and 1 July 2005 at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Berne, Switzerland. Special Envoy Lodi G. Gyari and Envoy Kelsang Gyaltsen, accompanied by three senior assistants, Sonam N. Dagpo, Ngapa Tsegyam, and Bhuchung K. Tsering, met with Vice Minister Zhu Weiqun and his six-member delegation. Vice Minister Zhu declared that their direct contact with the Tibetan delegation had now become stable and an “established practice.” He also conveyed to the Tibetan delegation that the Central leadership of the Chinese Communist Party attached great importance to the contact with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan side put forward some concrete proposals that will help build trust and confidence and move the ongoing process to a new level of engagement aimed at bringing about substantive negotiations to achieve a mutually acceptable solution to the Tibetan issue.

Meanwhile, in order to resolve the issue of Tibet on the basis of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Middle-Way Approach, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) has made every effort within its power to create a conducive atmosphere for negotiations and taken a series of confidence-building measures. The CTA is committed to take these steps till the issue of Tibet is resolved through a negotiated settlement in the best interest of both the Tibetan and Chinese peoples.

For further information on the overview of Sino-Tibetan Dialogue, read the following article: Snow Lion And Dragon: Can They Coexist In Harmony?