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The Tibet–China Visit According to Peanuts

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Monday, Sep 30, 2002
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PeanutsEclectic though the small world of Tibetans and Tibet supporters appears to be, I am not sure that it holds all that many fans of the late Charles Schulz and his wonderful comic strip, Peanuts. Yet if there are any, might I ask them to cast their mind back to one well-known strip that is often repeated, though with novel variations each time, that together have served me as a parable of sorts on the congenital inability of the Tibetan leadership to learn from hard, even painful, experience.

That particular collection of strips tells essentially one story, which goes something like this: Lucy tries to persuade a reluctant Charlie Brown to take a running kick at a football that she is holding down on the ground with her finger, in the manner of the American game. Charlie Brown is understandably suspicious as he has done Lucy’s bidding many times before and she has never failed to yank the ball away at the last moment. But Lucy persists and wears down his resistance. For the clincher she asks him “Look at my eyes Charlie Brown. Aren’t these eyes you can trust?”

Eventually, good old Charlie Brown agrees. Giving it all he’s got — tongue sticking out of the side of his mouth — he races towards the ball. Lucy, of course, pulls it away at the last moment. Charlie Brown flies in the air and falls flat on his back. In the concluding frame Lucy bends over the dazed and supine Charlie Brown and says “Isn’t trust a wonderful thing, Charlie Brown.”

I must confess to the fact that I had made an earlier reference to Peanuts in an article I wrote in 1994. That article also followed a Gyalo Thondup visit to China, which was also closely followed by a Tibetan government delegation, much in the way of recent events; for, the phenomenon of the Tibet–China visit by the Dalai Lama’s envoys, along with the accompanying hope and hype, is certainly not a new thing. In fact it has happened so many times before that I could probably just recycle an old piece I had written on the first visit, again and again, without anyone really noticing. But I want to assure the reader that I’m not going to do that. I will just quote one short passage from the old article to make my point, and reveal how the Peanuts reference first started.

Whenever the Tibetan issue has received any substantial attention in the world, be it with the demonstrations in Lhasa or the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama, the Chinese have nearly always succeeded in side-tracking international concern by making titillating press announcements soon after the event, declaring their willingness to sit down and talk with the Dalai Lama or his representatives. Those sympathetic to Tibet naturally heave a huge sigh of relief on hearing this, and the situation is then effectively defused. At Dharamshala a delegation to Beijing is announced and fierce intrigues are conducted by various political factions to get their man on the team. It all comes to nothing, of course. Once in a while, though, the delegation does actually get to go to Beijing. They invariably return to Dharamshala in a daze, with a look on their faces not unlike that on Charlie Brown’s when he is lying flat on his back…” etc. (“The Heart of the Matter”, Tibetan Review, March 1994)

So what is Beijing’s reason this time for inviting Gyalo Thondup, and after him the official team of Lodi Gyari et al? Of course for anyone with a smidgen of intelligence it is a given that Beijing has no intention of negotiating with the Dalai Lama or anyone from the government-in-exile. About a week ago the historian Tsering Shakya and I were interviewed by Radio Free Asia on this subject and invariably asked what Beijing’s motives could be for extending the invitations.

Tsering answered that one main reason probably had to do with Jiang Zemin’s forthcoming visit to the United States. Jiang’s previous visits to Europe and America had been completely ruined by the huge, noisy and well-publicized demonstrations organised by Tibetans and Tibet supporters. The magnitude of the opposition to Jiang’s visit had prompted President Clinton to tell Jiang that he should talk to the Dalai Lama, a request that Clinton repeated on his own trip to Beijing. So this time around if any American president, or anyone else for that matter, should ask Jiang that he should talk to the Dalai Lama, Jiang could quite conveniently reply that he was actually doing so, and so play down the issue.

Not only do I think that Tsering is dead right, but I also fear that the Tibet–China visit with all the hopes it has raised and the confusion it has created among Tibetans and supporters, will do more harm than ever to activism on behalf of Tibet. I know for a fact that, already, a major SFT campaign has been completely derailed by the Tibet visit. I have also heard vague but unsettling rumours of impending orders from Dharamshala to all Tibetans and Tibet support groups not too protest Jiang’s forthcoming coming visit to the USA.

That China’s real purpose behind the invitations was not to open genuine negotiations could be ascertained from the way Beijing had, all along, played down the trip as a private visit and repeated that its policy on the Dalai Lama had not changed. In a statement issued to AFP (28 September 2002) after the envoys had returned to Dharamshala, Lodi Gyari, the chief envoy, said that they had “frank exchanges of views” with officials in Beijing, who stood by China’s refusal to open dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Gyari also added “They reiterated the known position of the Chinese government on dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”

If you go through the reports and statements and carefully edit out — preferably with a thick black marker — all the tremendous circumlocutions, the exhilarating expressions of soaring (but absolutely unsupported) hope and the hyper-inflated rhetoric about “landmark visit”, “frank exchanges” “a new chapter in China-Tibet relations” what remains is the cold hard nub of the fact that the Chinese refused to consider any kind of dialogue on Tibet.

Of course Gyari wants to return to Beijing: “We are fully aware that this task cannot be completed during a single visit,” he said. You bet it can’t. But is it just possible that the Chinese officials might have casually said “Come again” or “Come again next year.” Something of the kind may possibly have been said, for on the envoy’s return to Dharamshala, the Tibetan government-in-exile, in a statement to AP (28 September 2002) “expressed hope that they could begin negotiations for greater autonomy from China by July”. Even if the Chinese had made it perfectly clear that they were never going to negotiate, but that the envoys were welcome to visit next July anyway — we have to ask ourselves, why July?

China’s leadership will be undergoing a fundamental change beginning this November, and a new generation, the fourth generation (Mao’s generation being the first) will take power. According to Zong Hairen (the pseudonym for a party insider) whose book on the subject, Disidai (The Fourth Generation), will be published this November by a US based Chinese language publisher, the leadership change will not merely be of one or two leaders but of the entire top strata. Appointments to military and government posts will not be final until March 2003, when the National People’s Congress meets to formalize them. So by July a spanking new regime ought to be in place in Beijing, and I seriously doubt if it will have any time to spare for a pointless meeting, the invitation to which the previous administration may have vaguely extended to the Dalai Lama’s envoys, in order to prevent “splittists” from spoiling the former president’s last official visit to America.

What really upset me, made me burn with shame for the feeblemindedness and snivelling pusillanimity of our leaders and “diplomats”, is that we were not even the victims of some kind of fiendishly cunning Fu Manchu conspiracy, but were taken in, hook line and sinker, by such a cheap, obvious and feeble trick. More and more our leaders appear to be responding to a kind of Pavlovian conditioning. All that Beijing has to do these days, it seems, is to snap its fingers, and the Dalai Lama’s brother and other Tibetan envoys will come a running, no questions asked.

This declaration of dan xiang si or “one sided love” (as the Chinese put it so nicely) by the Tibetan leadership is so wretchedly pathetic that it veers on the edge of masochism. For instance, the AP report of 28 September, stated that “The Tibetan government-in-exile said on Saturday that its envoys had been treated as equals for the first time by Chinese officials”. How wonderful for them! So how were the previous delegations treated? Did their members have to perform full kowtows before the Chinese officials? Did they have to kiss Chinese bums?

Traditional Chinese opinions of “barbarian officials” coming to Changan or Beijing to pay “tribute” to the emperor have invariably been low, if not openly disdainful. Of course this attitude is rooted in racist, sinocentric and quite unwarranted ideas of Chinese cultural superiority. Tibetan ministers such as the great Gar Tongtsen Yulsung stood out in the Tang court for his brilliance, astuteness and diplomatic skills. Another Tibetan minister astonished the emperor of China with his profound knowledge of Chinese language and literature.

But to be fair to the Chinese there were probably some among the many Tibetan, Mongols, Uighur or Khalka officials visiting the Chinese capital who were not only ignorant, obsequious or even self-serving (tribute missions were great opportunities for advancement and for trade) who probably deserved the epithet “barbarian official”. Whether our present envoys to Beijing will be viewed in a similarly disdainful way by Tibetan public opinion will depend on whether they are perceived to have sold out or not. If they carry out Beijing’s bidding and recommend that the government-in-exile halt all demonstrations and protests during Jiang’s forthcoming US visit, then history will certainly condemn them in far harsher terms.

I would request all Tibetans, friends and activists not to lose heart over this recent debacle, and pull out all the stops when Jiang Zemin comes into town. Let us have earsplitting slogan-shouting, monster rallies, dynamic demonstrations, rotten tomatoes, tear-gas, police charges, all on such an unprecedented scale that old Jiang will learn that even if he could fool or compromise some of our leaders, the Tibetan people and their stouthearted friends will never… never, never, never… give up the fight for Tibetan independence and justice.

World Tibet Network News, 30 September 2002

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