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Autonomy? Think Again

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Monday, Jul 20, 2009
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As if any further evidence were needed of the ways in which China has been running rings around the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile, recent events have made the situation abundantly clear. Last November the Tibetans presented a memorandum to China, meant to demonstrate that the Dalai Lama’s position on Tibetan autonomy was wholly compatible with China’s existing laws on regional nationality autonomy. The memorandum was vehemently rejected and the dialogue process between the two sides screeched to a halt.

On June 22, there were reports that exiled Tibetan officials were meeting to draft a statement clarifying their stand and, it was hoped, would open a way out of the impasse. The new statement is intended to demonstrate that the Tibetans want to reach an accord with China on the basis of Chinese autonomy laws. Unfortunately, the ignorance with which the authorities in exile deal with China is now on display in embarrassing detail.

The Dalai Lama’s chief negotiators, Kelsang Gyaltsen and Lodi Gyari, have met with other officials to hammer out a position that they fantasise will interest China, and Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard-trained expert, has been reinforcing the exiled government’s views with his own analysis of the law. But the fact is that all of these people are functionally illiterate in the hundreds of articles and books all in Chinese that constitute the body of interpretive literature on regional nationality autonomy in China. That never seems to have perturbed the Dalai Lama’s people as they wander quite blindly around major issues of Chinese policy.

Since the spring of 2008, China has responded to criticism of its historical claims to Tibet by scrapping its common line, that 13th-century Mongol conquerors made Tibet part of China, with the more forceful, take-no-prisoners position that Tibet has been a part of China “since human activity began”. Much as this exemplifies the attitude that history is not an objective measure against which to weigh Chinese claims, so too a new debate has opened in China that demonstrates that the laws on autonomy are not to be considered fixed standards against which the government can be challenged. To the contrary, they are tools of the government and party, dispensable when they are not serving the desired political ends.

In April, seemingly unbeknownst to the Dalai Lama’s authorities, Ma Rong, a scholar who often writes on minority demographic and population issues, proposed a drastic measure, akin to what was done in the area of history: scrap the regime of regional nationality autonomy laws. The real problem, according to Ma Rong, is that China’s autonomy laws derive from a Stalinist heritage (which, in the Soviet Union, included rights to secession and independence), saddling China with a system that alienates minorities from the notion that they are part of the larger Chinese nationality. Now, with uncanny timing, the recent unrest in Xinjiang has underscored his contention.

As Ma Rong puts it, the nationality laws encourage minorities to exclude others from their regions, privilege their own language, assert economic rights of their own and maintain and strengthen the historical consciousness, religions and practices that differentiate them from others, all in accord with Stalin’s definition of “nationality”. For Ma Rong, this is the crux of the problem: the current system leaves minorities with little or no sense that they are Chinese. Only three other countries, he notes, ever implemented a similar system with specific geographical regions for minority nationalities: the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. It goes without saying that the historical track record is not good.

In contrast, India and the United States provide useful counter-examples. Jawaharlal Nehru in particular is cited for imbuing the members of various groups with the sense of being part of “the Indian nation”, while at the same time dulling the areas of ethno-national conflict between them. In the US, the election of Barack Obama is presented precisely because his platform was directed at the benefit of all Americans, with no taint of racial interest. Neither country has regional minority nationality autonomous structures.

The debate that Ma Rong opened up in April is of critical importance to China’s Tibet policy. But no one in Dharamsala seems to have noticed. Rather than devote resources to acquiring the databases that would allow them to access the wide range of Chinese materials available online, the Dalai Lama decided in May to send $1,00,000 to Florida International University to support its religious studies programme. Though American dharma students are hardly an endangered species, such are Dharamsala’s priorities.

Sonam Dagpo, of the Dalai Lama’s Department of Information and International Relations, told a news agency towards the end of June that the Tibetans “want to settle the issue mutually and within the framework of the Chinese constitution, law and national regional autonomy”. Best of luck with that one, guys.

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Originally published in the Times of India, July 20, 2009

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