The ninth round of the Sino-Tibetan dialogue, held from 31 October to 05 November 2008 in Beijing, was portrayed by both parties as abortive, largely because it brought to the fore irreconcilable conceptions of Tibetan autonomy. But rather than a failure, the recent round of talks appear to have finally provided the necessary clarity about what exactly the dialogue can and cannot achieve in the immediate future. The talks thus outlined what the future of this process might be, for which, whether either side cares to admit it or not, there are no real alternatives. The stalemate delineates the limit of each side's power of agency, and thus by default highlights possible common ground - provided that both sides find the adequate sincerity with which to admit to realities on ground and appreciate that some sort of cooperation is ultimately in their own best interests.
As representatives of the Tibetan exile community from around the world gathered from 17-22 November in Dharamsala to debate, as the Dalai Lama described it: "The best possible future course of action to advance the Tibetan cause"(1), the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) posted on its website the text of a memorandum that was presented by the envoys of the Dalai Lama to the Chinese authorities. The document reiterates the significant scope that exists for autonomy for Tibetans in Tibet within the Chinese Constitution and body of laws. In this context, the root of the issue is not necessarily with the laws, but rather with their implementation. The scope for implementation, however, hinges on the People's Republic of China's (PRC) internal definition of 'autonomy' - a definition that is not necessarily shared with the rest of the world, and has little to do with the global understanding of international law.
As articulated in the memorandum, the essence of the Tibetan demands for a sustainable agreement with Beijing revolves around just two basic concerns: identity and agency. These refer to the integrity of Tibetan identity, and the ability of Tibetans to exercise a (negotiated) degree of local decision-making. The first of these concerns is generally broken down into issues of culture (or cultural preservation), religion, education and language. Agency, on the other hand, includes such issues as the ability of Tibetans themselves to oversee local environmental protection and the utilisation of local natural resources, as well as to manage local security issues, public health and economic development. At least two issues also straddle both of these concerns of identity and agency. First is the ability of the Tibetan community within the PRC to interact with foreign countries on straightforward matters such as local-level trade and cultural exchanges. Second, of increased concern in recent years has been the influx of Chinese migrants into Tibet. With the Dalai Lama having consistently stated that Tibetans and Chinese settlers can and should continue to live side-by-side, the demand here is that migration to Tibet should only take place through a specifically controlled process.
The memorandum lays out many points for which significant provisions already exist on each of these issues at multiple levels of Chinese law, particularly in the Constitution and the 1984 Law on Regional National Autonomy (LRNA). While it is important to realise that this apparent convergence (if not outright agreement) does have a tangible legal basis, it is just as important to understand the built-in obstacles in implementation of these laws and the principles that lie behind them. In this, the past few weeks have offered up some illuminating glimpses into the Chinese government's understanding of and stance on a few keystone issues.
In itself, this is not new and hence is unsurprising. Another part of the standard line is Du's stern adherence to the 'perfection' of the Chinese Constitution: a system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities is already an integral part of the Constitution, Du said, and thus no defiance of the Constitution would be tolerated. A second official to meet with the envoys, Zhu Weizun, executive vice-minister of the CPC's United Front Work Department (UFWD), also alluded to this idea of adherence to the rule of law. After taking the time to criticise a few of the elements in the memorandum, Zhu pointedly dismissed the envoys' undertaking in the first place, noting that the constitutional process requires that 'necessary' requests be made through relevant departments "after full consultation with the government of the national autonomous area". The envoys, Zhu noted, were neither "the relevant department of the state organ" nor were they "the government of the national autonomous area. Without a legal status, they are inappropriate to bring up the issue". Both Zhu and Du, in their responses, seemed to be placing a significant emphasis on the letter of the law.
Be that as it may, adherence to the rule of law is precisely the issue that has long been emphasised by the Dharamsala envoys - the point being not to alter the Constitution, but rather to implement what it actually says. Inevitably, this would necessitate a level of devolution in power, and hence require that the ultimate control that the CPC currently exerts, across the board, would by definition have to be qualified to some extent. Yet this is an unacceptable condition, as the Party has made clear that its power is not negotiable in any field or any geographical subdivision of the country. It hardly needs to be reiterated that a process that has hardly begun with regards to Mainland China - devolution - is unlikely to begin in Tibet, where the local population resents Chinese presence.
At the same time, Du's subsequent explanation that the PRC's "regional ethnic autonomy system is exercised under China's unitary system and is different from the federal system or confederation as implemented in some countries" is new in its specificity. This line appears to be a direct response to the Dharamsala memorandum, the implementation of which - albeit, in which no demands for a federative structure are made - would come quite close to this idea. The crucial point here is that the PRC definition of 'autonomy' is, in Beijing's own words, different from how such a notion would be implemented in other countries. Du's next two points illustrate this:
"- The regional ethnic autonomy system is a basic policy for solving ethnic issues(2)in China and a fundamental political system in the country. It is different from the 'one country, two systems' system implemented in Hong Kong and Macau".
"- The regional ethnic autonomy system is a combination of ethnic autonomy and regional autonomy and will never allow ethnic splitting in the name of 'true ethnic autonom' to undermine ethnic solidarity".
This outlines, in rather stark terms, the most central aspect of the Chinese definition of 'autonomy'. While autonomy would commonly be understood to infer a bottom-up dynamic, the Chinese authorities' conception of autonomy instead remains exclusively a top-down project - one in which the pre-existing body of laws and executive stream are tweaked from above, with an eye to local conditions, and based on considerations of ethnicity. Thus, in the PRC, 'autonomy' means specific modes of administration, not the drafting of policy by local bodies or participatory decision-making at a local level. Even this understanding of 'autonomy' is further refined by the second point, which asserts that territory and ethnicity are to be given equal balance in terms of defining a 'regional ethnic autonomy system'. Thus, ethnic groups are to be legally understood as social facts (and potential issues) - but under no circumstances are they to be considered as political entities. The administrative units scattered throughout China are perceived to be based on historical processes; if ethnic groups happen to be found within these areas then certain rules will apply, but this does not change the fact that territory remains the most important consideration - not ethnicity. And, at all times, it remains the exclusive prerogative of the CPC to decide when to place the emphasis on which issue.
The implications of this are far ranging. At its core, this is a repudiation of the very idea of the rule of law, in that no right or regulation related to a person or political entity is absolute, but rather remains dependent on its being endorsed by the CPC. The CPC's position, all the while, remains unassailable. Indeed, this is specified in the PRC Constitution, which presents itself as a system largely comparable with a classic parliamentary democracy, but ultimately places the CPC as a superstructure by which the entire system is to be 'guided'. Effectively, the Constitution itself places the Party's power above the Constitution by stipulating that all state organs are under the Party's leadership. Thus, any change in the position of the Party - including through changes to the Constitution - can only be made if agreed to by the Party. This is cyclical logic: the CPC is simultaneously under and above the law. Yet coming to terms with this paradox is key to understanding how to proceed in any future negotiations.
This does not make the apparent convergence between the minimum Tibetan demands and Chinese law meaningless. And, whereas devolution in terms of a commonly understood definition of autonomy seems to be impossible, a continuation of the dialogue between Dharamsala and Beijing is not pointless. While the Constitution allows for the CPC to take precedent over the law of the land, the Constitution technically remains the document to which the party is beholden; as such, Chinese-defined law still provides potent grounds for commonality. While an understanding of the discrepancies between the law and its implementation clarifies the differences between the two sides in negotiations, it also underlines potential shared aims. On one level, after all, the status issue has always been, and remains to this day, about improving the lives of Tibetans, and this will never be defined as an impossible goal.
Ultimately, the demand for autonomy in the commonly understood sense - real autonomy, which involves power devolution - equals a demand for the Party to relinquish, even partially, a degree of power. At this point, this needs to be understood as being unthinkable for the Chinese government. In other words, another Tibet will not be possible without another China.
In addition, the Dalai Lama continues to hold a unique command over Tibetans, and a dynamic such as this will always be seen by Beijing as posing a significant potential hazard. Because this is unacceptable, the Chinese government's tendency will be to try to undermine both the call for autonomy and the status of the Dalai Lama. Still, it remains a fact that most Tibetans' allegiance is to the Dalai Lama, not to Beijing, and this is still beyond the agency of the Chinese authorities. Even Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao acknowledged this in a recent interview given to the US magazine Newsweek, shortly before the last round of talks. In other words, there will not be a 'harmonious' Tibet without the participation of the Dalai Lama. Hence, it is ultimately not in Beijing's interests to close the door to dialogue; and, indeed, no such drastic step was taken, even after the last round of talks.
For the time being, any attempt to tackle the Tibet issue from the status perspective would seem to be something of a dead end. This, however, does not make a status debate meaningless. In fact, a continuing debate on this issue will inevitably establish the principle; it will also prepare the field for the time when this type of engagement becomes more realistic. In the current context, status-related discussions cannot lead to anything more than an agreement to disagree. But this too is important. Agreeing to disagree does not mean the end of any dialogue over the disagreement; instead, doing so could offer important clarification on where both fronts lay, leading to new, real-life arguments being brought up by both sides. In the meantime, this would allow for an engagement in the honest search for common positions and more down-to-earth grounds of convergent interests.