Book review: The talks that weren`t

Last Updated: Mon, Dec 28, 2009 09:09 hrs
 Beijing

By Thubten Samphel

Claude Arpi`s
judgement of the dialogue process between Dharamsala and Beijing is clear from the title of his latest book.

Despite its loud doubts, The Negotiations that Never Were will serve as an essential reference book for researchers and third parties interested in the intermittent Sino-Tibetan dialogue, which, according to the author, began as far aback as 1973 when some Xinhua (official news agency of China) reporters based in Hong Kong used George Patterson, a Scottish missionary- turned writer, as a conduit to establish ties with Dharamsala.



The book is enriched by the author`s deep access to all the Tibetan principals involved in the dialogue process and the actual negotiations. It is also enriched by the author`s own extensive research on a subject much commented but little researched on. The Negotiations that Never Were will form the basis of future Sino-Tibetan negotiations literature because the book's enduring contribution to this literature is the blow-by-blow accounts it gives of all the contacts and discussions between Dharamsala and Beijing.

In reviewing this book one marvels at the fact that these negotiations took place at all. In international politics, diplomacy is always backed by military force. In conducting such relations among sovereign nations, the unstated message always is, negotiate, or else. The option of war is used as a compelling argument for concerned parties to choose negotiations as a less expensive way to settle outstanding disputes. Tibetans, committed to non-violence, do not have the military option. Despite this, why did the negotiations take place at all?

That these negotiations took place is a reflection of the continued hold of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on his people and the quality of leadership he has provided. They also reflect the diplomatic skills of the Tibetan leadership and those Tibetans involved in the negotiations in persuading China, a fast rising power in the world and a firm believer in the power of the gun, to talk with committed non-violence wallahs.

That nothing came out of the negotiations till now is not at all surprising. What will rack the brains of future scholars will be the reasons why China decided to hold these extensive discussions in the first place. They will explore the reasons why China, while spewing abuse on His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was conducting discussions with his representatives. Zhang Qingli, Beijing`s viceroy in Lhasa, once famously demonized His Holiness the Dalai Lama as someone with `a human face and a heart of a beast.` What domestic and international compulsions were at work to force Beijing to talk with representatives of a `beast`?

The Negotiations that Never Were examines all these issues. It starts by giving a succinct background of the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the signing of the 17-Point Agreement and the mis-steps that provoked the widespread resistance, which culminated in the 1959 uprising that led to the flight of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans to India, Nepal and Bhutan. He then picks up the story of the contacts between Dharamsala and Beijing from 1973 and follows it through to the Tibetans handing over the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for all Tibetans to the Chinese side in 2008 and what came of the Special Meeting held in Dharamsala.

A welcome addition in the book is the author's examination of the attitude of individual Chinese to the Tibet question. Although official China says there is no problem in Tibet, un-official China, that vast interlocking network of human rights and environmental activists, writers and scholars who form the country`s nascent but growing civil society, consider that there is a big problem in Tibet and the government is mishandling it.

Claude Arpi quotes extensively from Zhang Boshu's article, The Way to Resolve the Tibet Issue, (available on http://chinadigitaltimes.net/) to make his point that, though the majority of the Chinese public's thinking on Tibet is shaped by official propaganda, there is a growing public opinion in China that strongly and bitterly disagrees with the government`s handling of the issue.

In his article, Zhang Boshu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says, `The Tibet issue is first of all a human rights issue. Although the authorities are not willing to admit it, I want to say it plainly. This problem that plagues the leadership of the Communist Party, if we look at its origin, was created by the Chinese Communist Party itself as the ruler of China.` According to Zhang, `Solving the Tibet issue will take courage and great wisdom. Petty scheming could ruin Tibet and ruin China.`

There are other Chinese who are dismayed that China's current hardline policy on Tibet, rather than solving, is exacerbating China's Tibet crisis. Claude Arpi quotes from Wang Lixiong, well-known Chinese writer, and married to an equally well-known Tibetan author and blogger. Wang Lixiong puts the failure of the talks at the doorstep of that vast anti-splittist bureaucracy that operates in the party, government and army. He points out that the officials who operate this cumbersome bureaucracy are the ones who formulate China's Tibet policy. They are also the ones who shift blame on the Dalai Lama and other "splittists" for any unrest provoked by the hardline policies they implement.

During the spring 2008 unrest in Tibet, "the highest authorities took no action; all was executed alone by the ever growing (lower) bureaucracy," Wang Lixiong says. During the Tibet unrest, Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao went on a state visit to Laos and before the international media expressed his hope that the Dalai Lama could use his influence to calm things down in Tibet. Wang Lixiong says, "This was unheard of and aroused international attention, seeing it as the highest authorities' new pattern of thinking. However, nothing followed, and no change in the handling was made by the 'anti-secession' institutions." The "anti-splittist" bureaucracy prevented the leadership from taking any flexible steps to resolve the vexed issue.

The inclusion of a whole chapter titled China's Voices of Dissent is, perhaps, the author's way of saying Tibetans can take comfort in these voices of reason in any just settlement of a protracted issue. Perhaps the author might prove to be right. As China undergoes astonishing changes, there might come a day when Chinese civil society would have a say in shaping policy.

Dharamsala and Beijing: the Negotiations that Never Were by Claude Arpi
Published by Lancer Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, 2009
pages 294, price Rs 795.
Click here to buy the book.

Thubten Samphel is Secretary of the Department of Information of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, and the author of Falling Through the Roof

Also see: Tibet, the Lost Frontier | Exclusive Thubten Samphel Interview | More by Claude Arpi on Sify.com



More from Sify: