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Why China will change: The Tibet factor
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April 03, 2006
A few days before his departure for Beijing [Images] for the fifth round of talks with the People's Republic of China, the Dalai Lama's [Images] chief negotiator and Special Envoy in Washington, DC Lodi Gyari Rinpoche spoke to Claude Arpi.

Examining the dynamics of the 'dialogue process' with China, he shared his frustrations and hopes for the future. He also explained how difficult it has been for the Dalai Lama to abandon his claim for independence and to accept that Tibet [Images] becomes a 'genuinely autonomous' part of the People's Republic.

He also examined an interesting factor which may play a role in finding a solution to the Tibetan tangle: The revival of Buddhism in China.

What can you tell us about the negotiations that you are conducting with China?

The Tibetan movement is a very unique movement. This can be seen from the way we are conducting the negotiations with the People's Republic of China. We are doing it in a different way. If one day, His Holiness the Dalai Lama's' efforts succeed, it will not only have an impact on the six million Tibetans, but it will also be a breakthrough for humanity, because of the nature of our negotiations.

Even for someone like me, engaged in the negotiations, I see it more as a spiritual practice than an exercise in diplomacy. Let me explain this. I remember very vividly that in 1987, when His Holiness first presented the 'Middle Way approach' in a formal document, he consulted a few people outside of the Tibetan leadership.

One of them was former (US) President (Jimmy) Carter. His Holiness has a lot of respect for President Carter, not because he had been the US president, but because His Holiness believes he is very wise and religious minded (in fact he became closer to us after he left the White House). So I flew directly from New Delhi to New York to Minneapolis, where President Carter was staying at that time, to show him an 8-page document, which later became the 'Strasbourg Proposal'.

He really took time to read it through (he is famous for that) and took nearly one hour to study it very carefully. Then he turned to me and asked: "What is His Holiness' bottom line?" I told him: "This is the bottom line." He was surprised: "If this is the bottom line, you have to start from somewhere else."

I responded to President Carter saying this issue was raised, but His Holiness' position is that he is not a politician and that he was a simple monk who wants to be really sincere and transparent and place on the table what he really wants.

It is because of such a nature of our negotiations position that I feel our success, when it happens, will be a major breakthrough in the art of negotiation.

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Was it difficult for the Dalai Lama?

It has been extremely difficult for His Holiness. When he chose 'the Middle Way' path, there were tremendous protests from his own people. This strong opposition came from people who were ready to give their lives for the cause. And as someone who served His Holiness very closely and has been intimately involved in the process, I can tell you, it was very painful. It was certainly a difficult thing for those of us who had the honour to be associated with him. But it was even more difficult for His Holiness to take such a decision.

He showed that he was a real leader, because a real leader has sometimes to take unpopular decisions. He showed that he had the courage to take difficult decisions. I always share this with my Chinese colleagues to give them an idea of the extent His Holiness has gone to work for a mutually satisfactory solution.

I would like to mention a personal experience. My mother was one of the first women to take on the fight against the Chinese. She was quite well known. Though she was a very gentle woman, she never hesitated to fight the Chinese.

When I accompanied His Holiness to Strasbourg to present the Proposal, she was deeply upset with me. Until His Holiness' presentation of his proposal to the European Parliament, I would keep this document under my pillow because it was extremely confidential.

When I returned from Strasbourg, the first thing my mother told me: "If I had known that the documents that you were so preciously guarding were this Proposal, I would have ripped it apart."

This is just to give you an idea about the mindset of the Tibetan people when they first heard of the Proposal. This shows how difficult the process has been.

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Tell us more about your involvement in this dialogue.

My first trip to China was in 1982, when I was chairman of the Tibetan parliament. I was part of the high level exploratory delegation sent by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When we first landed in China, the Chinese officials came forward to greet us. For a moment, I did not know what to do: if I shake hand with them, it would a betrayal of the thousands Tibetans as well as my family members.

At that moment, I had a flashback of my grandmother and my brothers who died under indescribable circumstances. I thought that if I shake hands, I would betray all those Tibetan who died. Many Tibetans had a similar experience.

Despite all this, we are today engaging the Chinese because we believe that it is the best solution. From this angle also you can see how important the dialogue process is. This is certainly not just diplomacy. It is the background of our dialogue with China.

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How would you describe the negotiations?

Usually some kind of glamour is associated with negotiations of this nature, but in our case, it is not like this. There is a real human approach. That is why I believe that the impact of this type of dialogue goes far beyond the Tibetan people and the Tibetan plateau.

Further, if these efforts of His Holiness bear some fruits, it can bring about some fundamental shift in China. You may think it is too ambitious, but if it sincerely done, it is possible though it is difficult. From this point of view also it is very important that our process succeed.

Does anybody else in the world show interest in the Sino-Tibetan dialogue?

Lately, there is a renewed concern about China, especially in Washington, DC. There was a time when there was so much enthusiasm about China: it was considered as the most important country to be courted. It was the biggest market that ever existed. China could get away with everything. But things have changed.

If the Middle East developments had not happened, it would have come even earlier, but there is today a great concern about China; some people even see China as a threat.

I tell my American friends: "Well your concern is real, but You can not solve anything through confrontation or by using force. You should make China more friendly and less isolated."

That is why I think that with the positive attitude of His Holiness, the Tibetan issue can be a tremendously positive factor for the future of China. I do not say this in an idealist way, but am being very practical.

'The talks are farcical'

Can you give us some examples?

Zhao Ziyang, the former Chinese premier, died recently after spending many years under house arrest. When he was critically ill, we received a message from one of his sons: 'My father is very ill, can you ask His Holiness to pray for him?' We assumed that this request came because the son was interested in Buddhism. I passed the request to His Holiness who prayed for him. Then after the death of Zhao Ziyang came a communication from all his children thanking His Holiness for praying for their father.

But what surprised me most is when we were informed that virtually the last word of Zhao Ziyang was the name of His Holiness. We are talking about a person who reached the highest level of the Chinese hierarchy (general secretary of the Communist party and premier).

This illustrates the extent of reverence for His Holiness even in China today. There are many other instances.

I do not believe that it is too far-fetched to think that the Tibetan issue can have a profound impact on tomorrow's China. This sentiment is shared by many Chinese. I see this through my contacts not only with the Chinese government, but with Chinese of all shades.

I am surprised and encouraged to come across Chinese in the government, in the Communist party, but also this new class of rich Chinese entrepreneurs who believe that what China really needs is the presence of His Holiness.

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Are you trying to negotiate the future of the Tibetan people?

If you look at the Tibetan plateau, you see that Tibet is the giver of life: all the major (Asian) rivers have their sources in Tibet. Perhaps in a few years time, definitely in 50 years time, people will be fighting wars over water.

Recently, I dined with some senior Indian officials. I was telling them that it was very smart of them to invite the Saudi king as chief guest for the Indian Republic Day. They said their prime minister made a special exception and went to receive the king at the airport. I said: "Yes, after all, he is the custodian of the most holy shrine for the Muslims." They said: "Yes, he is also the custodian of oil."

Unfortunately, the time will come when there will be a scarcity of what we today take for granted, particularly resources like water. You do not need to be a prophet to know that there will be shortage of water in 50 years time. Just with that consideration alone, imagine how important the plateau of Tibet is.

You know that former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji took the wise decision to stop the deforestation in Tibet. He took the decision not because he cared for the environment, certainly not for the sake of the Tibetans, but he realized that the floods in China were due to the deforestation in Tibet, which was not natural ones, but man-made.

For many decades, the Chinese authorities had not cared for the Tibetan plateau, thinking that whatever they can take from Tibet will only benefit them. But at the end the people of China began to suffer much more than the Tibetans.

So you can see that the whole issue of Tibet is larger than the interest of Tibet and the Tibetan people, and has wider ramifications.

What about India?

In terms of geopolitics, it is very encouraging that there is today much more trade relations between India and China. It is not the Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai relation, which was very unfortunate, but a much more rational relation. But then, it would be an illusion if anyone in South Block (the Delhi area where India's ministry of external affairs is located) feels that there could be a real progress in the relations with China without solving the problem of Tibet. It would be very na�ve.

For centuries, Tibet acted as a buffer between these two great Asian civilisations. Now we can become a bridge. A buffer was important during the 19th and the 20th century to bring a certain amount of stability: It was like a wall separating empires during what is known as 'the Great Game.'

Today we do not need a buffer, but a bridge. Tibet could play that unique role, to be the bridge. This could help find a lasting and genuine solution. A solution in which the Tibetan issue would not be considered would not be lasting.

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A genuine and lasting solution will be in the interests of these two great Asian nations. No one else than Tibet can help to bridge the difference between India and China. Though we are very much part of the Indian civilization, many people feel the Tibetan language must be similar to Chinese language, just because of the fact that Tibet is under China. Similarly, they believe that the Tibetan culture or civilisation is similar to the Chinese.

I have to explain that our link is much deeper with the Indian civilisation. His Holiness describes the link between the Tibetan and Indian civilisations as a filial link. Many aspects of the Indian civilisation have been kept intact in Tibet.

His Holiness jokes and says that the Indian civilisation has been put in a deep freezer on the Tibetan plateau. One of the good things out of our misfortune is that many texts, the ancient wisdom of India, has been preserved in Tibet.

Today scholars in Sarnath are retranslating these texts into Sanskrit or Pali. But by circumstances, we are politically and otherwise very much part of the Chinese political orbit. This fact is also a positive factor.

What is the status of your negotiations today?

The first round of negotiations dates from 1982, when the first Tibetan high level exploratory delegates went to China. More recently, I went thrice to China after 2002 and we had a fourth round of talks in Geneva in January 2005. Soon, I will go back to China to conduct the 5th round of talks.

It is a very slow process; it is going to take a long time, before we can make substantial progress. I always tell my Tibetan friends: "Don't be in a hurry and don't ask me to hurry." We should not allow ourselves to be forced into an agreement too quickly. After all, we have already waited very long.

His Holiness is in good health; we have time. We are committed and optimistic and we will continue very slowly.

Are you optimistic about the outcome of the talks?

Yes, I am hopeful, because if I had lost hope, I would have no business to conduct these talks. If I did not believe in this process, it would be immoral for me to continue to lead this team. I do it as my spiritual practice.

His Holiness is not only my political leader, but also my guru. If I had any doubt in my heart, my job would be to go to His Holiness and tell him: "Your Holiness, please take me out of this business because I do not believe in it."

Next: 'China is changing'

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