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This article was first published 16 years ago  » News » Change will come from within China

Change will come from within China

By Claude Arpi
March 26, 2008 14:15 IST
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Since the unrest started in Tibet, I am often asked: "What is the solution for Tibet?" Invariably, I answer: "I don't know". I am aware that there have never been so many 'experts' and 'knowledgeable commentators' who have ready-made solutions, but having spent 37 years trying to understand the intricacies of the Tibet issue, "I don't know" is the only honest response.

Of course, one can think of different scenarios such as the "fall of the Berlin wall" or the "collapse of the former Soviet Union". I still remember the Dalai Lama 'prophesying' at the end of the eighties (before the Tiananmen events), that China may go through a similar fate as the Soviet Union within five years. When several years later, I asked him about his 'prophesy', he just laughed and said that it was a 'big mistake'. He added that it was not a 'spiritual' prophesy, but just logical thinking. It is true that things could have gone differently had the Elders not sent tanks to crush thousand of students on the Square.

Another remark of the Dalai Lama comes to my mind. It was in 1986, during an interview, he told me: "We Tibetans can't do anything, except to keep their culture alive. A change will come from within China; it is our only hope".

Twenty two years later, I believe that this statement is the closest to a possible future scenario or 'solution'. In this context, it was heartening to read the statement of 29 Chinese intellectuals: 'We hold that we must eliminate animosity and bring about national reconciliation, not continue to increase divisions between nationalities. A country that wishes to avoid the partition of its territory must first avoid divisions among its nationalities. Therefore, we appeal to the leaders of our country to hold direct dialogue with the Dalai Lama.'

Though one can only applaud the courage of the academics and artists, there is a more important aspect to consider: the debate at the top echelon of the Party. Presuming that the Chinese Communist Party is here to stay for some more time, the key word for a possible solution is 'nationalities'. Although one has the impression that the CCP is a monolithic organisation with a strict hierarchy and no discussion is allowed, it is far from true. One example is a series of three letters written a couple of years back by a Tibetan Communist veteran to President Hu Jinatao on the issue of nationalities which could have far-reaching consequences for Tibet.

Bapa Phuntso Wangyal is not an ordinary Tibetan. He was the first Tibetan Communist in the forties and in September 1951, he led the Chinese troops into Lhasa. In his recent letters, Wangyal, known as Phunwang by the Tibetans, accused some of the hardliners (alias 'leftists') within the Party of being insincere: 'They make a living, are promoted and become rich by opposing splittism,' he wrote to Hu.

Though the 'leftists' are bound to prevail till the Olympic Games, many watchers believe that Phunwang's theoretical position on nationalities may trigger a debate within the Party hierarchy on 'the correct handling of the situation in Tibet' and a possible return of the Dalai Lama.

In one of his letters written in 2006, Phunwang pointed his finger at the retired General Yin Fatang, a former party boss in Tibet, for sticking to 'wrong' leftist policies still implemented today in Tibet. He told the Chinese President that the Dalai Lama had said he wants greater autonomy, not independence: 'But Chinese and Tibetan leftists, or conservatives, are convinced otherwise and regularly denounce him for trying to split Tibet from the Chinese motherland.'

Historically and interestingly, Communist leaders have not always responded with the same brutality that we see today. Some officials had a more sensitive approach. One of these leaders is Hu Yaobang. In May 1980, the politburo decided to send a high-level fact-finding delegation to the 'Tibet Autonomous Region'. The delegation was headed by Hu Yaobang, then General Secretary of the CCP. Reaching Lhasa, Hu Yaobang was shocked to see the level of poverty in Tibet. During a meeting with the Party cadres, he asked 'whether all the money Beijing had poured into Tibet over the previous years had been thrown into the Yarlung Tsangpo [Brahmaputra] river'. He said the situation reminded him of colonialism. Hundreds of Chinese Han cadres were transferred back to China.

Unfortunately this more intelligent policy did not last long. In 1988, Hu Jintao (today President) took over as Tibet Party Chief. On March 5, when some demonstrations erupted, the People's Armed Police 'took control of the situation'. A Chinese journalist Tang Daxian witnessed the events. He later wrote in The Observer that on March 6 alone, 387 Tibetans were massacred around the Central Cathedral in Lhasa. Twenty years ago, there were no mobile phones and video cameras to witness the carnage. The hardliners had won.

Phunwang told also Hu that Beijing was mistaken to believe that the Tibetan issue would be solved with the death of the present Dalai Lama: 'Any notion of delaying the problem until after the 14th Dalai Lama dies a natural death is not only naive, it is also unwise and especially tactically wrong.'

He reminded the Chinese President about his own objective to establish a harmonious society. If he strived for the return of hundreds of thousands of exiled Tibetans, he could turn 'confrontation into harmony'. Phunwang concluded:'wrong leftist policies continue on ethnic and religious issues especially Tibetan issuesÂ… it should cease.'

Phunwang knows Tibet well. In May 1951, he was instrumental in brokering the famous deal (known as the 17-Point Agreement) between the 'local' government of Tibet and the 'central' government in Beijing. At that time, he was close to the central leadership in Beijing, particularly Mao. But he soon discovered that some Chinese officials suffered from the same disease as the Nationalists: The Great Han Chauvinism. This disturbed him a great deal.

When the Dalai Lama left for a six-month visit to China in 1954, Mao ordered Phunwang to accompany the young monk everywhere. During his long talks with the young Tibetan leader, he managed to convince him that Communism was a good thing for Tibet. The Dalai Lama was touched by his sincerity and love for Tibet.

Phunwang continued to work for his dream: a modern and socialist Tibet, but in April 1958, he was unexpectedly arrested and told that he needed to 'cleanse his thinking'. During the following 18 years, he was interrogated, tortured and kept in solitary confinement in the most atrocious conditions. To not lose his mental balance he started to study. As he was allowed Communist literature only, he took the opportunity to deepen his knowledge of the Marxist theory and became the foremost expert on 'nationalities' in the CCP.

According to him: 'In Marxism, the relationship between nationalities in multiethnic states should be one of complete equality. Marxism draws a basic distinction between nationalities embedded in class-based societies and those in communist societies. In class-based societies, separatist activities by minority nationalities are not considered negatively because they are caused by the oppressive policies of the majority nationality and the government it monopolizes.'

In a society where all the nationalities have equal status, the State 'vigorously opposes the struggles of minority nationalities against the State, labeling these pejoratively as 'splittist'. This is not the case of Tibet where the majority nationality (the Chinese Han) is oppressing the minority nationalities (the Tibetans). It is therefore 'correct and justified' for the minority to struggle.

Phunwang adds: 'In the absence of true equality, 'splittism' is a valid response for minority nationalities in class-based societies. It is, in fact, characteristic of class-based multiethnic nations. By contrast, in socialist states, the majority nationality does not (or should not) oppress the minority nationalities. All should be equal'. His conclusion is 'Nationality unity, therefore, requires not suppression but new policies that provide real equality [between nationalities].' In this context, true autonomy is primordial.

The fact that this interpretation of Marxism orthodoxy was sent to the Chinese President by a senior member of the Party, means that the theoretical basis for the Chinese repression in Tibet is still open to interpretation; though the tough guys are today prevailing, they have not grasped the intricacies of the 'nationality' theory of Marx and Stalin.

Michael Sheridan, The Time Far East correspondent, calls them the Faceless Trio. Sheridan wrote: 'The architects of Chinese repression in Tibet are three senior bureaucrats little known to the outside world but destined to be the focus of condemnation from human rights groups in the months ahead.'

The infernal trio is led by Wang Lequan, Party Chief in Xinjiang and member of the Politburo of the CCP. On March 10, in a rare interview he said: 'No matter what nationality, no matter who it is, wreckers, separatists and terrorists will be smashed by us. There's no doubt about that.'

The second one, Zhang Qingli, Party Chief in Tibet, who knows that Hu Jintao owes his phenomenal ascension in the Party to his hard stand in Tibet at the end of the 80s. Zhang called the Dalai Lama 'a wolf in monk's clothes, a devil with a human face' and declared: 'Those who do not love the motherland are not qualified to be human beings'.

According to Sheridan, the third toughie is Li Dezhu, the party's racial theoretician. For him, China's objective is no longer to preserve minority cultures such as the Tibetans, but to refashion them.

All of them try to emulate their master, Hu Jintao, who reached the top by smashing 'nationalities'.

The question remains, can a new Hu Yaobang emerge after the Olympics? Can China find a Gorbachev who could take the Middle Kingdom towards a more harmonious society? It may take several months before we get an answer to these questions, but they are valid queries.

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Claude Arpi