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A win-win solution to China-Tibet dilemma


An enlightened alternative to the errors of Mao and Deng

By Robert A.F. Thurman

(CNN) -- World leaders desire prosperity, stability and international respect but sometimes seem bent on taking steps that undermine these worthy goals. China's leaders are a case in point.

They need the capital, entrepreneurial know-how and economic partnership with Taiwan but jeopardize their chances by threatening to destroy the island if the Taiwanese people ask to be treated as equals.

The tussle over Tibet

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They worry about the stability of their nation, but crack down on the Falun Gong religious movement, denying their own people -- more than 100 million of whom are unemployed and restless -- the benefits of the art of qi-gong, a time-tested source of patience and inner calm.

They crave international respect, trust and affection, but shun the Dalai Lama's proffered hand of friendship and escalate their attempt to colonize the world's highest country -- an effort doomed to fail for a number of reasons.

The key to the economic prosperity in China is a creative, mutually beneficial relationship with Taiwan. The key to maintaining stability among the Chinese people is to permit spiritual practices that teach the inner well-being that even economic prosperity will not buy.

The overwhelming majority of Tibetans have traditionally been Buddhists  

And the key to harmonious relations with China's neighbors and respect in the world community is solving the Tibet "problem" in a realistic and enlightened way that would be an example of responsible world leadership.

Longtime enemies

Tibet, which inhabits the 900,000-square-mile Tibetan highland (average altitude: 14,000 feet), has historically been distinct from China.

China and Tibet were enemies from the 2nd century B.C. to the 13th century, when both were conquered by the Mongolians.

At the height of the Yarlung Empire's expansion in the 8th century, Tibet controlled the Silk Route and exacted tribute from the Chinese Tang Dynasty. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongol Empire conquered China and accepted Tibet's submission without invading it before going on to conquer most of Eurasia.

During China's Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Tibet was independently ruled by the Pagmodru, Rinpung and Tsangpa Tibetan dynasties.

In the latter half of the 17th century, China was again conquered by foreigners, this time by the Manchus. Tibet, meanwhile, was ruled independently from 1642 to 1682 by the fifth Dalai Lama, who built the Potala palace and gradually demilitarized the country. To avoid maintaining a military, he negotiated a protective alliance with the Manchu emperor during the 1650s.

A sense of righteous ownership

Educated Chinese currently think of the Mongol and Manchu empires as Chinese entities -- the Yuan and Ching dynasties -- and have come to feel a sense of righteous ownership about every country involved with those empires, just as the Russians used to feel about the Soviet empire.

Tibet historically has been distinct from China  

Since the Communist invasion 50 years ago, the current Dalai Lama has led the Tibetan people in nonviolent resistance to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, but the destruction, exploitation and religious and political oppression continue today unchecked.

Pessimists think it is impossible for China to change its policies toward Tibet because China needs Tibet as an armed camp for military security. They also think China needs Tibet's vast territory and natural resources for its economic prosperity, and that China must save face in the global arena by not admitting that past policies were misguided and inhumane.

But a more hopeful view is that the Chinese leaders will realize that their actions are creating, not solving, their problems, and to see that their strategies are based on outmoded ideas about colonization and ecological exploitation. Also, that they will understand, as Western nations have already learned, that military force is ultimately not cost-effective.

'One country, two systems'

China would achieve many benefits from changing strategy and using the "one country, two systems" formula devised for Hong Kong, offering a new policy that would allow Tibetans self-determination in their homeland.

Among the most significant benefits:

  • Demilitarizing Tibet would save China the huge expense of arming and protecting a 2,000-mile frontier. The money saved could be used for upgrading the military or investing in economic growth.
Wood and terra-cotta sculptures and crafts are common, particularly in western and southern Tibet  
  • Relations with bordering countries such as India, Nepal and Bhutan would become more relaxed, making way for economically beneficial partnerships.
  • The cost to China of extracting lumber, herbal medicines and minerals from Tibet is far greater than it would be if Chinese firms simply contracted with Tibetan suppliers.

China is unnecessarily attempting to colonize the highest plateau in the world, subsidizing huge numbers of officials and workers with hardship duty pay and perquisites and maintaining massive internal military forces to suppress Tibetan discontent.

The lesson that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have learned is that it is cheaper and easier to invest economically in the resources of a region and let the locals have the headaches and expense of running their own government, dealing with their own problems and delivering the goods at economically competitive prices.

A peaceful visionary?

The conquest of Tibet was the work of a previous generation, and President Jiang Zemin can go beyond it as a peaceful visionary, gaining worldwide the respect, credibility and acceptance China craves, but which it will never achieve by bullying its neighbors.

Then China could benefit from Tibet's many extraordinary accomplishments as a sophisticated, spiritual culture. As a scholar of Tibetan civilization, I have had the privilege of studying in some depth its intricate, beautiful and exceedingly valuable culture, art, religion and mind sciences.

Tibet's greatest treasures are not the historic artifacts of a lost civilization to be relegated to museums and history books. Its priceless mind sciences promote individual and collective understanding and peace, which are more and more relevant today not only to the Tibetan people, but to a world torn by prejudice and violence.

I urge President Jiang to meet with the Dalai Lama and show his statesmanship by solving the problem of Tibet. He would cease making an enemy out of a potentially excellent friend and accomplish his nation's objectives easily.

He also would gain great international respect -- and probably a Nobel Peace Prize -- by correcting the errors of Mao and Deng and initiating a policy that would bring prosperity, stability, harmony and peace to China and Asia for generations to come.

Robert A.F. Thurman is professor of Indo-Tibetan studies, Columbia University. All rights reserved. August, 1999

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