One man has destabilised China. For the purpose, he has used something which hardly existed a decade ago, Twitter. Though his messages are sometimes eccentric, President Donald Trump has changed the course of the US-China relations. For the first time in recent years, the US has taken the ascendant on the Middle Kingdom in terms of communication and propaganda. This can be seen in all aspects of the bilateral relations. As a result, Beijing feels insecure like never before; this probably explains the rare authorisation given to Terry Branstad, the US Ambassador to China, to visit the Roof of the World between May 19 and 25; a first for a US ambassador since 2015.
A statement issued from Washington said that Branstad spoke his mind; he “urged China to open substantive dialogue with exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama and give the Himalayan region’s Buddhists freedom to practise their religion.”
The State department added that Branstad “raised our long-standing concerns about lack of consistent access to the TAR. …He also expressed concerns regarding the Chinese government’s interference in Tibetan Buddhists’ freedom to organise and practise their religion.”The ambassador visited several historic places such as the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple or the Norbulingka Palace linked to the Dalai Lama and when he met the senior Communist leaders, he encouraged them “to engage in substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives, without preconditions, to seek a settlement that resolves differences”. All this was obviously not reported in the Chinese press.Wu Yingjie, Tibet’s Communist Party chief, explained to the ambassador the “huge achievements” undertaken for guaranteeing the rule of law, religious freedom and traditional culture. According to the Communist Tibet Daily newspaper, Wu added that he sincerely welcomed more American friends to visit the TAR.
On the ambassador’s return, Beijing used a well-known hawk, Zhu Weiqun, to counter the US diplomacy. Zhu, though retired, holds the honorific post of chairman of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference; for years, as executive deputy director of the United Front Work Department, Zhu was the interlocutor of the Dalai Lama’s Envoys (2002-2010).
Once, when asked whether “religious” members could be admitted in the Party, Zhu famously retorted: “No Chinese Communist Party members should be allowed to be religious.”
On June 9, Zhu commented on the visit of Branstad to Tibet, in The Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Party. Zhu strongly criticised the ambassador, who dared, according to him, to encourage Beijing “to engage in substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama without preconditions”.
This was not appreciated by Zhu (in fact by the Party, as the tabloid represents the Party’s views). Why? Not only it was blatant interference in China’s internal affairs, said Zhu, but he also questioned the meaning of “seeking a settlement without preconditions” and the definition of a “substantive dialogue”. Though time and again the Dalai Lama has said that he wanted an association, not a separation with China, Zhu considers the Dalai Lama a splittist.
While giving an assurance that the CPC’s Central Committee had not closed the door to contacts and negotiation with the Dalai Lama, Zhu showed the Party’s hard-line stance, “the proposed negotiation cannot come without preconditions.”
In my book, The Negotiations that Never Were, I argued that the “talks” never really took off, because the two sides did not speak the same language.
Already in 1981, Hu Yaobang, the CPC’s general secretary, had submitted to Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, a “Five-Point Policy towards the Dalai Lama”. The “conditions” were not related to Tibet, but only to the Dalai Lama’s future.
One of the points said: “The central authorities sincerely welcome the Dalai Lama and his followers to come back to live [in China]. This is based on the hope that they will contribute upholding China’s unity and promoting solidarity between the Han and Tibetan nationalities.” It was also said: “It is suggested that he not go to live in Tibet or hold local posts there. Of course, he may go back to Tibet from time to time.”
Zhu Weiqun reiterated that there was nothing to discuss about Tibet, the “negotiations” could only be about the condition of the Dalai Lama’s return to the Motherland and his status… in Beijing.
Zhu explained: “First, it must be made clear that in nature, contact and consultation [these] are not talks between China’s central government and the Tibetan government-in-exile or ‘Central Tibetan Administration’, nor are [they] ‘Tibetan-Han Talks’ or ‘Tibetan-China Talks’. The Dalai separatist political group is illegitimate and ineligible to have a ‘dialogue’ with representatives of the CPC Central Committee.” Beijing wants only to talk to the Dalai Lama’s personal envoys.
Such conditions did not yield positive results during the nine rounds of “talks” held between 2002 and 2010, when Lodi Gyari was the Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy. The second point mentioned by Zhu was: “The Dalai Lama must accept Tibet as an integral part of China, abandon all attempts about so-called Tibet independence, stop all separatist and destructive activities, and recognise Taiwan as an integral part of China.” Why Beijing wants to link Taiwan to Tibet is perplexing!
Regarding the second point, China has been insisting that the Dalai Lama agrees that historically Tibet has always been a part of China.
When a senior Tibetan exiled Lama went to China a couple of years ago, the Chinese told him that the Dalai Lama should sign a statement acknowledging that Tibet has been part of China since ancient times. This is obviously not acceptable to the Dalai Lama and the People of Tibet, as it is a falsification of history. Taking a hard stand, Zhu affirmed that in these two preconditions “there is no so-called Tibet issue, but just the problem of the Dalai Lama”.
It means that today, the Chinese stand has not changed since 1981. All this does not much leave any margin for substantive negotiations and the recent events in Hong Kong, the pressure in Taiwan and the tragic situation in Xinjiang do not indicate a positive change in the Chinese attitude.
Beijing is playing another card; on June 10, the official China News Service announced that Gyaltsen Norbu, the Panchen Lama selected by the Communist Party in 1995 had visited Thailand in May, “the first time he had ever left China”, while the boy chosen by the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama still languishes for more than two decades under house arrest.
The announcement came nearly one month after Norbu’s visit; it show Beijing’s nervousness. Norbu just gave a speech at a Buddhist university, but his visit made him even more aware of the “greatness of the motherland and the Chinese Communist Party.”
Tibetans will not be fooled by such cheap propaganda. Substantive progress between the two parties seems to have slipped farther away, with or without tweets.