— By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
China’s cup runneth over. The Olympics are a milestone in Chinese history, a celebration of the Middle Kingdom’s return to international greatness after nearly two centuries of torpor and humiliation.
Yet the Olympics could end up being the second-most-significant event in China this year.
The Chinese leadership and the Tibetan government in exile have delicately discussed a possible visit by the Dalai Lama to China, nominally to commemorate the victims of the earthquake in Sichuan Province in May. That would be the first meeting between the Dalai Lama and Chinese leaders in more than 50 years and would give enormous impetus to resolving the Tibet question.
The opportunity arises in part because of the Dalai Lama’s public acknowledgement last week for the first time that he could accept Communist Party rule for Tibet. Previously, the Dalai Lama had seemed to demand something like the “one country, two systems” model of Hong Kong, and his concession was a courageous signal of his yearning to reach a deal with the Chinese government.
“The Dalai Lama has taken the kind of courageous step that great political leaders make at crucial turning points in history,” said Melvyn Goldstein, a prominent historian of modern Tibet and a professor at Case Western Reserve University. “After more than 20 years of stalemate, the Dalai Lama, at great risk to his standing in the West and among Tibetans in exile, has unilaterally sent Beijing a clear signal that he is now ready to accept the kind of difficult compromises that are needed to resolve the conflict.”
“For the first time in decades, reconciliation is now genuinely possible,” Professor Goldstein added.
Since then, the Dalai Lama has been scolded by many Tibetans who think that he has been too conciliatory toward China. President Bush and other leaders should praise his courage in taking such a difficult step toward reconciliation.
The big question now is whether China will respond with its own olive branch. At a Foreign Ministry press conference on Wednesday, a spokesman, Qin Gang, said only: “Our position and policy on the Tibet-related issue is clear and persistent. We should not only take into account what the Dalai Lama said, but what he has done. We need to see concrete action.”
That was less than an effusive welcome but better than another knee-jerk denunciation of the Dalai Lama. My sense is that Chinese government officials are waiting for direction from their own top leaders.
If President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao respond with approval, and especially if they pursue a visit by the Dalai Lama in November on the six-month anniversary of the earthquake in Sichuan Province – then they just might resolve the Tibet problem that has dogged all previous Communist leaders. As a first step, they should take over the Tibet portfolio from the United Front Work Department, so that top-level talks can proceed directly between the Dalai Lama and either Mr. Hu or Mr. Wen.
Some Chinese officials believe that the best strategy to deal with Tibet is to wait for the Dalai Lama to die. Without a leader, they think, Tibetans will be more compliant – but that is a catastrophic miscalculation.
On the contrary, the Dalai Lama, who is 73, is restraining Tibetans, and he speaks some Chinese and has roots in China in a way that younger Tibetan exiles do not. Once he is gone, more radical groups – including the Tibetan Youth Congress – will gain sway and many frustrated Tibetans, left on their own, are likely to turn to violence.
President Hu this year engaged in bold diplomacy to defuse tensions with Japan and Taiwan alike. China’s willingness to sound out the Dalai Lama about a visit to commemorate the earthquake victims is a ray of hope for similar outreach to Tibetans. The United States can’t do much to help – this has to be worked out between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese leadership – but we can do more to encourage the process and nudge it to a higher level.
Western leaders, including President Bush, have mostly engaged in the politics of symbolism regarding Tibet – choreographing photos with the Dalai Lama, issuing protests, or calling for China-Tibet talks that everyone knows will get nowhere. What we need is less symbolism and more diplomatic heavy-lifting aimed at a practical settlement of the Tibet question.
President Hu and Prime Minister Wen are basking in good will from their management of the Olympics, so far widely perceived as a triumph for China. If they can also bring the Dalai Lama back to China in November and engineer a deal to resolve Tibet’s future, that would be an even more monumental achievement.
It is in their hands.
( This op-ed column is reproduced from The New York Times, published 14 August 2008. The writer is an op-ed columnist and the views expressed in this column are personal. The Central Tibetan Administration does not necessarily subscribe to the opinions expressed here. )