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CHINA: Tackling Tibet and Taiwan – Differently

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Nov 7 2008 (IPS) - Chinese negotiators have, this week, discussed Tibet’s quest for genuine autonomy with the Dalai Lama’s representatives and also pushed forward the agenda to establish economic rapprochement with Taipei.

Beijing has been seeking reunification with Taiwan for as long as Tibet has pursued a promised right to self-determination. Tellingly, the two negotiations got very different treatments in the state-sanctioned Chinese press.

The Taiwan talks, which sought to build foundations for closer engagement over the Taiwan Strait, were covered extensively in the mainland media. Negotiators signed several agreements bringing the former arch-rivals – that fought a civil war in the 1940s – closer together by establishing direct air, postal and shipping links.

"China has been waiting for this moment for 60 years," said the 21st Century Business Herald, terming the visit of China’s chief Taiwan negotiator Chen Yunlin to the island "a milestone". "The future of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait as one entity is bright," it added.

By contrast, talks with representatives of the Tibetan government-in exile went by unmentioned by any major media but the state news agency Xinhua. When it did report on the visit of the Dalai Lama envoys and their dialogue with Chinese officials, the agency struck a harsh note, saying the Tibetan spiritual leader should "face reality".

"It is impossible for Tibet to become independent, semi-independent, or independent in a disguised form," the report said, citing remarks by Du Qinglin, head of a government department in charge of the negotiations. "The Dalai Lama should respect history, face reality, comply with the times and correct his political stance fundamentally."

Du held the talks in Beijing with Lodi Gyari and Kelsan Gyalsten, two envoys of the Tibetan-government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India. They were taken to visit a model minority area in the Muslim-populated Ningxia Autonomous Region.

But, despite the longer than usual time for discussions, no breakthrough was made, giving rise to even more doubts about the success of the Dalai Lama’s "middle path" doctrine of pursuing autonomy.

Tibet and Taiwan are both grappling to find solutions to decades-long standoffs.

Taiwan has been ruled separately from China since 1949. The Nationalist troops of Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island after losing the civil war against the communists on the Chinese mainland. Beijing continues to see the island as a breakaway province and has warned that it would use force to prevent Taiwan from declaring formal independence.

For Beijing, the latest talks are a breakthrough because they included a visit to Taiwan of Chen Yunlin, chairman of China’s semi-official Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, whose goal is to reunify the island and the mainland. Chen is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Taiwan in a half century.

He also met with Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou. Ma assumed power five months ago, promising a new era of peace and economic normalisation with China, after years of tense relations under his predecessor Chen Shui-bian. Beijing, which hopes that an economic thaw across the Taiwan Strait would facilitate future reunification, has welcomed his administration.

The latest talks however, were dogged by rowdy protesters and faced vocal opposition from supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party, which favors independence.

Polls conducted by the Mainland Affairs Council, which oversees Taiwan’s China policy, found that 30 percent of the interviews considered Ma Ying-jeou’s opening up to China too fast in early October, compared with 19 percent who felt that way in March.

Beijing had once proposed the "one country, two systems" formula, practised in the administration of Hong Kong as a possible model for Taiwan. The doctrine allows Chinese sovereignty to be applied to a territory, with foreign affairs and defence issues handled by the central government while domestic matters are left to a local administration.

The same model, though, is being denied to Tibet. Du Qinglin ruled out a Hong Kong-style solution to the Tibetan question, saying China would not allow Tibet the wide degree of autonomy it has granted territories such as Hong Kong and the former Portuguese colony of Macau.

"It is a fundamental political system of China… It does not allow the promotion of ethnic separatism under the banner of ‘genuine ethnic self-governance’," Du said. "We will never allow someone to hold a banner of ‘real autonomy’ and damage the national unity," he added.

For the Tibetans, the stand-off over their right to self-determination has continued ever since the 15th Dalai Lama fled his homeland in 1951 for India and set up a government-in-exile in Dharamsala.

For more than 50 years the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has toured world capitals, trying to promote the Tibetan cause and seeking negotiations with Beijing. He has championed a "middle path" policy, which advocates genuine Tibetan autonomy as opposed to political independence.

But China has repeatedly accused him of leading a campaign to split off the Himalayan region from the rest of the country. The two sides have held seven rounds of talks before the current one with little progress to show for it.

Relations soured this year when peaceful demonstrations against Chinese rule in Lhasa, in March, turned violent, leading to scores of casualties on both sides.

Beijing blamed the Dalai Lama and his followers for the riots. As the current talks were about to begin in the Chinese capital, the authorities announced they had sentenced 55 people for their involvement in March’s anti-government protests.

Adding to the gloomy prospects for the dialogue, the Dalai Lama has voiced his frustration with the lack of progress in negotiations, saying Tibet was "now dying" under China’s iron-fist rule.

"My trust in the Chinese government is now thinner, thinner, thinner," he told reporters during his visit to Japan this week. "I have to accept failure".

The future of his "middle path" policy will be the focus of a special meeting, in Dharamsala, on Nov. 17, of around 300 delegates representing the worldwide exiled Tibetan community.

Younger and more radical forces among the community have increasingly been calling for a tougher stance against Beijing.

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