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Opinion: Tibet's Hope Lies in China's Democratization

The conflict in Tibet has been smoldering for 50 years. Although the Dalai Lama enjoys great esteem worldwide, time is on China's side, leading DW's Matthias von Hein to ask about Tibet's chances for real autonomy.

Graphic of pen with word opinion

It's an uneven balance: on the one side, 5 million Tibetans and on the other, 1.3 billion Chinese. Here, a marginalized minority in an alleged autonomous region, even if it's supported by an active community in exile. There, an up-and-coming world power, with veto rights in the UN Security Council. The third largest economic nation in the world, with the greatest foreign currency reserves on the planet, is a desired partner particularly in times of economic crisis. It doesn't matter how the human rights situation looks.

Matthias von Hein

Matthias von Hein

Beijing's dialog with Tibetans in exile appears to just be pretense. Although the Dalai Lama repeats at every opportunity that Tibetans are only aspiring towards a true autonomy within the Chinese federation, Chinese media and authorities berate him as a divider, separatist and traitor.

Beijing is apparently betting on a biological solution to the problem. After all, the Dalai Lama is already over 70 years old -- even he won't live forever. But when Beijing doesn't talk with him, it is depriving itself of a significant opportunity, as this Dalai Lama is an irreplaceable integration figure. Last fall, he proved his ability to bring the more radical forces among the Tibetans in exile to commit themselves to his line of non-violence, his "Middle Way." But he needs partners in Beijing.

With Hu Jintao, however, a man known for his tough stance towards Tibet is heading the Chinese nation. In 1989, when there were demonstrations in Lhasa to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, Hu was party leader in Tibet. He declared martial law and had his soldiers brutally strike down the protests.

But there are also signs of hope. Not a single critical voice about the oppression of the Tibetans could be heard in China 20 years ago. Last year, when the army quashed Tibetan protests for more autonomy, it was different. Chinese intellectuals championed for the rights of the Tibetans in open letters. Chinese attorneys offered their services to defend imprisoned protestors in court.

The image of Tibet for many Chinese is beginning to change -- particularly in the evolving middle-class, which meanwhile totals some 200 million people. The Chinese used to associate Tibet solely with poverty and squalor. Today, Tibet for many represents dramatic, pristine nature and spiritual wealth. In view of the spiritual emptiness in China, some are even discovering Tibetan Buddhism for themselves.

It may be regretful, but Tibetans have become hostages of China's democratic progress and legal headway. The rights demanded by the Dalai Lama and Tibetans exist on paper already -- but you can write what you like on paper. Minority rights are exemplary in the constitution -- but they're not being implemented. And there is no constitutional court where a corresponding suit could be filed. Tibet's hope lies of all things with China's democratization.

Matthias von Hein is head of Deutsche Welle's China Service

Author: Matthias von Hein

Editor: Sean Sinico

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