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TIBET: TRY THE HONG KONG SOLUTION
China invented the idea of two systems in one country. It
worked brilliantly. It can again
Malcolm Rifkind (MP and British Foremer Foreign Secretary)
The Times March 21, 2008
It is easy to get depressed about the trauma of Tibet and the
suppression of Tibetan cultural and political aspirations. It is,
after all, almost half a century since the Dalai Lama fled his
country. He has never been able to return and recent events make
it highly unlikely that he will in the foreseeable future.
Over that half century the Soviet Union has collapsed into 15
independent states, apartheid has been defeated in South Africa,
colonial empires have disappeared, and the United States could
be about to elect its first black president. But Tibet and the
Tibetans remain under the iron hand of Beijing, denied not just
self-government but also the free expression of their unique
cultural and religious identity.
Pessimism about the future may seem inevitable but it need
not be. A solution is already available that would not only meet
Tibetan aspirations but would do so in a way that should be
acceptable to China.
China is the country that invented the concept of two systems
in one country. It did so in order to absorb Hong Kong back into
the motherland without killing the goose that laid the golden
eggs. It was the inspiration of Deng Xiaoping and it has been
Instead of insisting that the Hong Kong Chinese had to accept
a communist economic system combined with political uniformity,
the people of Hong Kong have been able to continue to live as a
Western, capitalist enclave within the Chinese body politic.
Although there are clear limits to its freedom and democratic
rights, Hong Kong enjoys real autonomy, a functioning rule of
law and a liberal press and media that have no equivalent in
most of China.
Similar freedoms have been conceded to the former Portuguese
colony of Macao. Nor is there any doubt that the Chinese
Government would be delighted to conclude a similar arrangement
with the Taiwanese if the latter could be persuaded to accept
reunification with mainland China in the years to come.
If China is, therefore, able to live with genuine autonomy
and cultural freedom in Hong Kong and Macao, and if it would be
only too happy to concede it to Taiwan, why can a similar offer
not be made to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people?
The answer is that, until now, the Chinese have not
considered it to be necessary. They have assumed that they could
make the Dalai Lama a non-person, gradually forgotten by his
fellow Tibetans. They have hoped that a substantial and growing
migration of Han Chinese into Tibet would transform the
demographic composition of the territory and make the Tibetans
an ethnic minority in their own land.
China now has to acknowledge that these objectives have
totally failed. Far from marginalising the Dalai Lama, they have
seen him transformed into an Asian Nelson Mandela, fêted around
the world and revered by his people as a symbol as well as a
Young Tibetans have become radicalised as people do in the
modern world wherever the denial of freedom is seen as being
combined with foreign occupation. Tibet looks likely to become a
cause célèbre for protest movements around the world and public
opinion in the West wants their leaders to do what they can to
help the Tibetan cause.
An autonomous, self-governing Tibet within China should not
be that difficult for the Chinese to accept. The Dalai Lama has
made it clear that he is not seeking independence and, while
that will disappoint many of his followers, the vast majority
would accept his authority and be delighted and relieved if some
genuine self-government was to be introduced.
The Chinese, for their part, would find that their reputation
in the world as a whole was transformed. At present they appear,
and behave, as if they were the world's last colonial empire.
The internet and the mobile phone have made it impossible for
them to seal off
Tibet from the outside world. Increased repression or
political and cultural reform are the only choices left
available to them and the price they would pay if they opt for
repression will be high and will grow.
We should not be naive. Whatever the price, the Chinese would
be willing to pay it if they saw Tibet breaking away from China
and becoming a separate state. That will not be even a distant
possibility unless and until China itself embraces democratic
But a Tibetan province with cultural freedom and a
significant degree of political autonomy would be no more than
is already enjoyed by Hong Kong and Macao. It would be a Chinese
solution to a Chinese problem and all the better for it.
The Chinese are planning that the Olympic torch should, in
the run-up to the Olympic Games, be carried through Tibet on its
way to Beijing. In current circumstances that would constitute a
shameful betrayal of the Olympic ideal.
But if the Chinese Government means what it says when it
offers a dialogue with the Dalai Lama in exchange for a
renunciation of independence and violence, there could be a
transformation in the current poisonous atmosphere.
A serious offer of political and cultural reform would not
only delight the Tibetans and impress the world, it would also
make the Beijing Olympics a unique opportunity to welcome the
new China to its rightful place in the pantheon of nations.