Analysis of Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach: A Way Leads to Nowhere

A Tibet Mall in India

Late 2014, Bengaluru, South India. I visited a desolate market run by Tibetan people. Knowing that a Professor of Fudan University just arrived, many Tibetans came to the market and gathered around me — they were business people and university students. I saw from their eyes a trace of concern and reservation, as well as a gleam of longing and hope. I was later led to a guesthouse run by a Tibetan young man whose parents were followers of the Dalai Lama. Technically speaking, he was just a teenage boy but was taken to India at an early age along with his sister in early infancy. While most of his peers still have relatives back in China and can earn enough to live in Tibet, he had neither memory of his family, nor any sense of belonging to Tibet. As a diaspora here, he had to start working in his early teenage years to pay for his sister’s tuition. Until today, I still find it hard to believe that such sadness is elicited from the eyes of a young boy. A Tibetan businessman volunteered to be our tour guide told me that politicians such as the Dalai Lama are much more interested in instigating Tibetan people to turn against China, to run away from Tibet over huge mountains, but less in caring about people’s real concerns. As China’s economy grows, more and more Tibetan people consider going back to China. However, only few of them have managed to do so because of immigration issues. Since Tibetan independence is a blind alley, would the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach be a solution to Tibetan issues?

1. A Makeshift Measure of Dalai Lama, Not a Long-term Policy

First of all, The Middle Way Approach is the compromise of the Dalai Lama’s failed violent strategy. Contrary to his peaceful and nonviolent image perceived by the international community, Dalai Lama is the man behind several violent attacks. Supported by the US and a few other countries, the Dalai Lama and his followers have received professional training and skills to overthrow the Chinese government in Tibet using violence since 1959. As the Sino-US relations normalised in 1970s, the US gradually put a brake on supporting Dalai Lama’s violent approach, and the Dalai Lama was forced to give up violence and turned to Sovereign Diplomacy, a strategy suggested by the US. In the wake of the changing international political climate, the Dalai Lama put forward The Middle Way Approach in 1974, followed by his Five Point Peace Plan for Tibet proposed in 1987 in the US and Seven Point New Suggestions proposed in 1988 when addressing to the Members of theEuropean Parliament in Strasbourg. It is evident that the peaceful and nonviolent strategy is not what the Dalai Lama and his followers intended, but the result of their failed violent strategy.

Secondly, the Dalai Lama and his followers are not to be trusted for their chop and change attitude to their own Middle Way Approach. The Chinese government would welcome the Dalai Lama and his followers if they really gave up violence and turned to peaceful talks. As a matter of fact, the Chinese government has conducted many talks and negotiations with the Dalai Lama’s representatives, but they have attempted to impose many unacceptable conditions based on the assumption of fundamental changes to Chinese political system and collapse of the country. In April 1988, the Dalai Lama for the first time suggested the Middle Way Approach to solve Tibetan issues in his meeting with a journalist from Financial Times in Dharamsala, India. Yet not long after that, Dalai claimed that he had misperceived the international situation and made opinions contradictory to the Approach. He was even more arrogant after being granted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and predicted that Tibet would achieve independence in 5 years. In September 1990, the Dalai Lama told a Dutch journalist that the collapse of the Soviet Union brought new opportunity, new hope, renewed strength and courage to his cause. He proclaimed in 1991 that Tibet must be an independent country in three years. In January 1992, Dalai predicted that changes would certainly take place in China in the coming 5 to 10 years and complete independence of Tibet would be achieved. In 3·10 Statement in 1992, Dalai said that “In exile as we are, we must be well-prepared to take over a Tibet with complete democracy in the future”. In 1993, the Dalai Lama announced that he would not have any contact with “an unstable Chinese government” and thus cut the communication with central government in China. In 1995, Dalai made another prediction: “Tibetan independence will be just around the corner. I will then proclaim myself that Tibet is not part of China anymore”.

In the 21st century, China has become more economically prosperous and politically stable, which has made Dalai disappointed and compelled him to resume connections with Chinese central government, though he still advocates for Tibetan independence. In 2008, the so-called latest version of the Middle Way Approach, known as Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People was proposed by Dalai’s representatives. It argued that the Tibetan Government in exile is the representative of all Tibetan people around the world and should share equal power as Chinese government has; Dalai should appoint his representatives to form joint leadership with Chinese central government and be granted the right to edit the constitution articles.

It was the unrealistic requests Dalai made that shut the door of communication with Chinese central government. In fact, Dalai has never talked with Chinese government with honesty. He was just putting on airs to maintain his “international reputation”.

Traffic on Tibetan roads

2. The Middle Way Approach Goes Against the Consensus of International Community

It is a general consensus of international community that Tibet is an inseparable part of China. The Middle Way Approach advocated by the Dalai Lama and its followers aims at conducting negotiations with Chinese government premised on Tibet being a sovereign state. They attempted to trade Tibetan autonomy with the “sovereignty” that has never been recognised. As a matter of fact, the Dalai Lama and his followers are preparing for, when their time arrives, playing the card of Tibetan independence once again. Therefore, it is against the consensus acknowledged by international community regarding Tibet’s political status.

The Middle Way Approach is also breaking the norm of contemporary political practice. As Tibetan separatists claimed, the interest of Tibet will be neither protected by the Chinese political system nor the Western democracy practised in the US and Europe, because they don’t think either systems will prevent the majority tyranny. In Dalai’s imagination of China Federation, Greater Tibet would maintain all the power a sovereign state enjoys such as judicial, executive and legislative power, though excluding diplomacy and national defence. The troops, however, would have to move out once a peace zone is established in Tibet. This kind of political configuration is unprecedented in any western countries, and it would be hard to imagine a state in the US or a province in France enjoys complete independence above its national judicial and executive system. In other words, the true autonomy Tibetan separatists are claiming for is technically the de facto independence and the status of a pseudo national state.

Furthermore, the Middle Way Approach disregards the historical facts and current situation. The true autonomy of all Tibetan people requested by Dalai is in essence requesting Chinese government to secede the whole Tibet, Qinghai Province, two autonomous prefectures in Sichuan Province, one autonomous prefecture in Gansu and Yunnan Province to Dalai’s rule, which altogether takes an area of a quarter of China’s territory. Since the 5th Dalai Lama established dGa’ ldan pho brang regime in 1642 in Tibet till the 14th Dalai Lama exiled to India in 1959, the Lhasa government has never extended its sphere of influence to the whole area of Tibet. A mono-ethnic country built exclusively for people of that particular ethnicity is unprecedented in world’s history and humanely impossible to be practiced in reality. If imposed, it will definitely bring about chaos, instability and even bloodshed.

Dalai is building a world in mind based on his own imagination, consciously and unconsciously. For many Tibetan separatists, they have taken it for granted that their cause of Tibetan independence is widely supported by international community. They think many countries have not expressed their support loudly and squarely for the sake of pressure from Chinese government. Nevertheless, Chinese government would by no means impose any pressure on any countries. Conversely, the western countries would not be subject to China’s pressure either, had there been such imposition. In addition, it has been long acknowledged by the US and European countries that Tibet is part of China. In 1950s, China was much less powerful to leverage political pressure on other countries, and most western powers were antagonistic to China. Even though, they acknowledged a basic fact that Tibet is part of China, and they did so neither for the sake of pressure nor at China’s pleasure. However, Dalai refused to face this reality.

2016 Tibet Development Forum

3. The Middle Way Approach Advocates Religious Fundamentalism

One of the ideological reasons of the Middle Way Approach is that the unique Tibetan culture and religion must be protected from the ‘contamination’ of other ethnicities. However, many religious and cultural entities in today’s world are in dynamic interaction with one another. Taking Tibetan Buddhism as an example, it was formed on the basis of Chinese culture, Indian Buddhism as well as local culture and religions in Tibet. Had there been no such cultural and religious interactions, Tibet wouldn’t possibly be what it is today and the Dalai Lama would not have existed.

Before Tibet was liberated in 1959, it had very limited contact with other parts of China due to underdeveloped transportation system on the impassable Tibetan Plateau. The culture and religion in Tibet has therefore been developing in a slow mode. In the contemporary world where globalisation and information play a key role, Tibetans cannot live in their own bubble of the ‘traditional era’, regardless of whichever political system they adopt. Dalai and his followers’ repeatedly emphasise on the uniqueness instead of commonality of a religion that essentially advocates religious fundamentalism. They are mujahedeen (guerrilla warriors) masked by pacifist facade.

Additionally, the ‘good old days’ Dalai and his followers have tried so hard to retrieve, in many Tibetan people’s point of view, is old but not good at all. Before the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet, the general public, controlled by the religious elites, had neither civil liberties nor freedom of thought. Even today, having been in exile for such a long time and blended with various cultures, many Tibetan exiles still take the Dalai Lama as their sacred leader. Those who excessively advocate the superiority of Tibetan culture have actually once deprived Tibetan people’s personal property and even their lives; they have controlled Tibetan people’s present lives and their afterlives. The cruelty as such is incomparable even by that of Medieval Period, Europe’s darkest history. A regime as such is intolerable by any political value in today’s world, be it Chinese or Western.

Also, this outdated religious system goes against modern political principles and Buddhist orthodoxy. When Buddhism was founded by Sakyamuni, it aimed at building a world where all lives are equal, and a society no longer built on hierarchies. Unfortunately, the blind religious cult of some Tibetan people out of their unrealistic imagination has gone unchecked, and they gave up basic political principles such as democracy, equality and freedom.

The Potala Palace at Lhasa

4. The Middle Way Approach Goes Against the Principle of Cross-Cultural Communication Advocated by International Community.

The mainstream principle in today’s world is to promote the interactions between different cultures and ethnic groups. In cultural communication, people of different ethnicities learn from each other and achieve peaceful coexistence. However, Dalai was carrying fire in one hand and water in the other. He initiated talks between Tibetan and Han people in China under the banner of religious communication. Meanwhile, he also tried to sell the concept of Greater Tibet, which doesn’t exist in history at all. By doing this, he planned to segregate Tibetan people and culture with the outside world, especially with other parts of China. The fact is that Tibetan culture and religion has been historically connected with Chinese culture, and even world culture at large. The Middle Way Approach, which denies this basic fact, goes against the current trend. On the other hand, the exceptionalism of Tibetan Buddhism advocated by the Middle Way Approach is not based on fact and will only bring greater risks to Tibetan people themselves.

Tibet boasts its unique culture and religion, and it should be preserved. However, the preservation should be selective, with the essence of Tibetan Buddhism being retained and the outdated superstitions being filtered and abandoned. No single culture can thrive without interaction with other cultures. This is true for both Western and Eastern countries, for both Christianity and Buddhism. Any culture should keep abreast with the latest trend. Even for the most developed countries in western world, their culture has been no longer exclusively occidental and their religion no longer exclusively Christian. All cultural groups are blending with one another, learning from one another and prospering together. The vitality of a culture lies in its openness. A self-enclosed kingdom built on exclusive Tibetan culture and religion will only push Dalai and his followers to a dead end.

In fact, anti-China propaganda has been Dalai and his followers’ food for thought, and their major strategy is to disrupt the communication between Tibetans and Chinese. This is especially true for Tibetan community in exile, among which Dalai keeps distributing anti-China and anti-communist propaganda, creating an image of an intimidating China and grotesque Chinese government. He also stirred up incidents to cement people’s fear and hatred to China. All of these went against the mainstream value of building a peaceful and inclusive world.

5. The Middle Way Approach Advocates Tibetan Chauvinism

A hidden premise of the Middle Way Approach is to fight against Han Chauvinism. Since Tibetan population is hugely outnumbered by that of Han, Dalai and his followers think Tibetan people can’t be possibly treated on equal terms with Han people as a result. In fact, there are 55 ethnic minorities in China and the cross-ethnic harmony has been well-maintained. They shared weal and woe in solidarity and there is no such thing that different ethnic groups being treated differently.

Essentially, the Middle Way Approach is the advocacy of ethnic exceptionalism. The premise of the Middle Way Approach is the assumption that Tibetan people can’t possibly live in peace and harmony with other ethnic groups, especially Han people. Therefore, Tibetan people must fight for autonomy or ideally independence. To achieve the goal, Dalai and his followers went the extra mile to obstruct the social upward mobility of exiled Tibetans in international community. In China, Dalai provoked hatred and hostility between Tibetans and other ethnicities, especially between Tibetans and Hans.

Consequently, the Middle Way Approach, in its essence, is promoting Tibetan Chauvinism and disregarding the basic rights of other ethnicities. The alleged autonomy for all the Tibetan people under a single administration would be, in Dalai’s imagination, carried out in an area with population of 20 million. Tibetan population takes only 30% of the overall, which is 6 million people. According a Dalai’s report to the US congress in 1987, at least 7.5 million Han people must be expelled, outnumbering the overall Tibetan population. That being the case, the Middle Way Approach would be protecting 30% of Tibetan population at the expense of the other 70% population from other ethnicities. This is no more than fascists’ doctrine as there is no freedom and equality at all.

The Middle Way Approach represents a sense of superiority of Tibetan upper class, and Dalai Lama labels himself as the protector and spokesman of all Tibetan people. However, Tibetan people was underestimated by Dalai. They are fully capable of handling relations with other ethnic groups by themselves. By now, many Tibetan business people and employers of various industries have been working very well both in Tibet and other parts of China. As for Han Chauvinism, which Tibetan separatists have by all means fought against, doesn’t exist in China either. From constitution to executive regulations, there is no single article or policy made preferentially for the benefit of Han people. On the contrary, there are many preferential policies for the interest of Chinese ethnic minorities.

Minority Ethnic People Celebrating Chinese National Day in Tibet


From the above analysis we may see that the Middle Way Approach is neither standing in the political middle ground nor moderate in practice. Tibetan people, especially those in exile, have become Dalai and his followers’ bargaining chip in negotiation with Chinese government and international community. Tibetan people who believe in Tibetan Buddhism represented by Dalai Lama do not necessarily have to agree with his political agenda by default. The Tibetan tour guide in Bengaluru told me, with frustration, that he had been often called up for anti-China protests against president Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao at school, though he had completely no idea who they were at the time. It was mandatory to join the protest because his teacher asked him to do so. For the anxious Tibetan teenage boy, the Middle Way Approach is leading him further afield from home, to nowhere.

The lives of ordinary people shouldn’t be influenced by political games like this. For the long-term benefits of Tibetan people, to build a framework above politics and religion, with people’s interests at its core, is the key to solve current issues.

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