On the 9th of April, The University of St Andrews Foreign Affairs Society hosted an Historic Student Dialogue on Tibet; the first of its kind to be initiated by Chinese students with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama himself. The dialogue between Chinese students and Tibetan students on the future of trans-Himalaya politics served both to elucidate intricacies of the conflict through sharing personal experiences and opinions, and to engage the St Andrews community on this topic of great contention.
The Chinese students were represented by Qi Tian; fourth year student of international relations and philosophy at University of St Andrews and President of Foreign Affairs Society; and by MingQiao Zhao; fourth year student of history and international relations at the University of St Andrews.
Their Tibetan counterparts were composed of two visiting scholars and activists; Tenzin Seldon of Dharamsala, India; Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University; and Zorpa Sangpo of Tibet proper; London-based human rights activist and researcher.
The event opened with an address from Thubten Samdup, Representative of The Tibetan Central Administration for the UK and Northern Europe, who emphasized the importance of breaking the gridlock in dialogue which has characterized negotiated on Tibetan autonomy for several years. He emphasized the belief of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the importance of younger generations in raising awareness and support for the cause of the Tibetan people, and in translating that sympathy and awareness into action.
Political and historical debates rage over the sovereign status of Tibet in relation to the People’s Republic of China. The region has been under Chinese jurisdiction since at least 1959, when the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration fled Tibet and established a government in exile in Dharamsala in Northern India. The group remains active to represent the Tibetan people forced to live in exile, and to negotiate a compromise of Tibetan autonomy with Beijing.
To open the dialogue, Mr. Sangpo shared his thoughts on the problems of history and identity embedded in the crisis through his personal experience of fleeing Tibet for Dharamsala, including the difficult and dangerous emigration on foot through the Himalayas to Nepal and India. He described the difficulties of the diaspora in preserving traditional language and culture when so many Tibetans are born and raised outside of boundaries of their home country, and the elation and hope embodied by the spitit of the Dalai Lama. He described his motivation to escape to Tibet as following the Dalai Lama, rather than taking a political stance against Chinese rule.
Ms. Seldon echoed Mr. Sanpo’s sentiments regarding preserving Tibetan identity. She emphasized the paradox of maintaining the culture and language of a homeland which she had never been able to visit, and the strife and emotional difficulties this poses to young Tibetans born in exile.
Mr. Qian responded to these remarks with the observation that cultural disillusionment permeates the lives of all young people, even in Beijing. His comments sought to ‘put the identity struggle into context,’ highlighting ways in which globalisation has eroded traditional Chinese culture, and made the identity struggles of the Tibetans relatable to the Chinese.
The panellists continued this sentiment to conclude that traits of young people often transcend considerations of political background, gender, class, or ethnicity, and that meaningful conversations between Tibetan and Chinese students were instrumental in bridging gaps of cultural understanding, and moving forward in the Tibetan conflict.
The panellists then segued into a discussion of the importance of the Dalai Lama as both a spiritual and political leader for the Tibetan people. Ms. Seldon commented that he was ‘one of the most outstanding human beings on the planet,’ not just for the greatness of his words and wisdom, but for how these ideas is translated into real action. She sighted his decision to cede all of his political power to the Central Tibetan Administration in order to give the regime true sovereignty; and his decision to seek Tibetan autonomy rather than independence. She attributed these decisions to Buddhist principles and great considerations for equality, adding that the Dalai Lama considers the lives of Chinese to be just as important as the lives of Tibetans, making peaceful reconciliation and the reparation of connections the ultimate objective of his movement.
Despite this compromise, many Chinese citizens still view the Dalai Lama as a radical separatist for lack of better information. The Chinese panellists attributed this largely to the nature of Chinese domestic governance; as to change public opinion would be to undermine the norms imposed by the central government. The panellists discussed how globalisation and increasing access to information would likely change this reality in coming years, as young people obtain access to online media and alter political realities in China. The panellists again stressed the importance of young people engaging in the debate and entering leadership roles alongside the Dalai Lama to advocate for resolution of the conflict.
In commenting on the near future of the conflict, Ms. Seldon emphasised this commitment to advocacy, proclaiming that: “the duty falls on us as individuals, and not on the extension of us; our government.” She added that anyone can become involved in the process through engaging with local governments through lobbying and advocacy groups, or, more extensively, through learning the intricacies on the conflict and seeking to solve niche problems. She cited a colleague who was launching a website to promote artisan craft sales in Daramsala, in order to lessen the struggles of daily life in the exiled community through greater market access.
Ms. Zhao, apologizing to her colleagues in the history department, encouraged the audience to forget about the past; arguing that historical debates regarding the role of Tibetan independence will never be settled. While problems of the past may be unresolvable, the current conflict warrants greater attention.
Mr. Tan, in his concluding remarks, acknowledged that the greatest roadblock in continuing negotiations was the Chinese stalling of discussion and dialogue. A legitimate forum in needed in which to establish tangible goals, though this may be difficult given the current political climate in China, which places supreme value upon territorial integrity and domestic sovereignty. Looking forward, he argued, it will be important to entrust the right people with governance; a role which ultimately fall upon China’s young people.
Overall, level of contention between the Tibetan and Chinese panellists was low. Both parties acknowledged the severity of the issue, and accepted the viewpoints of their counterparts with interest rather than resistance. While audience members may have been disappointed from the lack of skirmish on stage, the dialogue presented a hopeful portrait for the future of diplomacy and evolution of attitudes towards this crisis in human rights that has disrupted families and communities for over half a century.
The promised video address from the Dalai Lama was absent from the event, and attributed to last minute changes in student speaks that necessitated an updated recording. Audience members were so engaged with the student discussions, however, that the missing video was almost forgotten, until a student raised the question while the audience filed out of Buchanan Lecture Theatre late Wednesday evening.