China hints at agreeing to Dalai Lama return to Tibet, but says no talks on Tibetan autonomy

China has said it will talk only with the representatives of the Dalai Lama and not the officials of the Tibetan government-in-exile based in India. The Chinese side has said it is ready to discuss the “personal future” of the Dalai Lama, now 88, but not Tibetan autonomy. This appears to be a hint that he might be able to return to Tibet after 65 years.

Dalai Lama in Dharamshala
His Holiness Dalai Lama at his residence in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, northern India, in February 2024. Photo courtesy: Instagram/dalailama (photo by Ven Tenzin Jamphel)

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin was reacting yesterday to reports of the back-channel talks between the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Chinese government. He said that China regarded the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamshala as a “separatist” bloc.

“The so-called ‘Tibetan government-in-exile’ is an entirely organised separatist political group with a political platform and an agenda for ‘Tibetan independence’. It is an illegal organisation that violates China’s Constitution and laws. No country in the world recognises it,” Wang said.

China calls Tibet as “Xizang”.

On Thursday, the “Sikyong” or the political head of Tibet’s government-in-exile, Penpa Tsering, told a visiting group of journalists in Dharamshala, India, “We have had back-channel (engagement) since last year. But we have no immediate expectations from it. It has to be a long-term (one).”

Tibetan protest against China in April 2024
Tibetan protest against China in April 2024. Photo courtesy: Instagram/voice.of.tibet

Stating that the talks were “very informal,” the head of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) said, “I have my interlocutor who deals with people in Beijing. Then, there are other elements also trying to reach out to us.”

Elaborating on China’s stand, Wang said that the Chinese government had two basic principles when it came to contact and talks.

“First, we would only have contact and talks with the personal representative of the 14th Dalai Lama, not the so-called ‘Tibetan government-in-exile’ or the ‘Central Tibetan Administration.’ The Chinese government will not be dealing with it,” he said.

“Second, any contact or talks will only be about the personal future of the 14th Dalai Lama himself, or to the utmost extent, a handful of people close to him, not the so-called ‘high degree of autonomy for Tibet,’” Wang added.

“We hope the 14th Dalai Lama will have a right understanding of the central government’s policy, seriously reflect on and thoroughly correct its political propositions and actions, give up any activity aimed to disrupt the social order in Xizang, and return to the right path. Only then can contact and talks be considered next,” said the Beijing spokesperson.

The present His Holiness Dalai Lama had fled Tibet in 1959, when he was 23 years old, to avoid being captured by the Chinese military in Lhasa. His journey to India — crossing Himalayan terrain on foot with a small band of loyal followers — became the stuff of legend.

During the decades in exile, the spiritual leader of all Buddhists in the world has always called for autonomy for Tibet, and Tibetans protests against China have continued through the years.

From 2002 to 2010, the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese government held nine rounds of dialogue that did not produce any concrete outcome.

The Tibetan side pitched for genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people in line with the Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle-Way Policy’. No formal talks with the Chinese have been held since 2010.

In Dharamshala, another senior Tibetan leader on Thursday indicated that the back-channel talks were aimed at reviving the overall dialogue process, as it was the only way out to resolve the Tibetan issue.