Area Studies
Return to Conference Index

THE POTOMAC CONFERENCE, October 5 - 6, 1992

Organized by Tibet Forum and Center for Modern China

Funded in part by the National Endowment for Democracy
Hosted by The Freedom Forum

+ + + + + + +

Proceedings of The Potomac Conference on

                Editors' Introduction

On October 5, 1992, in the belief that dialogue between Tibetans and 
Chinese might facilitate mutual understanding and perhaps promote the 
resolution of the Tibetan question a two-day conference on SINO-TIBETAN 
RELATIONS: PROSPECTS FOR THE FUTURE was convened across the Potomac River 
from Washington, DC. 


A review of the environment in which planning for The Potomac Conference 
took place will provide a framework for analysis.  The history and 
complexity of Sino-Tibetan relations suggest that achieving a peaceful 
resolution of the Tibetan issue and effecting a smooth transition are 
long-term endeavors.  With unprecedented movements toward human rights, 
the rule of law, democracy, and pluralism, major principals of TIBET 
FORUM and CENTER FOR MODERN CHINA (recent exiles from China and Tibet), 
recognized an opportunity while in the West to engender a climate of 
understanding.  They further shared a belief in their responsibility to 
work in cooperation wherein the issues of Tibet and the concerns of the 
Chinese democracy movement could be researched, debated, and assessed.

Previous government negotiations between the Tibetans and Chinese have 
taken place to little avail.  In exile, dialogue has been generally 
sporadic and unsustained.  Even since Tiananmen, Chinese conferences have 
been either academic or generally have had a single-minded focus on the 
organization and political activity of the Chinese exile community.  
However, several Chinese meetings have included Tibetan spokesmen. For 
example, in 1990, the Federation for Chinese Democracy invited a 
representative of the Dalai Lama to make a presentation in Paris before a 
group of students and dissidents;  however, no agreement was sought or 
reached. Subsequently, various Tibetan conferences focused almost 
exclusively on Tibetology or activism in the West.  Remarkable for the 
time, in the summer of 1990, a Chinese student prominent at Tiananmen 
Square addressed a meeting of Tibetan and  Western activists. A 
multi-ethnic conference in April 1990, sponsored by the School of 
Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, focused mainly 
on Tibetan politics.  Notably, the September 1991 conference at Columbia 
University, organized by Buddhologist Robert A.F. Thurman, brought 
together human rights activists, cultural experts, and well-known Tibetan 
and Chinese figures, including the Dalai Lama and Fang Lizhi.  This 
latter conference represented the first opportunity for Tibetans and 
Chinese to meet face-to-face in open discussion on cultural and religious 
affairs although dialogue on the political situation was peripheral.

Joint activity and cooperation in exile has been intermittent and 
countenanced by only a few from each side who, at best, risk being 
labeled outside-the-pale.  Although planning for The Potomac Conference 
conference by several months, the mere _possibility_ of meeting provided 
a shift in the prevailing wind which presaged these two conferences.


Convened in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from 
Washington, DC, at the facilities of The Freedom Forum, the meetings 
brought together exiled Tibetan and Chinese scholars and public figures. 
Selection of participants was based on the desire to achieve a broad and 
reasonably representative range of ideas by bringing together people who 
were not so extreme in their views that dialogue would be impossible. 
There was, of course, a degree of contradiction here. By inviting only 
the more moderate Chinese and Tibetans, the altogether adamant and 
uncompromising were not heard. Still, debate was lively enough. Dialogue 
was generally constructive and substantive, albeit at times emotionally 

Altogether, there were over 150 scholars, policymakers, Tibetan exiles, 
Chinese exiles, and other interested parties in attendance.  Twenty-eight 
Chinese and Tibetan speakers from around the world made presentations.  
There were two keynote speakers, Ambassador Winston Lord and Ambassador 
John McDonald. The panel presentations and open discussions were 
moderated by five Western scholars with expertise on China and Tibet.  At 
a reception mid-conference, Carl Gershman, President of National 
Endowment for Democracy which strongly supported the goals of the 
conference, made a presentation.   


These proceedings have been compiled using submitted papers as well as 
transcriptions from the audio tapes.  If a participant spoke or wrote in 
a language other than English, it is so indicated at the beginning of the 
passage and, if a speaker switched mid-passage to a different language, 
this is also noted.  In most cases, the simultaneous English 
interpretation was transcribed, although some of the more difficult 
passages have been double-checked against the original language 
recording.  One particularly controversial paper (by Xu Bangtai) was 
meticulously retranslated to make certain the meaning remained true to 
the original.

Every effort to standardize spelling has been made. With Chinese, the 
pinyin system has almost always been used. Standardization has been more 
difficult in the case of Tibetan, due to the lack of a universally 
accepted transliteration system. Dual names for geographic locations are 
given in some instances. Unfortunately, the spelling of a few proper 
names was impossible to verify.   

A word regarding our approach to style and semantics.  Extemporaneous 
speech is not read in the same way as the written word.  Sometimes a good 
bit of rambling dialogue and discussion is rendered here basically unedited,
but we believe that it is worth wading through to get to the 
pith.  In translating and editing this material, generally we have taken 
the view that it is necessary to let the spoken words stand - let the 
Tibetans be Tibetan and let the Chinese be Chinese - and we have resisted 
making massive revisions just because it might make the text easier to 
read in English.  In a few instances, however, we have put notes in 
square brackets [ ] for clarification.

Nonetheless, the reader should be aware that sometimes the speakers use 
terms for which there is no mutually agreed upon meaning, or in ways that 
are so subtle as to defy full conveyance of (often multiple) meanings in 
translation.  (Some of the speakers and participants addressed this issue 
at various times during the conference.)  Terms denoting ethnicity in 
particular present this difficulty. In English, it usually suffices  
simply to speak of "Chinese" and "Tibetans."  But the Chinese have 
various terms for "Chinese," the most common of which (Zhongguo ren) in 
the Chinese view includes Tibetans.  When they mean to specify 
ethnic-Chinese as distinct from "the minorities" (also sometimes referred 
to as nationalities), they use the term "Han."  The speakers at this 
conference use these terms, but sometimes they appear to do so out of 
habit (perhaps habit engendered by propaganda) rather than to make a 
specific political point.  However, when someone _is_ making a political 
statement, a phrase such as "Han-Tibetan" carries significantly different 
baggage than "Sino-Tibetan," where the latter may or may not imply two 
equal national entities and the former may or may not imply a 
superior-inferior racial or ethnic difference within one political 
entity.  When a speaker intends to make these semantic distinctions and 
we are able to discern this, we keep the original (transliterated) 
vocabulary. (In some cases, the speakers were deliberately vague or 
appeared to misunderstand when questioned on usage.) Nor was it possible 
to go back to the original in all cases, and we leave the reader to make 
his or her own judgments based on the context.

Likewise, the Chinese and the Tibetans have very different ideas 
regarding geography. "Tibet" to most Chinese is seen as roughly 
equivalent to today's Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).  Because Chinese 
authorities have controlled the map-making, and western cartographers 
since at least 1913 have tended to take their cues from the Chinese, this 
relatively small area is what shows up on most maps as "Tibet."  But 
Tibetans have a far different understanding. For most, the TAR per se has 
no legitimacy, as it comprises only U and Tsang, areas traditionally 
administered locally by Lhasa and Shigatse, respectively.  In their view 
there is much more to Tibet than this.  Indeed, ethnogeographically, it 
is made up of the entire Tibetan plateau, including Amdo (known now to 
the Chinese as Qinghai and Southern Gansu) and Kham (which includes what 
the Chinese consider Western Sichuan), and a small part of Yunnan.  Even 
if one wanted to make the case that the Lhasa government rarely fully 
administered these areas in recent centuries, they are ethnically Tibetan 
and geographically distinct from China proper.  Even Chinese tend to 
consider this as all one geographic entity ("the plateau"), referring to 
the other provinces as "neidi," which literally means "interior," but 
actually refers to the Chinese heartland. Traditionally, "neidi" was the 
opposite of "bianwai," meaning the lands _outside_ of China's national 
boundaries.  The difficulty with these distinctions is further compounded 
by the fact that social and economic statistics, gathered and reported by 
the Chinese, are nigh impossible to recalculate for the greater Tibetan 
area.  Even the Tibetan speakers are reduced to reporting on Tibet by 
referring only to the TAR, perhaps then hazarding a guess as to the 
extrapolated figures of the whole.


We wish to acknowledge Conference organizers Chen Yizi, Huan Guocang, 
Jigme Ngapo, Tseten Wangchuk Sharlho, and Yin Lu-jun.  In preparing these 
proceedings, we are grateful to the professional interpreters at the 
conference and to our translators and transcribers Dekyi Sezhen Geziben, 
Tseten Dolkar Liushar, and Leah Napolin, among others.  For computer, 
gopher, and design help, we wish to acknowledge:  Patrice A. Childers, 
Leslie di Russo, David Magier, and Peter Salkeld.  Jeanne Marie Gilbert 
wishes to convey a particularly special "thank you" to SP for whimsy as 
well as desktop publishing advice.   

We are grateful to the following for their extraordinary generosity of 
spirit:  John S. Major, Kathleen W. Peterson, Franc de la Vega, Elsie M. 
Walker, and Kelsang Gyaltsen.

We also recognize with sincere appreciation the National Endowment for 
Democracy, The Freedom Forum, The Institute for Asian Democracy, and 
other supporters of the conference whose belief in the value of exploring 
the issues, especially democracy and human rights, was exemplified by 
their generous financial support.

               *       *       *

We trust that by holding this conference, and making available these 
proceedings to the public, we have advanced the cause of mutual 
understanding, and perhaps contributed in some small way to the 
resolution of the chronic problem of the Sino-Tibetan relationship. If 
so, thanks are due to all those who attended the conference: panelists, 
speakers, keynote speakers, moderators, and audience participants, all of 
whom contributed to moving the discussion to new ground.

Jeanne Marie Gilbert and James D. Seymour
New York, November 15, 1996