ON 7 NOVEMBER 2012 THE DALAI LAMA SENT PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA A NOTE of congratulations on his reelection. It was, in most respects, an unremarkable form letter. For careful observers of Tibetan politics, however, the last paragraph jumped out:
As you know, it is over a year since I handed over all my political authority to the elected Tibetan leadership … I am very appreciative of your support for our Middle Way Approach, which I continue to believe is the best way for us to ensure a solution that is beneficial for both Tibetans and Chinese.
The Middle Way Approach has dominated international dialog over Tibet since 1979, when it was adopted by Central Tibetan Administration (CTA)—Tibet’s government-in-exile, of which the Dalai Lama was then head of state. Now His Holiness’ letter to Obama reaffirmed the Middle Way Approach amid growing frustration with it from Tibetans in and outside of Tibet.
The Middle Way Approach seeks greater autonomy for Tibet within the People’s Republic of China rather than political independence. This is similar to the “one country, two systems” policy under which Hong Kong and Macau enjoy economic and political self-rule while still remaining part of China. In 1988 a referendum of exile Tibetans officially adopted the Middle Way Approach, and the CTA’s parliament approved it again in 1997.
While young, politically active Tibetans in exile overwhelmingly support and respect the Dalai Lama, many are also increasingly disillusioned with the Middle Way Approach and with the CTA in general. There are signs that disillusionment is also shared inside Tibet.