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China’s Dalai Lama Dilemma-Pursuing the Wrong Path

Paper No. 5924                                 Dated 4-May-2015

By Bhaskar Roy

There is a lot of talk, and writings, that China’s minorities have become a huge challenge to the Chinese Communist Party and the security and integrity of the nation. How correct is this assessment? The party leadership is convinced that the Tibetans and the Muslim Uighurs pose this threat, encouraged and abetted mainly by the west. 

Beijing believes that after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, the west, led by the USA have trained their focus on China. It is true that the west would want to change China’s political system, but China’s boundaries are firm. A disintegrated China with more than 1.3 billion people would be a nightmare for the west. But keeping the hardliner Chinese leadership on their toes is not a bad idea for the west, either. At the same time China is not doing anything good for its own cause.

The recent White Paper on Tibet - “Tibet’s Path of Development is Driven by an Irresistible Historical Tide” issued by the State Council is only a regurgitation of old accusations against the 14th Dalai Lama. Certainly, the Dalai Lama demanded independence for Tibet after he escaped in 1959, fearing for his life. The Chinese communists had literally torn up the written agreements with the Dalai Lama.  

The Dalai Lama was strongly in favour of development of Tibet, and that included abolition of the serf system. He was not inimical to the idea of socialism, either. Mao Zedong had given him a concise lesson on the subject. But he was not agreeable to abolition of religion. He also did not see any conflict with socialism. The Dalai Lama apparently still holds that view in his offer of the “middle way” compromise with limited autonomy for the Tibetan areas under the Chinese constitution.

In a press statement on June 20, 1959 in Mussoorie, the Dalai Lama referred to ‘reform’ as follows:

“At this point I wish to emphasize that I and my government have never been opposed to reforms which are necessary in the social, economic and political systems prevailing in Tibet. We have no desire to disguise the fact that ours is an ancient society, and that we must introduce immediate changes in the interest of the Tibetan people……….”    

The above is only a short portion of a longer statement of the Dalai Lama where he explained his efforts towards raising Tibet from a backward agrarian society to a modern one as far as possible under the conditions. For nine years after the military invasion of Tibet the Chinese stonewalled all his initiatives towards reform.

The Chinese did not liberate Tibet. They invaded Tibet which was a free country since antiquity. There was no evidence of Han people in Tibet when Indian Buddhists visited China through Tibet, and Chinese scholars came to India through Tibet. The Chinese communists did not allow the Dalai Lama to carry out reforms precisely because they wanted to blame him for the backwardness of Tibet. The Chinese spun the story that without them Tibet would have remained backward.

The White Paper gives figures of increase in life expectancy, per-capita net income and gross regional production. These are truths, half-truths and non-truths. Chinese regional statistics are notorious for their exaggeration, and this is well known. This has been admitted by the central government. In Tibet’s case inflated figures are useful for propaganda.

For one thing, social indices have improved the world over, including in China. Rural China was in deep backwardness, steeped in inexplicable customs like binding of women’s feet, superstitions and cults. Conditions improved greatly after Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up strategy. The Han Chinese have been the main beneficiaries, and only some of the modernization has trickled down to the minorities.

Next, how much of the development assistance have really gone down to the Tibetans? It is the Hans who have been moved to Tibet with special incentives who are the real beneficiaries. Studies made by independent Chinese NGOs pointing out these fallacies have been banned and the NGOs disbanded. Hiding the truth is never going to help.

Neither the Dalai Lama, nor the Tibetan Administration in Exile (TAE) or the USA deny that the CIA came in to help the Dalai Lama in the 1950s. Notwithstanding the fact the American effort had very little force to bring about any tangible result, it is natural that a small country invaded and taken over by a much stronger power will look for assistance. China, too, has taken assistance form outside to counter an adversary. After the fall out with the Soviet Union during the cold war China entered into an unstated alliance with Washington to counter Moscow. China can deny this as it claims it never enters into alliance with any country against a perceived or real adversary but circumstances dictate policies, and very compelling circumstances forced the young and inexperienced Dalai Lama to go along with an overwhelming tide at that point of time. There is no evidence, however, to prove that the Dalai Lama either conceived the idea of CIA intervention or actively participated in any of the moves.

A more mature Dalai Lama changed track in the 1980s to opt for the “middle way”. On the issue of autonomy the Dalai Lama conceded much ground to make it acceptable to the Chinese. Many existing autonomy models across the world were studied by the Dalai Lama to formulate an offer. It is true that the Dalai Lama’s representatives made 13 visits to China between 1979 and 2002, and ten visits from 2002 to January 2010 to discuss and arrive at an amicable settlement of the Tibet issue.

China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping had conveyed to the Dalai Lama in 1982 that anything other than independence could be discussed. Deng Xiaoping was a man with immense foresight. Had it not been for Deng, the Gang of Four would have reigned supreme after Mao’s death and the nation would have been wallowing in “continuous revolution”, and today’s rich and powerful China would have been a distant dream.

Hardline Chinese leaders reneged on Deng Xiaoping’s words and decided to force the Tibetans in Tibet into submission. Finally, the Dalai Lama resigned as the head of the Kashag of the Tibetan government in exile and has devoted himself to spreading the message of love and peace. He never blamed the Chinese people for the Communist Party’s position.

The Chinese should learn to accept that their propaganda against the Dalai Lama has no takers in the outside world, and even many Han Chinese are beginning to see the Dalai Lama in a positive light. The Dalai Lama had nothing to do with the Lhasa riots in 2008, and the self-immolation by monks, nuns and even some lay Tibetan people in Tibetan areas outside Tibet since 2011. It does not help the Dalai Lama to have Tibetans inside China destroy themselves. Tibetans are a patient and peaceful people, but when the Chinese authorities push iron into their souls, some of them react.  

Tibet Autonomous Region’s (TAR’s) party Chief, Chen Quanguo has embarked (April 2015) on a new campaign to create “Model harmonious monasteries” as well as “patriotic, law-abiding monks and nuns”. These words mean allegiance to the Communist Party and to the authorities. It will be compulsory for monasteries to fly the national flag. The Tibetan flag and the Dalai Lama’s photograph, of course, remain banned. They may fly the flag under duress but the mind and soul cannot be trapped by the authorities even if the monks and nuns are made to mouth dictated words during patriotic education sessions.

There is no contact between the Tibetan government in exile, now headed by Harvard educated Lobsang Sangay and China. They will only accept talks if they are recognized as the Tibetan government in exile. The Chinese cannot accept this.

At 80 the 14th Dalai Lama may not have much time left, though his health is still good. It appears that a section of the Chinese leadership understands this.

There is another group that thinks after the Dalai Lama passes away, China will have their own Dalai Lama and the problem will be resolved. This is unlikely to work. The 11th Panchen Lama selected by the Chinese have been rejected by the Tibetan people.

The 14th Dalai Lama may not leave signs for his reincarnation and the Dalai Lama line will end. The 15th Dalai Lama may be found outside China. In either case all bets are off.

The Chinese want the 14th Dalai Lama to accept that Tibet was a part of China since antiquity. The term antiquity denotes the middle ages – 1000 AD to 1453 AD. This will be difficult for the Dalai Lama because the Chinese case is simply not true.

There is still time for the Chinese authorities to review their approach. One man that can possibly do it is President Xi Jinping. Thereby, they will be able to secure their western borders. A happy and contented 14th Dalai Lama retiring to Lhasa to spend the rest of his days there will be a windfall for China. The matter is in Xi’s hands.                     

(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail grouchohart@yahoo.com)           

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