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The Dalai Lama’s 80th Birthday- Continuing Stalemate on Tibet Issue

Paper No. 5967                                  Dated 13-Jul-2015

By D. S. Rajan                                                           


 As the Dalai Lama exiled in India turned 80, the situation regarding the Tibet issue has reached a crucial stage. There seems to be no chance of   resumption of talks between Beijing and the representatives of the spiritual leader as deep differences between the  two sides persist; the last contact was five years ago. China’s economic and security policies have led to an overall stability in Tibet; its international   economic clout has grown leading to a weakening of foreign support to the Dalai Lama’s movement. With these as basis, China may feel confident about its ability to control events in Tibet and despite some internal viewpoints in favor of a soft line towards the Dalai Lama, China may not be in a hurry to reach a rapprochement with the latter. It is quite possible that China would choose to wait for the passing away of 14th Dalai Lama and appoint his successor on its own within the country in which case it can hope for a close to the Tibet issue once for all. Till such time, there may not be an end to the prevailing stalemate with respect to the Tibet issue. The stalemate has negative implications for relations between India and China though the Tibet issue is not a bilateral political problem among them.  Any settlement of the issue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama can contribute to creating a right atmosphere for solving the vexed India- China border problem which was once non-existent and arose only after China liberated ’Tibet.

At a time when Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader exiled in India, turned 80 on July 6, 2015,  the picture relating to Tibet issue continues to be  uncertain. Both the Dalai Lama and the central government in Beijing, the two parties to the issue, are adopting diametrically opposite positions. The exiled leader, who had already handed over political responsibilities to ‘Sikyong’ Lobsang Sangay, has indicated that he could be the last incarnation to hold that top position in Tibetan Buddhism.  On its part, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has indicated its desire to start its own reincarnation process and appoint a Dalai Lama of its choice as it did in the case of 11th Panchen Lama. It is putting conditions to the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. The negotiations which took place between the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and representatives of the spiritual leader stopped five years ago and there is no sign of their resumption. The PRC has been trying to woo its Tibetan population through launching massive economic programmes aimed at uplifting the latter’s living standards, but despite Chinese propaganda, many see that the central government has so far failed to win the hearts of the Tibetan people for whom the Dalai Lama remains a living god. Internationally, under the influence of China’s growing economic clout, foreign governments appear to be steadily losing their enthusiasm to support the stand of the 14th Dalai Lama on ‘genuine autonomy’ for Tibetans in China. Under such a situation, how the Tibet issue can develop in future, has emerged as a valid question.

2. As proofs to the PRC’s failure so far to satisfactorily address the political, economic, social and cultural grievances of national minorities especially Tibetans are the recurring resistance to the Central government in Tibet.  Since the 1980s, a series of violent incidents have taken place in Tibet, including one in March 1988 that led to 299 casualties and another in March 2008, in which 18 people died and 382 injured. Since 2011 till today, more than 100 acts of self-immolation by Tibetans have taken place in Tibet. The PRC attributes these incidents to the Dalai Lama led group exiled in India and its followers inside Tibet..

3. On the grievances of Tibetans, independent studies (like one done by Gray Tuttle, Foreign Affairs journal, April 22, 2015) reveal that “Tibetans have long been treated as second-class citizens, deprived of basic opportunities, rights, and legal protections that Han Chinese enjoy. The central government consistently denies Tibetans the high degree of autonomy promised to them by the Chinese constitution and by Chinese law”. Against such findings, the vulnerability of China’s stand on Tibet issue looks apparent; the PRC is yet to convincingly answer the following key questions:  

(i) Why the political representation of Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) remains at a very low level with real power lying with the present Secretary of the regional communist party secretary, Chen Quanguo, a Han? When can a Tibetan become party chief in the TAR;  

(ii) Are economic benefits reaching Tibetans in the TAR? ( the  Central government’s  claim is that due to its strong investment, the TAR could maintain a  double-digit growth since 1994, achieve US$ 15 billion , i.e  92.5 billion Yuan , GDP in 2014 and realize  a 12-percent growth in  2015);  

(iii) What is the social and political impact from the mass immigration by Chinese settlers into Lhasa and other areas in the TAR said to be progressing since reforms started in 1992; it is being alleged that this transfer has reduced the Tibetans to a minority in their own region, which in turn has prevented them from taking part in political processes. Tibetan exiles claim that 7.5 million Chinese now live in Tibet and the adjoining provinces alongside 6 million Tibetans; they say that U’Tsang province (the TAR) is the only area in China today where the Chinese are not in the majority and in the eastern Tibetan provinces of Amdo (Qinghai) and Kham (now spread over Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan) the Chinese themselves admit that their settlers have outstripped the number of local Tibetans.  On the other hand, according to China’s national census conducted in 2010, the number of permanent residents in the TAR has topped 3 million, at least 90 percent of whom are native Tibetans.  As noted by Martin Jacques, a renowned scholar on China, the Chinese think of themselves as one race. Their historical experience is one of slow and steady assimilation and absorption, with population settlement often a crucial instrument in pacification. In this light, the Han Chinese migration to Tibet (and Xinjiang) is nothing new: on the contrary it has been an age-old characteristic of Chinese expansion (a large majority of those who now live in Mongolia and Manchuria, for instance, are Han). Tibet (and Xinjiang), are distinguished by two important differences from other Chinese regions and provinces. First, in both cases their populations are ethnically very distinct from the Han Chinese. And second, their effective incorporation into China is relatively recent. What is clear from the demonstrations and clashes in Lhasa and elsewhere is that the traditional Chinese policies of absorption have singularly failed to suppress the Tibetan sense of identity and desire for autonomy;

(iv)  Are the reports on cultural genocide, denial of human rights and environmental degradation in Tibet genuine?  Zhang Chunxian, Xinjiang party secretary, has demanded (May 2015) that religions in China must be “sinicised” and steered forward with Chinese socialism, which was a pointer to the  government’s view that Tibetan Buddhism should serve the party’s interests.  It has been said that all monasteries in Tibet have management committees manned by officials; that deforestation, overgrazing, uncontrolled mining, nuclear waste dumping, nomad’s removal from the grasslands and other perils, have had a crippling effect on livelihoods of those living in rural communities. Impartial visitors to Lhasa (Ananth Krishnan, July 2, 2015, ‘India Today’) have suggested recently that Beijing's development efforts have not convinced many Tibetans, with the unresolved question of the Dalai Lama continuing to cast a long shadow. While many Tibetans continue to revere the Dalai Lama as their guiding spiritual leader, Beijing, in public statements, continues to vilify him as "a splittist", banning images of a popular figure. By doing so, Beijing appears to be undermining the goodwill it may have otherwise engendered through its ambitious development plans for Tibet. It is paradoxical at the same time that the government has, by itself, come to recognize the status of the 14th Dalai Lama among the Tibetan population; an example is its decision to allocate 2.5 million Yuan (US$ 400,000) in the beginning of 2015 for attending to preservation of the Dalai Lama’s house, under an urbanization programme.

4.  Remaining unclear is the meaning of voices against the CCP’s policy on the Dalai Lama which are now being heard from within China.  The following suggest that there could be intra-party differences on the subject: 

(a) In her interview to the journal ‘Yazhou Zhoukan’, Prof Jin Wei, an official of the CCP Central party school, has categorically asserted that China must ensure that the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation is found “inside China” and that China must “make every possible effort to avoid the embarrassment of the “twin Panchen Lama” situation.  She complained against past CCP policies, demanding   new framework for talks with the Dalai Lama. She added that  it was necessary “to put aside disputes and break the current impasse”,  acknowledge that the status of the  Dalai Lama as  “living god” of  six million Tibetan people, and  treat the exiled spiritual leader not as enemy, but as a “key figure” in Tibet-related issues. She recommended re-starting the talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives that have remained suspended since 2010. 

(b) A second case concerns what China's 11th Panchen Lama, Tibet's second-highest religious leader, installed by Beijing, has said. He has pointed out  that  Buddhism in Tibet may soon exist in name only because of a shortage of monks -- the implication being that the shortage was due to the PRC’s wrong policies( Jonathan Mirsky, “ China's Panchen fires a surprise 'poisoned dart' at Beijing”).

(c) Thirdly, a film premiered in Hongkong  called “The Dialogue” (, April 2015) , made by Wang Lixiong, a writer who is based in Beijing and married to Tsering Woeser, a blogger for Tibet has  revealed that an increasing number of young Chinese on the mainland are embracing the Dalai Lama's message of reconciliation and mutual respect and

(d) Lastly, a debate seems to be going on in China on which is important- minority autonomy or unity of the country. Its outcome may have a bearing on the future of autonomous regions including the TAR. As examples, the  Central Ethnic Work Conference (September 29, 2014) spoke about “distinctive features” of ethnic work in the country  in a “new stage” and demanded “forging of new methods to unite thinking, clarify tasks and objectives and steady confidence and resolve” (Xinhua, September 29, 2014). The CCP’s theoretical journal (Qiu Shi, October 13, 2014) explained this by saying that minority autonomy should go side-by-side with safeguarding the unity of the motherland and quoted the CCP Chief Xi Jinping as saying that “two integrations” are important when it comes to “persisting and perfecting” the system of regional ethnic autonomy: the mutual link between autonomy and unity, as well as ethnic and regional factors. On the other hand, influential Chinese personalities appear to be hesitant on granting ethnic autonomy in the country. Beijing University sociologist Ma Rong has referred to regional autonomy as “a viable option for a period of transition, but in the long run, it has certain weaknesses” (January 9, 2015). Tsinghua University economist Hu Angang had called for a “second generation of ethnic policies”. The chairman of the ethnic and religious affairs committee of China’s National People’s Congress Zhu Weiqun, who looks after Tibet work, has viewed that the ethnic autonomy system may outgrow its usefulness (Xinhua, July 28, 2014). Some influential Party members had argued in the past that Xinjiang and Tibet should be divided into two in order to dilute ethnic influences and conflicts (‘Aisixiang’, April 15, 2004).

5.  China’s position on the historical political status of Tibet looks undeniably vulnerable. The PRC’s present claim to Tibet is based entirely on the influence the Mongol and Manchu emperors exercised over Tibet in the 13th and 18th centuries, respectively. This means that in the periods prior to 13th century, China did not exercise sovereignty over Tibet.  On their part, Tibetan exiles claim that from 1911 to 1950, Tibet successfully avoided undue foreign influence and behaved, in every respect, as a fully independent state. The 13th Dalai Lama emphasized his country's independent status externally, in formal communications to foreign rulers, and internally, by issuing a proclamation reaffirming Tibet's independence and by strengthening the country's defenses.. The Tibetan Government maintained independent international relations with all neighboring countries, most of whom had diplomatic representatives in Lhasa.

6.  The PRC is yet to convince the outside world about the correctness of its stand that next Dalai Lama needs to be found within the country at a time when the 14th Dalai Lama says that no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including those in the PRC. The exiled spiritual leader has entrusted the selection to his concerned officers of a trust called Gaden Phodrang Trust who will seek advice and direction from these concerned and carry out the procedures of search and recognition in accordance with past tradition.  China’s stand having deep implications for Tibetan Buddhism’s future,  has come after the Dalai Lama’s repeated suggestions that he could be the last incarnation of the highest spiritual authority in Tibetan Buddhism and also at a time when political powers have been handed over to a democratically elected Sikyong,  Lobsang Sangay. The level of anti-Dalai Lama rhetoric has gone up in China. The Dalai Lama is being criticized for “abusing his religious influence for political purposes” (Global Times) and “profaning Tibetan Buddhism” (TAR Governor). The latest White Paper of China on Tibet has used harsh words against the exiled spiritual leader and made resumption of talks between the Centre difficult to achieve by putting conditions.  

7. China’s vulnerabilities on Tibet issue brought out above do not merit an exaggeration as in an overall sense, Beijing may have reasons to be confident about its ability to overcome them and protect the country’s territorial integrity. Firstly, there seems no chance now for Tibet to break away from China. Tibet has come to benefit from the economic development in the country; its connectivity with other parts of the country has become strong. Unless the CCP led regime collapses at the centre, Tibet (and Xinjiang) has no chance of ever becoming independent, and such a situation is highly unlikely as China’s miraculous economic growth in the past few decades have conferred the CCP with political legitimacy and enough resources to deal with ethnic tensions. Secondly, as a result of the Central government’s tactical measures and its strengthening of security apparatus since the late 1980s, it looks doubtful whether there will be widespread ethnic violence and armed uprisings in Tibet again.

8. As next point, the Dalai Lama no longer advocates Tibetan independence and separation from China, but prefers negotiations with Beijing. The exiled leader is pursuing a Middle Way Approach, which seeks Tibet’s coexistence based on equality and mutual cooperation with China. The Dalai Lama has said that his middle path means to achieve a genuine autonomy for all Tibetans living in the three traditional provinces of Tibet within the framework of the PRC and that the  essence of his Middle Way  Approach is to secure genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people within the scope of the Constitution of the PRC. He has said that he is not making demands for a “Greater Tibet”. Logically, these should be welcome to Beijing for restarting negotiations (The central government had received 13 visits by private representatives of the 14th Dalai Lama between 1979 and 2002, and ten visits from 2002 to January 2010). But it is not understood as to why China is rejecting the Middle Way approach; its white paper on the TAR (April 2015) has denounced it as an attempt to achieve "Tibetan independence, adding that " only when he makes a public statement acknowledging that Tibet has been an integral part of China since antiquity, and abandons his stance on independence and his attempts to divide China, he can improve his relationship with the central government in any real sense".

9. Lastly, China’s growing international status and economic dominance   means that its cooperation is highly sought after internationally, reducing chances of foreign support for Tibetan separatism.  No state now officially supports Tibetan independence, or even the Dalai Lama’s ‘genuine autonomy’.  Since the 1990s, the governments of major countries, such as the United Kingdom and India, that previously had ambiguous positions on China’s sovereignty in Tibet, have made it clear that they do not challenge it. The position of the US is that Tibet is part of China. It is another matter that China suspects US intentions; “the US supports Tibet independence forces”, has been the observation of  Lu Guangjin, Director of the Human Rights Affairs Bureau of the Department of State Council Information Office of China (July 6,2015).

10.  In sum, it can be said that the persisting unrest in Tibet should be a cause for China’s worries; however, there appears to be little chance of it reaching a point threatening the country’s territorial integrity. It may continue to cause only vulnerabilities of lesser degree to the central government such as protests, resistance in the form of self immolations etc. On the other hand, Tibetan separatism may assume serious proportions if the CCP-led regime at the Centre collapses; this is very much a hypothetical case and there appear to be no chances of it to happen in the present circumstances. The next key stage on Tibet issue would come when the 14th Dalai Lama passes away with Beijing appointing his successor. Once the exiled spiritual leader, symbol of Tibetan resistance, is no longer in the scene, China may hope for its gaining control over Tibet in the real sense; for it, that event may mark an end to the Tibet issue. The continuing stalemate on the issue has negative implications for relations between India and China though it is not a bilateral political problem among the two. Any settlement of the Tibet  issue between Beijing and  the Dalai Lama can contribute to creating a right atmosphere for solving the vexed India- China border problem which was once non-existent and arose only after China ‘liberated ’Tibet. Future developments on the Tibet issue will thus be interesting to watch.

(The writer. D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email:,)