At a time when Dharamshala and Tibet appear to be at a very vulnerable position vis-a-vis Beijing, it will be imperative for Dalai Lama as well as his advisers, to seriously measure the pros and cons of his proposed visit to China.
NEW DELHI, India, 23 March 2015
Observers of Beijing-Dharamshala relations are these days keenly focused on the chances of Dalai Lama visiting China for a Buddhist pilgrimage to Wutai Shan. The issue might look casual or insignificant to the uninitiated who will see nothing special about a religious leader visiting a pilgrimage site. But knowing Tibet’s place in China’s geo-political aspirations and the significance of the present Dalai Lama in China’s future game, this probable event holds the potential of changing the geo-political discourse of Asia far more than any eventful development of this region in recent decades.
Signals emanating from Dharamshala over recent years have lead to speculations among many Tibet watchers that despite the eight-year-long dialogue (2002-2010) having been stalled abruptly by Beijing, the talks are still on, though at some different levels. Many among Tibet-China watchers feel that an influential section among Tibetan exile leadership is keen to pull a deal between the Dalai Lama’s “Central Tibetan Administration” (CTA) in Dharamshala and the Chinese rulers of Tibet. Or, at least, to send him on a visit to China before it is too late for the ageing Tibetan leader.
Clear signals from Beijing
Though senior functionaries in Dharamshala have been maintaining strict secrecy, recent developments, including an unpublicised meeting of a minister-ranking Chinese official with Dalai Lama in Dharamshala a few months ago, have not gone unnoticed. And now a chain of signals from Beijing and other quarters confirm that Chinese leaders are desperate to receive the former exiled ruler and supreme religious leader of their colony — even if this visit is short and just for a “pilgrimage”.
Hu Shisheng, an important Chinese brain on Tibet-related issues and a Director at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), run by the State Council of China, said on 24 February this year in Beijing that the Dalai Lama’s pilgrimage to Mount Wutai (Wutai Shan) would be a “historic event” and “really a breakthrough.” In another commentary, published a day before President Xi Jinping visited India, China’s Sina.com quoted “informed sources familiar with the situation” as saying that the Dalai Lama’s return to China would be a “win-win” situation. Chinese media has widely quoted Wu Yingjie, the Dy Secretary of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as saying that the talks with Dalai Lama’s personal envoy about Dalai Lama’s return were “proceeding smoothly”. On 2 October 2014 the French news agency AFP even quoted the Dalai Lama from Dharamshala as telling its reporter that he was in informal talks with Beijing over his “long-held wish to make a pilgrimage trip to China.”
War of wits?
It was exactly nine years ago on 10th March 2006 when the Dalai Lama used his annual address on the national “Uprising Day” of Tibet at Dharamshala to publicly express his desire to visit China for a pilgrimage. His statement came in the middle of ongoing talks between his envoys and Beijing. Observers initially thought that this statement was yet another salvo in the ongoing war of wits between him and Beijing. People around the Dalai Lama believed that his visit to Tibet or China would attract a Tsunami of Chinese and Tibetan believers which would increase his bargaining power with Beijing.
Beijing: From cold to warm
But his statement was greeted with the usual sarcastic contempt that Beijing rulers have always kept reserved for the Dalai Lama since China occupied his country in 1951, leading to his subsequent escape to exile in 1959. On 13 April 2006 Qi Xiaofei, Vice-Director of the Chinese state administration for religious affairs, said: “The Dalai Lama is not only a religious figure, but is also a long-time stubborn secessionist who has tried to split his Chinese motherland and break the unity among different ethnic groups.”
Interesingly in July the same year, rumours of the Dalai Lama visiting Kumbum, the most revered monastery near the Dalai Lama’s birth place in Qinghai, spread like wildfire. Soon the town was flooded with thousands of Tibetan and Chinese devotees wishing to have a view of him. But as soon as the crowds started reaching a critical level the Chinese government media announced that it was a hoax and security forces pushed out the crowds. Observers believe that it was a well-planned Chinese move to have a fair idea of and to prepare in advance for the public reaction if the Dalai Lama actually comes on a visit.
China singing, or alarm bells?
After a gap of nine years this sudden 180-degree turn in Beijing’s response to the idea of the Dalai Lama’s visit to China clearly reflects a new kind of self-confidence which is replacing the characteristic irritability, scepticism, and even fear psychosis demonstrated by the Chinese leaders on anything related to the Dalai Lama or Tibet over the past six decades. It is this very change in the Chinese gestures and public articulation which deserves serious attention of the Dalai Lama, his advisors, and his supporters when they sit to weigh the advantages and risks of the Tibetan leader’s proposed pilgrimage to China or fresh negotiations with Beijing.
Looking back at how Beijing and Dharamshala have been playing their cards in the past two decades, one cannot escape the stark contrast. While Beijing has been making impressive strides on almost every front to improve its grip on Tibet and checkmate the international opposition to its Tibet policy, Dharamshala has been consistently frittering away all the advantages and virtues that the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetans have earned with great effort since the 1950s in their struggle against the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
Beijing turning tables on Dharamshala?
The world has been watching with great admiration how a friendless Tibet and a powerless Dalai Lama of the 1950s-60s moved gradually from near total oblivion to the darling of the democratic world, especially the West, by the 1990s. Until the end of the last century, no Chinese leader had the guts to move openly in over three quarters of the globe without being jeered at, accosted, or shouted at by supporters of Tibet. In sharp contrast, the Dalai Lama was being decorated with the highest of awards; presented with Mayor’s Keys to almost every city that could boast of having a door; receiving standing ovations at some of the most powerful Parliaments; and cheered like a rock star by ecstatic crowds at overflowing stadiums across the globe.
It was not too long ago when Tibetan-flag-waving supporters all over the world could virtually block the Olympic torch’s ceremonial journey to Beijing. Yet another campaign of international Tibet supporters around the turn of the century forced the World Bank to ask the Beijing government to either withdraw its application for funding the “West China Poverty Reduction Project” or have it rejected. The project was aimed at promoting Han migration to Tibet through its economic development, and the demonstrators did not want the World Bank to finance such a project.
But things have been changing slowly and decisively in favour of China in recent years. So much so that the Belgian government was forced to join the league of countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka as it was forced by Beijing to refuse visa to the Dalai Lama in 2006 just a week before he was scheduled to inaugurate the biggest-ever international conference of Tibet Support Groups in Brussels. Only a few onths ago South Africa expressed its inability to let the Dalai Lama enter the country to participate in the world conference of Nobel Laureates just because it did not dare to make Beijing unhappy. And so much is the clout of Beijing that the Parliament of Spain was forced to rewrite parts of its constitution overnight last year so that the Supreme Court of Spain could not implement its judgement on two cases which related to human right excesses in Tibet by China. If implemented, this judgement would have forced the Interpol to arrest five senior Chinese leaders who included Hu Jintao, Li Peng, and Jiang Jemin on their next travel to any country.
China a Buddhist superpower?
Having realized the impact and grip of Buddhism, Buddhist institutions, and senior Buddhist religious leaders over the Tibetan mind, Beijing leaders have been revising their policies since the nineties. Freedom of limited religious practice and opening of some of the destroyed Buddhist monasteries and temples was introduced. Rehabilitating and locating many Tulkus, a typically Tibetan tradition of identifying high-ranking incarnate lamas and sect leaders through rebirth, was allowed at a moderate level. Official search committees of lamas, headed by senior communist cadres, were allowed to search for the new incarnations of some popular deceased high-ranking lamas.
For example, the 11th Panchen Lama (1995) and 17th Karma Pa (1992), two top-ranking Lamas, were discovered and enthroned with big pubic fanfare by Beijing. It’s a different matter that 6-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the real Panchen Lama as claimed by pro-Dalai Lama monks among the Tibetan Search Committee, was arrested and has been never heard of since. And the Karma Pa quietly escaped to India to join the Dalai Lama on the New Year eve of 2000. A few years ago Beijing announced a new law which prohibits recognition of any new incarnate lama without official certification by the Communist Party officials. Since then Beijing leaders have often repeated that only China has the final right to certify the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama.
China’s “permanent Tibet solution”
In order to present itself as the “Buddhist superpower” of the world, Beijing launched a World Buddhist Forum in 2006. Since then it has already held three well-attended international conferences of the WBF. Not only was the Dalai Lama kept out of these conferences, Beijing has been trying to present its own puppet Panchen Lama Gyaltsen Norbu as the supreme international Buddhist leader. While the Dalai Lama has spent his lifetime in reviving the world’s interest in Buddhism, China has ingeniously grabbed the commercial leadership in the business of Buddhist items and crafts as the world’s largest supplier. During the past eight years China has organised nine international Buddhist Items and Crafts Trade Fairs at Xiamen. The tenth such fair is scheduled for October this year.
A massive Buddhist tourist infrastructure around many revived Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and temples across Tibet has also been developed since the turn of the new century. Millions of tourists from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, both Koreas, and most other Buddhist countries now throng these monasteries every year. Even as the Chinese Communist Party, secret police PSB, and army keep a tight control over the monastic life and other religious activities, an impressive visual and touristic grandeur of these centres which were rehabilitated in recent years, has started helping Beijing in removing its “anti-religion” stigma and presenting is as a “pro-Buddhist” regime.
With this changing international perception going in its favour, if China also succeeds in cobbling up some reasonable agreement with the present Dalai Lama, Beijing will comfortably have its way in installing its own puppet Dalai Lama to impose a permanent solution to its Tibetan problem after the present ageing Dalai Lama quits this world.
Dharamshala’s lost opportunities
On the contrary, Dharamshala has been consistently losing its diplomatic, political, and strategic ground in recent years, especially since it started its “negotiations” with Beijing. The Dalai Lama’s greatest political coup in recent years was the historic resolution passed by the European Parliament on 6 July 2000, which happened to be his 65th birthday. Issuing an ultimatum to Beijing for signing an agreement with Dharamshala on the “new statute for Tibet” through the Secretary General of United Nations, it called upon its member States to “give serious consideration to the possibility of recognising the Tibetan Government in exile as the legitimate representative of the Tibetan people” if China failed in meeting this demand.
But what followed is a diplomatic story of Dharamshala almost too hopeless to be believed. China finally started talking to the envoys of the Dalai Lama in 2002, but without involving the European Union or the UN. While Dharamshala has been claiming that it was “Sino-Tibet Negotiations” between the “Chinese Government” and the Dalai Lama, Beijing let it be known unambiguously that it was just a “talk” about the “scope of dialogue” between the “personal envoy” of the Dalai Lama and the delegation of “Central United Front Work Department.” Interestingly, United Front is a “department” of Communist Party of China and not a “Government Department”.
Looking back at these talks it becomes clear now that no real negotiations took place between 2002 and November 2008. It was only during the 7th round in May 2008 (the last round before the Beijing Olympics-2008) that the Chinese side made its first-ever demand on their Tibetan guests to present in writing what the Dalai Lama expected from China. A “memorandum” on the Dalai Lama’s behalf was presented to the Chinese side by the Tibetan envoy during the eighth round which was held on 30 November 2008 following the successful conclusion of the Beijing Olympics. This memorandum unambiguously offers to accept Tibet as a part of China “within the constitutional framework of People’s Republic of China” in return for “genuine autonomy” for Tibet. But the memorandum was straight away rejected by the Chinese side saying that the Dalai Lama was actually demanding “independence” for Tibet in the guise of “genuine autonomy”. Adding insult to injury, the Chinese leader of delegation Mr Zhu Weiqun, Chairman of the United Front Work Department, asked the Dalai Lama to “do something beneficial for the Tibetan people before he dies.”
Taken for a ride
On the one hand China successfully managed to drag the dialogue out without yielding anything. But on the other hand it made best use of this period to achieve all those pre-determined important milestones which would take its grip over Tibet and its international position to a point from where it could thumb its nose at anyone who dared challenge China on Tibet. Be it the EU, the UN, or the Dalai Lama himself. For example China amazed the world in July 2006 by completing and inaugurating the 1,142-km-long railway link to Lhasa in just five years over the most difficult terrain in the world. It also successfully concluded Beijing Olympics-2008 without letting it meet the sad fate of Moscow Olympics.
This period also witnessed an unprecedented pace of economic and infrastructure development in Tibet, which was accompanied by massive settlement across Tibet of Han population from the mainland. As a result, Tibetan populations have been reduced to a nearly meaningless minority in almost every town and city of Tibet today. Add to this an impressive network of more than 58,000 km of roads, 19 military and civilian airports, an undisclosed number of nuclear missiles, optical fibre link integrating Tibet with the rest of China, and a railway network that now almost touches the Nepal border. All this has converted TAR into an enviable Chinese fort from what it used to be, the most vulnerable outpost of China up to the nineteen nineties.
China also used this period to enrol Nepal’s help in blocking most escape routes of new refugees from Tibet to India. As a result the number of Tibetans fleeing Tibet to join forces with the Dalai Lama and his establishment in India has reduced from an average of over 2500 to a trickle of less than 200 in the past couple of years.
Avoidable divide in Dharamshala
One of the most debilitating losses for the Dalai Lama during this eight-year dialogue period was the deep confusion, demoralization, and division that the Tibetan refugee community and International Tibet support movement suffered as a result of feverish attempts by the Dharamshala establishment to please the Chinese leaders. Diktats from the CTA against holding anti-China demonstrations and attempts to impose a blanket ban on raising slogans in favour of Rangzen (Tibetan independence) nearly killed the pro-Tibet international movement which hardly had a parallel in recent world history. It is not surprising that while the Tibetan refugee community stands confused and divided on the autonomy-vs-rangzen debate, a large number of Tibet support groups across the world today are lying almost defunct or have lost their steam, and even self-esteem.
Unfortunately public expression by the Dalai Lama of his unhappiness about the Tibetan Youth Congress in some context in a religious congregation a few years ago, hurt the image and morale of this most influential and largest socio-political organisation of the Tibetan refugee community. An influential lobby in Dharamshala establishment, which claims to be a committed supporter of the Dalai Lama’s Middle Path, exploited this public expression of the supreme leader in browbeating the pro-Rangzen groups including TYC as “anti Dalai Lama”. Similarly another comment by the Dalai Lama about a certain set of prominent political thinkers of the refugee community too was misquoted and exploited by some Middle-Path enthusiasts to demoralize and corner the followers of the Rangzen school among the Tibetan community. Such avoidable developments have severely damaged the social and political unity of the Tibetan community. Interestingly, all this has been going on in the name of keeping the Chinese leadership in good humour despite the fact that Beijing has been consistently rejecting the Dalai Lama’s idea of Middle Path and Autonomy as Dharamshala’s secret ploys to split China through the back door.
China visit: The mouse trap?
It is difficult for anyone to predict how much religious virtue or political mileage Dharamshala can hope for, if any, from the Dalai Lama’s visit to China. But we have a long history of Tibet-China relations to show us that neither Tibet nor the Dalai Lama have ever been a match for Beijing’s skills in interpreting or showcasing any positive step from the Dalai Lama as a confirmation of the communist leaders’ actions and claims on Tibet. The most glaring example was the Dalai Lama’s visit to China in 1954 which Beijing leaders presented to the world as an endorsement of Chinese rule over Tibet. It therefore leads one to believe that the proposed visit of the Dalai Lama to China in the present situation is bound to fill all that moral, legal, political, and strategic void which China has been miserably missing concerning its colonial control over Tibet, especially since the 1959 flight of the Dalai Lama into exile.
Three precious constituencies
As a diehard team of optimists and well-meaning people, Dharamshala might be hopeful of driving a lot of world focus on Tibet through such a visit. It may also have many reasons to believe that a visit of the Dalai Lama to China can open new doors for negotiations. Or, it will help the Dalai Lama to understand the real intentions of Chinese leaders on Tibet. Dharamshala must also be quite genuine about its own intentions and expectations. But with centuries-long unhappy experience of Tibetan leadership in dealing with China, it will be too naive to believe that they can beat China in extracting advantages out of any given situation.
Therefore in sending the Dalai Lama on a China visit in a situation when the odds are heavily stacked against Tibet vis-a-vis China, there is serious risk of confusing, demoralizing, and finally losing all the three constituencies on whose support the Dalai Lama has attained his popularity and Tibet has survived as an issue all these years in the world conscience. These constituencies are:
- The Tibetan masses, living under Chinese rule or in exile, who have successfully braved and maintained their resolve against Chinese colonialism while enduring all difficulties and dangers;
- Tibet support groups across the world who relentlessly and successfully gave an international dimension to the cause of Tibet, and;
- The international community which includes parliaments, political leaders, civic society, and action groups, whose deep faith in democratic values and the human rights of Tibetans gave the Dalai Lama and Tibet the support and strength on which they stand today.
At a time when Dharamshala and Tibet appear to be in a highly vulnerable position vis-a-vis Beijing, it will be imperative for the Dalai Lama as well as his advisors, to seriously measure the pros and cons of his proposed visit to China. To put these risks in specific terms:
- One, the travel of a refugee Dalai Lama to the same country from where he escaped 56 years ago on the ground that the conditions created by the colonial occupants of his country were too difficult and inhuman to live under, would amount to no less than issuing a “no objection certificate” to whatever China has been doing in Tibet all these years. As an obvious corollary to this he is bound to lose his political, legal and moral identity, and rights as a refugee on his return to exile from such a visit.
- Two, his visit will send the message to those millions of brave Tibetans who have endured all the atrocities and injustice at the hands of their colonial masters, that since their supreme leader has no problem with China, they too must stop bickering against Chinese occupation. Self-immolation by more than 130 Tibetans in recent years (135 on record so far) to express their frustration against the Chinese colonial rule over Tibet only proves that unlike the dominant group of Tibetans in Dharamshala who appear to be pushing the Dalai Lama to give up or patch up, the Tibetan people inside Tibet have not given up their national resolve or courage to face the Chinese regime. But the Dalai Lama visiting China and hugging Beijing leaders, is bound to deflate all the moral steam, patriotic zeal and national resolve of the Tibetan masses.
- Three, the Tibet support movement across the world has already lost most of its energy and enthusiasm because of Dharamshala’s near-fanatic diktats against anti-China postures in recent years. It will be near impossible for these support groups to hold on to their cadres and support base when the world watches their hero hugging and shaking hands with the same “villains” whom these groups have been opposing all these years. Once this support base and organisational structure crumbles or melts away, it will take another lifetime for the Dalai Lama or his establishment to bring the international Tibet support movement back to life.
- Four, enormous world media coverage of the visit of the Dalai Lama to mainland China on the invitation and hosting of Tibet’s colonial masters will simply leave the clear and unambiguous signal to the world that “all problems between the Dalai Lama and China have been sorted out.” This means that all those individuals, organisations, and action groups across the world who loved, admired, and supported the Dalai Lama simply because he was the best symbol of the fight against the tyranny of colonialism, communism, and anti-democratic powers will be made to believe that he needs their support no more.
- Five, Beijing is bound to present this visit of the Dalai Lama as the endorsement and certification of China’s position on Tibet from none other than the supreme leader of Tibet and Tibetans. Hence it will lay its claim over all the respect, credibility, and sheen that it had lost due to its sad record as a colonialist occupier of Tibet.
- Six, if the Dalai Lama chooses China as the destination of his Buddhist pilgrimage, the communist masters of Beijing are bound to lap it up as the final “ISO certification” of China as the world’s “Buddhist Super Power” by the supreme spiritual leader of Buddhism. It will be interesting to see how a Dalai Lama and his exile establishment who have spent their life time in painting colonial rulers of their country as “anti religion”, “anti Buddhism” and “destroyers of Dharma” will manage this contradiction?
- Seven, and last, but surely not the least, is the dreadful scenario of this happy-looking marriage between Beijing and the Dalai Lama going to the rocks at some time in the future. Having dealt with China all their lives, who else understands better than the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetans the real levels of honesty and loyalty that Beijing leaders hold towards their own commitments or agreements with others? On such a fateful day Tibetans will be shocked to discover that there is no one standing behind them as all cheering and clapping crowds have already melted away and the Tibet support movement has closed its shop long ago. In the eventuality that the Beijing masters of Tibet turn back to their old games in Tibet, it is anybody’s guess how much enthusiasm or commitment the world would be left with to save the Dalai Lama and his countrymen once again.
It is therefore high time for everyone who stands by the Tibetan people to realize and accept that Dharamshala has already lost a significant share of its political and strategic ground on the Tibet front to Beijing, and stands on an utterly weak and vulnerable ground vis-a-vis its mighty opponent. Even his most optimistic sympathisers and supporters would agree that the Dalai Lama has nothing significant to gain from a Chinese “pilgrimage” except some media grandstanding or, maybe, some spiritual virtues as a practicing Buddhist. But who else other than the Dalai Lama himself would understand that such “gains” are too petty and personal for a man who is already the darling of world media and is so deeply revered as the embodiment of Avalokiteshwara — the God of Compassion?
Great hopes in Dalai Lama
Many critics of Dharamshala have expressed fears that a dominant section among the Tibetan exile leadership appears desperate to cobble up a deal with China on whatever terms. But even a junior student of history or diplomacy can testify with full confidence that history, especially the history of nations and peoples, keeps changing, and that the world has consistently witnessed the mightiest of regimes melting away into oblivion without a whimper.
Innumerable examples of countries like India and Israel should help the Tibetan leadership to understand that the greatest strength of a nation does not lie in opting for most comfortable solutions in a crisis, but in enduring difficult times and waiting to be available on the day when history holds your rightful share to be returned to you. It will require a deep rethinking and detachment on the part of the Dalai Lama to distinguish between the historic responsibilities which his great institution has bestowed upon him and the current desperation that is guiding a dominant section among his advisors.
On the part of such group of desperate advisors too, they are advised not lose their faith in the Dalai Lama’s political, social and spiritual wisdom. They should understand that by transferring his political powers to a democratically-elected exile government of Tibet, he has already empowered and freed Tibetan society to take the Tibetan struggle far beyond the physical limits of his own lifespan, or even relying on the institution of the Dalai Lama itself in their struggle. This means that the Dalai Lama has already realized the capacity of Tibetan society to take ahead its national struggle for many generations to come, irrespective of whether the next Dalai Lama is leading them or not.
As a professed follower of Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama is already aware of the enormous powers that the Gandhian way of thinking and action holds. Therefore, a far better option for him would be to adopt some of the techniques which Gandhi successfully employed in dealing with the British colonial Raj, which was far more powerful that today’s China. For example, by sitting on a hunger strike for the cause of those 135 Tibetan who gave the supreme sacrifice for the freedom and human rights of their colonized countrymen, the Dalai Lama can shake the world conscience far deeper than by visiting Wutai Shan and getting photographed by the international media as he shakes hands of the occupiers of his nation.
About the author
Vijay Kranti is a senior Indian journalist, photographer, and Tibetologist, based in New Delhi. He blogs at VijayKranti.com and he can be contacted at v.kranti(at)gmail.com