14 June 2024

China’s Willingness to Discuss ‘Dalai Lama’s Future’ is a Red Herring

On 24 May 2024, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a public meeting in Mandi to support Bollywood actress and BJP candidate Kangana Ranaut. In the course of his speech, he mentioned Tibet, something he rarely does. According to a press release from the PMO, Modi asserted: “The Congress government was so timid that it was afraid to even mention the name of Dalai Lama Ji. I frequently engage in discussions with Dalai Lama Ji. He is a stalwart of our rich heritage. India is the land of Buddha, and the Modi government has been actively promoting this heritage.”

The ‘frequent discussions’ are not in the public domain; we only know that from time to time, a phone call is made from Delhi to Dharamsala on the Dalai Lama’s birthday.

This statement, however, raises the issue of Tibet, which seems to have been dormant for years.

The political head or Sikyong of Tibet’s government-in-exile, Penpa Tsering, recently visited the United States and Canada. Everywhere, the Sikyong conveyed the urgent situation in Tibet, “highlighting China’s efforts to eradicate Tibet’s distinct culture and identity and assimilate the Tibetan people”.

During a meeting with the Tibetan diaspora, he noted that the priorities and policies of his government were to enhance the stability and efficiency of departments within the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and implement the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way policy.

Tsering also admitted that he was in contact with Beijing; according to Firstpost, the Sikyong stated: “We have had back-channel engagement since last year. But we have no immediate expectations from it. It has to be a long-term one.” 

The Sikyong, however, insisted that the talks were “very informal”. PTI quoted him, “I have my interlocutor who deals with people in Beijing. Then there are other elements also trying to reach out to us.”

While Beijing was quick to retort, “[We] will talk only with the representatives of the Dalai Lama and not the officials of the Tibetan government-in-exile”, the positive side was that it did not call the Dalai Lama a separatist and instead repeated it was ready to discuss his “personal future”. This has been Beijing’s position for the past four decades – discussions can only be about the Dalai Lama’s future.

Hopes Belied

China’s stance, however, raises the issue of the future of Tibet and the Tibetan people.

In the early 1980s, the Dalai Lama envisaged a Middle Path approach, probably based on the “One Country, Two Systems” slogan coined by Deng Xiaoping at the end of the 1970s. The Tibetan leader elaborated his vision for the future in two documents: a Five-Point Peace Plan in 1987 in Washington, DC, and his Strasbourg Proposal in 1988.

The first of the five points was the “transformation of the whole of Tibet into a zone of peace”, a concept certainly appealing to India; another was “respect for the Tibetan people’s fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms”. The ‘Zone of Peace’ would soon be dropped, and the riots in Lhasa in 1989 and the subsequent imposition of martial law demonstrated the limits of the second.

In his Strasbourg Proposal, the Dalai Lama spoke of “the whole of Tibet known as Cholka-Sum (U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo) [that] should become a self-governing democratic political entity founded on law by agreement of the people for the common good and the protection of themselves and their environment, in association with the People’s Republic of China”. This proposal was made before the events at Tiananmen Square. Before June 1989, there was belief that China could join the concert of democratic nations and be a normal state.

Ten rounds of negotiations took place between the Dalai Lama’s representatives (the CTA’s representatives have always been banned in Beijing) between 2002 and 2010. This led nowhere.

Things have changed since then. China has become the second-most important economic player in the world, while the situation within the Middle Kingdom has grimly deteriorated since 2012, at least in terms of individual liberty.

Today, after the suppression of Hong Kong protests starting in 2019 and the military threats against the ‘renegade province’ (Taiwan), ‘One Country, Two Systems’ cannot be envisioned anymore. This makes the situation in Tibet (and in Xinjiang, the other Chinese colony) more precarious than ever.

Deteriorating Rights Situation

In May this year, the BBC reported that a court in Hong Kong “found 14 pro-democracy activists guilty of subversion in the largest use yet of a China-imposed National Security Law. They included former lawmakers Leung Kwok-hung and Helena Wong, journalist-turned-campaigner Gwyneth Ho, and ordinary Hong Kongers who joined the mass protests of 2019, such as nurse Winnie Yu”.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee took Beijing’s side and declared that his government would do its “utmost to prevent, suppress, and impose punishment” for any activities “endangering national security”.

In Tibet, meanwhile, as a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted, “Since 2016, the Chinese government has dramatically accelerated the relocation of rural villagers and herders in Tibet. The government says that these relocations—often to areas hundreds of kilometres away—are voluntary” and the rationale offered is that was intended to “improve people’s livelihoods and protect the ecological environment”.

Using over 1,000 official Chinese media articles between 2016 and 2023, as well as government publications and academic field studies, HRW states that China’s own media reports showed that participation in “whole-village relocation” programmes in Tibet is compulsory. “In one case, 200 households out of 262 in the village did not initially want to relocate to a new location, which was nearly 1,000 kilometres away. In another village scheduled for relocation, all the residents except for a Chinese Communist Party activist initially disagreed with the plan to move the village,” said the report.

HRW could not find a single case where a village scheduled for relocation was able to avoid being moved.

What is left of the ‘genuine autonomy’ the Dalai Lama dreamed of in the 1980s? Probably not much today.

Changing Chinese Tactics

In February, a Chinese writer living in exile, Yuan Hongbing, revealed that China planned to use the Kuomintang’s (KMT’s) influence in Taiwan’s legislature to boost its United Front strategy. Yuan said that the information came from a “princeling” (son of a Chinese revolutionary leader) whom Xi Jinping does not dare challenge. According to Chinascope, a US website carrying information on the Mainland, “the CCP is not just using military intimidation to destabilise Taiwan; it is also using propaganda, the deployment of agents, and the expansion of the KMT’s legislative power to override the Taiwanese administration.”

Last week, Chinese military spokesperson Senior Colonel Wu Qian told a press conference that China’s reunification is an irreversible trend in history and that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is ready to take resolute actions to counter any “Taiwan independence”.

Soon after Lai Ching-te took charge as Taiwan’s president on 20 May, the Chinese military warned Taiwan that “independence” would mean “war” and Beijing would thwart any foreign interference in support of “separatist activities” in the democratically-ruled island.

The military drills that followed were more to ‘scare the chicken’ than a rehearsal, as an takeover through ‘influence’ will certainly be less costly and risky for Beijing. Yuan added that “the CCP’s Taiwan policy has shifted from coercion and enticement to psychological warfare, aiming to demoralise Taiwanese.”

The Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet reported in May that the Buddhist Association of China (BAC), a non-political organisation, “is becoming a key instrument in the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy to assimilate and transform Tibetan Buddhism, particularly in relation to the search for and recognition of reincarnate lamas”.

When it speaks of the ‘sinification of Buddhism’, Beijing is obviously thinking of the succession of the Dalai Lama.

Since President Xi Jinping’s announcement of his intent to Sinicize all religions in China, the BAC has been “mandated as the tool to implement campaigns that will contribute to its fruition, particularly in connection with Tibetan Buddhism”.

Founded in 1953, the BAC’s charter was amended in 2020 to include “Sinification of Buddhism in China” as one of its objectives in order to “support the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system, study and implement Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and adhere to the direction of the Sinification of Buddhism in China”.

During the recent Two Sessions held in Beijing in March 2024, Wang Huning, the Party’s chief ideologue, mentioned that the BAC “carried out 10 research and inspections in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Tibet-related counties in Sichuan Province on promoting the sinification of Tibetan Buddhism”.

In the present circumstances, hopes for a better tomorrow are presently limited.

One can only hope that when the Indian Prime Minister calls the Dalai Lama on 6 July to wish him on his 89th birthday, the Tibetan leader will be able to convince PM Modi that the fates of Tibet and India are intimately linked, in particular, as far as the boundary between them is concerned.

This is a modified version of the article, originally published as Claude Arpi. 2024. ‘With China willing to discuss “Dalai Lama’s future”, Tibetan fate hangs in balance’. FirstPost. 2 June.