20 July 2015

The Great Tibetan Stand-off between China, Dalai Lama

By Jayadeva Ranade
14th July 2015

The year 2015 is a significant one for Tibet and China. The Dalai Lama celebrated his 80th birthday on July 6, 2015. It also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) by the Chinese communist regime. Though the Dalai Lama continues to be in exile, his birthday was celebrated in several places across Tibet and abroad. In India, two central government ministers for the first time attended the function in Dharamsala in their official capacity. In Delhi, three former foreign secretaries spoke at a well-attended symposium on July 4, while the reception on July 6 evening was also attended by two central ministers. Both functions were organised by the Dalai Lama’s Delhi Bureau. In China too, the issues of Tibet and the Dalai Lama have received perceptibly increased attention over the past couple of years. Recent reports filtering out of Beijing suggest that the Tibet Work Forum, usually held every four years, is likely to be convened in August or September this year in Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s (CCP CC) United Front Work Department (UFWD) convenes such work forums separately for Tibet and Xinjiang almost every four years. The work forums are the highest-level body where the CCP CC’s Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) deliberates and decides on policies, budgets and plans for the Autonomous Regions.

Preparatory work for the Tibet Work Forum appears to have begun with the Central Work Conference on Ethnic Affairs held in Beijing on September 28-29, 2014 and attended by all members of the PBSC except Zhang Gaoli, and leaders of every province and the People’s Armed Police. Later on April 14, 2015, China’s State Council Information Office issued a white paper titled: ‘Tibet’s Path of Development Is Driven by an Irresistible Historical Tide’.

This is the thirteenth white paper on Tibet issued so far since the 1990s, and highlights the importance of the Tibet issue for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. In contrast, only one white paper has been issued for the Nei Mongol Autonomous Region and only two for the restive and troubled Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region. 

This latest 17,931-word, six section white paper is toughly worded and makes at least one important additional new demand on the Dalai Lama. Emphasising that “Tibet has been an integral part of China since ancient times, and has never been an independent nation”, it insists: “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, can he improve his relationship with the central government in any real sense.” The Foreword to the white paper also stresses that “Tibet has been a part of China’s territory since ancient times, and the Tibetans have been one communal member of the Chinese nation”. The stress on ‘antiquity’ is embedded in the text of the white paper which, in a departure from past white papers, this time makes a major alteration to the long-standing Chinese position on the Dalai Lama. It pushes China’s claim over Tibet back to the 7th century from the 12th century. Stating that there was a close connection between the Tibetan people and the Han and other ethnic groups, it said “there has never been a break in economic, political and cultural exchanges between Tibet and the rest of China”. The important new addition was that “The Tubo regime established in Tibet in the 7th century was a local government of ancient China, which made an important contribution to developing China’s southwest frontier.” It conceded, however, that “it was during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) that China’s central government formally incorporated Tibet into the central administration”. 

References to Tibet also figured in China’s Defence white paper issued on May 26, this year. After over five years, the latest defence white paper, while assessing China’s domestic security situation made specific mention of Tibet, indicating the upgraded importance of the Tibet issue to the CCP leadership. Acknowledging that “China faces a formidable task” in maintaining “political security and social stability”, it disclosed “separatist forces for East Turkistan independence” and “Tibet independence” have inflicted “serious damage” and China faces “more challenges in terms of national security and social stability”.

There are other indicators that preparations for the Tibet Work Forum have begun. The Investigation and Research Group of the State Council visited Tibet from June 10 to 17. They conducted comprehensive investigations including on maintenance of stability, economic and social development, building infrastructure and constructing basic-level political power in all five prefectures and sixteen counties. Investigative groups from the State Council normally travel to the autonomous region before the Work Forum. Chinese President Xi Jinping separately met the Panchen Lama at Zhongnanhai on June 10 and informed him that the CCP CC would send a delegation to Tibet to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the TAR. Earlier, in December 2014, Xi Jinping was prompt in appointing a successor and Politburo member to replace the disgraced former head of the UFWD, Ling Jihua, thereby indicating the importance he accords to the UFWD. He selected Sun Chunlan, widely regarded as an upwardly mobile cadre who has worked closely with Hu Jintao and possibly has links to Xi Jinping. Sun Chunlan recently travelled to Tibet on an inspection visit from June 15 to 18, when she visited the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple in Lhasa and the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. China’s official media publicised that while addressing Tibetan Buddhists she hoped they would adapt Tibetan Buddhism to the socialist society. Sun Chunlan also met the first batch of 19 ‘religious’ graduates in Beijing on June 25. The official media additionally highlighted that 25 newly recognised reincarnated Rinpoches had joined the second training course for Tibet Newly Recognised Reincarnated Rinpoches in Lhasa.

The Dalai Lama continues to be popular and respected worldwide and by the Tibetans. On the other hand, a growing concern for China’s leadership relates to the issue of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. China is intent on avoiding a situation where there are rival, contending Dalai Lamas. The tone of the white paper on Tibet and insistence that the Dalai Lama acknowledges that China’s claims over Tibet are embedded in antiquity, however, escalates Chinese demands. The upcoming work forum will indicate if Beijing leaves room for manoeuvre and engagement with the Dalai Lama.

The author is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.

Email: jayvins1@gmail.com

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