What’s cooking behind China’s Dalai Lama talks?


Editorial (From the print edition Sept-Oct 2014)

His-Holiness-the-Dalai-LamaTwo remarks made recently by Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, caused international news headlines. It is not out place to suggest that these two remarks, though seemingly on totally different issues, may end up being closely connected with each other, if they already are not.

On Sep 7, the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag carried a report of an interview with the Dalai Lama. In it he was quoted as saying there was no need for a 15th Dalai Lama and as thereby suggesting that the nearly five-century old institution end with him. Later, however, his office explained that the Tibetan spiritual leader had qualified that remark the way he always does – that the final decision on whether the institution of Dalai Lama should continue was a question for the Tibetan people to decide, something the newspaper apparently decided was a rather irrelevant afterthought not worth mentioning.

However, the absence of this detail provoked China to again warn the Dalai Lama that it was not up to him to decide whether he will, or will not, reincarnate. Obviously Tibetans are not the only ones who would not hear of an end to the Dalai Lama story.

The question obviously arises: Where is the sworn commitment to atheism that communist China’s professed anti-minority, minority affairs top official Mr Zhu Weiqun wags so eloquently about? Even secular democratic states which would respect such a religious issue as quintessentially a domain of their concerned followers cannot help but balk at this rather bizarre ignoring of ideology and embracing of religious dogma by an atheist state, if only for the sake of political expediency. However, be that as it may.

More recently, on Oct 2, the Dalai Lama told the AFP news agency in an interview that informal talks with the Chinese leadership were ongoing for the possible realization of his long cherished desire to visit the Buddhist enclave of Mount Wutai in north China’s Shanxi Province. Right now this does not appear to have gone beyond the stage of the Dalai Lama expressing an ardent interest to do so to his informal intermediaries with the Chinese government.

China, while scolding the Dalai Lama in an Oct 8 foreign ministry spokesman press briefing for “loudly” expressing his pilgrimage wish, has not denied the existence of the informal contacts. Besides, the fact that an anonymous, just a day-long blog posting on mainland China’s sina.com website had described the realisation of the pilgrimage as something of a possibility has added a degree of credence to this development. So also has a remark in late August by Mr Wu Yingjie, a Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party Committee of Tibet Autonomous Region, to a group of visiting Indian journalists in Lhasa that informal talks through “personal envoys” of the Dalai Lama were “ongoing and always smooth”.

This reported indication of a tiny corner of flexibility on the part of the Chinese government, despite a public display of continued hardline position, is highly unusual and totally against the trend by all major indictors in Beijing’s handling of every contentious issue. There has been no Tibet exceptionalism of any kind in this milieu, whether one thinks in terms of the savage suppression of the 2008 protests which engulfed much of the Tibetan Plateau, or, to sum it all up, the underlying reasons which have since 2009 led to up to 133 Tibetans in Tibet carrying out protest self-immolations.

So, what gives? Is it really a policy of flexibility at work? Or does China have an agenda of such enormous adverse implications that the Dalai Lama will be compelled to abandon his pilgrimage wish, as we fear?

China has already made it abundantly clear that there is no Tibet issue to be discussed, that this matter was historically resolved on May 23, 1951 and concluded for all times to come on March 28, 1959. So, if it still feels a need to hold talks with the Dalai Lama, there still must be something of significant importance on which it seeks to wrest a vital concession from him. What could that be?

The most contentious lingering issue between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government is on the question of his reincarnation. The communist Chinese leaders insist that he must reincarnate, and will be taken to reincarnate, in a territory under its rule. The Dalai Lama has said nothing doing, unless the Tibet issue is resolved in his lifetime, since the only purpose of his reincarnation would be to continue his unfinished work and can therefore take place only outside the People’s Republic of China. China responded by passing in Jul 2007 regulations to ban all reincarnations of Tibetan Buddhism unless approved by its communist party leadership.

That, however, is of very little help. The core practice underlying the reincarnation system is that the lama leaves behind instructions, whether direct or through symbolisms, indicating where he will be reborn. All the controversies and problems regarding reincarnations have occurred only because the deceased lama had not left behind clear enough instructions, which was one reason why China was able to install its own Panchen Lama, although he is accepted only by the Communist Party of China and its supporters, not the mainstream Tibetan Buddhists.

The Dalai Lama can leave China pretty high and dry on this matter by following up on any of the options he has suggested for determining his successor, whether to be confirmed after his passing away or while he is still alive. Were he to finally determine that he should be succeeded by his reincarnation, rather than by an appointed or elected Tibetan Buddhist leader, he can leave behind instructions, both as regard where he shall be reborn and whom to be entrusted to carry out the search and also how the final recognition or confirmation should be carried out, leaving no room for any Chinese interference, including the use of their unwanted Golden Urn.

China will, of course, still look to carry out its own charade of appointing a 15th Dalai Lama. But the lack of his legitimacy will be even more glaring than that of the false 11th Panchen Lama whom it keeps ensconced in Beijing, escorting him to Tibet under tight security on occasions to register his presence there. Besides, unlike in the case of the real 11th Panchen Lama, who remains disappeared since his abduction by the Chinese government in May 1995, the 15th Dalai Lama will be found and live in a free country, rendering any Chinese appointment of a false one that much more questionable, even laughable, and entirely redundant, except for purposes of playacting for propaganda purposes, like in the case of the 11th Panchen Lama.

It is therefore not hard to imagine that China will very likely seek some sort of an assurance from the Dalai Lama on the issue of his reincarnation in return for being allowed to visit Mount Wutai. This, if true, will be a great challenge to the Dalai Lama as China could make its concession more tempting by giving him false assurances of being amenable to discussing even the Tibet issue. The big problem is, China has already carried out this false charade from 2002 to 2010 in 10-11 rounds of talks with his envoys, and the way it ended has been an objective lesson in how not to trust China.


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