China has made it clear that it will designate its own Dalai Lama and anyone else would be deemed illegal.
On 18 March, Reuters published an exclusive interview of the Dalai Lama in which the Dalai asserted that “In future, in case you see two Dalai Lamas come, one from here, in free country, one chosen by Chinese, then nobody will trust, nobody will respect (the one chosen by China). So that’s an additional problem for the Chinese! It’s possible, it can happen.”
On 19 March, Geng Shuang, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to it by saying that “Reincarnation of living Buddhas, as a unique institution of inheritance in Tibetan Buddhism, comes with a set range of rituals and conventions. The Chinese government implements the policy of freedom of religious belief. The reincarnation system is respected and protected by such legal instruments as Regulations on Religious Affairs and Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas. The institution of reincarnation of the Dalai Lama has been in existence for several hundred years. The 14th Dalai Lama himself was found and recognised following religious rituals and historical conventions and his enthronement was approved by the then central government. Therefore reincarnation of living Buddhas including the Dalai Lama must comply with Chinese laws and regulations and follow religious rituals and historical conventions.”
The statement emphasises two things. One, that the incarnation of the Dalai Lama must follow the rituals and historical conventions. And two, it would be decided by such legal instruments as “Regulations on Religious Affairs and Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas”. Now, as regards the rituals and conventions, these were laid down by the Qing Emperor Qianlong, once his 170,000 strong forces defeated the Gurkhas in the aftermath of the latter’s invasion of Tibet in 1791. Amongst these, the most prominent and often quoted by the Chinese is the “29-Article Ordinance for More Effective Governance of Tibet”, which stipulated that the Ambans, or the Qing imperial resident commissioner in Tibet, would enjoy the same status as the Dalai and the Panchen; the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, the Panchen and various Hotogtu Rinpochs must follow the procedure of drawing lots from the golden urn under the supervision of the Ambans and the same must be reported to the imperial court for approval; a new uniform currency bearing the title of the emperor was issued; traders were required to carry a passport; all communication with neighbouring states was to be conducted through Ambans. Some of the Chinese scholars, for example Li Tieh-Tseng, in his book The Historical Status of Tibet traces real Chinese sovereignty over Tibet from 1791, contrary to most of the scholars tracing it from Yuan Dynasty. As regards the “legal instruments”, the “Regulations on Religious Affairs and Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas” were issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs of the People’s Republic of China on 18 July 2007 and went into effect from 1 September 2007. These provide the legal basis for China rejecting any incarnation announced outside Tibet. In all, there are 14 articles in these “Regulations”, however, Article 2 remains most crucial as it stipulates that “Reincarnating living Buddhas should respect and protect the principles of the unification of the state, protecting the unity of the minorities, protecting religious concord and social harmony, and protecting the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism. Reincarnating living Buddhas should respect the religious rituals and historically established systems of Tibetan Buddhism, but may not re-establish feudal privileges which have already been abolished. Reincarnating living Buddhas shall not be interfered with or be under the dominion of any foreign organisation or individual.”
The two requirements flagged by Geng Shuang make it clear that China will designate its own Dalai Lama and any name proposed by the Dalai Lama or any organisation outside Tibet would be deemed illegal. The statements regarding the incarnation by the Dalai Lama and their castigation by China are not new. The Dalai Lama has been saying many things about his reincarnation. For example, he has been saying that the issue of reincarnation would be decided by his believers; that there would be no Dalai Lama after his death; or rather a beautiful maiden may be his reincarnation, or his reincarnation would be outside China, and even outside the planet. China has castigated these remarks by the Dalai Lama as non-serious and laughable. It has argued that since the Dalai is ageing, and because the prospect of the “Tibetan independence” seems bleak, that he has indulged in such talk. Zhu Weiqun, Director of the Ethnic and Religious Commission of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference has termed the Dalai Lama’s remarks on reincarnation as “extremely non-serious”.
This time, so far, we have not witnessed the kind of criticism China poured on the Dalai in the past, however, the Chinese approach remains the same. For example, since the 2008 Lhasa riots, Zhang Qingli, the then general secretary of the Communist Party in Tibet has pronounced the Dalai Lama as a “wolf in monk’s robes.” Zhang had said that he actually quoted the words of Zhou Enlai to describe the Dalai Lama in that way. Zhang also made comparisons between the Dalai Lama and Rebiya Kadeer, a Uygur separatist leader from Xinjiang. Reacting to the Dalai Lama’s announcement of retirement, Qiangba Puncog, the then Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region’s People’s Congress said on the sidelines of the NPC session on 11 March 2011 that the Dalai’s retirement is “absolutely meaningless”. He said, “Since no country recognises his self-declared ‘Tibetan Government in Exile’, whatever he does in his illegal political organisation is nonsense and Tibet will not be affected at all.” Puncog admitted that the “Dalai Lama, as a Living Buddha and religious leader, does have some influence on his believers”, but also said that “his death is expected to have a minor impact on Tibet, the overall social situation will remain stable, and we are prepared to handle some minor turbulence here and there after his death”.
Therefore, the fundamental perceptions of the Tibetan émigrés and China are very diverging. As far as the Dalai Lama headed “TGIE” is concerned, it has adopted the “middle way” for the resolution of Tibet issue. In brief, the Dalai Lama demands “genuine autonomy” within the constitutional framework of the People’s Republic of China. However, part one of the Strasbourg proposals that deal with the history of Tibet and deem Tibet as an independent country before 1949 is troublesome and has not gone well with the Chinese government. The second part is forward looking and deals with the future of Tibet. China would remain responsible for Tibet’s foreign policy, but Tibet would be governed by its own Constitution. The government of Tibet would comprise a popular elected chief executive, a bicameral legislature and an independent legal system. The other major hurdle is the demand to restore the whole of Tibet, known as greater Tibet. The greater Tibet or the so called “Cholka-Sum” is the ethnic Tibet, which consisted of three provinces, namely, U Tsang, Kham and Amdo. The genuine autonomy is sought for the entire 6 million Tibetans in China, not just for 2.6 million Tibetans living in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).
As far as China is concerned, whether it was the issue of the Dalai Lama’s retirement or the recent reincarnation, it cares little and describes the Dalai Lama’s proposals or the demand for “genuine autonomy” as a ploy to seek independence, semi independence or even independence in a disguised manner, for according to China the “Charter of the Tibetan in Exile” promulgated in 1991, maintains that efforts shall be made to transform a future Tibet into a Federal Democratic Self-Governing Republic and a zone of peace throughout her three regions, with the Dalai Lama as a head of such a future entity. Therefore, to Beijing, the real motive of “genuine autonomy” could be best described as “sanbuqu” (trilogy) to secure Tibetan independence: i.e. one, to secure the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet through negotiations; two, to gain political power through “genuine autonomy”; and three, to realise “Tibetan independence” through a “referendum”.
It could be discerned that these are extremely diverging positions and there is no meeting ground for the two sides. China is eagerly waiting for the demise of the Dalai Lama, as evident from the statements of its officials in Tibet. Nevertheless, it would be wishful thinking on the part of China if it believes that the Tibetan movement will die with the demise of the Dalai Lama. The émigrés feel that the TGIE has matured as an institution and would continue to be an umbrella organisation for Tibetan émigrés throughout the world, and continue to follow the course of non-violence and engage China into a dialogue. Organisations such as the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA), National Democratic Party of Tibet (NDPT), Gu-Chu-Sum Movement (GCSM), Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), the International Tibet Support Network (ITSN) and the Tibetan Writers Organization (TWO) etc., which have been pronounced by China as “radical” and at times “terror outfits” are likely to continue the struggle through the tactics of mass movement on the one hand, and arouse international support and sympathy for their cause on the other.
Everyone acknowledges that the void that would be left by the Dalai Lama would be difficult to fill. It would not only be a huge loss for Tibet and the émigrés, but a loss for China too, for China will never find a personality like him, who could wield the support to secure a peaceful resolution of the Tibet issue.
B.R. Deepak is Professor of Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.