In interview on 18 March with the 14th Dalai Lama – the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and most influential Buddhist leader in the world – a correspondent from Reuters raised a question which would seem very simple on the surface; the question of where and how the Dalai Lama’s impending reincarnation will take place, which directly affects China’s domestic policy, as well as issues in Chinese relations with other leading countries, especially India and the United States.
The 14th Dalai Lama has long been portrayed as the “head of the Tibetan Separatists’ Faction” in Beijing. We should not forget that in the wake of a serious revolt in Tibet, the Dalai Lama has been living in the city of Dharamsala in Northern India since 1959. The city is referred to as the “capital” of the Central Tibetan Administration.
It is worth noting that current Dalai Lama announced his departure from politics to focus on being the spiritual leader of all Buddhists in early 2011. In the same year, he articulated his position on questions concerning his future reincarnation for the first time, which is the ceremony for appointing the successor who will assume the post of the most famous leader of the Buddhism world.
The 14th Dalai Lama said then that he intends to make a decision on this issue when he is “about ninety years old”. The Dalai Lama is now 83 years old, which means that based on his time frame, he is still fairly far off the deadline he has set for himself. However, the statement he made in the interview with Reuters has not been the first of this kind.
A few years ago, the Dalai Lama did not rule out the possibility of a spiritual transformation into a kind of insect “or even a woman”, which goes to show that the Buddhist leader is in step with the today’s most forward-thinking schools of postmodern political and philosophical thought.
At the same time, this statement gave Beijing a chance to openly suggest that the country’s political opponent is incoherent and therefore, suggest that the Dalai Lama is unfit to perform the “extremely responsible” task of providing Buddhists with spiritual guidance, a great number of whom live in what is now the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.
This was followed by their logical conclusion that given the difficult situation that has unfolded, the reincarnation of the incumbent major Buddhist leader is too important to be left to his discretion. In light of the Dalai Lama’s inconsistency, the appropriate Chinese state authorities and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China are prepared to do the work to provide Buddhists with the care they need.
However, the Chinese leadership’s close involvement in every significant aspects of Buddhists’ spiritual life (as well as other religious denominations present in the country) has been observed for a long time and has long been subject to sharp criticism from the current Dalai Lama. Again in 2011, he used particularly strong words (such as “shame”) when he commented on China’s strict control of his Buddhist followers.
In the interview with Reuters that we have previously mentioned, the Dalai Lama did not rule out the possibility of “two Dalai Lamas”, of whom the “true” leader will be born in India this time, and not in his native Tibet.
This very interview was apparently a reaction to speeches given by representatives of the Tibetan Autonomous Region at the 2nd session of the 13th convocation of the National People’s Congress (Parliament of China) which had taken place a number of days earlier. Although the political representatives from the Tibetan Autonomous Region did address their tirade to the current Dalai Lama, they did not have anything new to say and it was fully consistent with the Chinese leadership’s official position to break all ties with the spiritual leader. However, according to the 14th Dalai Lama, he is visited every once in a while by certain “retired officials and private businessmen” from China.
This is where we should briefly comment on the general state of relations between the state and religious communities in modern China. In recent years, the country’s leadership has undoubtedly tightened its control not only around the border zone, where religious communities engage with the rest of the population, but the state is also clamping down on some elements of the religious life of the general population.
Buddhists in China, as well as Christians and Muslims, are feeling the weight of the state’s heavy hand. Although, this is of course nowhere near what early Christians experienced in Ancient Rome. In fact, the wise and authoritative Vatican managed to seal a bilateral deal with Beijing in September 2018 (Catholics make up the largest Christian community in China), which provides a quite tolerant framework for local Catholic communities to practice their faith.
The role of “supporting the religious freedom” of Buddhists and Muslims was voluntarily assumed by United States Congress and the Department of State. At the same time, the US pay particular attention to the situation in the two Chinese regions where the majority of the population represent these communities, which are the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
The New Eastern Outlook has previously discussed the main points in the two new acts passed by Congress at the end of last year, which give a generally negative assessment of various aspects of the situation in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
On 13 March this year, the US State Department published its 2018 Human Rights Reports. Its 126-page section devoted to China begins with a somewhat provocative title: “China (includes Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau)”. That is, the United States Department of State could well have chosen to exclude these three Chinese territories in a state document devoted to certain problems in a country that has diplomatic relations with Washington.
It is interesting to note that the very fact of regular publication of these kinds of moralizing documents by Washington, which has been caught out in the past decades for its involvement in extremely dubious acts (primarily in the Greater Middle East), probably contributes the most to discrediting them. The Pharisees of modern politics would do better to keep quiet.
This is despite the fact that there is ample reason to question China’s policy in Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in particular. But it needs to be reiterated that it is wiser to keep these doubts to yourself and leave it to the leadership in such a great, extremely complex country like modern China, to choose their own optimal scheme to build relations with religious communities and the overall population in these autonomous regions.
Moreover, there have been clear aspects of success in socio-economic development across communities in these regions over the past decades. The rate of economic growth of the Tibetan Autonomous Region in particular is significantly higher than China’s impressive rate of national development in recent decades.
The annual GDP of this semi-desert, mountainous region is estimated at $ 21 billion. with a population of about 3 million people. In the first half of 2018 alone, more than 12 million tourists from other Chinese provinces and foreigners who visited the Tibetan Autonomous Region spent about two billion dollars there.
Meanwhile, the leadership of the Communist Party of China is facing problems across its regional outposts, where party members are simply unable to deal with the influence of the surrounding cultural and religious environment.
It is noteworthy that the main points on the subject which were made in the article in the Chinese Global Times were also presented by one of India’s most widely read newspapers, the Times of India, which highlights the extent of influence that supporters of the 14th Dalai Lama have on local Communists. Yet another of the Dalai Lama’s public appearances would essentially bring the subject of Tibet into the scope of issues covered in relations between the two Asian giants.
Generally, this topic does not otherwise come up in official China-Indian relations, since these states do not have any major territorial disputes with just a few minor exceptions.
But this is probably due to quite a visible influential tendency within the Indian political landscape to (likely intuitively) view India as the British India of the early 20th century. At that time there were no independent Pakistan, Myanmar (Burma), or Bangladesh, and it was precisely Tibet (when its borders were significantly larger than the current Tibetan Autonomous Region) that separated the country from the last Chinese Empire.
It is no coincidence that Vallabhbhai (Sardar) Patel, who was India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideological opponent, is so popular in India today. Vallabhbhai Patel passed away in December 1950, which was around the time when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) incorporated Tibet. The opinion that this article holds is that this operation essentially succeeded because India’s potential ally–the United States–was too busy with the war on the Korean Peninsula at this time.
Subsequent events in Tibet, including the 14th Dalai Lama’s exile, having fled to India, were inevitable consequences of the region being integrated into China. The view that this article takes is that this process is irreversible. Unless of course something seismic and catastrophic happens in regional and world politics.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.