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China: Blowing Hot and Cold on the Dalai Lama

As appeared in

“I am not seeking independence for Tibet. The world knows. The Chinese should guarantee full autonomy for Tibetans leaving foreign affairs and defence.” “I want to make a pilgrimage to China. As well as visiting the pilgrim sites I hope I will be able to see for myself the changes and developments in the People’s Republic of China.

– The Dalai Lama (March-April 2006)

“As long as the Dalai Lama makes clear that he has completely abandoned Tibetan independence, it is not impossible for us to consider his visit. But the Dalai Lama has failed to deliver a clear message on his stance.”

– Ye Xiaowen, Director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. Beijing. (April 3, 2006)

“We are willing to consider allowing the Dalai Lama to visit the country for the first time since 1959. Our fundamental policy on the question of Dalai Lama is that China demands he acknowledges Tibet and Taiwan as part of China and seriously and sincerely abandon his pursuit of Tibet independence. The door for negotiations remains open”

– Liu Jianchao, spokesperson and Director General of the PRC Foreign Ministry’s Information Department (April 5, 2006)

Nothing is needed other than the quotes above in the matter of discerning the basic positions as on now of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese on the Tibet issue. What comes out clear is that despite the apparent significant concessions of the Tibetan spiritual leader, Beijing still considers the latest pronouncements of the Dalai Lama as lacking sincerity. Such continuing Chinese lack of trust with the spiritual leader is the primary reason for no real breakthrough so far in the Sino-Tibetan dialogue.

There is also a secondary, but important factor – the Chinese suspicions over the Dalai Lama’s general silence on their additional demand to recognise Taiwan also as part of the PRC, while taking into view his prevailing close religious connections with Taiwan as well as personal ties with the latter’s independence-leaning leader Chen Shuibian. By clubbing together the Taiwan and Tibet issues while laying pre-conditions to the Dalai Lama, Beijing is making clear that it sees similarities in the pro-independence potentials in the two situations and that as an insurance against them, it needs the Dalai Lama’s unequivocal recognition of the Chinese sovereignty over both Tibet and Taiwan.

In totality, the Chinese signals to the Dalai Lama continue to be mixed. On the positive side, they now maintain that the door for negotiations with the Dalai Lama is open and welcome, albeit conditionally, the exiled leader for a pilgrimage visits to the PRC. Being witnessed shortly after holding of the latest 5th session of the dialogue between the Dalai Lama envoys and the Chinese side led by the Executive Vice-Minister Zhu Weiqun of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Guilin, China, February 15-23,2006), the apparent thaw in the Chinese approach could be significant despite the fact that the round could not result in any progress on fundamental differences (for e.g Chinese opposition to the Dalai Lama’s demand for autonomy for all three regions of Tibet, not only for the present Tibet Autonomous Region).

There have been other evidences in China marking a forward-looking approach. Ever since the first round of Sino-Tibetan Dialogue in China (Gyalo Thondup, July 2002), Beijing is showing interest to the need for augmenting the Party’s organisational strength under a realisation of the possibilities of increased contacts and complex negotiations in future with the Dalai Lama. Thus in the following December, the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFD) responsible for dealing with the exiled leadership, was given a new Chief, Ms Liu Yandong, in which post she still continues. The process continues with the same purpose as seen in the reshuffles in the TAR Party Committee carried out in recent times (Yang Chuantang as Party Secretary in December 2004, to be replaced by Zhang Qingli as Acting Party Secretary in November 2005). Both the UFD and the new Tibet Party chiefs are loyalists of the Tibet veteran and the present CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao. All the three share a common background – the Chinese Communist Party Youth League. The Dalai Lama related work in the CCP could in this way be said to have taken over by a set of Tibet experts capable of taking some imaginative steps under the overall guidance of Hu Jintao.

On the negative side, the continuing Chinese hard line posture on the Dalai Lama and repression in Tibet are compounding the otherwise seemingly encouraging picture. Recent instances in this regard include the arrests of monks loyal to the Dalai Lama (Drepung, November 2005), formation of a new Para-military force called “Special Public Security Detachments” (late 2005) to fight ‘splittists’, and the call in the Tibet People’s Congress to struggle against ‘splittism’ as well as ‘protect social stability’ (January 2006). Beijing also intensified its campaign in the same period against foreign nations inviting the Dalai Lama (e.g in Middle East, January 2006 and Latin America, May 2006) on the plea that the hosts abroad should not allow the Dalai Lama’s ‘so-called internationalisation of the Tibet question’ and ‘political activities on the pretext of religion’.

The Dalai Lama was found by Beijing ‘a long-time, stubborn secessionist trying to split China and a disharmonious element’ and on that basis was denied admission into the first International Buddhist Conference held in China ( Hangzhou, April 13-16, 2006). The Chinese media went out of the way in giving publicity to the address given on the occasion by Beijing-appointed 11th Panchan Lama, as a rebuff to the exiled spiritual leader. In a subsequent hard-hitting despatch, the Chinese Official News Agency Xinhua (May 10, 2006) blamed the Dalai Lama for an outbreak of violence at the Ganden Monastery in Lhasa in March. It alleged that the ‘violence was provoked by the Dalai clique to arouse conflict between different sects of Tibetan Buddhism thus sabotaging the unity of Tibet’. The most recent call given at a top level TAR Communist Party meeting (Lhasa, May 15-16 2006) for a focus on ‘strike hard campaign against separatists’ and on launching a ‘patriotic re-education campaign in monastic institutions in Tibet’ has been indicative of the prevailing unrest in Tibet, clearly with anti-Dalai Lama overtones.

It is very difficult to pinpoint Beijing’s line of thinking on further talks with the Dalai Lama side at the moment in view of the conflicting Chinese signals coming. Least that can be said is that Beijing may want to continue the dialogue with the Dalai Lama even though it may expect them to be prolonged. Beijing may realise that the Tibet would remain an international issue because of the global status gained by the Dalai Lama both as a religious leader and champion of peace and finding a solution through negotiations would go a long way in projecting the image of the country as a responsible emerging world economic and political power. Secondly, for logical reasons, it may like to settle the issue within the life span of the Dalai Lama lest the situation should get complex if radicals like those representing the Tibet Youth Congress take over the exiled leadership once the spiritual leader passes away. Under these circumstances, the unceasing Chinese campaign aimed at showing the Dalai Lama in unfavourable light both at home and abroad could at best be considered their pressure tactic to make the exiled leader more forthright on the key question of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet as well as Taiwan, paving the way for a final solution to the Tibet issue.

In the meanwhile, will the Dalai Lama be permitted by China to visit the country on pilgrimage? Without any clear pointers on the subject emanating from the PRC, it is very difficult to hazard a guess in this regard. No doubt Beijing would need some time to prepare the Chinese (and Tibetan) population for the visit, however short it may be, if a principled decision has been taken by it. Prior to any such decision, it may have to weigh carefully the consequences from the visit’s likely emotional impact on Tibetans with implications for domestic stability. As such, it is not surprising that there are no open indications yet on China’s intentions towards creating an atmosphere within the country conducive to the visit. On the contrary, what is being seen now indicate the Chinese determination to spread a negative image of the Dalai Lama both within and outside the country. The situation looks therefore fluid and needs close watch in the coming months for obtaining a clear picture on the pilgrimage proposal.

(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter, India. He was formerly Director in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi. email:

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