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China: Debating New Tibet Policy

An interview by Professor Jin Wei of the Central Party School to the Hong Kong journal “Asia Weekly”, published on June 09, 2013 on the Tibetan issue and the Dalai Lama have stirred the Tibet watching community the world over.

In a surprising thesis, Ms. Jin Wei advocated separating the political aspect of the issue from the spiritual and cultural aspects. Jin Wei, who claims to have ravelled widely in Tibet and spoken to ordinary Tibetans, feels that the overwhelming complaints by the Tibetans are in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), and Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunan provinces.

Jin Wei’s interview does not mean that the policy of the authorities towards the Dalai Lama has changed already. But it indicates that a serious debate has ensured among the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) politburo and its standing committee (PBSC), and there are important top leaders who are supporting Jin Wei’s thesis. Hong Kong since Mao Zedong’s time has been used by the Chinese leaders not only as a window to the outside world, but also to air difficult internal policies which would have been difficult to initially reflect through the national media. In 1991 Deng Xiaoping’s Shenzen speech on reform and opening up was first published in Hong Kong. Thereafter, Deng’s policy took the country by storm and there was no stopping of economic reform. Political reform, of course, remained in the locker.

Jin wei is no Deng Xiaoping. Her thesis may not take China by storm. It is not that important an issue for the common Chinese people. But it is a very important issue for China’s leadership as the Tibet question is seen as crucial to China’s security, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Tibet is a declared core interest of China along with Taiwan, Xinjiang and of course, the primacy of the CCP.

It is still a mystery who are the leaders that backed Jin Wei. If she had given this interview on her own volition action could have taken against her by the state for treason and subversion. Nor has any denial or condemnation of the interview come from the party center or the United Front Works Department (UFWD) which handles the Tibet issue and conducts talks with Dalai Lama’s representatives, which was suspended by China in 2010.

According to the International campaign for Tibet (ICT) release of June 27, that following discussions between Tibetans and representatives of the authorities in Qinghai concluded that in terms of religion, the 14th Dalai Lama could be revered, respected and followed. In terms of politics, however, he cannot be followed. Politics and religion must be separated. The message was clear: no independence, no autonomy, no ‘Middle Way’ of the Dalai Lama. But as a religious leader, his position was restored. Also no party or government official could revere the Dalai Lama, under the separation of religion and politics.

Another Free Tibet media release of July 01 says that authorities in Qinghai Province had sent a text message that there was no change in the policy towards the Dalai Lama and no confusion prevails.

Jin Wei advocated that the first step should be to resolve the problem of the Dalai Lama. In her view the Dalai lama should be facilitated to visit Hong Kong or Macau purely as a religious leader and eventually settle in Hong Kong, now part of China under the ‘one country, two systems’, formula. If that works, then allow him to visit Tibet. Jin Wei’s, theory is that otherwise, there will be two. Dalai Lamas, one selected by the Chinese inside the country and one selected by the Dalai Lama outside China, will be embarrassing for China. She also referred to the two Panchen Lamas now in China, one selected by the Dalai Lama and the other by the Chinese authorities. This has embarrassed the Chinese authorities as the Chinese selection of Panchen Lama was not accepted by the Tibetans, while the Dalai Lama selected Panchen Lama and his parents are kept incommunicado by the authorities. Otherwise, after the demise of the 14th Dalai Lama there could be more problems.

Jin Wei has tried to carefully analyse the issue and her conclusions are not very different from the views of serious Tibet watchers outside China. Independence is neither demanded by the Dalai Lama nor any other country. The quest for autonomy is dissipating fast. The Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Way’ could be kept on the backburner at the moment. The immediate challenge is the psychology of six million Tibetans.

The self-immolation of Tibetans since 2009, which has reached 120, is a severe embarrassment for China. They do not know now to stop it. Self-immolation is no longer restricted to monks and nuns and has spread to lay people. They do not demand independence for Tibet. They only demand the freedom to worship the Dalai Lama freely. There is no threat to China’s security and territorial integrity from them.

According to Jin Wei, local authorities have mishandled the situation with harsh methods. But she should have admitted that the local authorities get their directions form the central authorities, especially the United Front Work Department (UFWD).

This writer has written several times that abusing the Dalai Lama, calling him ‘serpent’s head’, ‘wolf in a Lama’s robe’ and other names would have no effect. The Dalai Lama is far above them.

The Chinese authorities may be beginning to realise that the developments in Tibet and political education have not helped to win over the younger Tibetans. The developments mainly go to the Han Chinese who are being increasingly settled in TAR. Han superiority and dominance have created a huge Han Tibetan divide.

In the 1950s the Chinese authorities tore apart the 17 point agreement with the Dalai Lama, forcing him to flee to India. Deng Xiaoping told Tibetan interlocutors that anything except independence could be discussed. Former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang sought to accommodate the demands for religious freedom, promotion of Tibetan language and culture. Those were swept by the hardliners who brushed aside the law of autonomy for minorities.

After the 2008 Lhasa uprising in which around 200 people were killed, the crackdown on Tibetans became severe. Lhasa had been kept quiet, but the Tibetan areas in neighbouring provinces have flared up. All the self-immolations have taken place in these areas.

It appears that sections of the top leadership may have realized that their Tibet policy was misplaced and misdirected. Tibetan Buddhism is a lamastic religion, very complicated and unique. Former party General Secretary Hu Jintao, who was once the party Chief of TAR, prosecuted a particularly hard line on Tibet.

The political and social situation inside China has been changing rather rapidly, and the CCP does not enjoy blind obeisance any longer. It is being questioned over various issues. Religion, especially Buddhism, is beginning to spread. The Falun Gong meditation movement cannot be dismissed by the CCP. It had penetrated even the armed forces, and harsh methods were used to control it.

It is still alive. The CCP and the Chinese government will have to accept this reality sooner rather than later.

While the international community has accepted Tibet as an integral part of China, persecution of religious minorities has not stopped. The more China follows its hardline policy and keeps up its ‘strike hard’ campaign, more vulnerable it will be. Self-immolations may provoke more serious conflicts and begin to attract sympathy from Hans.

President Xi Jinping is pushing China to a ‘great power’ status. With great power comes great responsibility. He cannot achieve this by annihilation of his own people.

It is too early to say how Jin Wei’s thesis will go forward. If anything, atleast a beginning seems to have been made by a powerful section of the leadership.

(The writer, Mr Bhasskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. email:

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