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China: New Trend to Look Beyond the Dalai Lama

For the Tibet issue, the ‘Special Meeting’ of the Tibetan exiled community, to start from 17 November 2008 at Dharamsala (India), may turn out to be a turning point. It is taking place at a time when the situation concerning the issue has become more complex- the latest ninth round of talks with Beijing has ended in a failure and firm signals are being given by China on its new line of looking at the post-Dalai Lama era. Also, side-by-side, both the parties have still not given up hopes on holding further talks. It is not surprising that at the present juncture, the Dalai Lama has been cautious in commenting on the meeting’s outcome; in his message (14 November 2008), he has said that the occasion would provide ‘a forum for understanding the real opinions and views of the Tibetan people’ and that there will be ‘ no agenda for reaching a particular pre-determined outcome’. The least that can be expected therefore is a free discussion among the participants on the available options for future, which may include support to Tibet independence. A key question may however remain – whether a formal document will be adopted on the occasion firmly prescribing a course, which could be alternate to the ‘middle path’ approach. In any case, it cannot be denied that the proceedings at the meeting may mark, at least symbolically, a new stage of development on the Tibet issue, which can have implications for the Tibetan community on the whole and even for future Sino-Indian relations.

The changing Chinese perceptions on the Tibet issue need a close examination at this point of time. Internally, Beijing seems to have managed well to weather the storm in Tibet created by the March 2008 unrest, though the root causes for the trouble are yet to be fully addressed by it. China could achieve a successful Olympics and has become a crucial partner of the West in tackling the global financial crisis. Opinions on the growing inability of the West to continue its financial support the Dalai Lama are now being heard more frequently in China. In such an overall context, the meaning of the Chinese government’s new line providing for looking at the Tibet issue beyond the Dalai Lama is becoming clear. This line occupied a central place in the observations (Xinhua, 10 November 2008) made by Zhu Weiqun, the executive Vice-Minister of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee. The party and state-controlled media have given wide publicity to the remarks of the official, describing them as “unusual”. It is indeed so, as Zhu is the first such high level cadre to discuss openly about the ‘ passing away of the current Dalai Lama’ and its impact on the Tibetan situation and the exiled community.

A question arises as to what prompted such a new trend in China now? Reasons can be traced in Zhu’s statement itself- the first and foremost is his recognition that the spiritual leader is in ‘his 70s and in poor health’ and that it is time to look beyond the Dalai Lama. Secondly, the official may be reflecting Chinese fears of uncertainties that may arise once the Dalai Lama is no longer in the scene and a leadership vacuum begins to confront the exiled community. In particular, they may be worried about the role of the “pro-secession” Tibet Youth Congress (TYC) in the post-Dalai Lama era. Zhu, on his part, has noted with concern the support to TYC coming from the Dalai Lama, but chose to project the view that ‘most of the Tibetans in exile will not agree to use violence or terrorism against China or Tibet Autonomous Region, both now and in future’; needless to say that he left the basis for his impressions to anybody’s guess.

Interestingly, the Chinese academic community is also sharing the government’s view. An unnamed expert of the Ministry of State Security- affiliated China Institute for Contemporary International Relations has said (Global Times, 12 November 2008) that the Special Meeting itself is meant to prepare the exiled community for a post-Dalai Lama era. In the expert’s view, the Dalai Lama has two goals in convening the Special Meeting – deal with the resistance coming from radicals from within and increase the pressure on the central government as a mean to strengthen his bargaining position during further talks.

There are also indications that China is paying attention to the emergence of influential leaders in the exiled community in the post-Dalai Lama era. An exclusive article (by Professor Sun Hongnian of the Border History Research Centre of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Xinhua- International Herald Leader, 14 November 2008) has analyzed the qualifications of the two Dalai Lama private envoys Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen to assume future leadership positions. It has found that during talks with the central government, the two have been acting mostly as representatives of the Tibetan government in exile, not of the Dalai Lama and evaluated the same as a part of the leadership transition process, which has begun in Dharamsala.

Despite its satisfaction over India’s treatment of Tibetan protestors in the aftermath of March 2008 unrest in Tibet, China continues to feel that the Dalai Lama factor is complicating Sino-Indian relations. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has himself admitted that the Tibet issue is a sensitive one in Sino-Indian ties. China’s authoritative media, on their part, have criticized some right wing politicians of India of being pro-Dalai Lama and against China. Even the name of Indian opposition leader Mr L.K.Advani, has figured in their charges. Of late, the Dalai Lama himself has come under their attack for his acceptance of Arunachal Pradesh including Tawang as part of India during his tour some time back to India’s Northeast. The Chinese media have alleged that the exiled leader has reversed his earlier position of considering Arunachal Pradesh as part of Tibet. This trend continues with a latest Chinese comment (I Feng Journal, 9 October 2008) blaming the Dalai Lama for his efforts to create obstacles in the Sino-Indian ties through his motivated position on the Sino-Indian border issue. Lastly, the position on India taken at official levels in Beijing, prior to the scheduled meeting at Dharamsala, may need New Delhi’s urgent attention. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, has expressed his country’s belief (13 November 2008) that India will honour its commitment not to allow any anti- China act on the Indian Territory, which is being widely seen as an indirect demand for India’s stopping the Dharamsala conclave.

If ‘independence’ or any other anti-China demand gets incorporated into the official policy at the Dharamsala meeting, Beijing may have the option of levelling charges against New Delhi for having violated its commitment not to allow any anti-China activity on the Indian soil. This may have implications for Sino-Indian relations. Also in that eventuality, the distance between the Chinese and the Dalai Lama side would further grow, with unpredictable repercussions. However, the Dalai Lama’s cautious remarks indicate that he may ensure that no embarrassment is caused to the host country India. There may thus be a debate at Dharamsala, followed by a Declaration in general terms, but without any endorsement of the ‘indepndence for Tibet’.This may be acceptable to Beijing, even though it may choose to resort to some rhetoric against the Dalai Lama on this account. As far as India is concerned, it should be alive to tempers that may be running high among the exiled community in their zeal to find alternate options. India should not allow itself to be seen by the participants as influencing , even indirectly, the proceedings of the meeting. All the three parties concerned with Tibet issue – India, China and the Tibetan exiles, have a definite stake in taking forward the dialogue process; a prudent approach from them to the Special Meeting would certainly help that cause.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.

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