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Pre-Olympics Revvying Up of Tibetan Issue: Chinese Concerns

China has been increasingly concerned over what it views as a US-inspired revvying up of the Tibetan issue in the months preceding the Beijing Olympics of August,2008.

2. This concern, which was there even before, has gone up ever since the recent high-profile visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the US and Canada and the honours given to him in the US—particularly the award of the Congressional Medal of Honour at a Congressional function, which was attended by President George Bush. Even though the Americans projected it merely as an expression of their respect and admiration for a spiritual and humanitarian leader with no political significance, the Chinese suspected that the honours concealed a desire to needle China on the Tibetan issue.

3. As the Olympics approach, what the Americans are up to in Tibet has become a more worrisome question for Chinese policy-makers than what the Americans are up to in Taiwan.Beijing has not treated the Congressional Medal of Honour as a one-event issue to be criticised and forgotten. It continues to express its concerns and unhappiness in various subtle ways. The recent Chinese refusal of permission to US naval ships transiting to and from Japan to touch Hong Kong—which was a significant departure from the post-1997 policy of allowing them to halt in Hong Kong— is believed to be an outcome of the Chinese unhappiness over the Dalai Lama issue.

4. On November 21,2007, China cancelled a permission given months ago to the US naval aircraft-carrier USS Kitty Hawk and some support ships to dock in Hong Kong to enable the sailors to spend the Thanksgiving holidays on shore, but it reversed its cancellation, when it realised that it had already given permission months ago. By the time the refusal was reversed, the ships were already on their way to Japan and hence did not dock in Hong Kong.

5. Subsequently, Pentagon officials were quoted by the media as alleging that Beijing also turned away two minesweepers seeking refuge from a storm and a US military flight to resupply the US consulate in Hong Kong. They were quoted as claiming that the Chinese Government has formally notified the Pentagon that it is refusing a request for a port call in Hong Kong over the New Year’s holiday by the guided missile frigate USS Reuben James.

6. While neither US nor Chinese officials have connected these refusals to the Dalai Lama issue, non-governmental analysts have.The “Washington Post” of November 25,2007, has quoted Prof.Shi Yinhong of the People’s University in Beijing, as saying as follows: “The U.S. selling weapons to Taiwan is an old issue, and China expresses its dissatisfaction constantly on that. By blocking the warship (USS Kitty Hawk) and its support vessels, China just hoped to use its reluctance, changing its attitude, to tell the United States that China is unhappy with Bush over his decision to personally present the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama.”

7. The Chinese concerns have further increased following the pronouncements of the Dalai Lama over the selection of his successor. Just as the Chinese Communist Party has imposed a Panchen Lama of its choice on the Tibetan people, it is determined that when the Dalai Lama dies, his successor would be chosen by a religious process controlled by the party in which the Tibetan exiles would have no role.

8. To pre-empt the Chinese imposing a Party-selected Dalai Lama on the Tibetan people,the Dalai Lama has started discussing in public the various options available to him and the Tibetan people. During a visit to Japan in November,2007,the Dalai Lama was reported to have told the “Sankei Shimbun” newspaper that the Tibetan people would not support a successor who was selected by China. He added: “If the Tibetan people wish to uphold the Dalai Lama system, one possibility would be to select the next Dalai Lama while I am still living. Among options being considered are a democratic selection by the high monks of Tibetan Buddhism, or the appointment of a successor by myself.”

9. Subsequently, the Dalai Lama was reported to have told journalists in the margins of an inter-faith conference at Amritsar on November 27,2007, as follows: “If my death comes when we are still in a refugee status then logically my reincarnation will come outside Tibet.” He added that in view of the difficulties that could be faced in following the Buddhist tradition of choosing his re-incarnation, his successor could be selected by election, like the pope; by seniority, or could take over in the traditional way (reincarnation), but outside Tibet.

10. In a strong criticism of the Dalai Lama’s views, a spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said:”The reincarnation of the living Buddha is a unique way of succession of Tibetan Buddhism and follows relatively complete religious rituals and historical conventions.The Dalai’s remarks obviously violated the religious rituals and historical conventions.”

11. Beijing has strong reasons to be concerned over the fact that the Dalai Lama has started talking of other options after his recent visit to the US. It strongly suspects that the idea of a pre-emptive strike at Beijing on the succession issue must have been suggested to him by his followers and advisers in the US. Beijing seems to be worried that his US advisers might persuade the Dalai Lama to announce who would be his successor on the eve of the Olympics just to draw international attention away from the games.

12. The attempts of the critics of China and supporters of the Dalai Lama in the US to organise a boycott of the Olympics in protest against the continuing violations of the human rights of the Tibetans has not picked up momentum. They are now focussing on preventing the Olympic Torch being allowed to touch the US.The Olympics Organisers have reportedly chosen San Francisco as the US City where the torch will be taken in April,2008. The supporters of the Dalai Lama have started a campaign to pressurise the local municipal authorities not to agree to this. “The torch should not be permitted to be used as a propaganda vehicle for the communist dictatorship in China,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who in August,2007, co-sponsored resolutions calling for the US to boycott the Olympics over China’s role in Darfur and its human-rights violations at home. In a letter to Mr.Gavin Newsom, the Mayor of San Francisco, an organisation called the San Francisco Tibet Coalition has said : “Your welcoming of the Olympic torch would suggest … that you are ready to turn your back on a unique opportunity to promote legitimate international concerns and … take a stand for justice in Tibet and China.”

13. Aware of the Chinese unhappiness over the award of the Congressional Medal of Honour to the Dalai Lama, the Government of India was recently reported to have advised Ministers of the Government and senior Government officials not to attend a function in New Delhi in honour of the Dalai Lama after his return from the US. The organisers of the function had reportedly notified that one of the objectives of the function would be to congratulate His Holiness on the US honour. The Government of India does not want any wrong impression that the supporters and well-wishers of His Holiness in India are acting in tandem with those in the US. (4-12-07)

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.E-mail: )

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