Although the Dalai Lama had indicated his decision to devolve the “formal authority to an elected (Tibetan) leader” on several occasions earlier, however his statement on 10 March 2011 caught the Chinese leadership unawares. This statement came 10 days before the Tibetan émigré community went to polls to elect a new Prime Minister and other members to the Tibetan Parliament in-exile. While the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswomen termed the offer as a “trick to deceive the international community”, this move by the Tibetan spiritual leader is likely to impact China in the near- and long-term for a number of reasons.
First, the offer to delegate power to the Tibetan elected representative will have far-reaching consequences on the Chinese political system. In the light of the current popular unrests in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and other countries, against the vestiges of authoritarianism, the Dalai Lama’s move to give up executive powers in favour a popularly elected parliament could trigger similar demands on the Communist Party in China. The Chinese government has indicated that it will take this challenge head-on through extensive internal control mechanisms.
Previously, under President Jiang Zemin, the “three represents” strategy (that is, the party representing the broad masses, productive forces and advanced culture) was suggested to broad-base the party’s hold over the country. China also experimented with elections at the village level to fasten up the process of reform, although the communist party representation is from the county-level upwards. Nevertheless, the party remained top-down in approach and this led to a series of popular movements, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident when an estimated two million students, workers and peasants demonstrated against the Communist Party. Also, in 1991 an estimated 5,000 people demonstrated against the government, and the number rose to about 1, 40,000 in 2009, majority of them aiming at welfare benefits for the people.
Second, by making a long-term and stable arrangement of institutional and popular accountability for the Tibetan authority in-exile, the Dalai Lama will knock off any chance of instability and chaos in a post-Dalai Lama situation. Given the apparent intentions of the Chinese authority to choose the next Dalai Lama, albeit through certain traditional practices, the current step by the Dalai Lama reduces the possibility of the next Dalai Lama exercising any sweeping powers accorded to him under the 1991 constitution.
This is also possibly in line with the lessons learnt from the succession issues hovering around the other two main sects of the Tibetan religion. Today, there are two contesting candidates for the post of the Panchem Lama (each recognized separately by the Dalai Lama and the Chinese Government) and three candidates for the Karmapa Lama positions (although Dharamshala and Beijing separately recognized Urgyen Trinley Dorje as the current Karmapa Lama). As the Dalai Lama’s position in the Tibetan life is much more crucial, any carelessness in this regard could cost the Tibetan cause enormously. Hence the current move by the Dalai Lama can be seen as broad-basing the institution by handing over the political functions to an elected leader.
Third, in the recent period the Chinese leaders’ verbal attacks on the Dalai Lama have increasingly become personal and the current move to delegate powers will help in shifting the attention of the Chinese authorities from the Dalai Lama. For instance, Zhang Qingli, the then Communist Party Secretary of Tibet went to the extent of calling the Dalai Lama in 2008 as a “wolf in a monk’s robes”. Li Zhaoxing, former foreign minister and the current spokesman of foreign affairs of the National People’s Congress lampooned the 6th Dalai Lama (who hailed from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh) for indulging in worldly pleasures or the current Dalai Lama as a “political monk” in March 2010. The current decision thus might reposition the focus of the Chinese authorities and it is possible that the popularly elected leader may become the target of Chinese criticism. But the Chinese leaders maintain that the talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives are meant to discuss the personal future of the Dalai Lama and not to deliberate on governance in Tibet.
In such a scenario, these Chinese official criticism is bound to boomerang on China as similar caustic criticisms by highest public functionaries in the Chinese leadership including the then Premier Zhu Rongji indicated during the elections in Taiwan in 1995/96 and 2000. Moreover, the nine rounds of talks between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama’s representative have not yielded any positive results. In the US Embassy cables from Beijing, Wikileaks indicated, a majority of the Politburo members of the Communist Party wish to continue the hard line stance on the Tibetan unrest. For this purpose, the Chinese authorities have initiated political education campaigns to mould the Tibetan monks and have adopted “strike hard” policies of repression of dissent. These have resulted in more political alienation of Tibetans in Tibet and abroad which implies that the relations between the Tibetans and the Chinese are poised to remain difficult in the future.