IPCS Special Commentary:

China, Tibet & Beijing's New Thinking

24 Jun, 2013    ·   4009

Jayadeva Ranade on the emergence of a new policy in Chinese discourse towards Tibet

Jayadeva Ranade
Jayadeva Ranade
Distinguished Fellow

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As China’s new leaders began settling into their jobs soon after the 18th Party Congress held in Beijing in November 2012, indications became available that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s senior leadership would focus attention on the Tibet issue. This included making some key personnel appointments, including in the now more powerful CCP Central Committee (CC)’s Secretariat. The CCP leadership is also confronted with the growing discontent among Tibetans in China.

Meanwhile there is speculation among sections of the Tibetan community in exile, based mainly on wishful thinking, that Chinese President Xi Jinping would be influenced by his family background and adopt a ‘softer’ policy towards Tibetans and the Tibet issue. While there have been signs that China’s leadership is taking some initiatives intended to diffuse the situation, there are no indications whatsoever that the present tough policy on Tibet will mellow. For example, Xiao Wunan, a senior CCP cadre affiliated to the CCP CC’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), fronted two overtures, including one made directly to the exiled Tibetan hierarchy in Dharamsala last year. Both were aimed at undermining the Dalai Lama’s influence and creating schisms among Tibetan Buddhists. There have very recently been two other events which merit attention.

The first is a curious invitation extended on June 3, 2013, by the little known ‘Hong Kong Tibetan and Han-Chinese Friendship Organisation’. Suspected to be a pro-Beijing ‘front’ organization, it came to notice when it tried to disrupt pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on June 1, 2009. It is headed by Philip Li Koi-hop, the bankrupt former head of the ‘Hong Kong North West Express Shipping Company’ who is now reportedly a Marine Inspector.

The other is an interesting, and apparently important, interview by Prof Jin Wei of the CCP Central Party School which was published on June 6, 2013, by the Chinese-language Hong Kong-based ‘Asia Weekly’. Captioned ‘Reopen Talks and Resolve Tibetan Issues’, her interview to ‘Asia Weekly’ reveals important elements of the Chinese leadership’s thinking on the Tibet issue and the Dalai Lama. It confirms too that there will be no relaxation in Beijing’s increasingly tough policy concerning Tibetans.

The Central Party School is the crucible for training upward mobile Party cadres and is presently under the direct control of Liu Yunshun, member of the Politburo Standing Committee overseeing the propaganda apparatus and former Chief of the Party’s Central Propaganda Department. Prof Jin Wei is a senior member of its faculty with a pronounced background in minority issues. She is currently Deputy Director of Minority Issues in the Central Party School and has previously held the post of Director of Ethnic Religious Studies, Institute of Social Development Research at the Central Party School. Central Party School teachers are handpicked and periodically tested for ‘political reliability’.

Echoing Mao Zedong’s observation of 1952 that the Tibet nationality question is “extremely serious” and cannot be handled in a “routine” manner--an assertion reiterated recently by Yu Zhengsheng, the new Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) which oversees Dalai Lama and Tibet-related issues and the CCP CC’s United Front Work Department--in the interview Prof Jin Wei asserted that the “Dalai Lama Clique” is engaged in “separatism”. She noted that the official term “Tibet-related issue” is used to describe “social management and social development of the six million Tibetan people living in the five provinces of the TAR, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan”. Blaming “domestic and overseas Tibetan independence extremists” for pursuing the “Tibetan independence” issue and “infiltrators” for “sabotage”, she nonetheless conceded that “some of the domestic contradictions and conflicts that occur are mostly due to nationality and religious issues.” She was categoric that differences between the Chinese authorities and “the Dalai Lama Clique” are “antagonistic and irreconcilable” because the Dalai Lama had promoted “separatist activities for Tibetan independence” since 1959, and directly challenged China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

At the same time, Prof Jin Wei acknowledged that the Dalai Lama is considered a “living god” by six million Tibetan people and is “the object of their spiritual worship, and has considerable appeal”. Stating that how China deals with him “affects the feelings of thousands and thousands of Tibetans”, she said “we cannot simply treat him as an enemy”. Describing him as a “key figure” in Tibet-related issues, she said the “Dalai Lama issue and the Tibet-related issues” would be best solved with an eye towards the future and recommended re-starting the talks with his representatives that had remained suspended since 2010.  At the same time she endorsed that the “Dalai Lama question” should continue to be dealt with “in a hostile way”.

Prof Jin Wei advanced a framework for the new round of discussions. The first step, she said, should be to put aside disputes and break the current impasse. She clarified that this meant tackling easy issues first while setting aside the “Middle Way” and other political issues. Allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Hong Kong or Macau purely in his capacity as a religious leader could be discussed, with the ambit being expanded later to consider allowing him to reside in Hong Kong. Subject to it being proved that his decision in 2011, to completely retire from politics and be solely a religious leader was genuine, he could even perhaps be allowed to visit Tibet.
Secondly, she stressed that it is imperative to ensure that the Dalai Lama, who has reached an advanced age, is reincarnated only inside China.  Failure to achieve this would mean “twin Dalai Lamas,” with one reincarnation recognized abroad and one domestically. Such an eventuality would have a “great impact on the stability and security of the Tibetan region”.  She said once talks resumed and the current impasse was broken, China would have to “fight” to ensure the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation inside the country.  While China could use “Drawing Lots from the Golden Urn” to prevent the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation overseas, she pointed out that there is a historical precedent for Living Buddha’s designating their own successors and China must “make every possible effort to avoid the embarrassment of the “twin Panchen Lama” event”.
A crucial assessment put forward by Prof Jin Wei was that after the present Dalai Lama, the obsession of people in Western countries with the Dalai Lama will “gradually fade” and international pressure on Tibet-related issues will “slowly reduce”.  The anxiety and “violent sentiments of Tibetan groups inside China” will be further calmed if a “believable Dalai Lama is produced by religious rituals” inside China. She anticipated that in the post-Dalai Lama phase, the exiled Tibetan government will probably join other extremist organisations to engage in extreme violence.  If China succeeds in resolving the “Dalai Lama Dilemma”, however, it will be able to disintegrate overseas Tibetan independence forces.

She emphasized that a couple of things had to be done prior to the Dalai Lama being allowed to return to China. First, it was essential to carefully assess the “trust and feelings of the six million Tibetan people towards the Communist Party”. Second was to correctly assess how the Tibetan people worship the Dalai Lama and how they feel about him.  Stating that she had made successive trips to Tibet, she disclosed that ordinary people had frequently and “straightforwardly” told her that: “In this life I depend on the Communist Party, in the next life I depend on the Dalai Lama”. These few words, she said, provided the key to her evaluation.
She averred that the Chinese Communist Party had every reason to be highly confident as, since the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet in the fifties, the Communist Party has devoted a great deal of care and love to Tibet and the general population of Tibetans”, and has extended massive support and assistance for its economic development.  There has been great progress in economic and social development in Tibetan areas over the last 50 years, with huge visible improvements in material life, health, education, and transportation.  For this, she said, the Tibetan people are “profoundly grateful to the Communist Party, and fully recognize the People’s Republic of China which is under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party”.
Nevertheless, she cautioned that despite all the effort and work by the Communist Party to enhance economic and social development, it is “impossible to deny the Dalai Lama’s status in the eyes of the general public”. It is similarly impossible to change the way the Tibetan people “worship the Dalai Lama and are dependent on him”. She emphasized, however, that “this worship has no political significance or plans” and that for most people “Tibetan independence” is just an empty phrase. They have no interest in it and do not understand what it means.  According to her the Tibetan people are actually full of gratitude for the Communist Party, which is highly recognized. She assessed, therefore, that “our leaders at all levels” and in all relevant departments could very confidently discuss the issue of allowing the Dalai Lama to return to the country.

Prof Jin Wei discussed the issue of self-immolations and, perhaps for the first time, provided an insight into the CCP leadership’s thinking on this phenomenon, which has seriously vexed them. She enumerated the following four attributes:
i) The spate of self-immolations has increased and become a kind of “virtual hysteria,” or an “infectious disease”. It has “become a movement”;
ii) Measures taken to stop them have not yet been significantly effective;
iii) The self-immolations have the potential to trigger more serious conflicts. Media reports, recordings, prayers for self-immolators, condolences and other acts have progressively widened their impact on the populace.  The agitated emotions of Tibetans and actions by local governments to stop confrontations have promoted tensions and transformed the self-immolations from a “religious movement” into a “political movement” and even one spreading “hatred”. Disaffection has now spread throughout the Tibetan ethnic group and evolved from being a problem between the central government and the “Dalai Lama separatist clique” into an ethnic conflict between Chinese and Tibetans; and
iv) Self-immolation is a violent emotional act that is performed after an individual is “instigated”. The reason for mainly the youth committing self-immolation, is because their feelings towards the Communist Party are different from that of the older generation of Tibetans.  While the latter are deeply grateful and thankful to the CCP for their emancipation and their share of land and livestock, the Tibetan youth are unable to compare the material improvement in their lives or the new and old governments. The younger Tibetans are also very impulsive and give expression to their emotions.

In conclusion, Prof Jin Wei advised cadres working in the Tibetan regions to be particularly careful while handling religious affairs and said the anti-religious bias of several former Party Secretaries of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) had contributed to present grievances. Significantly, she urged the separation of religion and politics. Saying that Tibetans have been influenced by religion for thousands of years, she described their philosophy as: “heavily spiritual and light on materialism, heavy on the next life and light on this life”.  The CCP, as the ruling party, needs to understand this huge difference between the Tibetans and the Han.  She stressed that Tibet-related issues are crucial for China and it is essential to promote social stability and prevent long-lasting division between the nationalities. It would also be useful for reunification with Taiwan and improving China’s international image.

Prof Jin Wei’s interview suggests that the CCP is probably reviewing its policy on talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives. Her recommendations acknowledge the importance to China of: working towards reincarnation of the Dalai Lama inside China; effectively tackling the issue of self-immolations; diffusing rising tensions between the Han and Tibetan nationalities including by being more tolerant of the latter’s religious practices; diluting international pressure on Tibet and Human Rights issues; and facilitating reunification with Taiwan. The objectives of the overtures being made by Xiao Wunan dovetail with these. Notable though is that Prof Jin Wei, quite pointedly, does not waver in her observation that differences between the CCP and “the Dalai Lama Clique” are “antagonistic and irreconcilable” and nowhere does she recommend an easing in Beijing’s steadily increasing stringent policy towards Tibetans.