Dalai Lama, Beijing and The Tibet Cause.


December 23, 2016

The Daily Pioneer, 23 December 2016

Over the years, Beijing has tried to shrink the space available to the Dalai Lama in world capitals, to lobby the Tibet cause. Notwithstanding these efforts, the Dalai Lama retains immense popular goodwill and support.

The Dalai Lama’s unrivalled religious authority and influence over Buddhists in China and around the world is a matter of concern to Beijing. Over the years, Beijing has tried to shrink the space available to the Dalai Lama in world capitals to lobby the Tibet cause and undermine his influence over the different Tibetan Buddhist sects. Despite these efforts, the Dalai Lama’s influence and religious authority remain undiminished.

Since at least the past decade, Beijing has tried to restrict the Dalai Lama’s interactions with world leaders in a bid to reduce his international stature and limit his effectiveness in lobbying support for the ‘Tibet cause’. In addition to strong official protests demanding cancellation of meetings scheduled with the Dalai Lama — consistently described as a “splittist” engaged in anti-China activities — China has used a mix of punitive diplomatic and economic measures.

Studies reveal that these punitive actions, enforced promptly after the Dalai Lama is formally received by a Head of State or Government, usually remain in effect for periods of between six months to two years. Additionally, China immediately suspends all diplomatic, political and governmental contacts, including those already scheduled. Bilateral trade and outbound Chinese investment are also adversely affected with a visible slow down in Chinese exports and imports.

Examples include France, with whom China suspended relations for four months after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met the Dalai Lama in Warsaw in December 2008. Danish-Chinese relations were frozen for seven months after a meeting between the Danish Prime Minister and the Dalai Lama in May 2009. The severest reaction was in the case of Norway, when Beijing held it responsible for awarding the 2010 Nobel Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China’, and normalised relations only six years later on December 19 this year.

Britain too, despite having launched a policy of appeasing China since October 2008, had relations with China suspended after the ‘private’ meeting between British Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg with the Dalai Lama in May 2012. It capitulated within a year. No British leader has met the Dalai Lama since 2012 and China pointedly played up the economic advantages of the relationship during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to London in 2015.

Because of China’s economic heft and pressure, the number of world leaders who have received the Dalai Lama in the past couple of years has seen a dramatic drop to single digits. Even US President Barack Obama deferred a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2015. In this backdrop, Mongolia’s reception of the Dalai Lama assumes importance. The Dalai Lama used it to demonstrate his religious authority and ‘recognise’ the third highest ranking monk in Tibetan Buddhism.

A sharper edge has also been visible now in Chinese protests to India regarding the Dalai Lama. In October this year, Beijing objected to India permitting the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh and in December, to the visit of Ogyen Trinley Dorje, widely regarded as the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, to Arunachal Pradesh, though he avoided making any political statement. On December 16, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang objected to the Dalai Lama’s meeting with President Pranab Mukherjee at the Rashtrapati Bhavan during a children’s summit organised on December 10 and said India had “insisted” on arranging the 14th Dalai Lama’s visit to the presidential palace. He urged India to “fully respect China’s core interests and major concerns, and take effective means to remove the negative impact caused by the incident to avoid any disturbance to China-India relationship.”

Of late, China appears to be trying to further restrict the space available to the Tibetans-in-exile by objecting to meetings between senior officials and their Sikyong, Lobsang Sangay. China recently objected to meetings between Lobsang Sangay and British and Nepalese politicians and, in the case of the United Kingdom, warned that it had “severely damaged China’s core interests.”

Domestically too, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is trying to maintain controls on the rapidly increasing number of adherents to Buddhism. The situation inside the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) continues to be restive with three self-immolations occurring this year. The most recent was on December 8, in the Tibetan area of Amdo in Machu in Gansu Province. TAR increased its security budget for this year by 54 per cent and the previous TAR party secretary Chen Quanguo, put in place an effective security grid comprising 698 police stations ensuring that security personnel arrive at the scene within three minutes of an incident being reported. He also extended CCP surveillance to each of the TAR’s 5,453 villages.

A document published by the Department of Military Psychology, People’s Armed Police University College of Engineering in January this year and publicised by the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), nevertheless reveals a high incidence of psychological problems among police officers involved in ‘stability maintenance’ and counter-terror operations. Another document by the Sichuan Police College in 2014 described the risks in tackling “violent terrorist criminal activities in the Tibetan areas” as rather high.

Meanwhile, the Zhejiang Provincial unit of China’s official Buddhist Association of China, issued a six-point directive on November 28, calling for the prevention and restriction of the ‘illegal’ propagation of Tibetan Buddhism in China’s eastern Zhejiang Province. It prohibits monks practicing Tibetan Buddhism from visiting Zhejiang Province to give teachings and conduct empowerment and other rituals without Government approval. The directive hints at suspicion of the Chinese authorities against the spread and popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in the larger Chinese society.

Notwithstanding these efforts, the Dalai Lama retains immense popular goodwill and support from legislators in various countries. His Kalachakra ‘teachings’ in India attracts visitors from China in thousands. To discourage Tibetans and Chinese from travelling to Bodh Gaya for the ‘Kalachakra’ in January 2017, Beijing has decided to impose travel restrictions, especially on Tibetans!

(The writer is former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy)

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