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Talks between Dalai Lama and Beijing: A turning point in China's Tibetan policy?

The Dalai Lama wipes his face as he attends the second and final day of an interfaith meeting in New Delhi, India, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014.Photo: AP

Since Tibet’s integration into the PRC in 1959, the Dalai Lama has traditionally been poorly seen by the socialist regime, who sometimes calls him a “devil in a robe.”

At the end of August, however, the Tibet Autonomous Region’s deputy Party Secretary, Wu Yingjie, revealed to a delegation of South Asian journalists, that Beijing was negotiating with the spiritual head “about his own future”: his return to China and Tibet. Then on  September 17th, an unsigned blog piece posted on the website (removed the next day), quoting “insider sources,” suggested that Xi Jinping was  “probably” about to let the Dalai Lama “abandon Tibetan independence and come back to China on pilgrimage” (to Wutaishan, one of China’s holiest mountain).

According to the Wall Street Journal: “This post was based on rumors of talks between the Dalai Lama and Beijing, that the Dalai Lama’s camp says are untrue.”

This suggestion of a possible return of the Dalai Lama to China came as a complete surprise: it expresses a change in atmosphere – among the population on the plateau. After having invested 15 billion dollars on infrastructure in 20 years, and committing further 15 billion in the years to come, China has equipped Tibet with a reliable road network, five airports, and a railway line anchoring it firmly to the nation.  Greenhouse agriculture is developing, allowing a constant outflow of highly prized fruit and vegetables throughout the 350 sunny days of the year. This year, 12 million of (mostly Chinese) tourists made the trip.

On the political front, tension is still very much present; and although one 22-year-old burned himself to death in Tsoe opposite a government building in recent days, the wave of self-immolations seem to have passed its crux. Soldiers and snipers who were blocking most of the streets of old-Lassa in 2008, are now gone.

But then comes the second chock: on September 7th , the 14th Dalai Lama, shares with a German journalist his wishes to see his function and title coming to their end upon his own death: no more reincarnation of a 15th Dalai Lama, after almost 5 centuries of uninterrupted succession through  reincarnation. The religious leader wants it that way, because should “a 15th Dalai Lama be weak, he would bring disgrace to the function.”

Beijing of course intervened, denying him the right to “violate history.”  Therefore an interesting paradox developed where the atheist authorities are now posing as the staunch protector of the Tibetan religion’s rites, and the Dalai Lama as their destroyer.

Beijing’s rhetoric sounds bizarre, but it has no choice: if the Dalai Lama sticks by his word when he dies, Beijing, at his death, would most likely have a child selected by a committee of lamas, and groomed as the next lama leader. The boy, however, would have no more respect and audience than the current “red” Panchen Lama (the child picked by Jiang Zemin to replace the one selected under supervision of the Dalai Lama); no one would recognize him.

Now, in this last pronouncement, the sincerity of the Dalai Lama may be put to test on one ground, because of the simultaneous holding of negotiations on his come-back.  Wu Yingjie, the Tibet Autonomous Region’s deputy Party Secretary, claims that the talks are “proceeding well”, but one thing is missing in them: talks about the Tibetan community’s future, once its spiritual and historical leader is living amongst, or near it.

This chapter is absent in the talks, because China does not want it. Now, while pretending to abolish his own function, the Dalai Lama could be trying to threaten the socialist power with anarchy after his disappearance unless it makes concessions. His Holiness could demand that his clergy be allowed to preach without interference from the Party or its “Buddhist patriotic” association. He could also commit his lamas to not interfering with the mundane politics of the Party and Government on the plateau. He would thus try to force a kind of arrangement through this pressure – the only leverage that the Dalai Lama has.

One last detail comes here and threatens to blur the perspective. As a respected Tibet-watcher puts it, China may have planted this rumor as “a publicity tactic to diffuse the protests in India ahead of Xi-Modi meeting”–protests by Indians and Tibetans worried about India “betraying”  its Tibetan community in exile. Such a suspicion was plausible before Xi’s India trip: the fake news of a settlement between China and the Dalai Lama would have accommodated India’s hopes and allowed the 110.000 Tibetans in Dharamsala to leave.

However, the theory has lost all credibility, after an unexpected incident has brought to naught the hopes set on the official visit.

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