In the midst of reports of emissaries being exchanged between Beijing and the Dalai Lama’s set-up and positive references to Buddhism by Chinese leaders, recent developments suggest that Beijing has decided on a new initiative on the Tibet issue. At the same time, there has been no change in the policies being enforced in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) or Beijing’s efforts to shrink the room for manoeuvre available to the Dalai Lama.
Chinese officials are simultaneously bringing increased pressure to bear on foreign interlocutors on the Tibet issue. The latter was highlighted by the Pope’s refusal to meet the Dalai Lama in mid-December, South Africa declining him a visa and the Norwegian government declining to receive him last year in May. While visiting Nepal in October last year, TAR chairman Lobsang Gyaltsen asserted that “China doesn’t have any refugee as such” and those crossing the border into Nepal are “illegal”. Implicit is the hint that China could question escaping Tibetans being accorded the status of ‘political refugees’. Separately, members of some Chinese think-tanks visiting India late in 2014 observed that the Dalai Lama’s presence in India was an obstacle to India-China relations and that while the “Dalai Lama has a religious colour” the “present person” was a political individual indulging in anti-Chinese activities.
This has at the same time been accompanied by a noticeable mellowing in references by senior Chinese leaders to the 79-year-old Dalai Lama, prompting him to describe Chinese President Xi Jinping as “more realistic” and his government as “softer” during an interview to the Nikkei Asian Review on November 25, 2014. Interesting is the Dalai Lama’s remark of October 8, when he said “some Chinese officials, for example the deputy party secretary in the autonomous region of Tibet, also mentioned the possibility of my visit.”
Though reports of any formal contacts have been denied by the Dalai Lama’s set-up, fresh speculation was sparked by the Dalai Lama’s interview on BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ programme. He was quoted by BBC as saying “The Dalai Lama institution will cease one day. These man-made institutions will cease. There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next, who will disgrace himself or herself. That would be very sad. So, much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama”.
In recent months China also seemingly stepped up engagement with foreigners on the Tibet issue. Examples include the participation for the first time by foreigners in the Tibet Forum in Lhasa in mid-August and the invitation to Beijing-based foreign military attachés to tour Tibet the following month.
Particularly interesting are the activities of Professor Jin Wei, deputy director of minority issues in the Central Party School in Beijing, which she joined in 1985. The Central Party School is the crucible for training the senior cadre of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) earmarked for upward progression and its faculty comprises CCP members hand-picked for reliability.
In an important interview published on June 6, 2013, by Hong Kong’s Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly), Jin asserted that China must ensure that the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation was found “inside China” and “make every possible effort to avoid the embarrassment of the ‘twin Panchen Lama’ event”. Stating that “we cannot simply treat him as an enemy”, she advanced a new framework for talks and recommended breaking “the current impasse” and re-starting the talks — suspended since 2010 — with the Dalai Lama’s representatives.
In the past few months Jin has travelled to the United States and Britain to publicise the CCP’s new thinking on the Tibet issue. During her visit to the US a couple of months ago, she had closed-door meetings with select think-tanks and, more significantly, with some of the Dalai Lama’s key supporters.
In November 2014, she spoke at Oxford and addressed the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS) in London. Hinting that Beijing could re-evaluate its policy of aid to the TAR, she suggested that while policies to aid Tibet and extend high-levels of central investment should continue, they should be tailored to local conditions and the needs of Tibetans.
Jin disclosed said that while the number of monasteries and monks in the TAR had increased since 1965, most officials in the region saw monks as “trouble-makers”. She attributed the increased “internal tensions” in the TAR to the policy of placing officials inside monasteries and nunneries and on the monastery management committees. The officials stationed in the monasteries, she said, felt marginalised and the policies are “unsustainable”.
Within weeks of Jin’s visit, TAR chairman Lobsang Gyaltsen led an eight-member delegation to Canada and the US from November 30 to December 6, 2014. Meeting Canadian officials, Gyaltsen appealed them to take an impartial view of Tibet and recognise the importance and sensitivity of the Tibet issue. He requested them not to provide any scope for anti-China activities in order to cement healthy and friendly relations between the two nations. In New York and Washington, which he visited from December 2 to 6, Gyaltsen spoke at the Brookings Institution and met think-tanks, journalists, overseas Chinese and Tibetans.
China has increased the frequency of ‘informal’ contacts with the Dalai Lama’s establishment, possibly to ‘soften’ his stance prior to inviting him to China. At the same time it is working to undermine his influence and support base abroad.