Peter Lee on Tibetan politics and the “state-controlled model”

Writing at Asia Times Online, Peter Lee has a new piece (“China sees US as hedge for Taiwan, Tibet“) which gives a useful and interesting summary of some upcoming issues in the Tibetan political scene, as well as some other topics related to Sino-American politics. I do want to take issue with one turn of phrase he uses — this may seem like a minor point, but I feel that it is important to clarify: discussing the inevitable question of what sort of political conflict will develop between the Chinese government and the Tibetans when it comes time to find the next Dalai Lama, Lee writes, “The new governor of the Tibetan Autonomous Region declared that designation of the next Dalai Lama would strictly adhere to the state-controlled model dating to the Qing Dynasty: selection by lot from a golden urn under government supervision”.

This makes it sound as if what the Chinese government is insisting on is simply the established tradition as handed down from days of yore, which isn’t the case at all. The reason it’s important to refute this is that this is exactly the propaganda point that Beijing will use as its central message: the Dalai Lama is innovating and perverting the tenets of the religion, whereas we stand for tradition (backed up by the trappings of office: maroon robes and finery, a home in the Potala and in Drepung Monastery, etc.) Witness this ridiculous article (“Dalai Lama’s reincarnation tale indicative of separatism“) by an unnamed author on People’s Daily Online, which mocks and berates the Dalai Lama for suggesting that his next yangsi might be a non-Tibetan person or a girl, as if those ideas were inherently absurd (in China there are public service billboards up in the cities reading, “Male-female equality is the fundamental policy of our nation”, but apparently the idea that an important man could conceivably be female in a future life is beyond the pale).

In fact, neither side is planning to do things exactly as they were done during the Qing (and I’m assuming here that the Dalai Lama doesn’t declare any major changes himself beforehand). Nor is it clear that “what they did during the Qing” is the gold standard for what a valid tradition is. For one thing, of course, practices varied even during the Qing period. What we tend to think of as established Qing precedent tends to be limited to the mid-to-late Qing. For instance, we associate the institution of the Kashag with the Qing and post-Qing periods, but actually the Kashag was not established until more than 100 years after the Qing. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama lineage itself is much older than the Qing dynasty. Naturally, when pro-government Chinese sources talk about Qing traditions, they tend to focus on the historical moment when Qing influence was strongest in Tibet: the 1790s, after the emperor had sent two armies to Tibet to save it from conquest by Nepal. It was at that time that the emperor of China mandated use of the Golden Urn to select the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama (it was also declared that those two tülkus should never be born into noble families, which, in hindsight, is quite a good idea). As soon as the ink was dry on that edict, Chinese influence began to gradually wane and the Golden Urn became more and more irrelevant. The last time it was used to select a Dalai Lama was in 1858 (granted, there have only been two new Dalai Lamas since then).

The current Dalai Lama was found in the 1930s, when Tibet was effectively independent, so there was naturally no talk of using the Golden Urn at that time, nor of asking anyone’s permission or supervision. A search party sent by the Tibetan government simply found the right boy and announced their decision (note that they consulted with the 9th Panchen Lama, despite being on very poor terms with him politically. Note also, that they did not need him to make a final decision). And yet, in the end, the Tibetan government, as was typical of its conflicted behaviour, failed to make the break with the Chinese government completely clear and undeniable, because they invited a Chinese representative as guest of honour at the Dalai Lama’s enthronement in Lhasa (there were other foreign representatives present, but the Chinese one was given pride of place). This enabled Chinese sources to claim that their man had in fact presided at the enthronement and that his approval was necessary. If they really wanted to make it crystal clear to everyone that they were an independent state, why couldn’t they have invited a Chinese representative and had him sit at exactly the same level as the British and Nepalese envoys?

But I’m digressing. My point is that neither side wants to do things exactly the way they were done during the late Qing, which was basically that a Tibetan search party would find a boy and then ask the emperor of China, as the supreme political ruler, to approve the selection. The Dalai Lama wants to do away with government approval altogether and simply have a group of Tibetan religious leaders find a boy wherever they think is appropriate. This strikes me as an entirely reasonable development in a modern society which values the separation of church and state. On the other hand, the Chinese want to emphasise the tradition of centralised state regulation and control. Judging by the case of the 11th Panchen Lama, what they really want is to have a group of Tibetan lamas act as frontmen for what is an essentially political process in which the Chinese government selects the boy it wants. That is completely unprecedented by any customs or traditions; state-controlled, yes, but hardly a “model dating to the Qing Dynasty” as Lee puts it.

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2 thoughts on “Peter Lee on Tibetan politics and the “state-controlled model””

  1. If you think Lee approves the Chinese government’s plan for selecting the next Dalai Lama, you had better think a little harder. Nothing wrong with the rest of the information in the post, but it would be only decent give it a different frame.

  2. I have no idea whether he agrees with it or not — I don’t agree with the way he frames it: he seems to think the Chinese government’s approach is more rigorously traditional.

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