As we find ourselves again at the anniversary of the 1959 Lhasa uprising, it seems natural to wonder about what the future holds for Tibet. As far as any significant political breakthroughs, the situation for the foreseeable future remains quite bleak. There is no evidence that the current Chinese government has any interest in any kind of compromise, and no reason to believe that the next generation will, either. There might be a leadership struggle in Beijing in 2012, but, as far as Tibet is concerned, it is likely to be between bad and worse, or, perhaps, between two equally bad elements. Unless the power struggle is so destructive as to radically reduce the PRC’s ability to exercise power (which would necessarily also introduce a dangerous tendency toward chaos), it is very unlikely that it will result directly in a more conciliatory approach. Another change of leadership would be expected in 2022, and by then it’s hypothetically possible that a healthy liberalising trend would emerge, but that is a long way off.
The raw fact remains that China wants to control Tibet for geopolitical reasons. In addition, Chinese popular thought is particularly paranoid about losing territory, and at this point an enormous amount of national pride has been invested in their ability to retain sovereignty over Tibet. A government that was perceiving as relaxing its grip on Tibet could very well end up facing a volatile and angry reaction from the Chinese public. Under the circumstances, the government is ready, willing, and able to maintain control by whatever means are necessary, which currently means that military forces patrol the streets of Lhasa (the AP reports that “Heavy security is the new normal in China’s Tibet”). They are able to tighten the vise indefinitely: the People’s Liberation Army has more active personnel than there are men, women, and children in the Tibet Autonomous Region. I think the Communist Party leadership knows that direct resistance from the Tibetan public would be hard to contain without those troops there with their automatic weapons. The basic situation is that China is a weak public relations position, but a very strong military position in Tibet. They want ideally to improve their public relations, but, if you were them, with their goals in mind, would you be interested in switching to a somewhat stronger public relations positions (how popular is Chinese rule in Tibet ever likely to be?) in exchange for a weakened military position? Since the status quo appears stable, and instability would be so easy to fall into, any liberalisation must be a tough sell.
The Chinese government’s “long-term strategy” (not really very long-term or very strategic) is apparently to wait for the Dalai Lama to die and then hope everyone (inside and outside Tibet) proceeds to forget that there was a problem. It is undeniable that the Tibetan freedom movement will enter a new era when the 14th Dalai Lama, one of the truly great figures of 20th and 21st century history, is no longer its leader. Hopefully, that won’t be for a long time. We are not talking about a nonagenarian in rapidly failing health; the Dalai Lama will be 75 this year, and his health problems appear significant only in comparison to the impressive standard he has set for vigour and activity. I am hoping that he will be with us for at least another twenty years, and I hope that’s long enough to see dramatic political changes in Beijing that will be favorable to Tibet. However, regardless of the timeframe, unless something important changes between now and then, it appears quite likely that the identity of the next Dalai Lama will become the subject of a political struggle. In short, the Chinese government appears to have every intention of appointing a controllable child as their official 15th Dalai Lama and giving him all the trappings of religious authority (he will live in the Potala Palace, etc.) along with a “patriotic” pro-Chinese education. As he grows into an adult, the government hopes to use this person as a proxy to control Tibet. The exile community obviously has no intention of going along with this plan, and will select its own 15th Dalai Lama with the approval of the Ganden Tripa and other religious leaders, probably from among the children born in exile in India. For brevity, I will refer to these as the “Chinese Dalai Lama” and the “real Dalai Lama”, respectively.
Does the government in Beijing really think this sleight-of-hand will go over smoothly? We are talking about essentially a repeat performance of the Panchen Lama affair: in 1995, acting on the advice of the abbot of Tashilhünpo (the Panchen Lama’s home monastery) in Shigatse, the Dalai Lama announced that Gendün Chökyi Nyima, a young boy from rural Tibet, was the 11th Panchen Lama. The Chinese government immediately rejected his choice categorically, and installed another young boy, Gyaincain Norbu, as the official 11th Panchen Lama. Now, fifteen years later, Gyaincain Norbu appears to be a reliably “patriotic” spokesman for the government while Gendün Chökyi Nyima hasn’t been heard from or seen at all. It’s important to note that, in the case of the Panchen Lama, the Dalai Lama chose a boy who lived in Tibet, due to the insistence of the Tashilhünpo leadership that he be raised under their care. This created the opportunity for the government to simply arrest the boy and try to keep him out of sight and out of mind. Clearly, the exile religious leaders aren’t going to repeat the same mistake with the 15th Dalai Lama; if China chooses its own Dalai Lama, we will definitely see two rival candidates active at the same time.
Moreover, a battery of factors imply that the reaction to a Dalai Lama controversy will be much more severe, both inside and outside Tibet, than the reaction to the Panchen Lama controversy was (and that hasn’t been exactly a walk in the park, either). For one thing, the previous Panchen Lama was a much more ambiguous figure than the current Dalai Lama is. Originally a Chinese loyalist (a position which was chosen for him by his advisors, such as Jên Jigme, when he was a small child), he was recognised by Lhasa as the legitimate Panchen Lama only following the Chinese invasion of Tibet as part of what passed for a Tibet-China peace deal. Despite his loyalty to China, the 10th Panchen Lama later spent more than thirteen years in prison or under house arrest. After his release, he worked to rebuild Tibet, but his public comments were within the limits of acceptable discourse in China, which meant that his official position throughout his life was in favour of the Chinese presence in Tibet. The current Dalai Lama, on the other hand, is not only universally beloved by Tibetans but is clearly a symbol of Tibetan cultural independence and of resistance to Chinese domination. For him to be replaced by a pliable “patriotic” child would be a much greater affront. Moreover, the 10th Panchen Lama didn’t have much to say about his next incarnation (his death at 50 was unexpected), but the Dalai Lama has said consistently for many years that he will not be reborn under Chinese control. How can anyone who actually believes that the Dalai Lama is going to be reborn not take that seriously? He has said in so many words that he will be reborn in exile.
The 10th Panchen Lama was never openly critical of the Dalai Lama, but were they ever close either. Therefore, for the legitimacy of the next Panchen Lama to rest primarily on the Dalai Lama’s imprimatur was awkward, albeit less objectionable than a Panchen Lama whose legimitacy comes from Chinese government diktat. Historically, it is a misconception to think that the Panchen Lama is simply selected by the Dalai Lama, or vice versa. One of the main corollaries of the system of reincarnated lamas is that each major lama has around him an organised group of supporters (in Tibetan, the labrang) which continues to exist after the death of one incarnation in order to care for the next. It is normally the late lama’s supporters who take the lead role in seeking and authenticating the next incarnation (yangsi). The Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama are traditionally consulted by the each other’s labrang during the identification process and ideally are expected to put a seal of approval on the labrang‘s selection. (Traditionally, the relevant government authorities would also give their own seal of approval as well). However, the selection of the 11th Panchen Lama was an atypical situation, because the Panchen Lama’s group of supporters had been liquidated during the Cultural Revolution and were never properly reëstablished before the 10th Panchen Lama’s death. This created a lot of room for doubt about the selection process which was then exploited by the government. On the other hand, the current Dalai Lama has a large, active, and well-organised group of supporters. The Chinese government obviously intends to use their Panchen Lama to legitimate their new Dalai Lama, but this can hardly be taken very seriously if it is unanimously contradicted by the Dalai Lama’s own close associates.
In addition, the Dalai Lama is much more widely known and respected internationally than the 10th Panchen Lama was. Although “free the Panchen Lama” is a popular slogan among Free Tibet activists, and “world’s youngest political prisoner” is an attention-grabbing turn of phrase for a journalist to use, I doubt that very many non-Tibetans ever knew much of the facts of the situation. Without the knowledge to form an educated opinion, the competing claims of the Chinese and the Tibetan exiles must sound to most people like a case of one person’s word against another; there are three sides to every story, etc., etc. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama enjoys a much higher profile and Chinese machinations to place a cuckoo’s egg in the Potala Palace will come under much closer scrutiny worldwide.
In the long run, since a lot of people in any country are gullible, tend to focus superficial appearances, and are capable of putting up with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance if helps them get along in life, it might be possible for the newly-minted Chinese Dalai Lama to gradually get Tibetans to accept him as the real thing by consistently looking the part: wearing the right robes, leading ceremonies at the right temples, living in the Potala Palace, etc. That is, it might be possible, if the PRC existed in a bubble, with no input from the rest of the world. But, how could the Tibetan public ever be fooled when there is another Dalai Lama, chosen by religious leaders rather than by men in bad suits, alive and active right across the border in India, regarded by everyone in the world outside of China as the real Dalai Lama? What does the Chinese government really gain by trying this, except a huge reservoir of local resentment in Tibet and bad press elsewhere? How will they even go about trying to force Tibetans to accept their Dalai Lama? Make schoolchildren salute photographs of him before class? It seems like the atheist regime would have a have a hard time swallowing that idea. What they could do would be to place portraits of the Chinese Dalai Lama in monasteries and require the monks to bow to the portraits. If a lot of monks refuse to comply, this could be a good excuse to kick them out of their monasteries, breaking up the monasteries’ institutional power, which the government has always been suspicious of (would this be limited to Gelug monasteries? Not necessarily). I would also expect the government to attempt divide-and-conquer tactics whenever possible, in particular with regard to the Dorje Shugden controversy: the Chinese Dalai Lama could become a patron of the Dorje Shugden followers; the Chinese Panchen Lama is already close to them. Still, I wonder how effective anyone in the Chinese government would expect that to be: in a realistic appraisal, what proportion of Tibetans really care enough about Dorje Shugden to choose him over the Dalai Lama? Associating the Chiense Dalai Lama with the Dorje Shugden people (who I have nothing against in principle) could end up hurting the latter more than helping the former.
In view of these problems, maybe the Chinese government really can be dissuaded from attempting to install their own Dalai Lama. It’s possible that they actually do have in mind a strategy of taking a more conciliatory approach after the Dalai Lama’s death, perhaps by negotiating with the Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The Chinese may view him with less suspicion. However, now that the Karmapa has become something of a protégé to the Dalai Lama, it seems like it would be very difficult for him to reach any kind of political agreement with the Chinese government while an ersatz Dalai Lama is living in the Potala Palace – all the more so in view of the massive discontent and bad publicity that would still be lingering at that point. Hopefully, the Karmapa would urge them beforehand to recognise that trying to have their own Dalai Lama would only end up as an albatross, and they should just not bother with it.
How this will develop in the longer-term future, as years stretch out to decades, is anyone’s guess. Tibet is in a unique position: militarily, the situation is hopeless; politically, not much better; and yet Tibetan culture doesn’t appear to be defeated. The people are resilient. Over time, it might – maybe – be possible to carrot-and-stick them into submission, if, again, Tibet existed in a bubble. Beijing’s domination over Tibetan cultural and religious institutions would be a fait accompli and might eventually come to seem inevitable. However, the fact remains that an alternate model of a free Tibetan society does continue exist in exile, and it isn’t going anywhere. Tibetan Buddhism is gaining followers throughout the world and its lamas don’t need to be authorised by Beijing.
At this time, since the Chinese strategy still seems to be to wait out the Dalai Lama and assume that it will be smooth sailing after that, I think the important is for the everyone to make it clear that this isn’t going to work. As important as he is, the Tibet issue doesn’t go away in the absence of the Dalai Lama. The issues are the same, and they can only be settled through serious negotiation. If this begins to seem crystal clear to the Chinese leadership, maybe they will find it in their own interests to negotiate sooner rather than later.