April 11, 2012
In its latest April issue, the monthly magazine “Defense and Security Alert” focuses on Tibet. Below, is Jayadeva Ranade’s contribution to the issue, an extremely interesting essay on China’s Tibet strategy called “Undermining the Dalai Lama”.
UNDERMINING THE DALAI LAMA
by Jayadeva Ranade
China perceives the present time as opportune to undermine the position and influence of the Dalai Lama and compel the 14th Dalai Lama’s successors to find new methods at accommodation. It has accordingly stepped up efforts to sow division in the Tibetan religious ecclesiastical hierarchy and divide the exiled Tibetan community. Invitations to the World Buddhist Forums, TAR anniversaries etc. are all calibrated to weaken the unity of Tibetan Buddhist monks. China’s moves are of considerable significance for India. They represent a currently incipient, but potentially serious source of concern since India’s Himalayan belt is inhabited mainly by Buddhists.
The issue of Tibet was best symbolized recently by the kind of attention it received at China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) - China’s version of a parliament - and can be described as
neijinwei song, or iron fist in a velvet glove!
When the final 10-day session of China’s Eleventh National People’s Congress (NPC) opened in Beijing on March 5, 2012, the persistent restiveness in the Tibet and Xinjiang regions were pushed to the forefront. The NPC’s inauguration coincided with the immolation of the third Tibetan in three days in the Aba region of Sichuan province and outbreak of trouble in Kashgar where twelve Uyghur were killed. China’s official media omitted reporting these events. They did, however, figure during the panel discussions of NPC Deputies in subsequent days. The mode of protest, which seems to have struck a deep chord among Tibetans, meanwhile, is relentless. By the 17th March 2012, thirty young Tibetans, mainly aged under thirty and either monks or ex-monks, had immolated themselves. Beijing has, till now, not responded, except by strengthening armed police deployments in the disturbed areas and around key monasteries.
On the strategic plane, though, Beijing is moving with deliberation and is engaging in a novel form of politics to secure the leadership of Buddhists worldwide. After officially acknowledging Buddhism a few years ago as a “peaceful” and “an ancient Chinese religion”, it is using Buddhism as an instrument for promoting primarily domestic ‘social harmony’. This additionally serves to showcase the communist authorities’ tolerance of Buddhism.
Beijing has expanded this outreach to include, the largely “Buddhist” Asia and portray a tolerant image in the region. It seeks to use this as endorsement of the freedom of religious worship that it allows. To legitimize its role in the selection and approval of high-ranking Buddhist religious personages, effort has been made to get international acceptance for the Chinese-nominated Panchen Lama by having him attend both the World Buddhist Forums held so far and meeting the assembled foreign and Chinese religious personages. Earlier, the second World Buddhist Forum, which was staged three years ago and attended by over a thousand foreign and Chinese Buddhist monks and scholars, enlarged its ambit and held its concluding ceremonies in Taiwan, an entity which China is wooing to try and effect a “peaceful reunification”. The Third World Buddhist Forum, which is to be held from 25th April in the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region (SAR), is an integral part of this politics and continues the trend initiated with Taiwan. It is anticipated that a large number of persons will attend, including Buddhist monks and scholars from India. Buddhists, incidentally, constitute a sizeable percentage of the populations of Taiwan and Hong Kong, both territories over which China claims sovereignty. The Forums are being convened in the backdrop of other efforts to allay the apprehensions of Tibetans in China.
The celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet by Chinese troops, which were held on July 18, 2011, instead of the date of the actual anniversary on May 23, provided an occasion for Beijing to push ahead its efforts to undermine the stature and influence of the Dalai Lama. They revealed the extent to which Beijing was successful in this effort. The celebrations coincided with the month-long ban on foreigners traveling to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) imposed by the authorities till July 25, 2011. Publicity in China’s official media was low key for the event.
The importance of Tibet and the “anniversary” to Beijing were, however, signified by the arrival in Lhasa of China’s Vice President, Xi Jinping, on July 18, 2011, at the head of a 59-member delegation. The visit by Xi Jinping, who is most likely to succeed Hu Jintao as President of China at the 18th Party Congress scheduled for October 2012, also had symbolic value. His father, Xi Zhongxun, a contemporary of Mao Zedong and a veteran Party cadre, was reputed to be an individual with a somewhat liberal bent of mind. Xi Zhongxun, was an interlocutor for the Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy Lodi Gyari in the 1980s and apparently carried a photo of the Dalai Lama. Prior to that he had some association with the 10th Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most important religious leader. While this is unlikely to influence Xi Jinping, it could have some resonance with the Tibetans.
The delegation was high level and important. Its composition clearly reflected Beijing’s policy towards Tibet, which blends force with propaganda and economic incentives. The Chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Chen Bingde was, quite pointedly, part of the entourage as was General Wang Jianping, Commander of the People’s Armed Police Forces (PAPF). The delegation included Vice Premier Hui Liangyu; Vice Chairman and General Secretary of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Li Jianguo; Vice Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and Head of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee Du Qinglin; Vice Chairman of the National Committee of the CPPCC Pagbalha Geleg Namgyai; and the Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the 10th NPC, Raidi. Zhang Qingli, who was then the TAR Party Secretary and favored a hard line, accompanied Xi Jinping throughout his stay in Tibet.
Coinciding with the anniversary, China’s State Council announced in Beijing on July 20, 2011, that the central government will invest 138.4 billion yuan (US$ 21.38 billion) in TAR over the next five years to support 226 major construction projects involving a total investment of 330.5 billion yuan. The projects envisage construction of facilities for TAR’s public services and infrastructure such as railways, highways, airports and hydropower plants.
During a visit to Tibet University on July 18, communist ideology was invoked with Xi Jinping and his delegation joining 850 other invitees in singing “Sing a Folk Song to the Party Again”. Later, speaking to over 20,000 people gathered in the square in front of the Potala Palace, former residence of the Dalai Lama, Xi Jinping asserted that “as long as we stick to the CCP’s leadership, the socialist system, the system of regional ethnic autonomy and a development path with Chinese and local Tibetan features, Tibet will enjoy greater prosperity and progress and embrace a brighter future,”. He emphasized that “social stability provides the basis for leapfrog development and long-term peace”.
Xi Jinping held an important meeting on July 20, with a carefully selected audience of more than 100 monks, as well as “representatives from religious circles”. He urged the audience to “stay clear” of separatist forces. Calling Tibet an inalienable part of China since ancient times, Xi Jinping lauded members of “religious circles” for helping to maintain social stability, national integrity and ethnic unity. He urged them to “fight against separatist activities by the Dalai Lama group, rely on cadres and people of all ethnic groups, seek long-term policies and take measures that address the root cause and completely destroy any attempt to undermine stability in Tibet and national unity.”
Underlining Tibet’s importance to China, Xi Jinping described Tibet “as an important security screen for the country” and referred to it as “a major base of strategic resources reserves.” Interestingly, Xi Jinping appeared to take a cue from Hu Jintao and avoided using the pejorative term “Dalai clique” while referring to the Dalai Lama and his supporters.
An interesting aspect of Xi Jinping’s visit to Tibet was his travel to the village of Bagyi in the Nyingchi prefecture in southeastern Tibet across Arunachal Pradesh. The choice of Nyingchi is interesting. It is the site of an underground missile base and a recently built modern airport, the third in Tibet. China claims that Arunachal Pradesh - which it refers to as ‘southern Tibet’ since 2005 - is part of Nyingchi prefecture. Nyingchi is also the area where China has plans to construct a mega dam on the “Great Bend” of the Brahmaputra River. Xi Jinping, who last visited Nyingchi thirteen years ago, urged local officials to maintain long-term social stability and appreciated the contributions of personnel of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the People’s Armed Police Force and the police forces in Nyingchi.
Little publicized in the official Chinese media, but a move with potentially far reaching implications, were the invitations to select high ranking Tibetan monks residing abroad to attend these 60th ‘anniversary’ celebrations. The list was meticulously crafted to accentuate divisions within the exiled Tibetan community and isolate the Dalai Lama. It dovetailed neatly into other efforts initiated by Beijing to win over Tibetan Buddhist monks, including the apparent shedding of its earlier aversion to non-formal contacts with prominent Tibetans and Tibetan entities.
In a major embarrassment to the Dalai Lama, the Paris-based Khensur Lungri Namgyel Rinpoche, the 101st and former Ganden Tripa and former head of the Gelugpa sect to which the Dalai Lama belongs, visited China in the first week of July specifically to meet the Chinese-nominated Panchen Lama, Gyancain Norbu. He did not, however, attend the 60th anniversary celebrations. The former Ganden Tripa would have been invited to bestow some legitimacy on the Chinese appointee, who is not recognized by the Dalai Lama. As if to emphasize his differences with the Dalai Lama, the former Ganden Tripa took along Yongyal Rimpoche and Lama Thubten Phurbu, two outspoken US-based Shugden worshipping monks. Two living Buddhas, Kondhor Jewon Tulku and Khanang Jam-yang Ten-pen-yima, who currently live in Switzerland met officials from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s United Front Work Department. Their visit coincided with a conclave of Shugden Deity worshippers held in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, in July 2011. The former Ganden Tripa worships the Shugden Deity, which has been prohibited by the Dalai Lama, but which group has been overtly backed by the Chinese authorities since 2007. Deepening the schism, the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama also worships the Shugden Deity.
A variety of other high-ranking monks resident abroad traveled to China for the 60th anniversary celebrations of the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet. Among them were Gangchen Lama, a well-known critic of the Dalai Lama and worshipper of the Shugden Deity; Akong Tulku, who retains close links with the Chinese authorities; a representative from the UK, Karma Hardy, who till recently used to head the Tibet Foundation, UK as well as representatives of other traditions like Jamyang of Sweden of the Kargyu Drikung tradition and Thinlay Rinchen, an Australia- based high ranking monk of the Sakya tradition. Kondor Tulku Jigme Palden, possibly of the Taklung Kagyu tradition and Tsultrim Taser were two high-ranking monks visiting from Switzerland. Of them, Kondor Tulku Jigme Palden was conferred an honor by the Chinese.
JAYADEVA RANADE is a former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and a security and intelligence expert. He is a seasoned China analyst with almost 30 years experience in the field. He has also dealt with matters relating to Terrorism and Pakistan. He has been directly involved in formulation of policy at the highest levels in the Government of India. He was conferred the Organization’s two highest awards, both out of turn.
He is presently a Distinguished Fellow with the Centre for Air Power Studies. He writes on strategic and security issues relating to China, Tibet and East Asia, his chosen fields of specialization.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: For access to DSA’s complete April issue CLICK HERE