Magazine article World Affairs

Tibet's Transition: Will Washington Take a Stand?

Magazine article World Affairs

Tibet's Transition: Will Washington Take a Stand?

Article excerpt

In the six decades since People's Liberation Army troops invaded Tibet, China's Communist Party has been unable to destroy Tibetans' national identity or devotion to their leader, the Dalai Lama. It is not for lack of trying. In the quest to transform Tibet, China has launched Marxist campaigns against religion and the Dalai Lama himself; tortured monks, nuns, and lay people; created a permanent military presence; confiscated rare minerals and resources; and inundated Tibet with ethnic Hart Chinese. In the diplomatic arena, Beijing claims Tibet as a "core interest" and rebuffs foreign concerns as interference in China's internal affairs. In neighboring Nepal, Beijing is trying to end Kathmandu's historic role as a way station for Tibetan refugees on their way to India and to clamp down on Nepal's own well-established Tibetan refugee community.

Beijing has effectively shut down the Sino-Tibetan Dialogue, an on-and-(mostly)-off series of meetings between envoys of the Dalai Lama and the Communist Party's United Front Work Department. Without a meeting since 2010, and faced with the deteriorating situation inside Tibet, the Dalai Lama's envoys to the talks resigned their positions in June 2012.

Nevertheless, China's policies have provoked rather than crushed Tibetan resistance. In 2008, demonstrations, the largest in two decades, spread from the capital, Lhasa, into eastern Tibetan regions that had not previously been associated with unrest. These areas are now at the epicenter of a series of self-immolations--primarily by Buddhist monks, but also by average citizens. There were forty-four such suicides between February 2009 and July 2012, according to the International Campaign for Tibet. In response, China has poured more security forces into the area and into monasteries. After two Tibetans from Eastern Tibet set themselves on fire in Lhasa in late May, Chinese authorities detained hundreds of Tibetans and barred foreign tourists.

Chinese leaders appear to be waiting for the current Dalai Lama, now seventy-seven, to die so they can install their own candidate in this position that has historically combined political and spiritual authority within Tibet. Ironically, in 2007, Beijing's ostensibly atheist Communist government issued an order called "Management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism," making approval of the Dalai Lama subject to approval by China's State Council. Beijing has previously demonstrated the lengths to which it will go to control the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy. In 1995, Chinese security agents seized a six-year-old boy identified as the Panchen Lama, the second most prominent Tibetan lama, and substituted an imposter who, now grown, is taking on a more public role. This imposter lama attended a Beijing-sponsored Buddhist conclave outside the mainland for the first time last April, in Hong Kong.

Beijing's strategy of occupation has been complicated, however, by two important developments. First, in announcing plans for his successor, the Dalai Lama has explicitly rejected a role for China's leaders in the selection process. He has stated that his reincarnation may be found outside Tibet. In a statement of September 2011, the Dalai Lama outlined scenarios that include the identification of his emanation in an adult before his own death. Such a prospect, writes Columbia University scholar Robert Barnett, is based on "important but neglected elements of Tibetan Buddhist tradition, framed pragmatically to address the key weakness of the reincarnation system," i.e., the interim between the identification of the next Dalai Lama in a young boy and his age of majority.

The Dalai Lama has also separated the temporal and spiritual powers of his office. A committed democrat, the Dalai Lama announced in March 2011 that he would transfer his political authority to the elected Tibetan government in exile. In late 2010, eligible Tibetans living in South Asia, Europe, and North America elected Lobsang Sangay, a former senior fellow at Harvard Law School, as halon tripa, effectively prime minister. …

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