China versus the Dalai Lama

by Brahma Chellaney

On the 60th anniversary of his escape to India, the exiled 14th Dalai Lama stands as a bigger challenge than ever for China, as underscored by Beijing’s stepped-up vilification campaign against him and its admission that it is now locked in a “life and death struggle” over Tibet.

Traveling incognito, the Dalai Lama, then 24, crossed over into India on March 30, 1959, after a harrowing, 13-day trek through the Tibetan highlands with a small band of aides and family members. His arrival became public only the following day. Since then, he has come to symbolize one of the longest and most-powerful resistance movements in modern world history. Chinese rule over Tibet has created, as he put it recently, “hell on Earth.”

Little surprise Beijing now treats the iconic Dalai Lama as its Enemy No. 1, with its public references to him matching the crudeness and callousness of its policies in Tibet, where it has tried everything — from Tibet’s cartographic dismemberment and rewriting history, to ethnically drowning Tibetans through large-scale Han migration and systematically undermining Tibetan institutions.

Unnerved that the Dalai Lama’s soft power has stood up to its untrammeled power, China today has taken to haranguing propaganda while enforcing a security lockdown across an increasingly restive Tibetan region, half of which it has hived off from Tibet and merged with Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.

With the Dalai Lama having parlayed his international moral standing into an indomitable influence over global public opinion, a desperate Beijing has had to fall back more and more on Cultural Revolution language. Consider one of China’s recent outbursts against its nemesis: “A jackal in Buddhist monk’s robes, an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast. We are engaged in a fierce battle of blood and fire with the Dalai clique.”

The Dalai Lama gave up his demand for Tibet’s independence more than two decades ago, yet the Chinese propaganda machine still brands him a “splittist” and Premier Wen Jiabao demands he renounce separatist activities, as if China holds a historically and legally incontestable entitlement to Tibet.

The more Beijing has sought to isolate the Dalai Lama internationally, the deeper a thorn he has become in its side. Recently, China bullied its largest African trading partner, South Africa, into barring the Dalai Lama from attending a peace conference in Johannesburg. Yet it faced major embarrassment when the European Parliament and the U.S. House of Representatives passed separate resolutions on Tibet, with the former calling for “real autonomy for Tibet” and the latter demanding Beijing “lift immediately the harsh policies imposed on Tibetans.” Both legislatures backed the Dalai Lama’s initiative for a durable political solution to the Tibet issue.

The Dalai Lama was lucky he fled Tibet in the nick of time before China made him a prisoner. In 1956, when he had traveled to India to participate in the celebrations on the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, the Sinophile Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, convinced him to return to Lhasa, although the Dalai Lama’s advisers feared for his safety. But after his return, conditions in Tibet began to deteriorate relentlessly.

Had he not escaped from the Chinese-guarded Norbulingka Palace in Lhasa on March 17, 1959, disguised as a Tibetan soldier, the Dalai Lama may have met the same fate as the 11th Panchen Lama, who disappeared in 1995 soon after he was anointed at the age of 6. The March 10, 1959, Tibetan mass uprising indeed was triggered by popular fears that the Dalai Lama would be kidnapped after he was asked to come to a Chinese army-camp event without bodyguards.

The uprising was harshly suppressed in a yearlong bloodbath. And in the period since, more than more than a million Tibetans reportedly have lost their lives due to official Chinese policies.

In exile, the Dalai Lama has helped keep the Tibetan movement alive and preserved Tibetan language and culture by establishing a network of schools. The transition of the Tibetan government- in-exile to democratically elected executive and legislative branches ought to serve as an example for the autocrats in Beijing. Instead, having turned Tibetans into state serfs under its rule, the communist dictatorship observed a national holiday last Saturday for belatedly discovering that it “emancipated” Tibetans from serfdom through Tibet’s conquest.

Had the Dalai Lama not managed to slip away in 1959, China would have installed an impostor Dalai Lama long ago, in the same way it has instated its own Panchen Lama in place of the official appointee it abducted. But now it has no choice but to wait for the exiled Dalai Lama to pass away before it can orchestrate any sham. To frustrate Beijing’s plans, the present Dalai Lama needs to publicly lay down clear rules on succession.

In fact, it was the long, 17-year gap between the 1933 death of the 13th Dalai Lama and the November 1950 assumption of full temporal powers by the present incumbent at the age of 15, after the Chinese invasion already had started, that cost Tibet its freedom. The hurried installation of the Dalai Lama in political office could not stop China from completing its conquest of Tibet.

A similar long gap in succession and grooming now could strike a devastating blow to the Tibetan cause to regain autonomy. That is why it has become imperative to clarify the rules to choose the 15th Dalai Lama, including whether he is to be discovered in the free world and not in Chinese-controlled Tibet, as the current incumbent had earlier suggested. Another issue that needs to be sorted out is whether the present Karmapa Lama, the third-ranking Tibetan spiritual leader who fled to India in late 1999, can fill in as an unofficial, transitional successor to the Dalai Lama.

For India, Tibet is the core issue with China, which became its neighbor owing not to geography but to guns — by gobbling up the traditional buffer.

The recent congressional resolution recognized India for its “generosity” in playing host to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees. But this is more than just munificence: The Dalai Lama is India’s biggest strategic asset because without him, the country would be poorer by several military divisions against China. India thus has a major stake in the succession issue, including in overseeing the training and education of the heir.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”