HONG KONG – The election of Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard Law School scholar, as prime minister of Tibet’s government-in-exile was followed immediately by China’s rejection of any talks with him on the future of Tibet.
This should not be taken as a rebuff from Beijing. Ironically, the retirement of the Dalai Lama from the government-in-exile while retaining his role as spiritual leader may open up an opportunity for talks between his representatives and the Chinese government.
For one thing, the Dalai Lama is no longer an official of a government that Beijing does not recognize.
Moreover, Beijing should appreciate the significance of his recent address to the Tibetan parliament-in-exile when he said that, as a result of the proposed changes, “some of my political promulgations such as the Draft Constitution for a Future Tibet (1963) and Guidelines for Future Tibet’s Polity (1992) will become ineffective.”
This was in effect a disavowal of Tibetan independence. The 1963 document was explicitly committed to Tibetan independence. And while the 1992 Guidelines do not call for independence, there is a clear implication in that document that Tibet is not a part of China.
By saying that these previous documents are now “ineffective,” the Dalai Lama has opened a door for Beijing. Besides, the newly drafted constitution encourages talks between the Dalai Lama and Beijing, asserting that “His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama” will “remain engaged in the efforts to reach a satisfactory solution to the question of Tibet and to accomplish the cherished goals of the Tibetan people.”
Although he is now limiting himself to a spiritual and not temporal role, the reverence that Tibetans have for him is evident. The new constitution, for example, calls him “the guide illuminating the path, the supreme leader, the symbol of the Tibetan identity and unity, and the voice of the whole Tibetan people.”
He will certainly be difficult to replace, in more senses than one. China has called the Dalai Lama’s retirement a “trick” to deceive the international community.
Professor Robert Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University, explained China’s suspicions in a recent article in the New York Review of Books. He wrote of “a little-known 17th-century precedent in which the retirement of a Dalai Lama concealed a convoluted plot to prevent China from choosing his successor.”
It turns out that in 1679, the fifth Dalai Lama, an extraordinarily capable man, announced that he had appointed a young Tibetan to act as regent while he went into retirement. His intention was to prevent the Manchu court in Beijing from interfering in the choice of a successor after his death. He gave instructions that his death was not to be made public, and so it was that when he died in 1682, the regent announced that the Dalai Lama was in retreat.
For 14 years the Chinese emperor did not know of his death and, when he did, the next Dalai Lama had been identified and educated, with Beijing prevented from having any say over his selection.
According to tradition, the next Dalai Lama will be the reincarnation of the current one and the boy can only be identified through an elaborate process.
The Chinese government has said that its endorsement is an indispensable step in the process. If, as is likely, Beijing and Tibetan exiles identify different boys as the next Dalai Lama, there may well be rival claimants to be the 15th Dalai Lama.
The current Dalai Lama disclosed recently that steps are being taken by the exile community to identify his successor while he is still living. He disclosed that leaders of the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism have met to discuss how his successor will be chosen and “perhaps this year we will finalize our position.”
Surely, this is additional reason for Beijing to talk to the Dalai Lama, who enjoys such reverence among Tibetans and who is already 75 years old. A successor is unlikely to command such respect and support. More important, a successor may not be committed to maintaining Tibet as part of China while asking for autonomy and the preservation of Tibetan culture.
Time is running out, not only for the Dalai Lama but also for Beijing to reach an accord with him while he is still in a position to secure the support of Tibetans for any agreement that may be reached.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist Email: Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1