President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy
In the midst of mounting pressure from the US and steadily growing dissatisfaction with Chinese President Xi Jinping inside China, Beijing appears to be making a strategic overture to the exiled 84-year-old spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama. This coincides with the increasing apprehension in the higher echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that the US and the West plan to resume support to the Tibetans and stir up trouble in China’s Tibetan-majority border province. It coincides, too, with the persistent rumour that has been circulating for months in Beijing that the Dalai Lama is rather unwell.
The first indicator of renewed thinking about reaching out to the Dalai Lama was an article authored by Zhu Weiqun and published on June 9 in the Global Times, a subsidiary of the official CCP mouthpiece, People’s Daily. Zhu is a senior recently retired Chinese Communist cadre who has stayed in close touch with Tibetan affairs and is well regarded in Beijing for his knowledge of Tibet-related affairs. The article assumes added significance as Zhu is a former executive vice-minister of the CCP Central Committee’s (CC) united front work department and till last year held a national-level post as chairman of the ethnic and religious affairs committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). He has participated in all 10 rounds of the ‘negotiations’ between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese communist authorities between 2002 and 2010, when they were suspended, and has intimate knowledge of the CCP’s position on the Dalai Lama. Zhu seldom writes in the Chinese media.
Quite unusually, he stated in his article that he was responding to the US ambassador’s recent remark after a visit to Tibet, urging resumption of talks with the Dalai Lama and accused him of ‘interference in China’s internal affairs’. He also asserted that the CC ‘has not closed its door of contacts and negotiation with the Dalai Lama’. With this, he indirectly confirms that while contacts have been maintained with the Dalai Lama, negotiations of the type held earlier could now possibly be contemplated. He also reiterated China’s consistent position that it doesn’t recognise the ‘Tibetan government-in-exile’ or ‘Central Tibetan Administration’ and that the talks that have been held are neither ‘Tibetan-Han talks’ or ‘Tibetan-China talks’. He clarified that ‘the Dalai Lama must accept Tibet as an integral part of China, abandon all attempts about so-called Tibet independence, stop all separatist and destructive activities, and recognise Taiwan as an integral part of China’. Stating that the above issues ‘underline that there is no so-called Tibet issue’, he underscored it is ‘just the problem of the Dalai Lama’. These points reflected China’s position during the negotiations nine years ago between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and the united front work department that they were only discussing the Dalai Lama’s return to China!
Zhu’s article was followed by a more direct and blunt communication. This was the 680-word letter, published by the Korea Times on June 22, and addressed to the Dalai Lama by the Venerable Dongbong, head monk of the ninth-ranked Daegaksa Temple of the Jogye Order of Buddhism of South Korea. The Jogye Order, incidentally, has thus far not joined other Buddhist sects in requesting permission for the Dalai Lama’s visit to South Korea because of its sensitivity to China. In the unprecedented letter, which is being studied in the Dalai Lama’s office, Dongbong advised him to ‘go back to your Tibetan homeland so your body may be interred there’. Adding that ‘at the age of 83, Your Holiness has lived longer than the Buddha’, it asked him to ‘relinquish all attachment to life as the Buddha taught’ and ‘to live among Tibetans is the way you should walk to the end of your life, even though it may seem humbling to you’. During an interview with Korea Times, he said: ‘Time is running against’ the Dalai Lama. ‘If he dies outside his old Tibet home, not being able to reach his people and hold their hands, his death will be the death of a great religious leader and nothing more. It will not bring any difference in Tibetan independence history.’
In the months leading up to these overtures to the Dalai Lama, the Chinese communist authorities have stepped up security measures in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and adjoining Tibetan areas. The annual budget of the TAR’s public security apparatus was enhanced by the National People’s Congress in March 2019 by 8.3 per cent. Party surveillance has been expanded with a party cadre presently deployed in each of the 5,453 villages and a distinct focus on ‘political education’ and propaganda, especially among monks and nuns in monasteries. The concerns of the senior party echelons were articulated late last year by Wu Sikang, director of the policy research office of Shenzhen municipal government, in an ‘internal’ document. He warned that the US had increased financial aid to Tibetans from this year to $17 million and that the amount allocated for Tibet-related activities in India and Nepal have been doubled. Beijing has long apprehended that Nepal would be used by ‘hostile foreign powers’ as a launch pad for anti-China activities.
A positive response to these overtures by the Dalai Lama would bring some relief for Jinping from the pressure being exerted by the US, troubles in Hong Kong and spreading domestic dissatisfaction. Tibet has long been portrayed as one of China’s ‘core issues’ and Jinping would be able to claim a degree of success in achieving the ‘reunification of the great Chinese nation’ projected in the China Dream. The question is, what can the Dalai Lama hope to get if he returns?
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