At a recent academic presentation at Tibetology Research Centre, Beijing, Chinese experts on Tibet said when Deng Xiaoping was seeking an accommodation in Tibet in the 1980s, the Dalai Lama was exploring other options in the West to play mischief against China. On his part, Tibet expert Xiaobin Wang claimed that the most belligerent attempt at confronting China came from the Dalai Lama immediately after the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was the year when George HW Bush took a stance against China’s repressive religious policy after he became the first-ever US President to receive the Dalai Lama officially at the White House.
The Tibetan spiritual leader was perhaps prompted to believe that the mightiest of empires could be pulled down by shared power of religion. Whether or not such assessments are accurate, there was no doubting the Dalai Lama’s optimism about a Soviet spinoff effect to either opt for a ‘political process’ or face ‘bloody political struggles’ as he also decided to drop the dialogue path.
The US Tibet Policy Act Bill (2001) and Congressional gold medal to the Dalai Lama (2007) ensued worst riots across the plateau in 2008.
Wang insinuated how the West fostered the Dalai Lama to become a potent force and an icon of resistance against China to wage a psychic war against the Communist regime. China’s vitriol against the Dalai Lama as an ‘evil separatist’ never stopped until Xi Jinping came to power in 2013. But the dialogue interrupted in 2010 has never been resumed.
Tibet’s history and polity is rooted in China’s ritualistic order that can’t be changed, Wang asserted. The confusion arose after the British Empire (through eight key conventions between 1876 and 1914) tried to alter Tibet’s status, from a territory of China to a de facto independent nation.
The Dalai Lama’s ‘middle way’ policy is an attempt at regaining a ‘suzerainty’ status like ‘trying to change the liquid, but not the drug’, the Chinese said.
The briefing was a part of the rare trip to Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture organised by China’s foreign ministry to showcase China’s achievements in Tibet. Ganzi (thrice the size of Punjab) proved its economic vitality: the middle class population here drew income from hydropower, geothermal, mining and tourism. The world’s largest methyl card lithium ore reserve is found here. Its agro-products directly go to Hong Kong, to cite few examples.
One could feel the churning — ethnic Chinese own shops everywhere. Tibetans are moving towards Chengdu to buy properties. Most Tibetans were discreet in making political comments. A lama in Xiede town said Xi was revered as lingxiu (wise man) and people are ‘very respectful of Xi’.
Asked discreetly why they were not inviting the Dalai Lama back, the reply invariably was ‘why should we invite him, he left the country by himself!’ Any prospect of his return would be resisted by the power elite network; people are more interested in better living than risking uncertainty, an official said.
Obviously, China still suspects the Dalai Lama’s covert intention to split Tibet from China. It is wary of his ‘disruptive potentials’. It is not ready to risk the chaos ensuing upon his arrival. ‘Tibet is an outlying region and its vulnerabilities could be exploited by anti-China forces,’ noted an official in Khanding.
Yet, I felt, he is still revered as a ‘god-king’ by Tibetan folks, though this question was met with polite reticence by local Tibetan officials. Nobody I spoke to in Ganzi and Beijing thought reconciliation is coming anytime soon. No radical policy change is visible though more and more ordinary Chinese are seemingly getting drawn towards Tibetan Buddhism. I was amazed by the area’s development and natural beauty. But as for the political takeaways, a bit of self-censorship in observation is needed, not only to avoid blocking access by China, but also to be careful to not hurt Tibetan sentiments about narrating China’s ‘Tibet story’.
On the downside, despite China’s high development achievements, some unsettling elements could be felt. The situation concealed as much as it revealed. I could understand the Tibetan obsession for an epistemological and metaphysical-driven life, but failed to figure out why, as practitioners of the most erudite Buddhist philosophy like the Indians, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and others, they fail in adopting the transformative changes.
Perhaps, the greatest challenge before the younger Tibetan masters should include: firstly, to recognise the hard geopolitical reality; secondly, to employ their brand of Buddhism as a bridge to find a common ground; and thirdly, to catalyse Buddhism for bringing about a transformative change in Tibet.
After all, Asian societies have succeeded in spurring an enduring socio-economic change this way.
As for India, the Tibet issue seems no longer a crucial sticking point in its relationship with China. But, China definitely requires India’s support if the issue is to be resolved in its favour. Probably, the Wuhan process was just about that!
The visit has given rise to the idea that it is now time for India to normalise its traditional trade and cultural ties with Tibet that should include reopening of an Indian Consulate in Lhasa. Equally apt to find ways to send high Tibetan lamas back to Tibet if the fruits of investments made by India on them for such a long time are to be reaped fully.
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