Chinese grip on Tibet and Buddhists

By Jayadeva Ranade
March 24, 2014
Jayadeva Ranade
After a hiatus of many months, there are indications to suggest that Beijing could be contemplating some initiative on the Tibet issue. These could comprise overtures to the Dalai Lama’s establishment in Dharamshala in conjunction with the ongoing efforts to acquire and consolidate influence among Tibetan Buddhists in Nepal and the Indo-Himalayan border belt, and efforts to strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) grip on the troubled [sic] Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan areas in adjoining provinces.

Reports indicate channels have been activated between Beijing and the Tibetan establishment in Dharamshala. At least three were active in the past few months. One was direct, one was via Taiwan and the third, which was finally aborted, was through a South East Asian capital.

The CCP leadership under Xi Jinping also continues to accord priority to the Tibet issue. Interesting was the 7,500-word article written by Xi Jinping’s mother Qi Xin on the occasion of the birth centennial of Xi Jinping’s father and former Chinese Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun. Publicised by Zhongguo Qingnian Bao (China Youth Daily) and the official People’s Daily on 6 November 2013, just prior to the Third Party Plenum, Qi Xin’s article was laced with subtle references suggesting Buddhism’s influence on Xi Jinping’s family. The Third Party Plenum, incidentally, saw the further accretion of authority by Xi Jinping, who will head the newly created apex security organisation—the National Security Committee (NSC). There is speculation in Beijing that the NSC could usurp the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)’s jurisdiction over the “Tibet issue”.

Internal intellectual debate on the issue is also discernible. Wang Lixiong, the Han Chinese husband of well-known Beijing-based Tibetan blogger Woeser, commented on an article by Liu Junning published in the Chinese edition of the Wall Street Journal on 4 March 2014. In his article entitled “Rethinking the Policy of Regional Nationality Autonomy in Light of the Kunming Incident”, Liu Junning, a researcher at the Institute of Chinese Culture, a subsidiary of China’s ministry of culture, blamed China’s worsening nationality problem on the disparate treatment of the minorities. He said regional nationality autonomy and demarcations between nationalities had resulted in their estrangement.

Earlier, Ma Rong, a Chinese scholar of the department of sociology, Peking University, had urged the elimination of regional nationality autonomy and distinctions between nationalities. Describing these as “root causes” for the “escalation in nationality enmity and conflict”, Wang Lixiong argued that special safeguards for minority nationalities cannot be disregarded. Citing differences in their characters, he said “the character of the Han is to pursue profits first, while Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongols are more inclined to pursue religious beliefs and happiness. This doesn’t allow them to mix well in the big market economy pot with over a billion Han; it’s like forcing monks to fight with soldiers”.

Recommending immigration controls, safeguarding the environment, continuing cultural traditions and safeguarding religious beliefs, Wang Lixiong asserted that without the protection of regional nationality autonomy “any one of China’s nationalities would be hard pressed to avoid being wiped away without a trace by the Han who outnumber them by a hundred thousand to one”.

He cautioned if regional nationality autonomy is abolished, then the “Middle Way Approach” advocated by the Dalai Lama for decades will be meaningless, and a future democratic China will have nothing with which “to dispel the nationality hatreds that have been engendered by autocratic oppression”. Stating that Uyghurs believe the “Dalai Lama has caused Tibetans to waste 30 years without achieving any results”, he said the recent arrest of Uyghur professor Ilham Tohti confirmed to them that the “Middle Way Approach” is just wishful thinking.

There has also been a loosening of restrictions, apparently with Beijing’s tacit approval, on Tibetan Buddhist sects organising functions in Nepal. The Sakya tradition and all its various sub-sects was, after many decades, permitted to organise Monlam celebrations in Lumbini. This is the only Tibetan Buddhist sect to so far have been granted such permission. The gesture would be aimed at accentuating the divisions among the different Tibetan Buddhist religious sects. It implicitly undermines the authority of the Dalai Lama by drawing attention to Kathmandu’s unwillingness to allow him to visit Buddha’s birthplace till he effects a reconciliation with the CCP leadership in Beijing.

China’s abiding interest in Nepal and, particularly the Buddha’s birthplace of Lumbini on the India-Nepal border, is evident in the China Buddhist Association’s decision to redevelop Lumbini. This follows the failure of the Chinese government-sponsored Asia-Pacific Exchange and Co-operation Foundation (APECF) to obtain approval for its US$3 billion project for Lumbini’s re-development. The project envisages monasteries, hotels and an airport.

An important development reinforcing Beijing’s authority in the selection of high ranking lamas and “reincarnates” is Beijing’s recognition of the reincarnation of Penor Rinpoche of the Nyingmapa tradition and approval for his enthronement. The information was first disclosed in a statement issued on 5 December 2013, by the Namdrol Ling Monastery in Bylakkupe. It revealed that the reincarnation of Penor Rinpoche, former head of the Nyingma sect which is the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, was found in Tibet five years after his passing. The reincarnation was found by a senior lama in Tibet at a sacred location near Lhasa, based on a “prophecy letter” sent by 100-year-old Jadrel Rinpoche.

The new reincarnation will be formally enthroned in Tibet’s Palyul Monastery as its 12th throne-holder on 31 July. Beijing’s move leaves the Dalai Lama, who has no formal authority to approve the heads of other Tibetan Buddhist traditions, with little choice but to acknowledge the new Beijing-recognised reincarnate Penor Rinpoche. China will undoubtedly cite this as a precedent for any future case relating to the Dalai Lama.

NOTE-- Jayadeva Ranade, a former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, is a security and intelligence expert, and a seasoned China analyst with over 25 years experience in the field. He has had numerous foreign assignments and his last foreign posting, prior to retirement in late 2008, was as Minister in the Indian Embassy in Washington. Mr Ranade is presently a Distinguished Fellow with the Centre for Air Power Studies and also contributes to many leading publications, defence and strategic magazines and mainstream national newspapers, mostly on strategic and security issues primarily relating to China, his chosen field of specialisation.

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