By Eric Vandenbroeck
Some people might remember the story of a Spanish boy who was made a Lama with earlier also a western female Lama. In fact there is a long tradition of this. First Queen Victoria was said to be a “manifestation” of Palden Lhamo (one of the few female tulkus) and Nicholas II of Russia, a reincarnation of Tsongkapa, the reformer and virtual founder of the Geluk school.
But for the Chinese this kind of thing is not a laughing matter and so they issued their own rules in case of the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama in an apparent attempt to secure his country and lineage from China turning the tables on the tulku game, said he doesn't want to be reincarnated in any territory under Chinese rule. In a public talk at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, he stated that he wants to be reincarnated in a free country just in case Tibet doesn't gain freedom during his lifetime.
In May 1995 the Dalai Lama announced that the new Panchen Lama would be six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, a boy from a nomad family in the northern grasslands of Tibet. The boy was swiftly taken into Chinese custody and has not been seen since. Human-rights groups have called him "the world's youngest political prisoner."
On Oct. 2, 2002 then, newswires were also flashing the message “China tries to control Tibet with soul boy.” But during a recent staging in Hong Kong, according to Reuters news agency and the BBC, he appeared to be shunned by delegates.
Tibet matters to the Chinese geopolitically because it provides a buffer with India and allows Chinese military power to be anchored in the Himalayas. So long as that boundary is maintained, the Chinese are secure in the Southwest. Tibetan independence would shatter that security. Should an independent Tibet -- obviously hostile to China after years of occupation -- fall into an alliance with India, the regional balance would shift. There is, therefore, no way that the Chinese are going to give Tibet independence and they are unlikely to increase its autonomy. In fact, they have built a new rail line into Tibet that was intended to allow Han Chinese to move there more easily -- an attempt to change Tibet's demographics and tie it even closer to China.
The Chinese are sensitive about their international image. They are even more concerned with their long-term geopolitical interests and with threats to those interests. The Chinese government has attempted to portray the uprising as a conspiracy undertaken by the Dalai Lama, rather than as a spontaneous rising. The Chinese have not mentioned this, but they undoubtedly remember the "color" revolutions in the former Soviet Union. During those uprisings, the Russian government accused the United States of fomenting unrest in countries such as Ukraine in order to weaken Russia geopolitically. The Chinese government is not big on the concept of "spontaneous demonstrations" and undoubtedly is searching for explanations. Having identified the source of the trouble with the Dalai Lama, it is a short step to accusing India -- or the United States -- of having sparked the rising. Both have been official or unofficial allies of the Dalai Lama.
This is not the way the Chinese wanted the run-up to the Olympics to go. Their intention was to showcase the new China. But the international spotlight they have invited encourages everyone with a grievance -- and there are plenty such in China -- to step forward at a time when the government has to be unusually restrained in its response.
Undoubtedly the Tibetan situation is being watched carefully in Beijing. Xinjiang militants are one thing -- Tibetan riots are another. But should this unrest move into China proper, the Olympics will have posed a problem that the Chinese government didn't anticipate when it came up with the idea.
In fact no minority area of China is as fraught with as much consequence as Tibet. The Tibetan plateau and its environs constitute roughly one-quarter of the Chinese landmass, in addition to being the source of fresh water for much of China, India, and Bangladesh. Tibet is the land-bound hinge on which the tense geopolitical relationship between China and India rests. Tibet is also unique because the struggle of its people against Chinese domination centers on a charismatic global personality, the Dalai Lama, whose face and voice are known not only to students of world affairs but also to many Hollywood stars.
The Dalai Lama is the leader of the Tibetan spiritual community. Beneath him is a layer of rinpoches: other reincarnated lamas, teachers and scholars, whose very numbers enhance the Dalai Lama's power. But this particular Dalai Lama, nearly 80 years old, is unique in other ways that bear upon the future of Tibet and how it will affect Chinese-Indian relations.
This Dalai Lama was born and raised in Tibet, and escaped into exile in 1959 in the midst of a three-year uprising against Beijing's rule. He settled in the Indian town of Dharamsala, in the state of Himachal Pradesh near Kashmir, close to Tibet. The Chinese finally put down the Tibetan uprising in 1962, the same year they defeated India in a limited border war. The Dalai Lama, who speaks English, went on for the next half-century to use his perch in Dharamsala to continually voice his opposition to China's total domination over Tibet. Dharamsala has been a perfect location for the Dalai Lama: It is proximate to Tibet, yet it is inside a democratic country friendly to the Tibetan cause where the Dalai Lama can speak his mind to the international media.
In the course of being a public figure over the decades, the Dalai Lama has become the political symbol as well as the spiritual symbol of a free Tibet. This is a fact so obvious it tends to get overlooked. Do not assume that future Dalai Lamas will unite Tibetan politics and religion within one individual as he has. And do not assume that the future Dalai Lama will also be a global superstar. By way of comparison, the international spokesperson of China's Uighur Turk minority, Rebiya Kadeer, who speaks little English, has a very low international profile and has yet to unite the Uighur diaspora. The future Dalai Lama could end up in her category. The fact is that the Dalai Lama has so concentrated the Tibetan cause within his own person that he is one of those rare individuals who has become a geopolitical entity in his own right. Another such individual was Pope John Paul II, whose Polish background made him inseparable from the cause of an independent Poland (and Eastern Europe) liberated from Soviet domination.
In short, the Dalai Lama, while helping the cause of a free (or truly autonomous) Tibet by his global brand name, has perhaps hurt the Tibetan cause by arresting the development of a more mature and less centralized ethnic movement. By his very fame, the Dalai Lama makes the job of his successor more difficult. He has recognized this and has made moves to split the political and spiritual leadership roles as a way to strengthen and legitimize a more elective and representative political leadership. But so long as the Dalai Lama remains around, he will continue to be the dominant force in the cause, particularly in the eyes of the international community.
As the Dalai Lama ages, the question becomes: Who will influence the choice of the next Dalai Lama, the Chinese or the Indians? A future Dalai Lama born and raised inside India, near Dharamsala in Greater Tibet, could well reflect the intense militancy of Indian-born Tibetans: which the current Dalai Lama, for all his poignancy in representing his people, does not. That is another unique aspect to this Dalai Lama: he has life experience in both Tibet and India. His successor probably won't.
China is preparing for such an eventuality. China wants a Dalai Lama who is politically hostage to Beijing. Thus, it has in waiting (as we have seen above) a panchen lama -- the highest reincarnated lama after the Dalai Lama himself -- ready to be installed. Here, again, is where spiritual matters mesh with geopolitics. It is not merely a battle between China and India over the identity of the next Dalai Lama. Indeed, China wants to split the Tibetan movement between its spiritual and political aspects and to split up the Tibetan political movement itself, even as it is prepared to offer incentives for Tibetans to pursue a peaceful path toward Beijing. China is determined that there never again be a Dalai Lama with the stature of the present one. But, as Beijing well knows, there are risks in that, too.
In fact, the Dalai Lama, with all his political acumen, has been a stabilizing force within Tibetan émigré politics, suppressing the more extremist elements. As he passes from the scene, India-based militants are likely to rear their heads and influence events within Tibet. China will then pressure India to avoid supporting cross-border militancy. China has much at stake. The Tibetan minority area inside China is now actually larger than it appears on the map, because the ethnic cartography of Tibet is larger than China's imposition of internal borders suggests.
For example, of the more than 30 self-immolations of ethnic-Tibetans protesting Han Chinese rule between March 2011 and April 2012, almost all occurred outside the Tibet Autonomous Region itself in adjacent Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu, slightly beyond the Tibetan plateau. On the other hand, immolations have less of a shock value in the world media than they used to back in the early-1960s when monks in Saigon immolated themselves to protest the South Vietnamese government. The many car bombs and other grisly acts of violence in Iraq and elsewhere over the decades have weakened the power of this latest technique of Tibetan protest.
But do not expect the Tibetan movement to be neutralized, even with less international support owing in the future to a weaker and less-charismatic Dalai Lama. The power of social media in all its forms -- friendly as it is to anti-authoritarian struggles -- coupled with a more fractious political atmosphere in Beijing itself, promises that Tibet will remain on-and-off in the headlines for years. And a restive Tibet, given its centrality to the Chinese landmass, will add to Beijing's woes as it attempts to orchestrate a transition away from its present economic model.
For Beijing and New Delhi to organize a solution is problematic. For domestic political reasons, New Delhi cannot threaten to evict Tibetan refugees, while Beijing has little to offer Tibetans beyond what it has already given them: the chance to live under Han Chinese rule. Tibet, a vast plateau with immense stores of water resources located between China and India, is ultimately not a spiritual question but a zero-sum, geopolitical one.
“The voice and image of the Dalai clique are not heard and not seen”
The drive to change the thinking of ordinary Tibetans by controlling access to information can be seen throughout Tibetan areas but is most evident in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) where Party Secretary Chen Quanguo said in November 2011 that the objective of media work was to “build a strong wall of steel in the ideological sphere” as part of “the struggle for public opinion on Tibet” by “resolutely cleaning up ‘Tibetan independence’ reactionary publications and propaganda materials” (Xizang RibaoOnline, November 18, 2011).
In January 2012 Chen told media workers that they must guarantee “the absolute security of Tibet’s ideological realm and cultural realm” by ensuring that “the voice and image of the Dalai clique are not heard and not seen,” and by making certain that “the Party and central government’s voice and image are heard and seen” (China Tibet News, January 31, 2012). Chen, in his latest speech, delivered during a plenary session of the TAR Party on June 27, 2012, reiterated this focus on cultural security, calling for the “occupation of the city and rural area cultural ground” (China Tibet News, June 27, 2012).
Control over internet usage and other media
In March, Chen said that the “stability overrides all” policy must include not only control over internet usage, but also over all forms of new media. During the anniversaries of recent protests in March 2012, several popular and independently run Tibetan websites and blogs were closed down, and some public internet facilities were closed in some Tibetan areas. In October 2011, a senior TAR propaganda official said that “a civilized and healthy internet environment” must be created by “curbing the spread of decayed and backward ideology and culture,” and by “resolutely resisting ideological and cultural infiltration and sabotage activities by the Dalai clique and hostile Western forces” (Xizang Ribao Online, October 24, 2011).
Control over the internet and new media was listed as a priority in a meeting on “maintenance of social stability work” in Lhasa in December 2011, and in 2012, control over new technology was described as necessary to ensure “that firm preventive control can be instituted to combat infiltration from the sky, on land and via the Internet” (China Tibet News, February 15, 2012). In his May 30 speech, Hao Peng similarly called for a “firm strike” against the use of the internet and text messaging as a means of “spreading rumors.” Exile media have reported that text messaging and cellphone services in some areas of Sichuan are blocked following immolation protests or during periods marking the anniversary of earlier unrest. These efforts appear to be localized and the scope of blockages is therefore difficult to test.
On March 22, 2012, regulations implementing “Real ID” measures for internet access were adopted in the TAR at the same time as similar regulations were adopted throughout China. In the TAR, however, similar regulations have applied since May 2010 to any individual making a photocopy or printing a document: each customer has to provide his or her name, ID number, and address, while the owners of all photocopy and print facilities are required to be registered with the police and to keep copies of every document that has been copied together with the ID number of each individual who makes a copy. In 2012, these measures were described as necessary for “national sovereignty and ethnic unity” and to “strengthen and innovate social management” (China Tibet News, March 19, 2012).
Foreign radio and television broadcasts in the Tibetan language are routinely jammed in China, and individuals have been harassed or detained as a result of listening to broadcasts. Several Tibetans have received long prison sentences for sending news, photographs, or images for use in foreign news broadcasts. These include Rongye Adrak Lopoe and Jamyang Kunkhyen, given 10- and 9-year sentences, respectively, in November 2007 for sending photographs to a foreign news agency of a one-person protest in Litang, Sichuan; Tenchum, a monk from Kirti Monastery in Ngaba, Sichuan, given a 10-year sentence in August 2011 for having “sent photos to a monk living overseas via internet” of a fellow monk who had immolated himself the previous March; and another Kirti monk, Dorje, who was given an undisclosed sentence for the same offense in 2011.
As part of what officials describe as “unconventional methods” introduced in 2012 in the TAR for “social stability maintenance,” special restrictions have been imposed on travelinto the TAR. These include requiring that, beginning on March 1, 2012, four identity cards be shown by ordinary citizens wanting to enter the TAR. The purpose of the measures is to “further establish a comprehensive stability maintenance mechanism,” and to control Lhasa’s “Eastern Gate,” according to state media published shortly before the measures were adopted (Tengxun News, February 1, 2012).
Additional restrictions were introduced in March 2012 to “consolidate the collective management of mobile monks and nuns,” referring to any monks or nuns who travel or are not permanent, registered members of a specific monastery (Xinwen Zhongxin, March 6, 2012). Regulations imposed in 2006 already require all monks and nuns to have permission from their local county government to travel outside their own area of residence and to report to the administration of each county they visit. The new rules require them to present additional documents to enter the TAR, including their certificate of registration as a monk or nun.
Travel restrictions for foreigners have also been intensified. This year, during the period surrounding the anniversary of the March 2008 protests, the TAR was closed to foreign tourists, and on April 21, 2012, the Sichuan government announced that some Tibetan counties in Aba prefecture and all of Ganzi prefecture were closed to foreigners. New travel restrictions limiting foreign tour groups in the TAR to a minimum of five people of the same nationality were reportedly circulated to travel agents on or shortly after May 14, 2012. After a double immolation in Lhasa on May 27, travel agents reported being notified that no foreign tourists would be accepted in the TAR. On June 19, several agencies reported that foreign groups of five or more people would be allowed into the TAR, but cannot include tourists from Britain, Austria, Korea, countries whose leaders have recently received the Dalai Lama or exile leaders, and from Norway, where a Nobel Prize was awarded last year to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese writer and government critic.
Although China promised in advance of the 2008 Olympics to allow travel by foreign journalists to report freely through the country, foreign journalists have never been permitted to enter the TAR except in tightly managed groups. From February 2012, in advance of the anniversary of the 2008 protests, foreign journalists were blocked from traveling in most Tibetan areas of Sichuan as well, and only one foreign journalist, traveling as a tourist, is known to have been allowed to visit the TAR this year.
The many restrictions on communications and information flow that have been intensified in recent months build on earlier efforts on the part of officials to control the views of Tibetans and curtail the spread of ideas and references that depart from the government’s viewpoint.
This entailed banning “cultural products” that are deemed to have political implications. In 2009, state media reported that over 100,000 videosand 1,000 copies of various illegal publications were burned (Xizang Ribao, April 24, 2009) as part of a campaign described by TAR Propaganda Bureau chief, Cui Yuying, in late 2008 as necessary to “struggle against infiltration by the Dalai Clique in the ideological sphere by eliminating and cracking down on nationality cultural products with the nature of politically separatist reactionary views which mislead the public” (Xizang TV, November 3, 2008).
In December 2008 state media reported that 59 arrests had been made in Lhasa to combat “rumor-mongering,” and that five arrests had been carried out in connection with the commercial distribution of “reactionary songs.” In 2010, authorities banned ringtones characterized as “separatist,” according to reports, and in early 2011, a number of Tibetan songs were banned and some Tibetans found with those songs on computer drives or on their phones were detained, according to the US-based broadcaster, Radio Free Asia. These bans have also been applied to songs and music videos that have no obvious political content. In 2011, for example, authorities banned a video of a rap song by a Tibetan exile in Switzerland called the “Shapaley Song,” named after a Tibetan meat pastry, which features exiles saying “don’t worry, please take care” to Tibetans in Tibet.
Saturating Media, Schools, and Monasteries With State Content
At the same time as access to alternative information has been increasingly limited, TAR authorities have stepped up efforts to ensure that all Tibetans receive the government’s viewpoint on all matters. In November 2011, Chen defined the objective of media work in print, online, TV, and radio as “enabl[ing] the voice of the Party and government to cover the whole of this vast territory [of the TAR]” by “promoting full coverage by radio, television, publications, and networks” of “the Party’s line, principles, and policies” (Xizang Ribao Online, November 18, 2011).
In February 2012, efforts to expand media coverage in the TAR of official views were declared necessary in order to “vigorously organize public provision of culture so that the Party’s position, activities, and policies reach thousands and tens of thousands of households … and reach the minds of the masses of all nationalities and of patriotic monks and nuns” (Xinwen Zhongxin, February 15, 2012).
To broaden the reach of official media to the masses, programming in Tibetan areas, especially in rural areas, has been expanded. Only state media can be legally accessed and any attempt to access other sources can be treated as a criminal offense. For example, satellite receivers, restricted to domestic reception, were distributed free to Tibetans in some rural areas of Gansu and Qinghai provinces in 2009, while other types of receivers were confiscated or disabled. In Sichuan, 20,000 farmers and nomads in rural Tibetan areas were given solar-powered TV sets, according to theXinhua news agency on May 1, 2011. Programming on the TAR’s satellite Chinese-language TV channel was expanded to 24 hours a day in 2009, and in July 2010, after nine months of trial programming, a new television service broadcasting in Kham Tibetan dialect was officially launched, reaching 2.4 million Tibetans in the region, according to official reports. An FM radioservice in Tibetan and Chinese was launched in May 2010, broadcasting in Lhasa for 14 hours a day. All content on these stations is heavily restricted and includes only government-approved material.
Besides expanding the impact of broadcast media, Chinese authorities in the TAR have launched an unprecedented drive to deliver official ideas to ordinary Tibetans face-to-face by sending 21,000 cadres to spend up to three years in 5,451 villages across the TAR, a program due to have completed its initial phase by October 2011, according to official media. The cadres are carrying out education sessions with villagers to make sure “every villager is a soldier” and “every village is a fortress” in the fight to maintain social stability and reject “separatist” ideas and oppose the “Dalai clique” and other “hostile forces” (China Tibet News, April 6, 2012).
The village education sessions by cadre teams are held across the TAR on various themes, including “feeling the Party’s kindness.” Events include group-singing sessions at which patriotic songs are recited and film screenings at which patriotic filmsare shown to the villagers. The films include Serfs, a 1963 film showing downtrodden Tibetans being liberated by the PLA from brutal abuse by Tibetan aristocrats, and Red River Valley, a 1997 blockbuster about Tibetans fighting British invaders in the early 20th century. The teams have also been distributing “patriotic books” and DVDs with titles such as “Promotional Materials to Expose the Dalai Clique” and “Follow the Party and Create a Happy Life.” Officials involved in the effort are encouraged to identify individuals not yet exposed to “reeducation,” such as traders and nomads who are still mobile. A pilot project has been started to test the effect of broadcasting the official messages via loudspeakers, with 40 used in several villages in southern Tibet,“to actively carry out promotion of party’s policy, scientific knowledge, legal education, and cultural shows” (China Tibet News, February 13, 2012), a return to a practice that is rare in most areas of China today.
Patriotic education sessions with children in schools have also continued in Tibetan areas. In 2012 the education drive is titled “keeping history firmly in mind, cherish the current way of life,” and focuses on the “anti-splittist struggle” and teaching “loyalty to country, loyalty to hometown, loyalty to school” (China Tibet News, May 6, 2012).
In April 2012, state media announced that over 10,000 “live broadcasting receivers” and at least 8,000 television sets had been installed in monasteries in and around Lhasa, according to Zhang Chongyin, director-general of Tibet Radio and TV Broadcasting Bureau, although monks and nuns are not usually expected to watch entertainment. This drive, which began in December 2011 under the name of the “nine must-haves” for monasteries, requires every monastery and nunnery in the TAR to have portraits of national leaders and the national flag, to hold screenings of “patrioticfilms,” and to have daily editions of official newspapers.