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China’s Tibet Strategy by Jayadeva Ranade

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Author: Jayadeva Ranade

The Chinese NPC’s inauguration coincided with the immolation of the third Tibetan in three days in the Aba region of Sichuan province. China perceives the present time as opportune to undermine the position and influence of the Dalai Lama and compel the 14th Dalai Lama’s successors to find new methods at accommodation.

It has accordingly stepped up efforts to sow division in the Tibetan religious ecclesiastical hierarchy and divide the exiled Tibetan community. Invitations to the World Buddhist Forums, TAR anniversaries etc. are all calibrated to weaken the unity of Tibetan Buddhist monks. China’s moves are of considerable significance for India. They represent a currently incipient, but potentially serious source of concern since India’s Himalayan belt is inhabited mainly by Buddhists.

The issue of Tibet was best symbolised recently by the kind of attention it received at China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) - China’s version of a parliament - and can be described as neijinwei song, or iron fist in a velvet glove!

China’s Tibet StrategyWhen the final 10-day session of China’s Eleventh National People’s Congress (NPC) opened in Beijing on March 5, 2012, the persistent restiveness in the Tibet and Xinjiang regions were pushed to the forefront. The NPC’s inauguration coincided with the immolation of the third Tibetan in three days in the Aba region of Sichuan province and outbreak of trouble in Kashgar where twelve Uyghur were killed. China’s official media omitted reporting these events. They did, however, figure during the panel discussions of NPC Deputies in subsequent days. The mode of protest, which seems to have struck a deep chord among Tibetans, meanwhile, is relentless. By the 17th March 2012, thirty young Tibetans, mainly aged under thirty and either monks or ex-monks, had immolated themselves. Beijing has, till now, not responded, except by strengthening armed police deployments in the disturbed areas and around key monasteries.

On the strategic plane, though, Beijing is moving with deliberation and is engaging in a novel form of politics to secure the leadership of Buddhists worldwide. After officially acknowledging Buddhism a few years ago as a “peaceful” and “an ancient Chinese religion”, it is using Buddhism as an instrument for promoting primarily domestic ‘social harmony’. This additionally serves to showcase the communist authorities’ tolerance of Buddhism.

Beijing has expanded this outreach to include, the largely ‘Buddhist’, Asia and portray a tolerant image in the region. It seeks to use this as endorsement of the freedom of religious worship that it allows. To legitimise its role in the selection and approval of high-ranking Buddhist religious personages, effort has been made to get international acceptance for the Chinese-nominated Panchen Lama by having him attend both the World Buddhist Forums held so far and meeting the assembled foreign and Chinese religious personages. Earlier, the second World Buddhist Forum, which was staged three years ago and attended by over a thousand foreign and Chinese Buddhist monks and scholars, enlarged its ambit and held its concluding ceremonies in Taiwan, an entity which China is wooing to try and effect a ‘peaceful reunification’. The Third World Buddhist Forum, which is to be held from 25th April in the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region (SAR), is an integral part of this politics and continues the trend initiated with Taiwan. It is anticipated that a large number of persons will attend, including Buddhist monks and scholars from India. Buddhists, incidentally, constitute a sizeable percentage of the populations of Taiwan and Hong Kong, both territories over which China claims sovereignty. The Forums are being convened in the backdrop of other efforts to allay the apprehensions of Tibetans in China.

The celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the ‘peaceful liberation’ of Tibet by Chinese troops, which were held on July 18, 2011, instead of the date of the actual anniversary on May 23, provided an occasion for Beijing to push ahead its efforts to undermine the stature and influence of the Dalai Lama. They revealed the extent to which Beijing was successful in this effort. The celebrations coincided with the month-long ban on foreigners travelling to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) imposed by the authorities till July 25, 2011. Publicity in China’s official media was low key for the event.

The importance of Tibet and the ‘anniversary’ to Beijing were, however, signified by the arrival in Lhasa of China’s Vice President, Xi Jinping, on July 18, 2011, at the head of a 59-member delegation. The visit by Xi Jinping, who is most likely to succeed Hu Jintao as President of China at the 18th Party Congress scheduled for October 2012, also had symbolic value. His father, Xi Zhongxun, a contemporary of Mao Zedong and a veteran Party cadre, was reputed to be an individual with a somewhat liberal bent of mind. Xi Zhongxun, was an interlocutor for the Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy Lodi Gyari in the 1980s and apparently carried a photo of the Dalai Lama. Prior to that he had some association with the 10th Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most important religious leader. While this is unlikely to influence Xi Jinping, it could have some resonance with the Tibetans.


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