|Reality check 2007 shows that China is in firm control and `Tibetan independence' is a hopeless cause.|
A view from the train on the roof of the world.
TEN years from now, a visitor to Tibet is likely to find it transformed into a region of middling prosperity. It is likely to have quite high living standards; a robust industrial base; modern agriculture and modernising animal husbandry; a well-educated, relatively young population; a high cultural level; a strong infrastructural spine and network supporting the development of a vast region; and active linkages and contacts with the rest of the world. It is more than likely that the autonomous region will enjoy political and social stability. It is certain not just that Tibet will be a still autonomous but much better integrated part of China but also that rising China will be very much in charge of Tibet's future. A significant part of `Tibet in Exile' could be back home, participating in shaping this future. A quarter century from now, possibly earlier, Tibet will reach the status of a developed society.
These predictions can be confidently made on the strength of two visits I have made to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) over the past seven years.
The first visit, over five days in July 2000, gave me an opportunity to attempt some reality testing of Dharamsala's main campaign themes. In psychology and psychoanalysis, reality testing is defined as the technique of objective evaluation of an emotion or thought against real life, as a faculty present in normal individuals but defective in some psychotics. The technique is increasingly used in other contexts, for example in conflict resolution where the objective is to `adjust' conflicting perceptions that do not `conform to the realities of the situation.' In the case of China's Tibet, the reality testing was not against what the protagonists and victims of the `independence for Tibet' campaign felt or believed - in exercise of what is known as the `ego function' - but against the defining themes of the campaign.
The Chinese government views the Dalai Lama as a separatist political figure, with external links.
The opportunity for another reality check came during a weeklong visit in June 2007 to the Tibet Autonomous Region, and, for comparative reference, some Tibetan autonomous areas in the neighbouring provinces of Qinghai and Yunnan. The process and effects of change were there for everyone to see and there were hundreds of visitors, from various parts of China and abroad.
Five factors stand out about contemporary Tibet.
The first is the rapid development of its economy, which in 2006 grew by no less than 13.2 per cent compared with 10.5 per cent for China as a whole. The second is the readily observable fact that the arrival of material prosperity, steady population growth, rises in living standards, education and skills training, and in general the process of modernisation are transforming life, work, and mindsets, especially of the young who make up the bulk of the Tibetan population. The third factor is a hard-won improvement in the Tibet Autonomous Region's internal and external political climate. The fourth is the dramatic leap in connectivity with the mainland that has come with the Qinghai-Tibet railway - a 1956-km engineering marvel that now links Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, with Lhasa. The fifth factor is a widening credibility gap - between the make-believe world of the `independence for Tibet' movement and on-the-ground Tibetan realities, which are reflected in the Dalai Lama's scaled-down political demands for an `autonomous' solution within a sovereign and one China.
Starting from age-old isolation from the mainstream, a chequered history, a low economic base, and a unique plateau environment averaging higher than 4000 metres in altitude, Tibet is on a roll. Last year its GDP climbed to a level of 29 billion yuan, approximately $ 4 billion (still a tiny part of China's $ 2.68 trillion GDP). With foodgrain production touching 920,000 tonnes, the region was able to feed all its people. According to Nima Tsiren, a Tibetan who is Vice-Chairman of the regional government, TAR's fiscal revenue grew by 14 per cent over 2006, which enabled about 8 per cent of the increase to be distributed. The per capita annual net income of its townspeople was 8900 yuan (compared with 6448 yuan in 2000); and of its farmers and herdsmen, 2435 yuan (compared with 1331 yuan in 2000).
Tibetan children at a kindergarten in Xigaze city. In Tibet today 96.5 per cent children of school-going age are in school and 46 of 73 counties have nine years of compulsory and free education.
The effects of the economic transformation are conspicuous on Lhasa roads and streets, with their fast-moving vehicular traffic and rising modern buildings and commercial complexes. They can be witnessed on Barkor Street, known locally as `the Saint Road,' and in the crowded bazaar around Jokhang Temple; in the vicinity of the Dalai Lama's long-vacant Potala Palace; in the fast-developing transportation, telecommunications, and energy infrastructure; and at another high-altitude wonder, the 6.2 square kilometre Lhalu Wetland in the capital's suburbs, which is known as Lhasa's `oxygen bar.'
However, the real test is in the countryside, where four-fifths of Tibet's 2.81 million people live. There is visible evidence of economic development in the villages we are able to visit, especially in the households of farmers who have prospered thanks to their hard work and thrift, the large number of working hands in the family, central government subsidies, and new opportunities offered by the construction boom. The positive effects are also visible in the schools, kindergartens, and medical centres dispensing Tibetan medicine. They are on view in the bustling, grain-producing and industrialising Xigaze prefecture located in TAR's mid-south.
World's highest railway
The most dramatic change since 2000 has come with the Qinghai-Tibet railway system, which marked its first anniversary on July 1, 2007. The section between Golmud, a city of the Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous prefecture in Qinghai Province, and the Tibetan capital took five years and 33 billion yuan to build. The world's highest railway, Tsiren exulted, "has ushered in a new millennium for Tibet. It is the realisation of a dream of two generations, of great importance to the Tibetan people. It has greatly reduced the cost of transportation. We have taken one more step towards the modernisation of Tibet and the deeper integration of the regional economy with the Chinese economy."
To take the Qinghai-Tibet railway to Lhasa and visit, among other places, the Potala Palace has become something of a national aspiration across China. Potala's stairways have been adjusted and visiting hours extended.
It is a big step indeed. A point made regularly in the Chinese media is that the Qinghai-Tibet railway is a refutation of Paul Theroux's 1988 prophecy: "The Kunlun Range is a guarantee that the railway will never get to Lhasa." For good measure, the aficionado added: "That is probably a good thing. I thought I liked railways until I saw Tibet, and then I realised that I like wilderness much more." Theroux's failed prophecy typifies the romantic, change-nothing view of Tibet, which prefers it to be frozen in its remoteness, its inaccessibility, its mysterious wildness, its `unchanging' culture and traditions. Taking the cue from `independence for Tibet' propaganda, the romantics see the railway as the ultimate destabiliser of Tibet's culture, religion, demography, and environment.
The journey from Xining takes about 26 hours. As the train climbs into Tibet, often touching 100 kilometres per hour, you are offered breathtaking snapshots of snow-clad mountains, plateaus, frozen earth, bare rock, desert, valleys, lakes, azure clouds, yaks, antelopes, and the rare human being. Nothing you have read or seen in photographs prepares you for the vastness, the remoteness, the unnatural `Shangri-la' beauty, the flat-versus-mountainous, dry-versus-riverine, snowy-versus-grey-green-blue, fertile-versus-barren singularity of this once-great-sea that has avatared into this `roof of the world.' An additional treat is that you can measure the changing altitude with a simple measuring device that can be purchased in the dining car.
A view of an old quarter of Zhongdian, now known as Shangri-la, in a Tibetan autonomous area in Yunnan Province.
Tibet has less oxygen, more sunlight, longer hours of daylight, lower temperatures, less precipitation, more changeable weather, more great mountains and rivers, a larger collection of lakes and nature reserves, and a lower density of population than most people are used to. The electronic display in the vestibule of our railway compartment is educative and the train is pressurised to assure passenger comfort and well-being. But over two visits in this decade, I have observed that, at least from the standpoint of Indian visitors (excluding of course those with major cardiac or respiratory ailments), the warnings - of breathing difficulty, nose bleeds, altitude sickness, and against any kind of physical exertion and even taking a bath upon arrival in Lhasa - are somewhat exaggerated.
In a historical essay published in The New-York Daily Tribune in 1853, Karl Marx analysed the potential of the railway to end India's "village isolation... this self-sufficient inertia... with a given scale of low conveniences... without the desires and efforts indispensable to social advance." He famously predicted that "the railway system will... become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry." The time and place were different, the circumstances colonial and exploitative. Further, the historicity of Marx's `unchanging' self-sufficient village community has been challenged by Marxist and other Indian historians. But the analysis of the difference the railway can make is relevant to Tibet today.
During the first ten months of the operation of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, TAR saw its foreign trade rise by 75 per cent - to $322 million ($100 million of imports and $222 million of exports). The trains have brought an influx of tourists, more than 2.5 million domestic and foreign tourists last year, which represented an increase of 35 per cent over 2005. In 2007, the number is projected to rise to three million, bringing in close to half a billion dollars of tourism revenue. Interestingly, the structure of tourism in Tibet has changed.
Mao Zedong's portrait can be seen in many Tibetan establishments.
With the Qinghai-Tibet railway finally doing away with the age-old `bottleneck of communication,' taking the train to Lhasa has become something of a national aspiration across China. During this year's weeklong May Day break, 340,000 tourists were off to see Tibet. The Xinhua news agency reported interesting details of road widening around the Potala Palace - also the adjustment of its narrow and steep stairways and the extension of its visiting hours. Further, the Lhasa city tourism bureau was obliged to offer "crash courses in customer service to more than 700 former herders who now work in downtown hotels." The first half of 2007 saw a 300 per cent increase, over the corresponding period in 2006, in the number of domestic tourists visiting Tibet.
Investment is likely to follow tourism and trade. Chinese officials project that by 2010 the Qinghai-Tibet railway will transport 75 per cent of the autonomous region's inbound cargo, tremendously lower transportation costs, and double the tourist revenue. As they see it, the railway symbolises `the right of Tibetans to seek development,' catch up with the rest of rising China, and open themselves more to the outside world.
Over the next decade, the railway will be extended to three more lines in Tibet: one connecting Lhasa with Nyingchi to the east, another with Xigaze in the west, and the third linking Xigaze with Yadong on the China-India border. A luxury tourist train offering five-star comfort, like India's `Palace on Wheels,' is in the works and might be unveiled later this year.
Railway and environment
Apprehensions about the railway's adverse effects on the environment and wildlife have proved exaggerated, if not entirely baseless. An unprecedented 1.5 billion yuan package of environment protection measures, including systems to store garbage and wastewater and treat them in designated stations, and 33 special passageways for antelopes and other wildlife, has been put in place. Technologies of heat preservation, slope protection, and roadbed ventilation have reportedly come to the aid of the plateau's frozen tundra. Scientists have set up a long-term monitoring system for water, air, noise, and ecology. Further, the task of greening the 700-km Tibet section of the railway - planting 26,000 hectares of trees over the next five years - has begun.
Inside the memorial hall, built by the Chinese government, where the tenth Panchen Lama is entombed.
The real threat to Tibet's environment comes not from the railway but from global warming. A leading climate change scientist, Dong Guangrong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has been quoted in the Chinese media as estimating that the `roof of the world' glacier, which constitutes 47 per cent of China's total glacier coverage, is shrinking at the rate of 7 per cent a year. He has warned that the melting glacier will trigger droughts, expand desertification, and worsen sandstorms.
Aside from the railway, the development of a new kind of physical infrastructure - highways, paved roads, bridges, power lines, telecommunications, irrigation channels, modern housing, and so forth - is there for all to see. The plan is to build, by 2010, `high-class highways' to connect 100 per cent of Tibet's townships and 80 per cent of its administrative villages; and to convert 80 per cent of the roads into blacktops. Expressways, however, are considered unsuitable for a region that has only 2.3 persons per square km.
As you speed along the highway from Lhasa to Xigaze for five hours or more, you are offered rapid frame alternations of the new and the old, the modern and the traditional, in a heady mixture of sensory experiences. A surprise is how easily you can connect to the outside world: the gprs on your mobile phone (or pda) works along much of the Lhasa-Xigaze highway. While browsing the internet for news of the outside world or answering your email, you can catch a glimpse of how the bulk of Tibetans live: in mud and stone houses; cultivating small plots and tending livestock; prayer flags fluttering; primitive farming and nomadic practices; basic living conditions; colourful long skirts, striped aprons, beads, and incongruous cowboy hats; people squatting road-side; and children in school uniform on their way home.
Nima Tsiren, The Vice-Chairman of the regional government.
Transforming the conditions of life and work of these simple folk, who make up the bulk of a rural population of 2.2 million, is the basic challenge before the central and regional governments.
The outlook on education
The Chinese socialist system highlights the "fast, coordinated, and healthy development of education" in TAR as a solid achievement of liberation and especially the post-1978 programme of reform and opening to the world. According to Tsiren, there are 350,000 students enrolled in the autonomous region's educational institutions, including a university. He adds that school enrolment covers 96.5 per cent of children of the relevant age group and the programme of nine years' compulsory and free education has been completed in 46 of the region's 73 counties.
In addition, central government preferential policies have enabled about 14,000 Tibetan students to study in scores of key high schools and higher educational institutions in 20 of China's provinces and municipalities. It has been estimated that up to January 2007, the fraternal funding of Tibetan education by these provinces and municipalities aggregated $74 million, in addition to the 2000 teachers and educational officials they sent to Tibet. There is clearly a lesson in this for India, and especially the Hindi-speaking States.
After re-branding, Shangri-la has become a big draw for Chinese and foreign tourists
The literacy rate among the Tibetan population in TAR is more difficult to estimate. Some Chinese education officials and literacy researchers have expressed concern over a stagnant if not worsening situation across the country between 2000 and 2005, because of factors like large-scale migration for work and the rising cost of rural education. Official sources estimated that the adult illiteracy rate in TAR was below 30 per cent at the end of 2003. It is not clear what it is in 2007 but it appears that it is not worse than the situation in India's Hindi-speaking region.
Monasteries and monks
The monasteries are distinctly old world but there are plenty of signs of modernisation here too. Whether you go to the 16th century Kumbum monastery in the vicinity of Xining or to 15th century Sera near Lhasa or to 17th century Songzanlin in Diqing prefecture in Yunnan, the monks wear their traditional robes and debate the sutras in the stylised and gesticulating style of Tibetan Buddhism. But they also carry mobiles, drive vehicles, collect fees for allowing photography inside the most hallowed chambers, follow satellite television, and perform for tourists.
In the north-western suburbs of Xigaze city, a hub of Tibet's modernisation, we visited the imposing Tashihungpo monastery, the seat of successive Panchen Lamas. Founded in the 15th century by Gandain Zhuba, a disciple of Master Tsongkapa and the (posthumously recognised) first Dalai Lama, it is one of the six major monasteries of the dominant Gelug sect. I duly paid 125 yuan for the privilege of using my camera, a Nikon D70, inside the magnificent memorial hall where the 10th Panchen Lama - who, unlike the 14th Dalai Lama, decided to stay in Tibet and work constructively with the Chinese government - is entombed. A vigilant teenage monk sprang up from nowhere to make the point that I could not use a second camera, a pocket-sized Leica D-Lux 3, without paying an additional 125 yuan. In a Tibetan autonomous area in Yunnan Province, we even visited a novitiate monk of middling rank from a famous monastery in his rural home, where he is allowed to spend part of the year.
The development gap between town and country is certainly a matter for concern in Tibet - as in the rest of China - but a high level of central government subsidies and organised social sector assistance from China's more developed provinces and municipalities are targeted at narrowing the gap. China has adopted a strategy of westward development to overcome the historical backwardness of this vast part of the country.
A major aspect of the propaganda campaign by the Dalai Lama, the remnants of his theocratic establishment, and his supporters abroad is the supposed contrast between China's `authoritarian' political system and the `democratic' character of `Tibet in exile.' This is a bit rich coming from the spiritual and temporal head of a feudal serfdom, which Tibet indisputably was before 1951 - when the nascent People's Republic liberated and took control of a region that was greedily eyed, infiltrated, and manipulated by imperialist powers, originally Britain and Czarist Russia, and subsequently Britain and the United States.
The old order
During the theocratic rule of the Dalai Lama, lands as well as most means of production were in the hands of three categories of estate-owners - government officials, nobles, and upper-class Lamas - who made up merely 5 per cent of the population. The mass of the Tibetan population, serfs and slaves numbering a million in 1951, lived in extreme poverty, as appendages to estates owned by masters, lacking education, health care, personal freedom, and any kind of entitlement. They were obliged to perform unpaid labour services, or ulag, and pay parasitical land rent.
Agriculture was largely of the slash-and-burn kind. Modern industry was virtually non-existent. Transportation was predominantly on animal or human back. Life in general was brutish and short, with diseases rampant, the population stagnant, and life expectancy at birth hovering around 36. It has been estimated that in old Tibet monks and nuns accounted for 10 per cent of the population. At the top of this oppressive feudal and theocratic system sat the institution and person of the Dalai Lama.
Monks at the Sera Monastery in the vicinity of Lhasa debate the sutras in typical Tibetan Buddhist style.
Pre-1951 Tibet had no schools worth speaking about. Monastic education, going back a thousand years and focussing on the Buddhist scriptures and to some extent the Tibetan language, was the leading form of education. There were some schools outside the monastic system meant for the training of lay and monk officials and for imparting a modicum of basic education - reading, writing, and arithmetic besides the recitation of Buddhist scriptures. These schools had a student body of less than 1000. Not surprisingly, the illiteracy rate was higher than 90 per cent.
Twists, turns, and progress
From such an abysmal socio-economic base, it would be hard not to make substantial progress. With the 1959 Democratic Reform, which was brought forward by the armed uprising and the flight of the Dalai Lama, serfdom and landlordism were abolished and the socialist system was introduced in stages into Tibet. There have been twists and turns and `ultra-left' attempts to force the pace of change - with the `Cultural Revolution' of 1966-1977 inflicting extensive and grievous damage on life, the economy, education, religion, and cultural heritage in Tibet, as in the rest of China.
While many Tibetans regard the period 1961-1965 as a `golden age' in their material lives, it is the post-1978 programme of economic reform and opening to the world and recent developments in political policy that have transformed life and work in Tibet most profoundly. Top Chinese leaders have freely admitted that much more could have been done for the country's `western development,' and specifically for the development of TAR. Deng Xiaoping it was who inaugurated, in 1978, a new development-oriented policy approach towards the region. Hu Yaobang made an important inspection tour of Tibet in May 1980, after which Tibetan development was given higher priority; and Zhang Zemin followed up during a fact-finding visit a decade later.
Hu Jintao himself worked for more than a decade as a Communist Party of China organiser in Gansu Province, which adjoins Tibet, and subsequently served as secretary of the CPC Tibet Autonomous Regional Committee.
However, it is Mao Zedong's portrait that you will find in a large number of ordinary Tibetan homes - because he continues to be seen as the liberator of a million serfs from the old feudal regime of landowning aristocrats and monks. A growing number of Tibetan families also appear to see no contradiction in displaying pictures of the 14th Dalai Lama, typically besides smaller portraits of the 10th and 11th Panchen Lamas, inside their homes. These moderate demonstrations of reverence for the Dalai Lama as a religious leader, which I did not witness during my 2000 visit to Tibet, seem to reflect a more relaxed socio-political situation in TAR as well as in more developed Tibetan autonomous areas outside the region.
In Hilton's Shangri-la
And these Tibetan communities outside TAR are conspicuous beneficiaries of China's economic boom. Xining, a city where ultra-modern buildings and commercial complexes co-exist in harmony with the traditional and the old, bears testimony to this. In China's southwest Yunnan Province, the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, dominated by the magnificent Meili Snow Mountain, is going through a remarkable makeover. In 2001 Zhongdian, the major town in the area, officially renamed itself Shangri-la, after the legendary place made famous by James Hilton in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. The county also calls itself Shangri-la, a winning brand that now attracts droves of tourists, Chinese and foreign, here.
In Zhongdian, An Weng Ning Bu, the head of the local government, told me that between 1997 and 2007 Shangri-la's economy grew at an annual average rate of 12 per cent; and over the last half-decade at no less than 20 per cent. In Zhongdian and elsewhere, we met several young Tibetans who grew up in refugee settlements in India and have returned to make their fortune in the great Chinese economic boom. Three of them have come together to run a thriving business, the Khampa Caravan Adventure Travel Company Ltd., and a trendy ethnic restaurant, and are looking to invest in other profitable lines, including luxury hotels.
The Communist Party of China's present focus on the creation of a `harmonious society' and the concept of China's `peaceful rise' have been welcomed even by the Dalai Lama, to judge from a speech made in November 2006 by his special envoy, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari.
With a speeding up of the development of industry, the service sector, and education; with the modernisation of agriculture and livestock practices; with adequate job creation; with an all-out poverty eradication effort; with an enlightened programme of environmental protection; and with scrupulous respect for the language, culture, religious beliefs and constitutionally mandated autonomy of the Tibetan people, rising China is eminently capable of achieving the all-round development of this autonomous, problematical province. Seldom does a giant country get such an opportunity to concentrate its burgeoning resources, internal and external, to improve the lives of 2.81 million of its citizens, accounting for 0.21 per cent of the national population, dotted across 1.22 million square kilometres, actually one eighth of China's land area.
`Tibet in Exile'
What about the future of the `independence for Tibet' movement?
The term `Tibet in Exile' is used by the Dharamsala-based `Tibetan Government-in-Exile' to denote up to 150,000 people of Tibetan ethnicity spread across India and several other countries who are supposed to be votaries of the Dalai Lama. This `Living Buddha,' who turned 72 on July 6, 2007, has suffered some health setbacks over the past few years. He has himself fuelled uncertainty about the future by making a profusion of statements about his own mortality. At times, he has indicated that he might choose to be the last Dalai Lama; and even proposed `democratic' modalities for ending the institution. But he has also said: "If I die in exile, and if the Tibetan people wish to continue the institution of the Dalai Lama, my reincarnation will not be born under Chinese control... That reincarnation ... will be outside, in the free world. This I can say with absolute certainty." These remarks make it clear that while the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation belongs to the mystical-religious realm and asks a lot from 21st century believers, the Dalai Lama's approach even to rebirth is decidedly ideological-political.
As religious leaders go, the Dalai Lama is certainly one of the world's most-recognised faces. In this respect, he is comparable to Pope John Paul II and Ayatollah Khomeini, except that he has been on the world stage for much longer than either of them was. Centuries of history bear down on him. For he is the 14th in an `incarnate' series launched in the 16th century when a Mongol chieftain, who owed allegiance to China's Ming Emperor, conferred the honorific `Dalai' (`Ocean') on a `Living Buddha' of the Gelug sect who became the third Dalai Lama. (Two predecessors were posthumously recognised.)
Historical records show that the institution of the Dalai Lama as an `incarnate' politico-religious supremo - recognised and empowered by the Chinese central government - began in the middle of the 17th century, when the Great Fifth received a formal title, a golden certificate of appointment, and a golden seal of authority from the Qing Emperor whom he visited, and paid homage to, in Beijing. The 13th Dalai Lama was a wily and unreliable political actor who played between Chinese central governments and interventionist colonial Britain, often aligning with the latter. Interestingly, on February 22, 1940, Tenzin Gyatso was enthroned as the 14th Dalai Lama at the Potala Palace after receiving the necessary certificates and seals of approval from the Chinese Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, which in fact allocated 400,000 silver dollars to cover the expenses of the enthronement ceremony.
The shy and diffident religious leader who was prevailed upon to flee Tibet during the 1959 armed uprising and has, since 1960, been based with his entourage in Dharamsala - India's `Little Lhasa' - has developed into a consummate public figure and world traveller. Winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, the 14th Dalai Lama has been primarily responsible for keeping the Tibet question active internationally, within China, and in the arena of India-China bilateral relations.
Politically, Tibet presents a paradox.
On the one side, there is not a single country and government in the world that disputes the status of Tibet; that does not recognise it as a part of China; that is willing to accord any kind of legal recognition to the Dalai Lama's `government-in-exile' based in Dharamsala. This situation presents a contrast to the lack of an international consensus on the legal status of Kashmir.
With respect to Tibet, India, which started out in the late 1940s with a policy of ambivalence shaped by the British Raj, has come a long way. In the "Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation Between the Republic of India and the People's Republic of China," issued at the end of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's official visit to China in June 2003, India firmly reiterated its "one China policy" and recognised that "the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People's Republic of China." It added that it did not allow Tibetans "to engage in anti-China political activities in India." The Manmohan Singh government reiterated this official Indian position in the Joint Statement issued at the end of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's state visit to India in April 2005.
On the other side, there is little doubt that there is a Tibet political question; that it has a problematical international dimension; that it continues to cause concern to the political leadership and people of China; and that it serves to confuse and divide public opinion abroad and, to an extent, at home.
This problematical side is a function of the interplay of a host of subjective and objective factors, which I identified in a 2000 cover story for Frontline. They are the Dalai Lama's religious charisma combined with the iconic international status of Tibetan Buddhism; his long-lastingness and tenacity; his alignment with colonial interests and western powers and the ideological-political purposes he has served over half a century; his considerable wealth and global investments, and resources mobilised from the Tibetan diaspora in various countries; the grievous cultural and human damage done in Tibet, as in the rest of China, during the decade of the `Cultural Revolution' (1966-1976); the nature of the `independence for Tibet' movement that has rallied round the person and office of the Dalai Lama and follows anything but the Buddhist `Middle Way'; the links and synergies he has established with Hollywood, the media, legislators, and other influential constituencies in the west; and, most troubling from a progressive Indian standpoint, the reality of a continuing Indian base of operations for the `Tibetan Government-in-Exile.'
Anti-China political figure
The long-term assessment of China's political leadership has been that the Dalai Lama cannot be treated merely, or even primarily, as a religious leader. If he were just a pre-eminent religious leader, there would be no problem in accommodating him within the constitutional framework that guarantees religious freedom to all citizens and regional autonomy to ethnic minorities in extensive parts of a giant country. In fact, the 14th Dalai Lama is a consummate politician leading a movement that seeks to take `Greater Tibet' away from the motherland - an anti-communist and separatist political figure, with external links.
The Dalai Lama's track record certainly bears out this assessment. He started out by accepting China's peaceful liberation of Tibet in 1951 (which can be compared, in some ways, to India's peaceful liberation of Goa a decade latter). He acquiesced in, and supported, the May 1951 "Agreement of the Central People's Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet." The key features of this 17-article agreement were unambiguous recognition of the status of Tibet as part of one China; cooperation by the local government of Tibet with the People's Liberation Army; continuation of the existing political system and the status, functions, and powers of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas; and a crucial and remarkably liberal provision that the local government "should carry out reforms of its own accord" and there would be "no compulsion on the part of the central authorities."
However, after his flight to India, the Dalai Lama showed his, and his Keshag's, secessionist colours. He declared Tibet to be "an independent state." In September 1959, acting against Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's advice, he sought unsuccessfully to get the United Nations to intervene in Tibet. In 1960, he ordered a reorganisation of the "Religious Garrisons of Four Rivers and Six Ranges" in Nepal and thus became complicit in military activities against the Chinese state. His `Tibetan government-in-exile,' with its `Draft Constitution for Future Tibet' and its front organisations, functions in flagrant disregard of legality as well as India's long-declared official policy of not allowing Tibetans "to engage in anti-China political activities in India."
Over the past three decades, following a high-level political decision, the Dalai Lama has travelled extensively abroad to rally support for the internationalisation of the Tibet question and presented various `realistic' proposals for its `satisfactory and just solution.' These have included a Five Point Peace Plan unfurled in a September 1987 address to members of the U.S. Congress; the elaboration of these five points in the so-called Strasbourg Proposal of June 1988; the withdrawal, in March 1991, of his "personal commitment" to the ideas expressed in the Strasbourg Proposal on the basis of the allegation that the Chinese leadership had a "closed and negative" attitude to the problem; and an abrasive and propagandistic open letter written to Deng Xiaoping in September 1992.
In his major pronouncements, the Dalai Lama has taken the stand that Tibet has been an independent nation from ancient times; that it has been a strategic `buffer state' in the heart of Asia guaranteeing the region's stability; that it has never `conceded' its `sovereignty' to China or any other foreign power; that China's control over Tibet is in the nature of `occupation' by a `colonial' power; and that `the Tibetan people have never accepted the loss of national sovereignty.'
For `Greater Tibet'
Equally important, he has repeatedly spoken of `six million Tibetans.' He has falsely accused China of rendering Tibetans, through a state-sponsored policy of population transfer and Hanisation, into a `minority' in their own land. The plain truth, borne out by official censuses and easily verifiable by foreign observers and experts, is that Tibetans constitute more than 92 per cent of the population of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The Dalai Lama has even accused the Chinese socialist state of unleashing a `holocaust' and exterminating more than a million Tibetans.
He has put forward the demand for the reconstitution of a `Greater Tibet' known as `Cholka-Sum' and comprising the areas of `U-Tsang, Kham, and Amdo.' This is a revival, in another form, of the infamous British attempt in the early 20th century to constitute two zones, `Outer Tibet' and `Inner Tibet' (the latter comprising extensive ethnic Tibetan areas in several Chinese provinces); weaken China's sovereignty over both zones; require Chinese `non-interference' in the affairs of Outer Tibet; and give the Lhasa-based Tibetan administration the right to control most monasteries and even appoint local chiefs in Inner Tibet. (Although the Dalai Lama has not raised this particular demand, evidently in deference to his host country, his `Greater Tibet' logically implies the inclusion of Ladakh - which was once part of Ngari, was repeatedly invaded by Kashmiris and brought under their control in the 19th century, and was eventually annexed by the British Raj as part of Kashmir in 1846.)
He has demanded that `Chinese forces,' the People's Liberation Army, should pull out of Greater Tibet and that "a regional peace conference should be convened to guarantee demilitarisation in Tibet." If the 14th Dalai Lama has his way, a single `de-Hanised' administrative unit, which will be formed by breaking up four Chinese provinces, will appropriate one-fourth of China's territory - instead of the one-eighth covered by TAR.
He has even sought to implicate India in his political project, observing on one occasion, at a seminar, that "it is more reasonable for India to own sovereignty over Tibet than China."
The 11th Panchen Lama
There have been other political provocations under the guise of exercising traditional religious authority. On May 14, 1995, in a pre-emptive bid, the Dalai Lama in exile in India `recognised' the boy Gendhun Choekyi Nyima, sight unseen of course, as the 11th Panchen Lama. However, in December 1995, the Chinese central government, going by centuries-old custom and tradition that empower it to recognise and appoint both the Dalai and the Panchen Lama, approved the enthronement of Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Erdeni.
Deng's policy shift
Over the past three decades, the Chinese leadership has fashioned and finessed its strategy of dealing politically with the Dalai Lama and his followers. In December 1978, Deng Xiaoping announced in a media interview that "the Dalai Lama may return, but only as a Chinese citizen" and that "we have but one demand - patriotism. And we say that anyone is welcome, whether he embraces patriotism early or late." In May 1991, Prime Minister Li Peng clarified that "we have only one fundamental principle, namely, Tibet is an inalienable part of China. On this fundamental issue, there is no room for haggling... All matters except `Tibetan independence' can be discussed."
However, after several rounds of informal talks and contacts with the Dalai Lama's emissaries and fact-finding delegations between 1979 and 1992, and after watching his performance on the international stage, the Chinese government came to a provisional conclusion by the time it held the Third National Conference on Work in Tibet in 1994. The conclusion was that the `Dalai clique' was demonstrably insincere; that it was working overtime to separate Tibet from China and destabilise the situation in TAR in concert with `China's international enemies'; and that its real demands were tantamount to independence, `semi-independence' or `independence in disguise.'
Six rounds of talks
However, that was by no means the end of the story. In an era of China's unprecedented economic growth, inclusive and nuanced socio-political and cultural policies, when serious international political support for `Tibetan independence' is non-existent, the Dalai Lama has been obliged to back-pedal on the key issues. In turn, the Chinese central government and the Communist Party of China have shown exceptional patience. This has meant that since 2002 six rounds of discussion have taken place between the representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.
Before the sixth round of discussion took place (between June 29 and July 5, 2007) in Shanghai and Nanjing, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, styling himself the "lead individual" designated by the Dalai Lama to "reach out to the Chinese leadership," made a revealing speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. According to his remarks made on November 14, 2006, five rounds of talks have deepened mutual understanding, "brought the dialogue to a new level," and gone "a long way towards establishing a climate of openness that is essential to reaching mutually agreeable decisions regarding the future of the Tibetan and the Chinese people."
For a start, the Dalai Lama's representatives have declared themselves to be "encouraged by the new focus within China's leadership on the creation of a `harmonious society'... [and] by the concept of China's `peaceful rise,' whereby it will develop as a `modern socialist country that is prosperous, democratic, and culturally advanced." They have also stated that the Dalai Lama's current approach is to "look to the future as opposed to Tibet's history to resolve its status vis-à-vis China" because "revisiting history will not serve any useful purpose." Further, they have clarified, the crux of the Dalai Lama's `Middle Way' approach is to "recognise today's reality that Tibet is part of the People's Republic of China... and not raise the issue of separation from China in working on a mutually acceptable solution for Tibet." His commitment is to "a resolution that has Tibet as a part of the People's Republic of China, the need to unify all Tibetan people into one administrative entity, and the importance of granting genuine autonomy to the Tibetan people within the framework of the Chinese Constitution."
Here lies a big gap - which cannot be narrowed unless the Dalai Lama and his establishment radically modify their stand on two core issues.
First, the concept of `high-level' or `maximum' autonomy in line with the `one country, two systems' principle (which Beijing holds to be applicable only to Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan) is very different from what Chinese constitutional framework and the law on national regional autonomy stipulate. The law, it has been pointed out, defines national regional autonomy as the basic political system of the Communist Party of China to solve the country's ethnic issues using Marxism-Leninism. The content of autonomy, which in the Chinese constitutional and political context essentially means self-administering opportunities and subsidies and preferential policies from the state to help the autonomous region overcome historical backwardness, can certainly be improved.
However, the kind of autonomy that the Dalai Lama demanded in November 2005 - "the Central Government should take care of defence and foreign affairs, because the Tibetans have no experience in this regard, but the Tibetans should have full responsibility for education, economic development, environmental protection, and religion" - cannot possibly be accommodated within the Chinese Constitution.
Further, his demand that "a Tibetan government should be set up in Lhasa and should have an elected administrative chief and possess a bicameral legislative organ and an independent judicial system" is ruled out of court. Beijing's 2004 white paper, "National Regional Autonomy in Tibet," is emphatic that, in contrast to Hong Kong and Macao that follow the capitalist system, Tibet does not face the possibility of introducing another social system.
Secondly, the 2.6 million Tibetans in TAR - a number that has grown steadily and is more than twice the Tibetan population in the region when the Dalai Lama went into exile - form only 40 per cent of the total population of Tibetans in China. In responding to the demand for `one administrative entity' for all ethnic Tibetans, the Chinese government makes the perfectly reasonable point that TAR parallels the area under the former Tibetan regime. Acceptance of the demand for `Greater Tibet' means breaking up the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan, where there are a large number of Tibetan autonomous counties and prefectures; doing ethnic re-engineering, if not `cleansing'; and causing enormous de-stabilisation and damage to China's state, society, and political system.
After the sixth round of talks with two Chinese vice-ministers, Gyari has sounded a somewhat downbeat note in a statement released at Dharamsala: "The discussions were candid and frank. Both sides expressed in strong terms their divergent positions and views on a number of issues. Our dialogue process has reached a critical stage. We conveyed our serious concerns in the strongest possible manner on the overall Tibetan issue and made some concrete proposals for implementation if our dialogue process is to go forward." He has promised to present a more "comprehensive analysis of the dialogue process" to a meeting of a special `Task Force" set up in Dharamsala, in line with the Dalai Lama's instructions.
The talks will continue, as they should. Civility, open-mindedness, flexibility, and a positive attitude to resolving the Tibet question will certainly help, on both sides. During our visit to Tibet in June 2007, Nima Tsiren, Vice-Chairman of the regional government, responded to a question on the Dalai Lama by citing an observation made by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao at a Beijing press conference on March 16, 2007: "We will not only hear what he has to say; more importantly, we will watch what he does. We hope that the Dalai Lama will do something useful for China's unity and the development of Tibet."
Democratic India must hope so too.
However, for those who espouse `independence for Tibet,' the future looks bleak indeed. Since the Dalai Lama has been eloquent on the subject of his own mortality and has even speculated on the thereafter, they will be worrying over the big question: after the 14th, what?