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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

The Dalai Lama's Succession Rethink

November 23, 2007

By Simon Elegant / Beijing
TIME Magazine
November 21, 2007

The announcement by Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, that he
might consider changing the centuries-old method of succession is a sign
both of the exiled god-king's advancing years and his increasing
desperation in the face of attempts by Beijing to aggressively pacify
his homeland. In an interview with a Japanese newspaper, the 72-year-old
Nobel Peace Prize laureate indicated that he and his aides were
considering several methods that could replace the tradition of
searching for a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama among Tibetan boys whose
birth coincides with the previous incumbent's death.

"If the Tibetan people want to keep the Dalai Lama system, one of the
possibilities I have been considering with my aides is to select the
next Dalai Lama while I'm alive," he told the Sankei Shimbun in an
interview published November 21st. That could mean either some kind of
democratic election among senior Buddhist monks or a personal selection
by the current Dalai Lama himself, who is the 14th of the line. For 13
successive incarnations, monks have fanned out across Tibet with relics
of the deceased Dalai Lama to try and find his next incarnation — a boy
who recognized the objects and thus signaled that the Dalai's soul had
passed into a new earthly envelope. It is a ritual that both affirms and
reflects the basic foundations of Tibetan Buddhism, reincarnation and
the rule of a revered group of repeatedly reborn monks. That the
protector of Tibetan culture would consider scrapping a core tenet of
Tibetan tradition and possibly undermining his own legitimacy are sure
signs that China is solidifying its dominant position in the
decades-long standoff.

The Dalai Lama has had a number of international successes in recent
weeks promoting his cause of Tibetan autonomy — not, he has taken pains
to note, independence — and protection of its culture, much to Beijing's
fury. He met with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel in Bonn and soon
after addressed both houses of Congress in Washington. President George
Bush even presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest
civilian award the body can bestow.

But despite those high-profile appearances the Dalai Lama is well aware
that time is on Beijing's side. "The Chinese are simply waiting for him
to die," says Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher for the New
York-based rights organization Human Rights Watch. When the Dalai Lama
is gone, Bequelin says, supporters of Tibetan autonomy will have lost
what is by far their most potent symbol of resistance to Chinese rule.
Whoever takes over will have a much-diminished presence. History tends
to back up that judgment. In 1995, the Dalai Lama chose a six-year-old
Tibetan boy, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, to take the title of Panchen Lama,
effectively the second-highest-ranking monk in the complex Tibetan
hierarchy. The boy and his family disappeared almost immediately —
spirited away, many suspect, by Chinese authorities — and haven't been
heard from since. Beijing later appointed its own candidate for the
position — a boy, now 17 years old, who was prominently on display as a
guest during last month's 17th National Congress of the ruling Chinese
Communist Party in Beijing.

To counter this, the Dalai Lama appears to have set on finding a
suitable successor himself, one whose legitimacy is unsullied by
unseemly squabbles over ritual with China and who has been handpicked to
take up the advocacy work on behalf of his people once he dies. Making
his succession an issue at this time may also be an attempt to tweak the
Chinese — sensitive about their reputation in the walk-up to the Beijing
Olympic Games in 2008 — into taking a more accommodating position
regarding the Tibet issue. Unlike more radical Tibetans, the Dalai Lama
has always advocated autonomy, not independence, from China; and he has
always said that he admired Mao Zedong, the founder of the People's
Republic. Beijing, however, has consistently lumped the Dalai Lama with
the rest of what it calls the "splittists," or those who would break up
China.

But even if the Dalai Lama finds the perfect candidate, it may be too
late. Beijing has become more sophisticated in dealing with Tibetan
religion, allowing some interaction among less exalted lamas on both
sides of the political divide. More importantly, the accelerating
erosion of Tibetans' traditional nomadic lifestyle, along with a
burgeoning influx of ethnic Chinese workers, businessmen and tourists,
makes it likely that Tibet will lose much of its unique cultural
identity within a generation. Bequelin points to the example of China's
Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang, where Beijing has spent billions
encouraging tourism — notably by building a train line through the
region's vast desert to the remote city of Kashgar, connecting it with
the rest of China — and improving the infrastructure to extract its
considerable oil reserves. Along with the strict repression of even the
slightest signs of dissent, the policy has been highly successful in
neutralizing opposition to Chinese rule.

In Tibet's case, similar tactics are being used. A $5 billion train line
connecting Beijing and Lhasa opened last July, doubling tourism arrivals
in the region. A forced relocation program that will resettle tens of
thousands of nomadic herders, along with increasing urban migration
among young Tibetans, will ensure any remaining resistance dwindles with
time. "It's never a pretty sight when indigenous peoples run into the
power of the state," says Bequelin, "but China is unique in the Tibetans
lack of ability to resist, so the process of assimilation is much faster."
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