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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Reborn supremacy - China's control of Tibetan reincarnation

January 30, 2008

Elliot Sperling
Jane's Intelligence Review
February 01, 2008

Key Points

* The issue of the Dalai Lama's reincarnation has once again highlighted
Beijing's effective handling of the Tibet situation.

* Although significant anti-China sentiment remains in Tibet, Beijing
has undermined the Dalai Lama's policies and looks set to manage his

* The possibility of urest remains around the Dalai Lama's death, but it
is unlikely to detract from China's control of the region.

Outmanoeuvred by Chinese diplomacy, the Tibetan government-in-exile has
yet to decide on a succession policy following the Dalai Lama's death
and rebirth. Elliot Sperling examines events to date and China's success
in asserting control over the issue.

Reincarnation rarely overlaps with international security concerns.
However, in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China, the topic has
implications for the way Beijing rules the region.

Since invading the then-independent Tibet in 1950, Beijing has ensured
tight military and political control over the strategically important
area. Struggling against this control has been the spiritual leader of
Tibetan Buddhists and last independent political leader of Tibet, the
14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, who was 15 when China invaded and in his
early twenties when he fled the region to India in 1959. Now 72 years
old, he and his Tibetan government-in-exile are concerned that his death
and reincarnation (the present Dalai Lama is believed by Tibetan
Buddhists to be the latest in an unbroken lineage of incarnations) will
eliminate the possibility of political accommodation with China, given
the Dalai Lama's role as the symbolic focus of the Tibetan issue.

For its part, Beijing similarly believes the Dalai Lama's demise will
remove a figure of symbolic force and sap the movement of much of its
international resonance. It is therefore seeking to, and believes it
can, manage the Dalai Lama's death with alacrity and prevent any
deterioration in security. Currently, given the Dalai Lama's indecision
about the process of his supposed reincarnation, combined with China's
effective handling of the Tibet issue internationally and domestically,
there appears little risk of instability and the Tibetan movement looks
set to be further marginalised by the Dalai Lama's death.

The issue of reincarnation was highlighted in November when the Dalai
Lama announced during a visit to Japan that he might choose his
successor while he is still alive. Although there are instances in
Tibetan history where an incarnate Tibetan lama is believed by Tibetans
to have reincarnated before his passing, the Dalai Lama's statement was
still somewhat unusual, and certainly politically significant as an
attempt to thwart Beijing's control and supervision of the reincarnation
of influential Tibetan lamas.

However, despite the Dalai Lama's statement, the government-in-exile in
Dharmsala remains undecided on the issue. A referendum on the concept of
succession and a popular election for any successor have also been
mentioned by the Dalai Lama in 2007. This hesitancy was underlined by
further remarks in December, when the Dalai Lama also acknowledged that
he and his exile government had come to no real decision about any
specific method for managing the search for and recognition of the next
dalai lama.

This indecision highlights the difficult situation for the Tibetan
government-in-exile, which has little influence in the TAR's politics,
and the nimble diplomacy of Beijing. While Dharmasala dithers, China's
State Administration of Religious Affairs adopted strict new
governmental controls on 1 September over the recognition of
incarnations, and Beijing continues to specifically prepare to manage
the selection process of the next dalai lama on its own terms.

China's intentions regarding its desire to select the next Dalai Lama
have been known for more than a decade, long enough for the Tibetan
leader and his exile government to have formulated a clear and decisive
plan for the succession. That they still remain undecided about how
specifically to counter China's plans at this late stage is symptomatic
of the almost wholly reactive nature of their strategy towards China.
China has long remained several steps ahead of them at almost every stage.

Nimble diplomacy

This effective Chinese strategy has been perhaps most amply demonstrated
in the pressure Beijing has brought to bear on the Dalai Lama.

Although no government recognises Tibet as an independent state, China's
control of the TAR has elicited criticism from international
non-governmental organisations. This opprobrium and the view that
China's presence in Tibet is not wholly legitimate have a strong
foundation in arguments drawn from the historical record and the concept
of self-determination.

This situation has caused Beijing some discomfort, especially after a
series of anti-Chinese demonstrations in Lhasa in the late 1980s and the
Dalai Lama's elevation to the ranks of Nobel Peace Prize laureates in
1989. As a result, Beijing has paradoxically and effectively attempted
to find and use a better, if not the best, spokesman against Tibetan
independence: the Dalai Lama himself.

While many Tibetans, particularly in exile, considered independence the
goal for several decades, the Dalai Lama actually ceded the idea of
Tibetan independence in the early 1970s. In 1988, he publicly announced
he was seeking a solution to the issue that would maintain Tibet as a
part of China, albeit with what he later came to describe as "real

Playing on the Dalai Lama's political naivety and his desperation to
resolve the Tibet issue, China acted to ensure that the idea of Tibetan
independence lost some of its legitimacy by shrewdly insisting he be
more vocal about accepting Tibet as a part of China. What ensued during
the 1990s and into the present decade was effective statecraft. With
every pronouncement from the Dalai Lama articulating his opposition to
an independent Tibet, China countered that he was insincere and actually
seeking disguised independence, demanding louder and repeated
declarations from the Dalai Lama that this was not his aim.

The Dalai Lama duly obliged, insisting in public that he wanted only
autonomy, not independence, and explaning that China misunderstood his
position. In reality, it is highly unlikely that the well-resourced and
-funded Chinese Nationality Affairs Commission and Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, with thousands of employess, would misunderstand the Dalai
Lama's position, but more likely that the Dalai Lama and his exile
bureaucracy with no equivalent resources or expertise could
misunderstand China's effective politicking.

Having taken the major step of ceding Tibet's independence (and in 1997
going so far as to describe independence for Tibet as "a disaster"), the
Dalai Lama is in a difficult position. He and his circle have imposed
their idea of a Tibet within China on the larger Tibetan exile community
by dint of his place as a religious leader possessed of transcendent
wisdom. In the face of dissenting exile intellectuals and activists, the
Dalai Lama's political establishment has had no choice but to buttress
itself with the Tibetan leader's esoteric religious authority. They have
become effectively wedded to the position that Tibet's proper place is
in China, a position they have held for more than three decades.

The Dalai Lama is therefore diplomatically trapped. As if to underscore
this state of affairs, with no reciprocity from China on the horizon the
Dalai Lama has further scaled back his position; he now seeks only
cultural rights relating to religion and language and calls on Tibetan
exiles to refrain from demonstrations and other activities that would
embarrass the Chinese government or people.

Neutralised threat

Beijing has therefore effectively neutralised the Dalai Lama's
international position and ensured that his exile benefits China rather
than detracts from its Tibetan policy. Given that he remains a
potentially potent and volatile figurehead should he return to the TAR
(where all visual representation of the Dalai Lama is forbidden), China
neither needs nor wants the Dalai Lama back within its borders.

Beijing's final goal is therefore to manage the uncertain situation
after the Dalai Lama's death. Having skillfully handled the larger
political issue of Tibet to its advantage, China is now biding its time
and preparing for the Dalai Lama's passing, at which point it will
oversee the recognition, training and education of his successor.

Beijing is well aware of the difficulties that the Dalai Lama's death
could bring. The Chinese government has already implemented a similar
policy with two other Tibetan senior monks regarded as incarnations of
enlightened beings: the Karmapa, who was recognised in 1992, and the
Panchen Lama, who was recognised -in 1995. Both cases were problematic.

In the former, in spite of state-mandated political education the young
lama ultimately opted to flee Tibet for India, where he is close to the
Dalai Lama. In the latter, a candidate was first recognised by the Dalai
Lama (also in 1995) and then placed incommunicado by an angered Chinese
government, which then orchestrated a hasty and coerced recognition of
an alternate child who is considered illegitimate by most Tibetans.

In spite of these embarrassments, the case of the Panchen Lama
demonstrated to the Chinese government's satisfaction that it could
maintain adequate control over the reincarnation process even in the
face of widespread Tibetan hostility to its choice. The selection of the
next dalai lama is therefore just a matter of time as far as the Chinese
government is concerned.

While the issue of reincarnation therefore may appear to be mere arcane
religious ritual, the topic represents an important step - perhaps the
penultimate step - in the larger Chinese policy for securing Tibet. It
logically follows from China's success in undermining any effective
claims by Tibetans and Tibet supporters that Tibet was and by rights
ought to be an independent state, by extending the unambiguous
recognition of its authority in Tibet to the selection process for the
Dalai Lama.The removal of one of the primary international figureheads
for dissent, if the transition process is efficiently handled by
Beijing, will therefore only be seen as positive by the Chinese government.

The failure of the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile to devise a
well-formulated policy for his succession is but one more demonstration
of China's ability to consistently outmanoeuvre him diplomatically. It
has used him adroitly to defuse questions of legitimacy regarding
Tibet's incorporation into China and now it is working to ensure that he
will not be an effective obstacle to the further consolidation of
China's position in his homeland, either in this lifetime or the next.
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