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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

China's Real India Position: Dismantle Dharamsala

October 29, 2009

Chris Devonshire-Ellis
October 28, 2001

The recent spat between China and India over
border issues in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh,
which resulted in urgently convened meetings
taking place between the two nations has wakened
the real issue between the two countries: the
Dalai Lama. China’s incursions into territory in
Arunachal Pradesh in particular are not really
aimed in my opinion at a serious claim on the
state, but more to do with the immediate future
of the Dalai Lama, and his claims for Tibet.

Following the movement of China into Tibet in the
late 1950’s, the Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala in
northern India, where he now runs his
government-in-exile on Indian soil.  China and
India already fought a border war directly linked
to the Tibet issue in 1962. Recently, China has
been feeling that India has not been putting
serious thought on its handling of the Tibet
issue. The Chinese foreign office expressly
called for India “to ban activities aimed at
splitting Chinese territory” just a year ago.
That call was in response to the Dalai Lama
calling together his government in Dharamsala to
chart a new course of action following the
breakdown of the eighth round of talks on Tibetan
autonomy in Beijing earlier that year.

India’s problem is that by giving the Dalai Lama
sanctuary, they have also allowed him to operate
a shadow Tibetan government in exile. China
meanwhile has not fully been able to assimilate
Tibet into China, and partially sees the Dalai
Lama’s residence in Dharamsala as one of the reasons why.

Indeed, the Tibetan government, in the past
decade, has stepped up its efforts through the
internet via You Tube and Twitter among others so
that an almost a ‘virtual Tibet’ has emerged.
With Dharamsala hosting a number of organizations
less disposed to the Dalai Lama’s peaceful
solution, Dharamsala is becoming more antagonistic towards China, not less.

As the Dalai Lama ages, power is slowly filtering
out of his hands and more towards a younger group
of exiled Tibetans with fewer inhibitions about
resorting to violence against the Chinese. This
helped, Beijing believes, fuel some of the fires
that erupted in March last year when riots in
Tibet ended in numerous deaths and civilian
casualties. Tibet, Beijing believes, is evolving
into a ‘virtual country’ with a ‘virtual government’ based in Dharamsala.

Consequently, China wants it dismantled and shut
down. Zheng Ruixiang, a senior fellow at the
Chinese Institute of International Studies was
reported to have said as much in November 2006,
in comments to the Times of India when he advised
that China “wants India to dissolve the Dalai
Lamas Government-in-Exile in Dharamsala. The
Tibetan problem is a major obstacle in the
normalization of relations between China and India.”

Historically, the issue over Tibet is highly
complex. The Dalai Lama as a reincarnated
institution was actually created in the 16th
century in meetings held between one of the early
Tibetan Kings and the then Khan of Mongolia, at
the time the dominant regional power.
Essentially, the Mongolians wanted “divine”
recognition to support their rule, and the
mystical Dalai Lama was created (the first one
was actually the third, they cleverly
posthumously recognized two predecessors) to do
just that. The Mongolian Empire wanted to
demonstrate its legitimacy by being seen to have
received blessings from a “divine” figure.

The creation of the Dalai Lama allowed them to
achieve just that. The Tibetans in return,
received military protection from the Mongols to
protect their borders from other warlords in
eastern China and northern India. As Mongolia
waned and China rose during the Ming and Qing
dynasties, this giving of divine blessings passed
to the Chinese Emperor, who obtained this and
regional religious legitimacy from the Dalai Lama.

Tibet was in the business of selling religion,
and Tibetan Buddhism became so complex and arcane
with all its many gods that only high lamas
(based of course in Tibet) could understand it.
They occasionally went on tours, feted wherever
they went for their holy, largely impenetrable
wisdom. Tibet provided religious legitimacy, and
in return received military protection. This all
worked splendidly well until Mao Zedong famously
said that religion was poison and declared China an atheist country.

Tibet didn’t have anything to sell anymore, while
the Chinese didn’t require any religious
legitimizing of their regime, either. There were
no gods, and there was no need to continue to
require the presence of a Dalai Lama. China,
which for centuries under the previous
arrangement had managed Tibet’s border security,
simply marched in and imposed a new form of governance.

Recently, the breakdown of dialogue between
representatives of the Dalai Lama and Beijing
over greater autonomy have collapsed leading to
the possibility of greater militancy in
Dharamsala. However, in negotiating with Beijing
over the giving of greater autonomy to Tibet, has
the Dalai Lama simply been asking for too much?

The demands for autonomy require China to grant
this not just to Tibet, but also to the areas of
greater Tibet which have been assimilated into
modern China. These include all of Qinghai
Province, the southern part of Gansu, western
Sichuan and the northern part of Yunnan. Now
although at different times in history these
areas have indeed been considered part of Tibet,
it has never occurred simultaneously. Local
warlords moved the borders on regular occasions
over the centuries as their power waxed and waned.

Additionally, the Dalai Lama has requested eleven
administrative areas to be returned to Tibetan
governance, including language, religion,
culture, education, right of domicile, the
environment, use of natural resources, economic
development, trade and public health. China balks
at that list as being too much. It involves the
splitting up of four provinces, the creation of a
second political system within China, and the
imposition of a system the opposite to China’s socialist model.

In China, power flows down to the people from the
state. In Tibet, the position would be reversed.
Beijing not unreasonably from a governing
viewpoint, regards this as subversive.  The impasse thus continues.

However, as the Dalai Lama ages -- he is now 74
-- China is concerned about the
government-in-exile’s leadership and the
potential rise of a militant, more aggressive
Tibetan movement for independence that is capable
of creating trouble in Tibet and beyond. The
March 2008 riots were a case in point, unrest
occurred in several towns also in Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai.

China cannot therefore understand why the Indian
government profess friendship, yet permits the
Dalai Lama and its government-in-exile to make
proposals that are subversive towards China from
Indian soil. In developing border tensions over
lesser credible claims over  Arunachal Pradesh,
the Chinese are sending strong signals about what
is really expects from India. It doesn’t include
a continuation of a Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the founding partner of
Dezan Shira & Associates and lived in China for
21 years. He is now based in Mumbai.
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