CHINA’S ‘BIG TWO’ SESSIONS SIGNAL POLICY SHIFT ON DALAI LAMA

JAYADEVA RANADE  March 2016

 

 

Dated: 27 March 2016

 

CHINA’S ‘BIG TWO’ SESSIONS SIGNAL POLICY SHIFT ON DALAI LAMA

 

 

by JAYADEVA RANADE



A definitive shift was discernible in Beijing’s policy towards the Dalai Lama at the 4th plenary session of the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s version of a parliament, that concluded in Beijing on March 15, 2016. China additionally utilised the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and NPC sessions – popularly called the ‘Big Two’ -- to subtly continue its efforts to drive a wedge between the Dalai Lama and the various Tibetan Buddhist sects in the bid to undermine his influence and isolate him. Remarks by officials of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) on the sidelines of the ‘Big Two’ clarified that there would be no relaxation in the tough policies being implemented in Tibet.

Tibet has been a major preoccupation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, but interestingly, CPPCC Chairman and Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member, Yu Zhengsheng, did not make specific mention of Tibet in his 16-page report to the 2,200 delegates attending the opening session of the CPPCC in Beijing on March 3, 2016. He merely said: “We promoted ethnic unity and religious harmony to bring together the will and strength of the people.” The CPPCC, incidentally, is China’s top political advisory body overseeing work relating to national minorities and specifically Tibet and Xinjiang as well as non-Communist Party organisations. Nonetheless the Tibet issue figured directly in remarks by Deputies during the sessions and also in the days around the ‘Big Two’ sessions.

 

 

CPPCC Chairman Yu Zhengsheng did, however, mention "religions" sixteen times in the report, six times more than last year according to the Hongkong-based Ta Kung Pao. One major development is that the report asked delegates to "actively work to guide religions adapting to the socialist society, make suggestions and proposals on the implementation of the Regulations on Religious Affairs, policies on real estate property held by religious groups and the development of philanthropy work by religious communities." The reference to “policies on real estate property held by religious groups” is intriguing. The report, also for the first time, proposes the concept of "religious philanthropy."

In its despatch on March 3, 2016, the authoritative official news agency Xinhua reported that Yu Zhengsheng had echoed a recent Qiushi article in his address and “urged CCP members within the CPPCC National Committee to enhance their consciousness of the ideology, the whole, the core and the line”. The article in the CCP Central Committee’s theoretical journal ‘Qiushi’ (Seeking Truth) exhorted that faithfulness to the core leadership of the Party is characterized “by staunch loyalty to the CPC Central Committee, [its] General Secretary Xi Jinping as well as to Party theories, guidelines, principles and policies" and it declared that “all the society must be united under the advocacy of Xi on the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.”

As if to affirm their loyalty to the CCP, the 18 delegates from TAR to the CPPCC and NPC sessions wore two badges displaying the photographs of five Chinese leaders. One showed Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and President Xi Jinping and the other only depicted Xi Jinping. Monasteries and temples in Tibet have displayed photographs of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao since 2011. Though one Tibetan Delegate said they had been wearing the badges after the 50th anniversary of the founding of TAR in 2015, their display during the sessions sparked criticism as an attempt to project Xi Jinping’s image. The delegates appeared without the badges at the closing ceremony on the final day!

Some interesting developments around the time of the ‘Big Two’ sessions ensured attention to the Tibet issue. Just days before commencement of the CPPCC and NPC sessions, China’s official news agency ‘Xinhua’ (March 1, 2016) sought to project a favourable image of the CCP’s engagement with Tibetan religious affairs. It publicised that Sun Chunlan, Politburo (PB) member and head of the CCP CC’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), received Gyaltsen Norbu, the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama, on his return to Beijing from a sojourn in Tibet. It quoted Gyaltsen Norbu as saying he “will bear in mind the care from the CPC Central Committee and the central government as well as Xi's instructions” and as vowing to work hard to help "Tibetan Buddhism (get) better incorporated into socialist society." He said he would promote Tibet's prosperity and harmony.

In contrast, the US-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) pointed to the restiveness in Tibet and reported the first such incident of self-immolation in China this year. This was by Kalsang Wangdu, a young Tibetan monk of the Retsokha Aryaling monastery in the Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture’s Nyagrong (Xinlong) county, Sichuan province, on February 29, 2016. The report was later denied by a TAR official. Another RFA report claimed that on March 1, 2016, a 33-year old Tibetan woman had been taken into custody in Ngaba county’s Meruma township in Sichuan province for holding up “a photo of the Dalai Lama and (having) shouted slogans challenging Chinese policies.”

 

 

Support to the Dalai Lama received a fillip when on March 10, 2016, the Geneva Graduate Institute ignored a written protest from the Chinese Embassy dated March 8, and received the Dalai Lama along with other Nobel Laureates at an event sponsored jointly by US and Canada. The communication from the Chinese Embassy said “China resolutely opposes the 14th Dalai Lama's separatist activities in whatever capacity and in whatever name in any country, organisation or event." It urged addressees “not to attend the above-mentioned event, nor meet the 14th Dalai Lama and his clique." At the event, which coincided with the 57th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet and riots in Lhasa, the US, Canada and eleven other countries sharply criticised China’s mass arrests of lawyers.

There were a couple of intriguing developments as well. On March 10, 2016, Ms Nancy Pelosi and Jim McGovern, members of the first US Congress delegation to visit Tibet in eight years in 2015, issued a statement saying “the 

 

 

 

 

 

deteriorating human rights situation throughout China is deeply troubling. However, our trip has led us to believe there is a narrow but real opportunity to encourage the Chinese government to re-evaluate its policy toward Tibet.” They asked that “It must be a prominent part of our conversations with the Chinese government at every level. Our country has a responsibility to speak out in support of human rights in Tibet and elsewhere in China.” The observation that “there is a narrow but real opportunity to encourage the Chinese government to re-evaluate its policy toward Tibet,” suggests that quiet back-channel contacts have possibly been at work.


 

 

The sudden announcement by the International Shugden Community (ISC) on March 10, 2016, – the 57th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet and riots in Lhasa -- that it had decided to “completely stop organizing demonstrations against the Dalai Lama” and dismantle its website, is also an as yet inexplicable development. Giving some credit to a Reuters investigative report on the activities of the Shugden group which he described as “something complete, holistic sort of presentation, it was very helpful," the Dalai Lama curiously said he was aware of the ISC’s decision but “don’t know” what was behind the group’s announcement.


 

 

An important indication of the shift in the Chinese government’s stance towards the Dalai Lama was the remark by Padma Choling (Baima Chilin), the 64-year old TAR Deputy Party Secretary. He categorically told journalists that the Dalai Lama “was no longer a religious leader after he defected his country and betrayed its people. If the Dalai Lama wants to return to China, he must give up 'Tibet independence,' and must publicly acknowledge Tibet and Taiwan are inseparable parts of China and that the People's Republic of China is the only legitimate government." Padma Choling’s remarks are significant and, as observed by Zhang Yun, a researcher at Beijing’s Research Center on Tibetology, show that “the legitimacy of the Dalai Lama's status as a religious leader was no longer acknowledged by the central government as he has failed to fulfill his obligation to inherit and spread Buddhism and continued his separatist activities”. Zhang Yun added that "the reconsideration came about after the central government realized the Dalai Lama's commitment to oppose the Chinese government, and his support of separatism was unlikely to change." Xiong Kunxin, a Professor of Ethnic Studies at China’s Minzu University reiterated to the state-run Global Times “that Baima Chilin's remarks show the central government's attitude towards the Dalai Lama's identity, who had long been considered a religious leader”.  

 

 

Separately talking to reporters on March 7, 2016, Padma Choling implicitly expressed China’s opposition to the Dalai Lama’s visits abroad. Expressing “firm opposition” to the Dalai Lama's visit to Taiwan, he said "We strongly oppose anyone who is in power (in Taiwan) to invite the Dalai Lama to visit Taiwan. Everyone clearly knows what kind of person the Dalai Lama is. The Dalai Lama must give up his secessionist stance and stop all activities to split the motherland.”



 

 

This policy shift follows the declaration by the CCP CC PBSC, after a week-long closed-door “conclave” on June 30, 2015, that "The authority of the central government has always been important in the reincarnation process. Historical precedents have clearly shown the central government's vital role in the process.” The authoritative official Xinhua news agency report added “all confirmations of the Dalai Lama have required approval by the central Chinese government, which has deemed the process an important issue concerning sovereignty and national security.” An anonymous source was cited by AsiaNews as saying that Xi Jinping had said at the meeting that the Communist Party would pick “the next Dalai Lama, period! If things do not go well, we are ready to take corrective action."

Pertinent is the accusation that the Dalai Lama “defected” and “betrayed” the Chinese people. The first time that China alleged the Dalai Lama was “anti-national” and “unpatriotic” was after he affirmed that Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang are part of India. It made the accusation during the Sixth Round of talks between Chinese officials and the Dalai Lama’s special representatives from June 29-July 5, 2007, which was also the first occasion they raised the India-China border issue in these talks.

Notable was the apparent deliberate effort to single out the Dalai Lama for criticism at these sessions. Though a Mainland Chinese singer and two actors had visited Bodh Gaya in India on February 14, 2016, for an event connected with the Karma Kargyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the TAR Deputy Party Secretary, Wu Yingjie chose to raise the issue only on March 7, 2016. Speaking to reporters in Beijing on the sidelines of the NPC, he criticised renowned Chinese singer Faye Wong, actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai and actor Hu Jun for attending the event in Bodh Gaya to commemorate the 92nd birth anniversary of the late predecessor of the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa. He said “As celebrities, especially superstars, they are public figures that bear certain social responsibilities. We hope the celebrities to take the responsibility for their own deeds. We firmly oppose all celebrities, however influential they are, and whatever purpose they have, to make any contact with the 14th Dalai clique, or even help him spread his ideas.” China’s official media similarly criticised the celebrities. The actors Faye Wong and Tony Leung Chiu-wai did not comment, but in a statement on his social media account Hu Jun wrote that he did not know there were any ‘separatists’ present. Important is that while the Dalai Lama and his “clique” were singled out for criticism and visitors warned to avoid contact with them, any critical reference to the Gyalwa Karmapa, who heads the Karma Kargyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, was carefully avoided. In its effort to undermine the influence of the Dalai Lama, Beijing is distinguishing between the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders and attempting to wean the latter away.

 

 

As part of this policy Nepal, with Beijing’s tacit approval, in mid-2014 loosened restrictions to allow Tibetan Buddhist sects to organise functions in Lumbini. The first beneficiary was the Sakya tradition and its various sub-sects who, after decades, were permitted to organise Monlam celebrations there. The policy accentuates divisions among Tibetan Buddhist religious sects and undermines the authority of the Dalai Lama who, Kathmandu has said, will not be allowed to visit Buddha’s birthplace till he effects reconciliation with the CCP leadership in Beijing. Meanwhile, the Nyingmapa sect last year opted to recognise Beijing’s authority and get its recognition for Penor Rimpoche’s reincarnation.

There were other developments with the potential to impact India. The Chinese Deputy Director of the TAR Tourism Development Commission, Hong Wei, was quoted by the English-language China Daily as saying “Tibet will be more open to domestic and foreign tourists in the next five years. We will simplify the procedure for foreigners to obtain travel permits and cut the waiting time.” TAR Deputy Party Secretary Padma Choling clarified that the permit system requiring non-Chinese foreign travellers to obtain a special Tibet travel permit to tour the region, in addition to a Chinese visa, will not be abolished completely. Tibetans criticised the relaxation as intended to facilitate migration of Hans to Tibet. The NPC also approved a new railway line linking Chengdu in Sichuan province with Lhasa. Obviously a strategic military project the railway, which will go via Nyingchi, a large military and missile base opposite Arunachal Pradesh, has limited commercial viability. Approval was also accorded to extension of the Lhasa-Shigatse railway line to Kyirong on Tibet’s border with Nepal.

China’s stance suggests it no longer views the Dalai Lama as a religious figure and may not continue contacts with him. By setting pre-conditions for the Dalai Lama in case he wants to return to China, it is also trying to reduce his room for manoeuvre. The developments could have implications for India. At the same time China appears to have begun to more overtly woo high-ranking monks and heads of other Tibetan Buddhist sects.

 

 

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(The author is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.)





 

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