May 17th 2011, by Banyan
AS CHINA gears up to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its annexation of Tibet, it has issued a stinging rebuff to the newly elected prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay. The winner of an election among Tibetans outside China, Mr Sangay will have a higher profile than his predecessors. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, has said he will withdraw from his political role, giving the elected leader greater prominence and responsibility.
So Mr Sangay, a 43-year-old fellow at Harvard Law School, has been visiting his electorate, most of whom are in India, and discussing his plans. He offered to negotiate with China “any time, anywhere”. China’s response came in the form of an interview in the official magazine “China’s Tibet” with Zhu Weiqun, a senior official in the Communist Party’s “United Front” department, and a frequent spokesman on Tibet.
Mr Zhu’s contempt almost splutters off the page, as he rants about “that government-in-exile of his”: “it’s all just a separatist political clique that betrays the motherland, with no legitimacy at all and absolutely no status to engage in dialogue with the representatives of the central government.”
So that’s clear then. It would appear that the Dalai Lama’s decision to democratise his government-in-exile has made reconciliation with China even less likely. At least, under the previous dispensation, a series of fruitless talks between China and Tibetan exiles has lurched ahead every few months since 2002, usually breaking down in acrimony. Even that now seems too much to hope for.
But Robert Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University in New York, points out that there is nothing new in China’s rejection of Mr Sangay’s overture. It has never had any truck whatsoever with the government-in-exile. The Tibetan side in the talks has always been filled by the Dalai Lama’s representatives. There is no reason that should not continue. Indeed, the Tibetan exile parliament, discussing a new constitution, last month approved a draft which asks the Dalai Lama and his successors, despite his retirement, to “speak on behalf of the Tibetan people, to explain and discuss their concerns and needs as well as to appoint representatives and envoys to serve the interests of the Tibetan people in any part of the world.”
By distancing himself from the exile government, the Dalai Lama has in effect met a Chinese demand. China could, if it chose, regard it as a concession. It could also look that way on the Dalai Lama’s resignation statement in March, in which he said that two pro-independence “political promulgations” he had made in the past would become “ineffective”. The Dalai Lama has long given up the demand for independence in favour of enhanced autonomy under Chinese sovereignty. China has always presented this as a tactical ruse.
China seems to hope that with the passing of this Dalai Lama, Tibetans, deprived of an internationally revered figurehead, will give up the struggle. So it may have been alarmed by the Dalai Lama’s remark at a press conference in New Jersey, America, this month, that Tibetans are close to “finalising” the process for finding his successor—his reincarnation as the 15th Dalai Lama. He said that all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism are involved in this. He seems in good health, but is now 75.
This unity among the various schools would be unprecedented—and important, since it seems quite likely that the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama will be contested, with one candidate backed by China and one, probably in exile, revered by most Tibetans.
The Dalai Lama appears to retain the loyalty of most Tibetans inside China, too. The focus of Tibetan resistance since March has been around the Kirti monastery in an area of Sichuan province that Tibetans regard as Amdo, part of historic Tibet. Protests that started with the self-immolation of a young monk have seen hundreds of monks detained, two elderly laypeople trying to protect them killed, a continuing heavy security presence in the area, and the burning of books not approved by the authorities.
So, as it celebrates, on May 23rd, the 60th anniversary of the “17-point agreement” in which a young Dalai Lama agreed to accept Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, China can be confident that there is no immediate threat to its rule. But it knows that many Tibetans still resent its rule.
It is, for China, in some ways a peculiar document to commemorate. In it, China promised not to alter “the existing political system in Tibet”, a promise swept aside in 1959 as China crushed a Tibetan rebellion and the Dalai Lama and 80,000 followers fled into exile. In 1951, the political system was a feudal theocracy. Now that exiles enjoy the forms of parliamentary democracy, they find China no more trustworthy. China’s leaders, for their part, find their political system no more appealing.
Originally published at http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2011/05/china_and_tibet