Originally published on www.stratfor.com on August 9, 2011:
Forty-three-year-old Harvard scholar Lobsang Sangay was sworn in Aug. 8 as prime minister of the Indian-based Tibetan government-in-exile in a public ceremony in Dharamsala. This step is meant to relieve the Dalai Lama of his political leadership role within the Tibetan movement. Saying he would continue to pursue talks with Beijing, Sangay vowed to fight China’s “colonialism” and pursue Tibetan autonomy. However, Beijing has repeatedly said that the government-in-exile has no legitimacy, and therefore Beijing denied the newly elected prime minister any right of negotiation.
The change in the political leadership of the Tibetan movement was expected. It follows the Dalai Lama’s announcement in March that he would serve only as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, relinquishing his political role prior to the new prime minister’s election in April. There has long been discussion of splitting the roles of political and spiritual leadership within the Tibetan cause, moving away from the dual role the Dalai Lama has performed to this point. There was growing concern that if the 76-year-old Dalai Lama were to die, he would leave behind a significant leadership vacuum. To prevent a potential collapse, or at least a major disruption of the movement, the Dalai Lama has successfully pressed for a change in the leadership structure. The political leader is now elected and remains separate from the spiritual leader. This alteration allows a sense of continuity to the Tibetan movement even as a successor to the current Dalai Lama has yet to be identified.
Thus far, the Dalai Lama has effectively managed the fractious Tibetan movement. While he could not always shepherd the various interests in exactly the same direction, he could at least temper their differences enough to maintain a modicum of unity. Perhaps more importantly, he has also shaped a strong image of himself (and thus of the Tibetan movement) on the international stage, garnering at least symbolic political backing from countries around the world for the Tibetan push for greater autonomy (if not independence). Recognizing his enormous influence, Beijing’s strategy has been to wait out the Dalai Lama, hoping the Tibetan movement will fragment following his death, or perhaps fall out of the international spotlight. If the movement’s strength and public support dry up, Beijing will be able to more firmly entrench its interests on the Tibetan Plateau.
Toward this end, Beijing tries to demonize the Dalai Lama domestically and internationally, seeking to weaken his spiritual leadership role within the Chinese Tibetan community. In 1995, Beijing replaced the chosen Panchen Lama (the second highest ranking lama) with its own selected appointee in a bid to hold greater sway over the Tibetan population. With the Dalai Lama out of China and Tibet since 1959, Beijing hoped the new, more Beijing-friendly Panchen Lama could supplant loyalties to the Dalai Lama within China. The strategy is similar to the one Beijing has used with the Catholic Church in China — recognizing an official Chinese Catholic Church that does not owe allegiance to the Pope in the Vatican while seeking to block Catholicism that does profess allegiance to the Pope. In both the Tibetan Buddhist and Catholic cases, China fears having a portion of its population more influenced by a foreign entity than by the Chinese Communist Party (CPC). This fear of foreign exploitation of a minority population is so pervasive that in the past Beijing has banned various direct-sales schemes, fearing their members’ loyalty to the network was greater than their loyalty to the CPC or the Chinese state.
For Beijing, controlling Tibet and Xinjiang (along with other regions in China with concentrations of ethnic minorities) prevents instability and also preserves vast buffer zones that shield China’s core. Tibet is the Chinese anchor in the Himalayas, used by Beijing to secure itself from foreign influence — India in particular. Beijing sees the Tibetan movement as a potential foreign-backed force seeking to undermine Chinese security and weaken Beijing’s hold on a strategic piece of territory. If Beijing’s grip on Tibet loosens, and India gains influence, China’s sense of security might weaken, posing a direct threat to Yunnan or Sichuan province. China also sees the United States expanding its activities and presence in the Asian Pacific region, and Beijing fears that the United States could — like in the 1950s — once again exploit the Tibetan movement to weaken China.
Beijing carefully watched the transition process the Dalai Lama enacted. China’s leaders hope that without the charisma of the current Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government-in-exile will find it increasingly difficult to hold together the movement’s disparate factions or to maintain the international momentum the Dalai Lama has achieved. Should fractures within the Tibetan movement grow more pronounced, Beijing sees an opportunity to exploit these differences through offers and deals on one hand and threats or infiltration on the other. One potential opportunity Chinese leaders see is the possibility for Beijing to shift accusations of separatism and terrorism from the Dalai Lama (whose international image is difficult to tarnish) squarely onto the Tibetan government-in-exile. This blame transfer avoids the ridicule Beijing receives internationally when it calls the Dalai Lama a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Most of Beijing’s attempts to bring the population out from under the Dalai Lama’s sway for decades have backfired. Many Tibetans continue to revere the Dalai Lama and find Beijing’s accusations and insults against him challenges to their own religious beliefs. However, if the Chinese leaders can shift their accusations to the political leadership and reduce their criticisms of the Dalai Lama, it may help their ethnic management policies.
Alternately, Beijing fears that without coherent leadership from the Dalai Lama, some sects within the Tibetan movement, both domestically and internationally, could become more aggressive, or even militant. They could pose security concerns and become increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by outside forces. Within the Tibetan community, there are elements that consider the Dalai Lama’s moderate “Middle Way” approach to be ineffective, advocating more direct action to achieve greater Tibetan autonomy and ultimately, Tibetan independence. Meanwhile, the question remains as to whether the spiritual leader Beijing may appoint (as it did the Panchen Lama) will be well received by the Tibetan population. Without an influential figure capable of moderating those more contentious camps, the younger generation of Tibetans who were raised outside of Tibet will have more aggressive tendencies. They may enjoy greater political space in pursuing autonomy or independence, creating instability with their efforts. As a result, Beijing could have to increase its efforts in dealing with separate sects and even militancy to maintain control over Tibet.