Caution Over Possible Shift in Tibet Policy

Reports of a relaxation of anti-Dalai Lama policies in Sichuan, Qinghai and even the Tibetan Autonomous Region surfaced last week, only to be swiftly denied by both government and monastery officials. Tibetan writer Woeser added her own voice, tweeting “this is untrue! There’s been no relaxation at all! This is completely groundless!” Nevertheless, it seems that limited, experimental concessions in particularly sensitive areas may be occurring, reportedly including a loosening of restrictions on images of the Dalai Lama, a lifting of requirements that he be publicly denounced, and an easing of security forces’ intervention in monastery “disturbances”. Coming on the heels of Central Party School scholar Jin Wei’s public call for limited rapprochement with the exiled religious leader, these experiments may offer hope that China’s hard line on Tibet is starting to soften. But at South China Morning Post, Kim Wall reports that even if the reports are true, they may not signal fundamental change:

“While the Dalai Lama photos carry symbolic importance to the Western audience, this is not a very significant indicator for anyone in the Tibetan Autonomous Region,” said Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Programme at Columbia University in New York. “We should be optimistic, but this will not necessarily add up to what people would like it to.”

[…] Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said any reforms merely reflected a revision of Beijing’s counterproductive security policies.

“What matters to Beijing is how to cement its control,” Bequelin said. “If the religious policies don’t help Beijing’s objective to domesticate the region – avoiding popular protest and ethnic tensions – then the leadership will revise them.

“This just reflects that the new leadership is more pragmatic about these issues, but the fundamental policy has not changed. Ironically, the new policies also reflect confidence from the government that it has increased control of the monasteries.” [Source]

An in-depth analysis of recent developments by the International Campaign for Tibet cautioned that the changes might be no more than local-level damage control following a long series of self-immolation protests, and need not represent any general or enduring trend:

The new approach in Qinghai may have been advised as an ‘experiment’, and justified as an attempt or tactic to prevent further Tibetan self-immolations. There is a direct correlation between the self-immolations and an intensified campaign against the Dalai Lama in Tibet together with the aggressive expansion of legal measures tightening state control over Tibetan religion and culture. This has been particularly evident following the imposition of increasingly restrictive measures in the eastern Tibetan areas of Amdo and Kham, where most of the self-immolations have occurred. Virtually all the 120 Tibetans who have self-immolated since 2009 have called for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to return home.

[…] The Chinese authorities are known for practising alternate waves of concession and hardline policies, called fang-shou’, meaning ‘soft-hard’. This sometimes takes the form of backing off from stronger language after a propaganda offensive.

In an earlier precedent to what has been discussed in Qinghai, in July 2009 the Chinese authorities allowed Tibetans in Drango (Chinese: Luohuo) county in Kardze, eastern Tibet (Sichuan) to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday with a prayer ceremony and to display his images. Any attempt to publicly mark the Dalai Lama’s July 6 birthday is generally banned in Tibet in the past several years. According to several Tibetan sources, one ‘work team’ of a handful of officials who visited the area eve brought pictures of the Dalai Lama for local people. Some Tibetans described it as a “temporary tactic” as part of an attempt to prevent unrest to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 2009. (ICT report, Move to allow Dalai Lama pictures prompts speculation: no policy change evident). But this was an isolated incident in a climate of intense repression, and there was minimal or no debate evident. [Source]

The reports do coincide with other potentially encouraging signs. Gary Locke was permitted to visit the TAR last week, the first such trip by a U.S. ambassador since 2010, though Locke had previously visited two Tibetan monasteries in Sichuan last September. As SCMP’s Kim Wall noted, a daughter of the 10th Panchen Lama also visited Lhasa recently, after being barred from doing so for many years. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay announced that she has been invited to China (from 32:38) and “will definitely go to the Tibetan territory to see for myself”, while a 14-month freeze in Sino-British relations following a meeting between the Dalai Lama and prime minister David Cameron has finally thawed.

Were China to pursue the course advocated by the Central Party School’s Jin Wei, of resuming talks with the Dalai Lama and perhaps allowing him to live in Hong Kong, these developments might represent plausible first steps. But as explained in an interview translated by ICT, Jin’s objective is to ensure the long-term sustainability of Chinese rule in Tibet by securing the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation within China. Should this be accomplished, she argues, Western interest “will gradually fade”, and Tibetans within China will be “calmed”, leaving “the overseas Tibetan independence forces” adrift and “disintegrating.” Accordingly, some see Jin’s proposals as a dangerous trap, not a welcome thaw as The Economist recently described them. From Woeser’s blog:

An independent Chinese intellectual sent me an e-mail. Worried and anxious, he said “There is obviously a back story to the two articles in Asia Weekly. The first speaks of the internal divisions among Tibetans and the Government-in-Exile’s inability to stabilize the situation. The article that follows has several keywords that I really don’t like: reincarnation, inviting His Holiness to visit Hong Kong, etc. And an invitation to His Holiness to visit Hong Kong is surely on His Holiness’s mind: he has many times evinced warm feelings when speaking about Xi Zhongxun and is reposing great hopes in Xi Jinping. If moved by rhetoric, His Holiness could gladly go. But think about the affair of the 10th Panchen Lama’s passing away in Shigatse. I think of the old adage, ‘Don’t walk into danger!’”

Indeed, don’t walk into danger! When there’s someone saying “We must strive to see that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is produced only within the country,” my hope is just for His Holiness to be in sound health; for His Holiness to be free of any malady! [Source]

It remains unclear in any case how influential Jin’s views really are. One official quoted by Global Times described a change in policy as “impossible”, while the State Administration for Religious Affairs has insisted that “our policy toward the Dalai clique is clear and consistent, and has not changed.”

Meanwhile, there have been other, less benign changes in Tibetan areas. Surveillance has been sharply stepped up in the TAR this year, according to recent reports, while High Peaks Pure Earth hosted monk Go Sherab Gyatso’s impassioned response to tightened controls over written materials at Sichuan’s Kirti Monastery:

In this way, one day when you will have the absolute power over every written material in our monastery, what guarantee do we have that you would not say that there are ‘mistakes’ in the Prajnaparamita scriptures, or that the commentary on Madhyamaka is not in accordance with ‘your accepted premise’, or that a new social commentary is ‘erroneous’, or that a new style of poetry is wrong or an outlook on culture is ‘not in tune’ with old way of thinking?

[…] Since the time of the Buddha, there has always been a space to analyse the nature of things based on one’s mental capacity and to test and critique truth about objects and phenomena. In the future too this space for debate must continue. Like the great scholars of the past who have handed down this tradition from one generation to the next, we must strive to continue and further improve upon this great tradition. It is simply wrong for a few people to have the power to decide whether someone’s writing can and cannot be published.

[…] The red wind from outside is so strong and its orders so strict that we have barely space to breathe in and breathe out. […]

[…] Unlike anonymous letters that create rumours, I have written this piece with integrity and openness. I have and will always take responsibility for my writing.

Written on June 4, 2013 in my quarters at Ngaba Kirti Monastery. [Source]