Mongolia and China: History, Rage, and Reincarnation

Last month, the Dalai Lama traveled to Mongolia, a country with long religious and cultural ties to Tibet. Despite the trip being billed as “purely religious” in nature, Chinese authorities characteristically demanded it be canceled and warned of potential “negative effects” were the trip to occur (a disclaimer that precedes nearly any trip by the Dalai Lama to a foreign country, and sometimes even comes ahead of visits to sensitive parts of India, the nation that has provided him refuge for the past half-century). Following the trip, Bloomberg reported on November 26 that Beijing had cancelled talks on “badly-needed” Chinese loans and development contracts. On December 2, United Press International’s Elizabeth Shim reported that China had raised transportation fees for shipments crossing the border from Mongolia in to China, resulting in canceled shipments from multinational mining firms with enormous investments in .

Beijing’s follow-through shouldn’t have surprised Ulaanbaatar. China has previously made good on similar threats, briefly closing parts of the border in 2002, and temporarily cancelling direct flights to the capital from Beijing in 2006 after visits from the . At Foreign Policy, Sergey Radchenko reaches further back in modern Sino-Mongolian history to show how Beijing’s “raw pressure and intimidation can backfire in unexpected ways”:

In 1959, following the outbreak of an anti-Chinese rebellion in Tibet, the then 23-year-old Dalai Lama fled to . Beijing never forgave him for leaving, nor forgave for giving him refuge. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi, until then hailed as a shining example of peaceful coexistence, tanked. Border tensions escalated, and in October 1962, the two neighbors went to war in the Himalayas.

Although China won the battle, the real challenge was to persuade the world that the Indians were the bad guys — a matter complicated by the reality that Beijing attacked India, not the other way around. The task fell to the founding father of Chinese , , who spent weeks explaining China’s take on the conflict to disconcerted regional players like Indonesia and Sri Lanka. In December 1962, Zhou attempted to convince the Mongolians to endorse the Chinese point of view. The records of his dramatic encounter with then Mongolian Prime Minister Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal have recently been declassified by the Mongolian Foreign Ministry, and are now accessible online. They make for sober reading.

Tsedenbal, who came to China to sign a border treaty and to ask for economic aid, seemed surprised when Zhou unexpectedly raised the subject of India. Zhou recounted the highlights of the Sino-Indian border confrontation, and condemned the Indians for selling out to U.S. imperialism and for pursuing anti-Chinese policies. Tsedenbal reacted by saying meekly that he was sorry that China and India had quarreled. “I don’t understand what you mean by being sorry about the Sino-Indian conflict,” Zhou pressed. It was a matter of black and white: China was right, India was wrong. There could not be neutrality in the question. But Tsedenbal would not budge, telling Zhou that quarreling with India over an uninhibited strip of land in the Himalayas would only force the Indians to turn to the West, and that would not help China’s cause. Zhou nearly lost it: his face “twisted in anger,” noted the record-taker. […] [Source]

Radchenko continues to detail the remainder of the heated exchange, and to suggest that the problems associated with the CCP’s continued intolerance for dissent could find their antidote in some of the Dalai Lama’s simplest teachings.

The Dalai Lama’s itinerary while in Mongolia last month did seem to reinforce the claimed “purely religious” nature of the trip: he met with Buddhist congregations, and attended a conference on Buddhism and science. On his final day in Mongolia, however, he did brush upon politics repeatedly at a press conference. While he did castigate China for meddling in his travel plans, the lion’s share of coverage from the conference focused on his stated lack of worry over the recent election of Donald J. Trump as the next U.S. president. Despite ongoing (and rapidly proliferating) questions about Sino-U.S. relations under President Trump, the exiled Tibetan’s mention of the president-elect may not have been the one most concerning to Beijing. The Dalai Lama also noted his confidence that the Jebtsundampa Khatagt, the third highest-ranking cleric in the Gelug (aka “Yellow Hat”) sect of , had been reborn in Mongolia. This announcement comes as the 81-year-old Dalai Lama and Beijing are engaged in a heated back-and-forth over who has the right to name his successor, and as Chinese authorities have recently made moves to politically empower their controversial choice for the Panchen Lama—the second highest ranked Gelug cleric. At The Diplomat, M.A. Alrdich explains how the Jebtsundampa Khatagt serves as a historical geopolitical connection between Tibet, China, and Mongolia (Russia also factors in to the story, and since the CCP’s “liberation” of Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s subsequent flight, India too):

Zanabazar was the first of eight patriarchs officially recognized by the Qing Court as the ecclesiastical leaders of northern Mongolia. In their homeland, the patriarchs were the third most senior lamas after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. Zanabazar is remembered as both a distinguished polymath noted for his bronze artwork, religious texts, and scientific experiments as well as a shrewd political strategist who allied his clan’s interests with the rising Qing Empire. After Zanabazar’s death in 1723, the Second Patriarch was found in northern Mongolia in the person of the one of the great-grandsons of Zanabazar’s brother and duly enthroned with the support of the Manchu throne and the Yellow Hat clergy in Lhasa.

[…] Despite the official line of the Communist authorities, the lineage did not die out. In 1936, the Reting Rinpoche, the ruling regent of Tibet for the interregnum between the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dalai Lamas, recognized a boy named Jambal Namdo Choiji in Lhasa as the of the Eighth Patriarch. The boy’s identity remained a carefully guarded secret because of possible assassination attempts by Communist Mongolian agents. Jambal Namdo was inducted incognito into Lhasa’s clergy without the financial support usually provided to important tulkus. In the 1940s, he left the clergy, started a family, and earned his living peacefully as a farmer. However, in the aftermath of the Tibetan Uprising in 1959, he fled to India with the Dalai Lama because of his fear of being discovered and used as a propaganda tool by the Chinese Communists. In the 1980s, he resumed his monastic vows and lived a quiet life in Karnataka.

[…] Toward the end of his life, the Ninth Patriarch told the Dalai Lama of his desire to return to Mongolia for his passing. In November 2011, the Ninth Patriarch, in poor health, took up residency at the Gandan Tegchenling Monastery. He died there in March 2012.

According to Buddhist tradition, the Ninth Patriarch’s wish to pass away in Mongolia was a significant indication that his next rebirth would be in Mongolia. By spending his last days at the Gandan Tegchenling Monastery, the Ninth Patriarch helped to set the stage for the discovery of the first Mongolian-born patriarch in nearly 300 years. […] [Source]