UPDATED at 11:20 a.m. EST on 2013-06-27
Chinese authorities in Tibetan-populated areas of Qinghai and Sichuan are allowing monks to openly venerate the Dalai Lama as a religious leader but not as a “political” figure, according to sources citing official statements introducing the “experimental” new policy.
The move appears to be confined only to the two provinces but still reverses a longstanding Chinese policy of forcing Tibetan monks and nuns to denounce the exiled spiritual leader, whom Beijing has described as a dangerous separatist seeking to “split” Tibet away from China.
In Sichuan’s Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) prefecture, “an announcement has been made stating that photos of the Dalai Lama may be displayed, and that the Dalai Lama should not be criticized by name,” a resident of the area told RFA’s Tibetan Service on Wednesday.
“Similar announcements will be made in all the monasteries in the Kardze area,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Separately, a Tibetan living in neighboring Qinghai province said, “There is no order [now] from senior leaders to criticize the Dalai Lama.”
Quoting a June 14 announcement by Tsepa Topden, a political studies instructor at Kumbum monastery’s Qinghai Buddhist Institute, the source said, “Buddhist believers can have faith and show respect to the Dalai Lama.”
“At the same time, he cannot be followed for political reasons,” he quoted Topden as saying.
“Religion and politics should be kept separate,” Topden said, according to the source.
Earlier policies 'wrong'
Official statements introducing the new policy, which the source described as “experimental,” also criticized as "wrong" an earlier Chinese practice in which monks and nuns were forced to harshly criticize the Dalai Lama, the source said.
“From now on, anyone who is a believer in Buddhism has no need to criticize the Dalai Lama,” he said.
A similar announcement was made at a June 19 meeting held in Qinghai’s Tsigorthang (Xinghai) county and attended by “lamas, monks, and others,” a third source said, also speaking anonymously.
At the meeting, two Tibetan officials read from a government document declaring that “from now on, photos of the Dalai Lama can be displayed, and no one is permitted to criticize him by calling him names,” the source said.
Reports of these policy changes have not been officially confirmed, Columbia University Tibet scholar Robbie Barnett told RFA in an interview.
“But they fit with the underlying reality that Tibet policy was frozen for some 20 years after [former Chinese president] Hu Jintao was promoted from [Communist Party chief in] Lhasa to the central leadership in the early 1990s.”
“For bureaucrats in Tibetan areas, this means they are now in a different era, and some may have received permission to test policy adaptations in two or three localities,” Barnett said.
Photographs of the Dalai Lama were never formally banned in eastern Tibetan areas in any case, Barnett said.
“It is the reports of other changes that are significant, such as an end to denigrating the Dalai Lama.”'
'Premature to speculate'
While it would be “premature to speculate” about the extension of these policy changes to other areas, Barnett said, "the fact that these reports coincide with criticism by important scholars in Beijing of Tibet policy during the Hu Jintao era is striking.”
Speaking to RFA, Indiana University Tibet scholar Elliot Sperling said that in Tibetan-populated areas of Chinese provinces outside the Tibet Autonomous Region, there has already been a "tacit understanding" allowing discreet displays of the Dalai Lama's photo "so long as there are no other overtly political activities."
"Numerous travelers have noticed this," he said.
Sperling noted that a director of ethnic and religious affairs at China’s Central Party School named Jin Wei recently called for Beijing to begin a new dialogue with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, and perhaps to allow him to visit Hong Kong.
These suggestions were not based on a realization that Tibetans have been subjected to major human rights violations or to "a regime of sustained injustice," though, Sperling said.
Instead, Sperling said, the goal of Jin Wei's policy proposals is that China "engage with the Dalai Lama" and seek his cooperation to prevent a situation in which, following his eventual death, his successor is located in an area outside of Beijing's control.
Even as these ideas were being proposed, though, “harsh measures continue to be implemented, including increasing the level of surveillance in Tibet,” Sperling said.
China's stepped-up controls in Tibetan areas come amid continuing protests against Beijing's rule, with 120 Tibetans self-immolating since the wave of fiery protests began in February 2009.
The 77-year-old Dalai Lama, who fled from Tibet into India after a failed 1959 national uprising against Chinese occupation, has been the face and symbol of the Tibetan struggle for more than five decades.
The Nobel laureate handed over political power in 2011 to Harvard law scholar Lobsang Sangay, who was chosen head of the Tibetan government in exile in open elections, but the Dalai Lama retains the more significant role of spiritual leader.
Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney.
UPDATE: This includes a fuller presentation of Elliot Sperling's views.