Policy docs show China plans to end support for Tibet after Dalai Lama’s death

A report looks at China’s strategy to control Tibetan religious identity by appointing the leader’s successor.
By Kalden Lodoe for RFA TIbetan
2022.10.05
Geneva, Switzerland
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Policy docs show China plans to end support for Tibet after Dalai Lama’s death Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama gestures as he leads a teachings gathering in Leh, India, July 28, 2022.
AFP

UPDATED AT 2:57 p.m. EST on 10-6-2022

Chinese authorities have developed an elaborate public relations strategy to end international support for Tibet after the death of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama that includes installing a puppet leader in his place, according to a new report by the International Tibet Network (ITN).

In the 30-page report, entitled “Tibet, the Dalai Lama, and the Geopolitics of Reincarnation,” ITN found evidence of China’s plans to use the Dalai Lama’s passing as a “strategic” and “historic” opportunity to firm up its control of the region, based on two, previously unseen Chinese policy documents.

Central to the plan is China’s intention to co-opt the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and name a pro-Beijing leader in his place, said the report, which was launched Tuesday at a side event of the 51st Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, sponsored by the U.S. and cosponsored by the U.K., Canada, Czech Republic and Lithuania.

In one paper, ITN researchers found references to the death of the Dalai Lama as an opportunity for China to “escape its passive situation in communicating on Tibet,” while another states that the reincarnation issue “will be unavoidable but should also be seen as an opportunity” and acknowledges a possibility that the event may lead “hostile Western forces [to] make ever more noise about the ‘Tibet issue.’”

ITN said the two policy documents “reveal an ominous strategy designed to appropriate and control matters at the heart of the Tibetan religious identity,” citing language in the papers which lays out Beijing’s goal to “secure authority in Tibet and build influence across the Tibetan Buddhist world.”

Concerns over the advancing age of the Dalai Lama, now 87, have renewed uncertainties in recent years over his possible successor after he dies, with Beijing claiming the right to name his successor and the Dalai Lama himself saying that any future Dalai Lama will be born outside of China.

Tibetans remain bitter about Chinese intervention in the selection 25 years ago of the Panchen Lama, who died in 1989.

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was recognized on May 14, 1995 at the age of six as the 11th Panchen Lama, the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 10th Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is Tibet's second-highest spiritual leader and, together with the council of high lamas, is in charge of seeking out the next Dalai Lama.

The recognition by exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama angered Chinese authorities, who three days later took the boy and his family into custody and then installed another boy, Gyaltsen (in Chinese, Gyaincain) Norbu, as their own candidate in his place.

The Panchen Lama installed by Beijing remains unpopular with Tibetans both in exile and at home.

Tibetan tradition holds that senior Buddhist monks and other respected religious leaders are reincarnated in the body of a child after they die.

Uzra Zeya, the US Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights & U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, speaks at a session on the human rights implications of the Dalai Lama’s succession, in Geneva, Switzerland, Oct. 4, 2022. Credit: Uzra Zeya, Twitter
Uzra Zeya, the US Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights & U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, speaks at a session on the human rights implications of the Dalai Lama’s succession, in Geneva, Switzerland, Oct. 4, 2022. Credit: Uzra Zeya, Twitter
Call for preparedness

Beijing has sought in recent years to control the identification of other Tibetan religious leaders, and says that the selection of the next Dalai Lama—who fled into exile in India following a failed 1959 Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule—must “comply with Chinese law,” while the Dalai Lama himself says that if he returns, his successor will be born in a country outside of Chinese control.

“Given the Chinese government’s atheist stance it may have been expected that Beijing would attempt to end the institution of the Dalai Lama entirely,” ITN said in a statement accompanying the release of the report.

“However, they have instead developed a strategy to exert control over the Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation system including the insistence that it is the prerogative of China to recognise the next Dalai Lama.”

ITN’s report called on world governments to prepare for China’s anticipated interference by developing legislation to affirm that the Dalai Lama’s succession is strictly a matter for Tibetans, the Tibetan Buddhist community and particularly that of the Dalai Lama. 

The U.S. Tibet Policy and Support Act of December 2020 makes it official US policy to hold that the Dalai Lama’s succession is a strictly religious matter that can only be decided upon by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhist community. Under the Act, if Chinese leaders attempt to identify a future Dalai Lama, they will face sanctions that could include having their assets frozen and their entry to the US denied.

The State Department is also tasked to work with like-minded countries worldwide to push back against China’s plans to install its own imposter Dalai Lama.

In a tweet, ahead of hosting the U.N. Human Rights Council side event on the Dalai Lama’s succession, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights and U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues Uzra Zeya reaffirmed Washington’s stance on the succession issue.

“We will continue to support members of the Tibetan community’s religious freedom, including the ability to choose their own religious leaders,” Zeya tweeted.

Gyaltsen Norbu [2nd row from top, 3rd R], the 11th Panchen Lama and a delegate of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference stands with other delegates as they listen to national anthem during the closing ceremony of the CPPCC at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 12, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Gyaltsen Norbu [2nd row from top, 3rd R], the 11th Panchen Lama and a delegate of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference stands with other delegates as they listen to national anthem during the closing ceremony of the CPPCC at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 12, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Coordinated response

Speaking to RFA Tibetan following the event, Rajiv Mehrotra, an Indian writer and student of the Dalai Lama, applauded the international community for preparing a coordinated response on an issue that will decide the future of Tibet and Tibetans.

“They are looking at the larger picture regarding the significance of the Tibetan civilization and its value to the world,” said Mehrotra, who is also a trustee and secretary of the Dalai Lama’s Foundation for Universal Responsibility.

Barbara Demick, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and author of the book “Eat the Buddha,” which chronicles the history of contemporary Tibet, said it is clear from the number of statements the Chinese government has made about the succession issue that it is putting a plan in place to assert its control over the region when the Dalai Lama dies, and so “everybody else needs to be planning too.”

Kate Saunders, the author of ITN's report and former communications director for the U.S.-based International Campaign for Tibet, said Tibetans are in a fight to protect and defend their religious civilization amid a campaign of Sinicization through which Beijing hopes to replace their beliefs with Chinese cultural nationalism.

“The Dalai Lama’s influence transcends national borders. Tibetans want him to be involved. There is obviously a fear that Chinese forces and external forces will step into the vacuum when the Dalai Lama is no longer around,” she said.

“So, we have been urging other member states of the EU and the mechanisms of the U.N. to adopt similar language to the United States supporting the Dalai Lama, protecting Tibetan identity and supporting Tibetan legitimacy in this process.” 

Formerly an independent nation, Tibet was invaded and incorporated into China by force nearly 70 years ago, following which the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers fled into exile in India and other countries around the world. Beijing has accused the Dalai Lama of fomenting separatism in Tibet.

Translated by Tenzin Dickyi. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to recognize Kate Saunders as the author of the ITN report and mistakenly referred to her as the current communications director at ICT.

This story has been updated to include a brief explanation of the duties of the Panchen Lama.

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