A Very Peaceful Problem – Why the Dalai Lama remains one of China’s biggest Issues

The Dalai Lama: for many a Nobel Peace Laureate and a peaceful ambassador; for others, notably Beijing, “a wolf in a monk’s robes”, a dissident determined to undermine and overthrow Chinese rule in Tibet.  Either way, the 76-year-old Tibetan monk has been the figurehead of a struggle that has raged for over half a century, and shows no sign of quietening down any time soon.

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and de facto political leader of Tibet, went into self-imposed exile from Tibet following the first Tibetan uprising in 1959, after a crackdown by the Chinese government on Tibetan autonomy, which had remained largely unaffected in the aftermath of a Chinese military incursion nine years before (this was seen by Tibet as an invasion; Tibet had previously declared independence from China in 1913).  Since then, he has become a thorn in China’s side, running a government in exile, bringing worldwide attention to Tibet’s cause and picking up a Nobel Peace prize on the way.

Now China is being forced to contend with another powerful dissident Tibetan voice.  Earlier this year the Dalai Lama relinquished his responsibilities as the political figurehead for the exiled government, handing over this role to US-educated Tibetan exile Lobsang Sangay.  A young man, Sangay seems set to continue the Dalai Lama’s campaign for greater Tibetan self-determination and autonomy from China into the next generation.  The message to China is clear: Tibetan exiles are readying themselves for the next stage of an on-going feud.

Tibetan girl – Monika Andrae

China’s main fault in dealing with Tibet, the morality and justification of its military incursion aside, has been its foolish, somewhat naïve approach to its governorship of the region.  Rather than working to preserve Tibetan traditions and culture, China has tried to impose its own values and manner of government upon the region, particularly in the early years following the first Tibetan uprising, which often had calamitous effects.  Perhaps the most prominent examples of Chinese eradication of Tibetan life came from the destruction of many of Tibet’s monasteries between 1959 and 1976, as well as large-scale agrarian reform implemented on Chinese principles, which singularly failed in the mountainous region and led to wide spread famine.  A huge increase in Chinese Han immigrants in recent years has also led to tension within the region, with occasional violence breaking out between the two ethnic groups.

Perhaps the biggest provocation offered by China towards Tibetans has been an insistent meddling in the succession of key religious leaders in Tibet.  This was most prominent in their treatment of the succession of the Panchen Lama, second amongst Tibetan religious leaders.  The previous incarnation had been the figurehead of Tibetan Buddhism within the region after the Dalai Lama’s exile and had often been a critic of Chinese policy.  When the Dalai Lama identified a six-year-old Tibetan boy named Gedhun Chockyi Nyima as the next reincarnation, the Chinese government responded by naming a different boy to the role.  Gedhun Chockyi Nyima and his family then disappeared from public view, though the Chinese government has always denied that it was an act of kidnap on their part.

Efforts from the likes of the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Special Rapporteur of Freedom of Religion or Belief to secure access to the young man have been unsuccessful.  China refuses all access to the young man, only releasing occasional statements portraying him as a model Chinese citizen,

“Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is a perfectly ordinary Tibetan boy, in an excellent state of health, leading a normal, happy life and receiving a good education and cultural upbringing. He is currently in upper secondary school… he studies hard and his school results are very good. He likes Chinese traditional culture and has recently taken up calligraphy. His parents are both State employees… the allegation that he disappeared together with his parents and that his whereabouts remain unknown is simply not true.”

Official Chinese position on the Panchen Lama


Mindroling,Nyingmapa Gompa,Tibet – Reurinkjan

China argues that the Dalai Lama is a political terrorist and that Sangay, his political successor, is “a terrorist groomed to rule”.  Their insistence that both are subversives intent on overthrowing Chinese rule in Tibet by inciting violence is in contrast to the stated aims of the Dalai Lama, who has always maintained that protest against the superpower be peaceful.

Independence is no longer the desired option for the Tibetan government in exile; instead, it has now scaled down its aims and seeks instead for Tibet to be a ‘genuine autonomous region’, a situation similar to that enjoyed but Tibet before the Chinese crackdown in 1959.  This so called ‘Middle Way’ has led to talks between Tibetan representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government, most recently in September 2010, though no compromise has been reached as a result of these talks.

Meanwhile, all signs are pointing to a new Tibetan generation that is becoming angry at the status quo.  2008 saw a second Tibetan uprising quashed in a similarly excessive manner as the first by the Chinese government, who arrested at least 1,000 Tibetans during the uprising.  More recently, the last year has seen eleven young monks self-immolate in protest against Chinese rule in Tibet, attracting international media coverage in the process.  Although the Dalai Lama has condemned these acts of violence, they reflect the mood of some within Tibet; there are some that are becoming more and more convinced that violence may be the only solution,

“China believes that once the Dalai Lama dies, the movement will lose power, but the Dalai Lama is actually China’s best friend because the next generation will not be so accommodating.”

Tsering Migyur, Undersecretary for the Dalai Lama’s office, speaking to TIME


Two Monks – Monika Andrae

It is difficult to tell whether autonomy is ever going to be a possibility for Tibet.  Certainly, the mass immigration by Han Chinese over the last decades has made the demand for an entirely separate Tibet more difficult to justify.  China is also making a concerted effort to integrate Tibet further within China; millions of pounds have been invested in improving the infrastructure of the region.

It seems, however, that Tibet is no closer to being placated.  The death of the Dalai Lama, when it comes, will be an incredibly sensitive time for the region.  If China insists on meddling with the succession, like it did with the Panchen Lama, then it would more than likely provoke violence within Tibet, as well as condemnation from the wider international community.

China’s handling of Tibet has been far too heavy-handed over the last half-century; it would benefit from a more moderate, considerate approach to the ethnic majority whose lands it claims as its own.  China needs to convince the new generation of Tibetans that Chinese integration is the way forward for the region; religious meddling and interference will only bring about resentment and dissidence.  The problem is that China cannot afford to have another Dalai Lama to emerge as a vocal critic of their nation on the World stage.  As a result, it seems unlikely that they will abandon their decision to intervene in Tibetan religious affairs for their own gain.

Condemnation for China’s actions has been frequent and vocal from many non-governmental organisations, but the major political powers have generally kept away from the subject, unwilling to anger the second-largest economy in the world.  Indeed, despite Britain having played a key part in formalising Tibetan autonomy from China in 1920 (Tibet and Britain signed an accord that confirmed formal boundaries between Tibet, Nepal and India while China withdrew from the talks), recent statements by the British Government suggest that Britain has now withdrawn its support for Tibetan autonomy,


“The British Government does not support Tibetan independence; we regard Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China.  We regularly urge the Chinese Government to engage in serious negotiations with the Dalai Lama’s representatives, without pre-conditions, as we see this as the only lasting way to build a peaceful, sustainable, and legitimate solution for Tibet.”

British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, official position


A concerted effort by the international community would almost certainly be the most likely way of bringing about constructive talks over Tibetan autonomy, though it seems unlikely.  As long as China remains a major player in the world’s economy, and while its exports fill the shelves of the western world, political leaders will not want to step into the firing line and force China to moderate its approach.  For Tibet, autonomy is still looking a very distant prospect.

 Ben McCabe


“The Dalai Lama knows precisely why he matters in the international political arena and does not mind being used, from time to time, as a cat’s paw by some Westerners with mean motives to put pressure on China. In pursuit of fame and power, he has deviated from the commandments of Buddhism and used his religion as a subterfuge for his personal political motive.”

Bi Mingxin, Xinhua News


“Unless you’re a complete Luddite and don’t believe in roads, telephones, hospitals, and things like that, then I think China must be credited with a substantial contribution to the modern infrastructure of Tibet. In this sense Tibet needs China. But that’s not to diminish the hideous savageness with which China has treated Tibet.”

Orville Schell, Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, Asia Society 

“Our aspiration that all Tibetans be brought under a single autonomous administration is in keeping with the very objective of the principle of national regional autonomy. It also fulfils the fundamental requirements of the Tibetan and Chinese peoples… the Chinese insistence that we accept Tibet as having been a part of China since ancient times is not only inaccurate, but also unreasonable. We cannot change the past no matter whether it was good or bad. Distorting history for political purposes is incorrect…  I am disappointed that the Chinese authorities have not responded appropriately to our sincere efforts to implement the principle of meaningful national regional autonomy for all Tibetans, as set forth in the constitution of the People’s Republic of China.”

The Dalai Lama on Tibetan autonomy


“The Dalai Lama states that he is not seeking Tibetan independence, but Beijing sees this as a mere cover, because he has never openly given up the demand for so-called ‘Greater Tibet’ autonomy, so Beijing sees his meetings with world leaders as pushing for political goals,”

Wenran Jiang, Political Science professor at University of Alberta.

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One Comment
  • dan
    31 January 2012 at 21:14
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    China has been shipping Han Chinese into Tibet and Xinjiang (North West China) for a generation now. The whole building project is to open up Tibet and the rest to Han Chinese. In 20 years or so there will be a free and fair vote in Tibet only and guess what, the Han Chinese will win it. Any violence will then seem unjustified but Chinese school kids will continue to spout about there being 56 recognised ethnic minorities as if recognition was enough.

    The demographic timebomb is ticking. Tibet has vast international support but they won’t stop this happening. The same issue will happen in Xinjaing and is happening in West Papua.

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