Is the Dalai Lama set to become a relic of Tibet’s past?

Jun Mai
·7-min read

“I don’t know much about him,” said Chongji Lamu, 25, when asked her opinion of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet.

“The older folks might know, but we don’t ask and they don’t tell,” she said, near her village in Shigatse in central Tibet.

There is every reason for her to be cautious. Beijing’s verdict on the Dalai Lama, the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is spelt out on banners across rural Tibet.

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“The 14th Dalai Lama is the head of a political clique that seeks independence for Tibet,” one says beside a road in Shigatse. The sign has been erected in front of a sea of prayer flags.

“He is the loyal tool of the international anti-China forces, and ultimate root of Tibet’s social unrest.”

The 14th Dalai Lama is the head of a political clique that seeks independence for Tibet, according to Communist Party propaganda. Photo: Reuters
The 14th Dalai Lama is the head of a political clique that seeks independence for Tibet, according to Communist Party propaganda. Photo: Reuters

Speaking to the South China Morning Post during a reporting trip to Tibet organised by the Chinese government, Lamu, who finished college 2018 in Shandong, the coastal province designated to provide point-to-point aides to her city, said she now worked in a food factory set up as a part of the country’s poverty alleviation programme.

“Whenever I visit the downtown, I visit Tashi Lhunpo Monastery,” she said, referring to the traditional monastic seat of the Panchen Lama, the second highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism.

The current Panchen Lama is a 30-year-old member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s highest political advisory body.

“But that’s just me,” said Lamu. “Young Tibetans don’t care much about religion. They don’t have time to.”

The issue of the Dalai Lama is at the heart of Beijing’s decade-long grievances in Tibetan areas. Ethnic unrest rocked the city of Lhasa in late 1980s and in 2008, which Beijing blamed on the Dalai Lama but rights groups said were signs of desperate resistance by the Tibetans against the government’s repressive religious policies.

The South China Morning Post joined a reporting trip to Tibet organised by the Chinese government. It was heavily focused on poverty alleviation, but also offered a glimpse into how Beijing’s religious policies are being implemented on the ground.

A Chinese scholar has publicly argued that the next Dalai Lama will be a “patriotic” one. Photo: Reuters
A Chinese scholar has publicly argued that the next Dalai Lama will be a “patriotic” one. Photo: Reuters

The Dalai Lama, who turned 85 in July, had suggested terminating the reincarnation practice, but Beijing insists that it must be done according to Chinese laws. A Chinese scholar has publicly argued that the next Dalai Lama will be a “patriotic” one.

Beijing’s strategy on the Dalai Lama seems to be just waiting him out.

“He left [Tibet] many years ago,” said Gama Danba, a senior propaganda official, referring to the Dalai Lama’s secret flight from Lhasa in 1959. “The people have almost forgotten about him.”

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It is impossible to independently verify his claim. Portraits of the Dalai Lama are strictly prohibited in China, but on lower level governance, the issue obviously still resonates.

In 2016, a Communist Party member in Yushu, a Tibetan area of Qinghai province, was punished for putting up a portrait of the Dalai Lama in his home, according to a post on a local government website.

In 2014, the party chief of Ganzi, a Tibetan prefecture in Sichuan province, ordered local officials to confiscate portraits of the Dalai Lama found in vehicles and trace where they came from, according to local media reports.

Tibet’s Communist Party chief Wu Yingjie wrote on the subject in the party’s flagship magazine in October, but framed it as both a political and economic development issue.

“[We] must firmly grasp the control of ideology, better manage the brains after we manage the tummies,” he wrote.

“[We must] resolutely eliminate the negative influence caused by the 14th Dalai Lama under the cloak of religion, and guide the people to treat religion rationally and give greater focus on their present life.”

While it is impossible to accurately assess public opinion in Tibet, Beijing’s policies might work, said Robert Barnett, a former director of Columbia University’s modern Tibetan studies programme.

“The Chinese Communist Party is continually refining its techniques for aggressive secularisation and is now combining them with more sophisticated forms of social and cultural dislocation,” he said.

“So perhaps this will finally work among the younger generation.”

Barnett said that while Beijing had traditionally been confident about Tibet’s stability, the death of the Dalai Lama, and selection of his successor, could provide a flashpoint for dissidence.

The Tibet regional government has talked openly about a campaign to “play down negative religious influence” among Tibetans. Photo: Xinhua
The Tibet regional government has talked openly about a campaign to “play down negative religious influence” among Tibetans. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing insists that religious freedom is safeguarded in Tibet, but the regional government has talked openly about a campaign to “play down negative religious influence” among Tibetans.

Chinese officials regard people’s dedication to Buddhism as an obstacle to economic development. So called overgenerous offerings to temples, people’s indifference to education, the reluctance of Tibetan herdsmen to sell their cattle and believers banking on a better afterlife are all frowned upon.

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“Some officials, including ethnic Tibetans, are hostile to religion and some are tolerant,” said Barry Sautman, an expert on Tibetan studies with Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

“Almost all have the typical developmentalist viewpoint common to officialdom throughout China and elsewhere. They therefore inevitably decry any indifference to present life,” he said.

But forced disassociation of people from their religion did not appear to be a general policy in Tibet, he said.

Chinese officials regard people’s dedication to Buddhism as an obstacle to economic development. Photo: Reuters
Chinese officials regard people’s dedication to Buddhism as an obstacle to economic development. Photo: Reuters

Deji Baizhen, the Communist Party chief of Caiqutang village, about 90km (56 miles) from Lhasa, tries to walk a fine line. More than 600 herdsmen moved to her village from remote areas in 2017, in a government-funded relocation project that offers free housing in areas that promises better education and health care.

“Playing it down [religious influence] takes time. There’s no way we can shut down a shrine for the Buddha by force,” she said in Mandarin, referring to private shrine Tibetans set up at home for the worship of the Buddhas. “The elders especially have such needs. We can’t be too harsh.”

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All Communist Party members were required to sign pledges every year confirming that they were atheist, and would try to non-atheists to think less about religion, Baizhen told the visiting journalists.

“We also conduct campaigns and sometimes surprise inspections to check if they have set up new shrines for the Buddhas,” the ethnic Tibetan said.

Barnett said the party’s approach marked a new strategy, targeting religious beliefs among the public on top of limiting religious institutes.

In 2006, there were about 46,000 monks and nuns in the Tibet autonomous region, equivalent to about 1.5 per cent of the region’s population at the time, according to government figures. Before the Dalai Lama was forced into exile the proportion was about 10 times that.

“Adding more monks, building new temples or organising new religious events are not allowed,” Gama Danba said. “But we can keep what’s already here.”

While Beijing’s plan on Tibet is clear to many, Todd Stein – who worked as director of government relations at the International Campaign for Tibet before joining the US state department, where he was senior adviser to the undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights and special coordinator for Tibetan issues – described the situation as a result of both government policies and personal choices.

“Tibet advocates tend to undervalue the choices that individual Tibetans inside Tibet make about the role of religion or language in their lives, in order to make their way in the world they are growing up in,” said Stein, who has worked in Tibet for the US government.

“At the same time … it is very hard to distinguish ethnic and religious identities, and even languages and cultural practices repressed for centuries have a way of blossoming,” he said.

“I think he [the Dalai Lama] will be revered for decades, if not centuries, after his passing, as the symbol of what was taken from Tibetans, and what they strive to reclaim.”

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