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Rule by Reincarnation: China and the Next Dalai Lama

In the last decade, China has become a juggernaut in international politics. It is undoubtedly the dominant force in Asia and faces scant challenge from other regional powers. However, Beijing still faces internal opposition from dissidents, especially in Xinjiang Province and Tibet. The autonomous region of Tibet in particular is known for its robust and lasting resistance to Chinese rule. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has attempted to control the region since 1951. Now, China’s most recent efforts have taken an unexpected form: They are relying on the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Beijing seems to subscribe to the belief that a more cooperative Dalai Lama would help undercut Tibetan opposition and gain hegemony over the region. Needless to say, this plan is as unrealistic as it is absurd.

Beijing’s historical relationship with Tibet is conflicted and troubled. Tibet was incorporated into CCP-led China in 1951. CCP leader Mao Zedong wished to unite China after a turbulent century of weak Qing emperors, feuding warlords and the Japanese invasion. In October 1950, the Chinese army crossed into Tibet and defeated its Tibetan counterparts. Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, sent representatives to Beijing to negotiate, leading to the signing of the 17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. The pact made Tibet a part of China but gave it a measure of autonomy. There was some oversight from the national government, but the Tibetan government had more power than any other provincial government. The Tibetan aristocracy and government were funded in part by China. The CCP also funded the development of infrastructure and organized land reforms. It seemed to be a mutually beneficial treaty, but many of these advantages failed to materialize for Tibet due to Chinese duplicity.

Despite these promises, the CCP remained uncomfortable with Tibet’s partial autonomy and unique cultural heritage. Chinese leaders feared that Tibetan spirituality — and indeed, loyalty to the Dalai Lama — would undermine their own power. They endeavored to dilute the local culture, a process now known as the “Sinicization of Tibet.” Rituals and traditions are integral to Tibetan society, but the Chinese government worked to suppress local festivals and religious customs. To counter the dominance of Tibetan Buddhists in the region, Beijing also sent thousands of Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group in the country, to intermarry with Tibetans. As one would expect, these decisions only exacerbated cultural tensions. Overall, the CCP’s overbearing attempts to control Tibet won them few supporters and antagonized the majority of the local population.

Ultimately, the Tibetan people tired of these oppressive tactics and launched the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. The rebellion failed, resulting in at least 10,000 deaths and the exile of the Dalai Lama to northern India. Ever since, China’s rule in Tibet has been fraught with instability and local opposition. The Chinese government has tried a variety of tactics to win Tibetan support but has finally come to the conclusion that it needs the support of the Dalai Lama. And since it can’t win the approval of the current Dalai Lama, it wants to collaborate with his next incarnation.

This plan may sound far-fetched, but China’s schemes are based on a shrewd — if misguided — premise. Beijing has long realized that the Dalai Lama holds an unparalleled sway over the Tibetan people, even in exile. His influence as a spiritual and political leader cannot be overstated. The current Dalai Lama would never agree to cooperate with Beijing; he has long demanded Tibetan independence and is a figurehead for dissidents in the region. Even in exile, the Dalai Lama is an omnipresent figure in the Tibetan cultural and political consciousness. But as he ages, the Chinese government believes his successor might be more compliant.

In fact, China is reluctant to leave this to chance. The boy selected to be the next Dalai Lama will be reared in Tibetan Buddhist traditions and will likely feel the same way as the present Dalai Lama. To ensure that the next spiritual leader will align with its goals, Beijing wishes to oversee the selection process; in other words, it wants to select a Dalai Lama more sympathetic to its goals. In a morbid twist, it sees the Dalai Lama’s passing as an opportunity to instate a puppet leader, a figurehead who would be raised in Beijing and taught to adhere to the party line.

The process to identify the next Dalai Lama is complex and intriguing. A group of senior monks, called High Lamas of the Gelugpa tradition, and the Tibetan government are responsible for identifying their next spiritual leader. The search begins with the High Lamas interpreting their dreams or visions. If the previous Dalai Lama was cremated, as is generally the case, the smoke from his cremation might indicate the direction in which they should look. They then use these signals to find boys born around the time of death of the previous leader. The boys are then asked to identify objects that belonged to the former Dalai Lama. If several boys are found who satisfy the conditions, as is typically the case, they consult the servants of the former Dalai Lama. In the rare case when there are still multiple boys that pass all these tests, they place the names in an urn and hold a public draw.

The Dalai Lama — along with the majority of Tibetans — believes that Beijing’s involvement in the selection process would undermine the sanctity of the religion and lead to further conflict. This is substantiated by a similar case in 1995: the selection of the Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is the second highest ranking in Tibetan Buddhism and is “found” in much the same way as the Dalai Lama. The committee of high monks had selected a candidate, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, and the Dalai Lama endorsed their decision. However, the Chinese government insisted on holding a draw after which Gyaincain Norbu was chosen as the 11th Panchen Lama. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was immediately taken away by Chinese officials and has been missing ever since. Tibetans were horrified by the Chinese ploy and have refused to accept Gyaincain Norbu as the Panchen Lama. There are still calls from the international community to free Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, but China has disregarded these requests. As a result of Chinese intervention, Tibet’s “true” Panchen Lama has not been seen in over 20 years.

Perhaps with an eye on the past, the current Dalai Lama once again chose to defy the Chinese government. He has announced that he will consider whether he will reincarnate and continue the tradition in 2024. As he told the BBC, he would rather have no Dalai Lama than a “stupid” one. He went on to explain that it might be better to dissolve the influential position rather than to wait for a future Dalai Lama who could “disgrace” himself. His comments imply that he is aware of the prospect of Chinese intervention in selecting his successor and is reluctant to leave his legacy in such hands. He also acknowledged that his role might become less relevant in time.

In response, Beijing has hit out at his statements, claiming his attitude was “frivolous”. Not one to shy away from a war of words, the Dalai Lama pointed out, “Chinese officials [seem] more concerned with the future Dalai Lama than me.” The Chinese government’s fixation with the next Dalai Lama is certainly questionable, but it is wrong to assume that the Dalai Lama has not given the matter much thought. He is a shrewd political player and knows how to bring out the worst in the Communist Party.

There are several possible motivations behind the Dalai Lama weighing whether or not to reincarnate. Some see it as a means of ensuring the position’s prestige and spiritual authority is not tainted by dirty politics. Others, including Jia Xiudong of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, believe he is “playing a political game”. They see his announcement as a way to put pressure on China and ensure that it respects Tibetan traditions and autonomy. Nonetheless, the Chinese government has emerged from this episode looking ridiculous — a common outcome in their dealings with the Dalai Lama.

Regardless of whether the Dalai Lama decides to reincarnate or not, it will be interesting to see how the Free Tibet movement — and indeed, Tibet-China relations — progresses without the Dalai Lama leading the international conversation. Despite his apparent humility, he has shaped Tibetan identity over the last half-century and has become virtually synonymous with the Free Tibet movement. His passing would leave a power vacuum in Tibetan politics for at least a decade, simultaneously making the region more vulnerable to Chinese influence and more volatile to shocks and triggers. If Beijing wants to maintain regional peace, it should tread very carefully in its positions with the current and future Dalai Lama.

A senior Obama Administration official predicted that this process of transition would be reminiscent of the Avignon Papacy, a period of conflict between different Catholic authorities that almost destabilized all of Europe in the fourteenth century. If Beijing intervenes and selects its own candidate, it will likely cause widespread dissent and conflict in Tibet. The Tibetan people are wary of Chinese involvement and will distrust any decision in which Beijing has the upper hand. The Communist Party might believe that they would reduce hostility by choosing a cooperative Dalai Lama, but their intrusion could quite well incite outright rebellion. Either way, the selection of the next Dalai Lama, if it takes place at all, will undoubtedly be a dramatic turning point in Tibetan history. All we can do is wait and watch as the spectacle unfolds.

Photo: Christopher Michel

About the Author

Mili Mitra '18 is an International Relations concentrator and a senior staff writer for BPR.