In April of this year, the Dalai Lama was admitted to a hospital in New Delhi for a chest infection. He was discharged three days later, reassuring the world that he felt “normal” again. But the words of the Tibetan spiritual leader did little to quell the anxieties of those who have tracked Tibet’s plight over the years. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the future of Tibet hinges on the question of who will succeed the Dalai Lama, and on the reaction to his death by Tibetans in exile, by Tibetans in Tibet—and most of all by the Chinese government. We could soon see another hot zone of instability erupt along China’s periphery.
This year the 84-year-old spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism celebrated the 60th anniversary of his exile from his homeland of Tibet, occupied by the People’s Republic of China, to Dharamshala, India. For most of its history, Tibet was an obscure and inward-looking country. But for the past sixty years, the Dalai Lama has worked assiduously to bring the cause of Tibet to international attention, gaining, as a side effect, global celebrity status. He has managed to unite a disparate group of refugees under a common banner and to establish the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) as a means both of governing the roughly 100,000 exiled Tibetans in India and of serving as a voice for the six million Tibetans still living in Tibet, who have been silenced by China’s crackdown on dissent. As the final phase of his leadership approaches, the Dalai Lama’s legacy is in jeopardy.
The Dalai Lama’s Middle-Way Approach has frustrated those Tibetans who have advocated for a harder line on China. Some of these people may be inclined to adopt more extreme approaches—even violent ones—after his passing. Disenchanted Tibetans living in Tibet under Chinese rule may start to question the legitimacy of the India-based CTA to speak on their behalf. For its part, China will undoubtedly assert itself and seek to muddy these waters by pushing for international support for its own hand-picked 15th Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama has served as the universal figurehead and a moderating force for Tibetans. If his passing is followed by political fracturing and/or violence in the absence of clear leadership, the resulting confusion will lead the West to pay even less attention, opening the way for China to take a freer hand in bringing Tibet’s population to heel. It probably will not be pretty.
One of the biggest contributing factors to the uncertainty is the fact that the Dalai Lama has yet to make a decision about his succession. This is a decision that carries not only theological but also political ramifications. In Tibetan Buddhist theology, the Dalai Lama is considered an incarnation of a Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is able to attain enlightenment but delays doing so in order to remain on earth and help suffering beings. Traditionally there is a ritualistic process of identifying a Tibetan youth and then training him from a young age, but the Dalai Lama can also choose to emanate into one or multiple bodies of those already living. He may even decide not to reincarnate at all, thus putting an end to the 600-year-old institution of the Dalai Lama. Indeed, he has raised this possibility, though he has also suggested that he might be reborn in India. He plans not to consult the high lamas on the matter of succession until he is 90 (he predicts that he will live to the ripe age of 113).
The Central Tibetan Administration vows to maintain the Dalai Lama’s Middle-Way Approach to diplomacy. Since the 1980s, after realizing the impossibility of full Tibetan independence, the Dalai Lama switched to advocating a solution that lay between full independence and the current state of disenfranchisement and oppression. This solution would entail genuine Tibetan autonomy under a Chinese constitution, whereby Tibetans could govern the region democratically and preserve their cultural identity while still under the People’s Republic of China, which would maintain a military presence in the region and handle international relations and defense. The conception of this approach, or at least the naming of it, seems to have a religious dimension to it, as Buddhism styles itself as the religion of the “middle-way” between extreme asceticism and sensual indulgence. And indeed, the Dalai Lama has done a remarkable job of drawing on the Buddhist value of pacifism to restrain discontented Tibetans from nearly all forms of violent resistance. He has guided the Tibetans instead to wait for Chinese authorities to accept the Central Tibetan Administration’s offer for peaceful negotiations. As Ngodup Tsering, the Dalai Lama’s official representative of North America, told me, “We [the CTA] are ready every time, but it is up to the Chinese government. As we say, you cannot clap with one hand.”
China has clearly signaled its unwillingness to reciprocate the clap—to accept Tibetan overtures for dialogue. The most recent negotiations, which occurred in eight rounds between 2002 and 2008, accomplished nothing substantial; they turned out to be merely a Chinese ploy to win international favor before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The ninth and last round of negotiations occurred in 2010.
Since 2010, China has ignored all Tibetan overtures, and the conditions in Tibet have remained virtually static. Policy analysts now broadly agree that China will refuse negotiations indefinitely. Todd Stein, a former Senior State Department official with the Tibet brief, was blunt: “Anyone who follows [the Tibetan cause] even remotely is uniformly dismissive of the Chinese having any interest in accommodating on anything—I mean on anything!” Instead, China’s strategy is to wait eagerly for the death of the Dalai Lama, in the meantime stoking Tibetan disunity by making the situation seem hopeless. Tencho Gyatso, a former MP in the CTA’s parliament who also happens to be the niece of the Dalai Lama, assured me that for now at least the majority of Tibetans remain fully committed to the Middle-Way Approach.
Among U.S. government officials as well as some activists, a common complaint is that the CTA is bereft of any long-term strategic thinking. Stein observed that when CTA diplomats visit Washington, they stand out from other foreign diplomats in that they show less interest in an iterative discussion for devising strategy than they do in a photo-op for social media. It is hard to pinpoint exactly why the CTA has made so few attempts to think creatively about its predicament, but one possible explanation is the Dalai Lama himself. He abdicated all political power in 2011 to the democratically elected leadership of the CTA; yet, in Stein’s words, “there is still a lot of influence being exerted through various channels, so that elected officials on paper who he’s turned over power to don’t actually have a lot of freedom of movement.” The CTA’s elected leadership has no say in the selection of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, even though it will define the future of the Tibetan cause. Given the influence that, in his nominally apolitical role, the Dalai Lama still exerts on policy, Tibetans will undoubtedly commit unwaveringly to his Middle-Way Approach while he is alive. Once his top-down influence is gone, however, perhaps some may feel inclined to other approaches.
And violence is a real possibility. Ellen Bork, a human rights activist and policy analyst, said that his charismatic leadership has played a key role in restraining violence. Without the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent message, Tibetans may succumb to the frustration that he has been holding in check for decades. Even Gyatso fretted over whether, in the post-Dalai Lama period, his message will no longer be able to guide Tibetans: “There will be a lot of frustrated people.” In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama’s presence in Tibet is considered a fundamental part of his death journey, easing his transition into the next life. Once Tibetans realize that the Dalai Lama will never return home—that for the past six decades their unwavering faith in his optimism has been misplaced—their discontent could be profound. If it manifests in wide-scale demonstrations throughout Tibet, the Chinese crackdown on them could well be vicious—certainly far more deadly than it has been in the past.
The Obama Administration, a few months before leaving office, warned China to adopt policies to avoid the almost inevitable “instability” that will follow if the Dalai Lama dies before a resolution. What is meant by this euphemism “instability”? Spurred by desperation and anger, certain Tibetans both in Tibet and in exile believe that focused efforts of violence are now necessary—what Tibet scholar Melvyn Goldstein fears could be “a Tibetan-style intifada.” In Blessings from Beijing, journalist Greg Bruno recounts his conversations with a monk living in a meditation cave near the Dalai Lama’s residence at Dharamshala. The monk went into years of silent retreat in order to overcome his rage against the Chinese, but his rage was only inflamed: “I’m not totally devoted to Buddhism. War? I [am] ready to [go to] war. . . . younger generation of Tibetan people . . . they all want war.”
This younger generation of Tibetans is restless. The Central Tibetan Administration may serve as a sounding board for the Tibetans in exile, but, in Stein’s analysis, it does not accurately represent their desires. More so than the older generations, these young Tibetans thirst for identity. They are enraged that Tibet has made no progress toward freedom. They form radical groups such as the Tibetan Youth Conference, which instructs its members to be prepared to sacrifice their lives for the struggle of Tibet. If such groups came to power in Dharamshala through the vacuum created by the death of the Dalai Lama, then they would, as Chinese activist Wang Lixiong writes, “sharply increase the violence and destruction, [and therefore] put Tibet in danger of becoming a Palestine or even a Chechnya.”
Sectarianism, moreover, may pose a threat to the goals of the exile community. The Dalai Lama saw the need for a unified community of Tibetans in Dharamshala and was able to construct a full parliament out of disparate groups of refugees. One of its purposes was to maintain the unity of the Tibetans in exile into the future, even after his death. This unity was especially fragile because it was ahistorical: throughout a lot of Tibetan history, the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism have vied for dominance. But the Dalai Lama has made a priority of uniting them in common cause. Gyatso assured me that since each has representation in parliament and close ties to the others, sectarianism will not be an issue. But she also acknowledged that, though there are many candidates among the Tibetans in exile, no leader has yet emerged to take on the Dalai Lama’s role. Other experts to whom I spoke were not so optimistic. They fear that the religious leaders might see the power vacuum created by the Dalai Lama’s death as an opportunity to promote themselves and their particular sects. Another division that may grow in the coming years is between those Tibetans in exile who stand by the Dalai Lama’s Middle-Way Approach—the official approach of the CTA—and those who think that it does not go far enough, instead advocating the full independence of Tibet. The latter of those two groups may become emboldened in the Dalai Lama’s absence, further fracturing the unity of the Tibetan cause.
It is also uncertain whether the Tibetans living in Tibet will continue to feel a connection to the CTA in India. The Central Tibetan Administration claims to speak on behalf of those six million Tibetans, but it has virtually no contact with them (journalists have called Tibet more difficult to access than North Korea). Those Tibetans have had to maintain their identity through China’s extreme policies of cultural assimilation, which compel them to practice a “Sinicized” version of their religion and to speak Mandarin a lot of the time; monks are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama’s “separatism,” and poorer Tibetans must replace private images of His Holiness for worship with images of Xi Jinping and other party leaders. Through all this, an anchor for Tibetan identity has been a deeply embedded cultural connection to the person of the Dalai Lama—a connection that, in the words of Gyatso, “is almost deeper than one has with a family member.” This connection was evident in the statements of many of the self-immolating protestors, who cried for the Dalai Lama’s return home before setting themselves ablaze. Without the Dalai Lama, and under immense pressure to assimilate, it is difficult to imagine that they will maintain the same zeal for the Tibetans outside of Tibet into the future.
China has already announced its intention to appoint its own 15th Dalai Lama. In 1991, a directive from Beijing authorized the Chinese Communist Party to select tulkus—reincarnated lamas with high spiritual authority—and to control the number of reincarnations. Included in this category is the Dalai Lama. In his 2011 statement on reincarnation, the Dalai Lama warned against “the obvious risk of vested political interests misusing the reincarnation system to fulfill their own political agenda.” Indeed, we can expect to see two Dalai Lamas in competition with each other: one selected by the Tibetan Buddhist leaders in India, and one by the CCP, who will serve the Party’s agenda by asserting that Tibet is historically a part of China. Tibetans can be expected not to accept China’s Dalai Lama, except those who are forced by China to show outward support. They will probably reject him as they reject China’s Tenth Panchen Lama (the second highest spiritual authority in Tibetan Buddhism); the Panchen Lama selected directly by the Dalai Lama has not been seen since 1995, when, at the age of six, he was kidnapped by Chinese authorities.
But China does not need Tibetan acceptance of its own Dalai Lama. It just needs international acceptance, which will help to legitimize its claim to Tibet. Rinzin Dorjee, a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute in Dharamshala, told me his prediction that China’s Dalai Lama will be acknowledged only by countries economically dependent on China, and will be rejected by all free countries. Yet China has been increasingly getting its way. It has taken punitive economic measures against countries that acknowledge the Dalai Lama, and nowadays no European heads of state will meet with him. Still, it is important to remember that, for the appearance of authenticity, China has committed itself to the traditional process of selecting a Dalai Lama, which entails identifying and training a very young child. It could be a decade and a half before he is old enough to play any sort of useful political role. China’s selection of a Dalai Lama, therefore, is not as worrisome as it might seem, at least for the immediate future.
Still, the spectacle of atheistic China’s leveraging Buddhism for its own political purposes is breathtaking. Beijing officially describes the religion founded in India as an “ancient Chinese religion,” thereby justifying its meddling in all aspects of religious life in Tibet. Through Orwellian surveillance of monasteries, China identifies monks who dissent from the Party or express outward support of the Dalai Lama to abduct them for imprisonment and torture. It has taken over Buddhist institutes of higher education, making loyalty to the Party an integral part of Buddhist training. The State Administration of Religious Affairs publishes a “living Buddha database,” which identifies the fake reincarnations from the authentic—that is, high ranking Buddhists who are loyal to the Party: One who wishes to identify an authentic reincarnation must enter the “living-Buddha registration number.”
And China’s efforts abroad to portray itself as the home of Buddhism enhance its soft power. It hosts the International Buddhist Confederation, run by its own Panchen Lama. For its Belt and Road initiative—a global development strategy for economic dominance of Asia, the Middle East, and beyond—it is dumping money into Buddhist countries, in efforts such as the Lumbini project, a $3 billion development plan in Nepal to turn the birthplace of the Buddha into a massive tourist destination and pilgrimage site. China has also been discovered to be behind the protests against the Dalai Lama by Western practitioners of the New Kadampa Tradition. The New Kadampa Tradition is a religious movement that embraces Shugden—a deity in Tibetan lore whose worship the Dalai Lama has banned—and therefore instills in its members an animosity toward the Dalai Lama. This movement is extremely useful to China, which promotes and funds Shugden worshipers around the world in an attempt to divide Tibetans and to undermine the Dalai Lama’s message of unity.
As always, U.S. policy on Tibet will be driven by a maddening and often contradictory mix of pragmatism and idealism. President Trump signed the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act into law on December 20, 2018. This act addresses the fact that China bars almost all international media from entry into Tibet, though liberal democracies such as the United States allow Chinese state media unfettered access. By identifying the top CCP officials who are responsible for restrictions on Tibet and barring them from entry into the United States, the law seeks to rectify this asymmetry and to compel China to ease its restrictions. In July 2019, similar bills for reciprocal access were introduced in the parliaments of the United Kingdom and Canada, and the International Campaign for Tibet is pushing legislation in other countries as well. Time will tell whether this unified front will be successful in effecting change in Chinese policy. And the Tibetan cause has picked up steam in other ways. In May, 32 Members of Congress under the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission signed a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo, urging him to implement current legislation on Tibet. And more recently, Congressmen Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Tom Suozzi (D-NY) of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China have led discussion on updating the 2002 Tibet Policy Act, which shapes all U.S. policy on Tibet, to include provisions for elevating CTA’s status and for the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.
More pragmatically, as the United States seeks to find allies in its ongoing tussles with China, it could find common cause with India on the issue of Tibet. In Indian politics, support for Tibetan exiles is a nonpartisan issue: Indian politicians have a mistrust of China; they see the Dalai Lama as a strategic asset; and they have an affinity for Buddhism, which they see as a subsect of Hinduism. Indeed, India’s Narendra Modi has engaged in a kind of Great Game with China over Buddhism, hosting rival Buddhist conferences and developing pilgrimage sites. Its efforts, however, have not been nearly as successful as China’s, and Chinese investment in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh is starting to worry India. China is also engaged in disputes with India over the border settlement in Arunachal Pradesh, which China is now calling “South Tibet,” and its military presence there is menacing. Broadly put, Indian strategic interests—promoting Buddhism and fending off the encroachments of China—align with those of the Tibetans. The enduring goal of U.S. policy should be to avert bloodshed and to improve the situation of Tibetans. In doing so, it will likely find India a partner in these efforts.
Tibet, then, is an issue to watch. Morally, the picture is grim. China remains a force to be reckoned with in international relations—deep-pocketed, nuclear-armed, and with increasingly sharp elbows. And Tibet is, comparatively, a tiny issue. Like it or not, its fate could easily get subsumed in the greater geopolitical contests of the 21st century—especially if the situation inside Tibet gets messy.
But seen with a wider lens, Tibet takes on a different look. As with both Hong Kong and Xinjiang, Tibet’s potential for instability is emblematic of a periphery that is posing a serious challenge to Beijing’s ability to enforce its writ inside its claimed borders. As our era of Great Power competition dawns, this reality cannot be lost on analysts: China is neither as coherent nor as stable as Beijing would like the outside world to believe.