Friday, February 01, 2008

Politics of Reincarnation

(This article was published in a re-edited form in Jane’s Intelligence Review as an analysis of the implications of the Dalai Lama’s recent statements on the question of how his immediate successor will be chosen. What follows is the original text of the article.

Elliot Sperling

It is somewhat unusual for an incarnate Tibetan lama to reincarnate prior to his passing, to emanate into another body, so to speak. There are instances in Tibetan history where that is said to have been the case, but they are not all that common. Thus, when the present Dalai Lama, now 72 years old, announced during a visit to Japan in November that he might very well choose his successor while he was still alive he stirred up a good deal of talk among Tibetans. But he did not stop there. A referendum on the succession, a popular election of the Dalai Lama: these too have been mentioned by him as possible ways of choosing his successor. In further remarks in December, he acknowledged that he and his exile government actually had come to no real decision about any specific method for managing the search for and recognition of the next Dalai Lama. Coming months after the September 1st adoption of strict new governmental controls over the recognition of incarnations by China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs, and years after it became known that China was specifically preparing to manage the selection process of the next Dalai Lama on its own terms, the Dalai Lama’s indefinite response about exactly how his successor would be chosen reflects the continuing flat footedness of his exile administration in the face of a concerted and skillful Chinese diplomatic strategy that has not simply marginalized and isolated the Tibetan issue, but has done so through the nimble manipulation of the Dalai Lama himself.

China’s intentions regarding the next Dalai Lama have been known for over a decade, long enough for the Tibetan leader and his exile government to have formulated a clear and decisive plan for the succession. That they still remain undecided about how specifically to counter China’s plans at this late stage is symptomatic of the almost wholly reactive nature of their strategy towards China. And this is essentially what China has counted on from the Dalai Lama: having successfully sized up his strengths and weaknesses and those of his officials, and their administration, China has long remained several steps ahead of them at almost every stage.

While all this may seem like a muddle over so much arcane religious ritual, it represents an important step—indeed, perhaps the penultimate step—in the larger Chinese policy for dealing with the Tibet issue. And it follows logically from China’s success in undermining any effective claims by Tibetans and Tibet supporters that Tibet was and by rights ought to be an independent state, by extending the unambiguous recognition of its authority in Tibet to the selection process for the Dalai Lama.

Although no government recognizes Tibet as an independent state, there has long lingered in the international air a sense that China’s presence in Tibet has not been wholly legitimate. This position has always had a strong foundation in arguments drawn from the historical record or from the principles of human rights and self-determination. At the same time, assertions by Chinese officials that Tibet has always been by rights an inalienable part of China have long tended to be regarded as little more than boilerplate. Given the prospect of the Tibet issue bringing pressure to bear against China—especially after a series of anti-China demonstrations in Lhasa in the late 1980s and the Dalai Lama’s elevation to the ranks of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates in 1989—China set out to find and use a better—no doubt the best,—spokesman against Tibetan independence: the Dalai Lama himself. Where many people had for decades considered the Tibetan struggle to be a national struggle for independence, the Dalai Lama had actually given up on Tibetan independence in the early 1970s. But only in 1988 did he publicly announce that he was seeking a solution to the Tibet issue that would maintain Tibet as a part of China, albeit with what he later came to describe as “real autonomy.” Still, the facts of the Tibet case, as well as popular Tibetan sentiment, worked to maintain the Tibet issue, perceived internationally as a nationalist issue, as a visible thorn in China’s side.

Playing upon the Dalai Lama’s political naiveté and his desperation to resolve the Tibet issue, China acted to insure that the Tibetan position lost its legitimacy by patiently and shrewdly insisting that he be more and more vocal about accepting Tibet as a part of China. What ensued over the 1990s and into the present decade was clever and effective statecraft. With every pronouncement from the Dalai Lama articulating his opposition to an independent Tibet China countered that he was insincere and actually seeking disguised independence. It demanded louder and repeated declarations from the Dalai Lama that indeed he wasn’t pursuing such a path. And he obliged, reiterating to presidents and prime ministers that he wanted only autonomy, not independence, all the while explaining to the international press that China’s insistence on his repeated affirmations was the result of the Chinese leadership’s lack of understanding of his position. On the face of it this is laughable. With thousands of people in China’s nationality affairs commission and ministry of foreign affairs one can be certain that China parses every word of his: China knows what the meaning of the word “is” is when it comes to the Dalai Lama. The lack of understanding comes from his side, where he presides over an exile bureaucracy with no equivalent resources or expertise in Chinese politics. And they have let the Chinese foreign policy establishment run rings around them.

Having taken the major step of ceding Tibet’s independence (and in 1997 going so far as to describe independence for Tibet as “a disaster”), the Dalai Lama is in a difficult position. He and his circle have imposed their idea of a Tibet within China on the larger Tibetan exile community by dint of his place as a religious leader possessed of transcendent wisdom. In the face of dissenting exile intellectuals and activists who for years have pointed out the total ineffectiveness of this policy, the Dalai Lama’s political establishment has had no choice but to buttress itself with the Tibetan leader’s esoteric religious authority. Admitting that the dissenters have had better insight into the state of affairs than the Dalai Lama is something his political circle (and he himself) cannot do. They have become effectively wedded to the position that Tibet’s proper place is in China, a position they have held for more than three decades. The Dalai Lama is trapped and China, having played its hand exceedingly well and gotten what it wanted, understands that the game is effectively over. As if to underscore this state of affairs, with no reciprocity from China on the horizon the Dalai Lama has further scaled back his position: he now seeks only cultural rights relating to religion and language and calls upon Tibetan exiles to refrain from demonstrations and other activities that would embarrass the Chinese government or people. But China neither needs nor wants the Dalai Lama back within its borders, as any settlement with him would entail. His presence in Tibet would be volatile and any agreement reached with him now, when he’s at an advanced age, could only be temporary.

And this naturally leads back to the question of the Dalai Lama’s successor. Having skillfully managed the larger political issue of Tibet to its advantage, China is now biding its time and preparing for the Dalai Lama’s passing, at which point it will oversee the recognition, training and education of his successor. The Chinese government had trial runs with two other Tibetan incarnations: the Karma-pa, who was recognized in 1992 and the Panchen Lama, who was recognized in 1995. Both cases were problematic. In the former, in spite of state-mandated political education the young lama ultimately opted to flee Tibet for India, where he is close to the Dalai Lama. In the latter, a candidate was first recognized by the Dalai Lama (also in 1995) and then placed incommunicado by an angered Chinese government, which then orchestrated a hasty and coerced recognition of an alternate child who is considered illegitimate by most Tibetans. In spite of these embarrassments, the case of the Panchen Lama demonstrated to the Chinese government’s satisfaction that it could maintain adequate control over the reincarnation process even in the face of widespread Tibetan hostility to its choice. The selection of the next Dalai Lama is therefore just a matter of time as far as the Chinese government is concerned.

The failure of the Dalai Lama to have come up with a well-formulated and considered response to China’s announcement about new measures for the recognition of religious incarnations—an announcement whose coming was long expected and whose primary target was no mystery—is but one more demonstration of China’s ability to consistently outmaneuver him. It has used him adroitly to defuse questions of legitimacy regarding Tibet’s incorporation into the PRC and now it is working to ensure that he will be no effective obstacle to the further consolidation of its position in his homeland. And not just in this lifetime.

The writer is a professor at the Indiana University, and has authored: "Tibet," in John Block Friedman and Kristen Mossler Figg, eds., Medieval Trade, Travel, and Explorations: An Encyclopedia (New York, 2000); "Exile and Dissent: The Historical and Cultural Context," in Tibet Since 1950, (New York, 2000); and "Awe and Submission: A Tibetan Aristocrat at the Court of Qianlong," International Review of History, 20 (1998).

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