Why does China Fear the Dalai Lama?

The picture of a stooping Dalai Lama, firmly holding the hand of the world’s most powerful man, George W Bush was a contrast of sorts. The irony was not lost on many. However, both men have one thing in common, a tremendous will power to withstand the rigors of dissenting voices from far and around.

For the Chinese the meeting was a symbol of non-cooperation by the US President, for George Bush a part of his efforts to contribute to contrarian history of international relations. The reaction from Beijing was quite prompt but could be foreseen as China had been asking the US not to entertain the Dalai Lama officially, much less bestow on him America’s greatest civilian honor, US Congressional Gold Medal

This event was also happening when the 17th People’s Congress, a once in five year political jamboree of communist delegates from all over China including Tibet had assembled in Beijing. As Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao would have liked to portray their infallible image to thousands of delegates from across the country, the gesture by President Bush would have certainly been embarrassing. Though how many would have heard of this event in far away Washington while in session is not clear.

Chinese control over Tibet has been varying over the centuries. Like all powers with large territorial expanse, China has been able to influence Lhasa when Beijing was strong but has had limited controls when it was weak. This is a simple yet stark lesson of history. Sino Tibetan relations have proceeded along this balance over the years and this would be evident by the present state when Beijing’s growing power has seen it assimilate Tibet into its fold over the past 60 years.

From 1949 when the Communist party came to power in China to 1959 when Tibetan revolt failed, to this day when Tibet is increasingly being projected by the Chinese as a symbol of peace, prosperity and modernization, China has been consistently attempting to carry out what many call as, “Hanisation” of Lhasa.

This process of assimilation has been carefully calibrated. Geographically Kham and Amdo provinces, which were a part of Tibet, have been carved off and are now a part of the Sichuan and Qinghai provinces respectively. China is undertaking a major project for diversion of waters from these areas in the South-North Water transfer scheme. Thus establishing irretrievable physical linkages.

On the other hand, the most symbolic Chinese project in Tibet is the Qinghai-Lhasa railway, which was opened in 2006. Apart from being an engineering marvel, the railway establishes permanent linkages between Tibet and mainland China.

In this larger scheme of things for control over Lhasa managed by the Communist satraps in Beijing, the Dalai Lama and his ilk firmly placed in Dharamshala in India has been more than a fly in the ointment.

For the Tibetan people in particular as also to a large comity of Buddhists, the Dalai Lama is a source of great spiritual inspiration. By the dignity of his conduct, the present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso who is 14th in the lineage has enamoured hundreds and thousands of people across the World. The long line of visitors to Dharamshala is a witness to his following from diverse parts of the world.

Moreover, as he recently stated, “I have no intention of using any agreement on autonomy as a stepping stone for Tibet’s independence. I have no hidden agenda.” As an honorable man, none would doubt his integrity. Apart from the US Congressional Gold Medal, he is also a recipient of the Nobel Peace award in 1989.

So why would the Chinese object to the Dalai Lama.

Traditionally the Dalai Lamas in Tibet exercise combined spiritual and executive powers. Thus, he is also a head of the state. Presently the Tibetan Government in Exile functions in Dharamshala. The Dalai Lama also holds meetings of the Tibetan Cabinet or Kashag. To Beijing, these acts question its sovereignty over Tibet. Moreover the Dalai Lama has consistently refused to accept that Beijing nominate his successor.

These politically “blasphemous” acts would not be acceptable to Beijing, thus one of the holiest men of our times; the Dalai Lama is exiled from home, with not much hope of reconciliation in the years ahead.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.