Some well-meaning commentators have sought to portray the present, with China’s new emphasis on a harmonious society and a harmonious world, as being propitious for a reconciliation between Beijing and the Dalai Lama. It could be the time, they assert, for a ‘harmonious settlement’. The argument is that an agreement endorsed by the Dalai Lama would add a spiritual dimension to China’s already formidable reputation in the economic, military and cultural fields. The putative settlement would follow the ‘one country, two systems’ formula already used in Hong Kong and proposed for Taiwan.
These analysts underestimate China’s ruthlessness in dealing with any person or group that Beijing considers hostile or an opponent. The Chinese do not compromise except in dealing with superiors in strength like the United States of America: one has only to note their past and present attitude with respect to Tibet, Tiananmen, Taiwan (with modifications), the Christian church, the Falun Gong, the Scientologists and other social and political non-conformists in China.
As a basic principle, the Chinese are not disposed to compromise with any of the minority groups — and there are many ethnic, religious and social minorities — in the People’s Republic. Concessions to one group, particularly given the public prominence now accorded internationally to the Tibetans, would have a spread effect on the others such as the Uighurs, giving rise to what the Chinese government would consider an unacceptable centrifugal development.
This principle is not inconsistent with certain minor inducements towards more pressing causes of concern to Beijing such as Taiwan. But on the fundamental premise, the Chinese will not budge an inch. Time, they would argue, is on their side in the context of 7,000 years of their history. This applies particularly to the Dalai Lama, whose activities and support are necessarily transient. He is now 72 and, as is widely anticipated, there will inevitably be a succession problem when he is no more. The Chinese government has long been preparing the ground to erode the authority of his office and that of the other ‘living Buddhas’. Even as recently as a month ago, arrests were taking place in Tibet of those who openly urged the return of the Dalai Lama. The Panchen Lama, the second holiest figure, has been detained since 1995, when he was six years old, and a Beijing-backed nominee appointed in his place. And from the first of this month, all reincarnations will need government approval, with China making it clear that ‘no outside organization or individual’ will have influence or control over the process. The Dalai Lama’s followers will certainly opt for a rival candidate, perhaps from among the refugees in India, or from outside Tibet in any case. This points to a probable schism in the northern Buddhist world on the pattern of the mediaeval papacy — Rome and Avignon — with the consequent dilution of the influence and the authority of both. This will be to the considerable satisfaction of Beijing.
More immediately, the Chinese will have in mind the need to present to the outside world the best possible image of their country for the next Olympics. This suggests that they might be happy to play the Tibetan issue along, with the intention of offering minor concessions to the Dalai Lama to keep Dharamsala happy. But Beijing will offer nothing at all of substance while patiently waiting for the time when the Dalai Lama will pass away.
There is unlikely to be any significant diminution of the leading role of the Communist Party in China in the foreseeable future. There may be political, social and environmental challenges faced by the Chinese government, which will become catalysts for reform and change. But the stronger and official argument will always be that the People’s Republic needs to maintain strict political control over such developments if the primacy of the Communist Party is to be maintained, and the unity of the country preserved.
The mineral wealth of Tibet, and even more that of Xinjiang, is very important to the People’s Republic, and Beijing is not going to risk its recent and substantial investments in either. The pressure for a greater degree of political freedom in Tibet comes either from outside China — from Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama’s followers world-wide — or from the Tibetan monasteries. These factors will attenuate with the death of the Dalai Lama and the passing of his immense personal influence from the scene. Since the professional and upper classes left en masse in 1950 and 1959, there is no educated elite class in Tibet other than the Lamas that could press for such reform. The professional cadre which have appeared since that time have been educated in Mandarin in Beijing. Therefore, a more realistic though doleful view is that the People’s Republic has everything to gain and nothing to lose by playing the Tibetan ‘issue’ softly and for long, making some tactical concessions from time to time, but conceding absolutely nothing in the substance.
Since the 17th century, Tibet has never been politically independent of the Chinese state. China has consistently appointed ambans in Tibet, and the area of Tibet has never been accorded any diplomatic recognition by any of the major powers. Whatever may be thought of the late K.M. Pannikar on this matter as a human being, diplomat or historian, his advice to Jawaharlal Nehru was correct. The Dalai Lama’s appeal to Beijing for genuine autonomy might have been stronger had he not for some years previously advocated full independence. Violent means are not in the Buddhist tradition; there have been some violent outbreaks, such as those of the Fifties, and there may be some sporadic incidents in the future, but these have not, since the Seventies, enjoyed any widespread backing even in Tibet.
There is no credible basis for thinking that there is any growing view within the Chinese government that the Tibetan ‘issue’ has to be settled during the lifetime of the present Dalai Lama. Tibet already enjoys no autonomy in terms of the local language, the more-than-one-child policy and concerning religious holidays. Any perception or assessment of what Buddhism means to the Tibetan identity is unlikely to persuade the People’s Republic to consider a compromise which cuts across the Communist Party’s principles on the unity of China. This implies, inter alia, the freedom of the Chinese individual to settle anywhere within the whole country, short of fracturing the administrative measures necessary to maintain the diversity — ethnic, social and economic — of the world’s third largest and the most populous nation-state. The influx of Han Chinese into Tibet is partly by compulsion, in the form of the People’s Liberation Army, and partly through incentives for settlement.
We can compare Beijing’s stand on Tibet to New Delhi’s adamant resistance to conceding full autonomy to Kashmir, which is a far more controversial international issue. But the Kashmir question will not disappear as easily or as quickly for the Indian authorities as the Tibetan ‘problem’ will for the Chinese. The latter, inevitably, is doomed to happen, and there will be no need of any ‘harmonious settlement’. We are, with a very heavy heart, advancing in time towards the last of the authentic living Buddhas.