Beijing has just brought out a more than usual self-congratulatory document. The State Council Information Office issued the "Democratic Reform in Tibet — 60 Years On" highlighting its role in helping Tibetans become 'master of their own affairs'.
China does these exercises from time to time. An earlier iteration was in 2009 and was based on the same broad assumptions — that Tibet was in a state of extreme misery and poverty before the Communist Party of China came and rescued it. Horrifying accounts of the extreme misery of the Tibetan people is now followed by a more subtle presentation of history.
The exploitation of the Tibetans, according to this text, was not just by the kings and nobles of the time, but also by the Dalai Lama’s administration. In addition to all their privations, these entitled landholders and nobles are said to have exercised “mind control” over the Tibetans through religion, promising them “Elysium” in the next life in return for strict obedience. All of this, of course, in stark contrast to the benefits of today due to the munificence of Beijing.
Analysing this document from a purely academic viewpoint, a case can certainly be made that Tibet did have a form of serfdom in its early years, and — much like the rest of Asia at the time — had overlords and entitled classes, together with extreme poverty. As scholars note, more than half of the lay bureaucracy was indeed recruited from manorial households, and the monks from a particular sect, leaving the large majority without any effective foothold in the government or in regulating their own lives.
Eminent scholars like Melvyn Goldstein, however, argue that serfdom did not automatically equal torture and exploitation. It is also pointed out that China’s historical accounts are somewhat selective. These and other such publications forget to note the social reform carried out by, for instance, the 13th and 14th Dalai Lama’s, and that much of the injustice described with such graphic detail, maybe being replicated by a new regime in a different uniform in new ways. In short, the text makes little effort to hide its political message.
Each and every paragraph — whether it be on highways, health, or education — a contrasting exercise, with the present system portrayed as being so hugely better than before as to make any Tibet ambitions for independence or autonomy absolutely nonsensical. And here’s the icing on the cake. Citing a special survey of the National Bureau of Statistics, the white paper claims that "more than 97 percent of Tibet people are satisfied with their situation, and 97.3 percent are confident of achieving moderate prosperity”. That’s reminiscent of stories from the Brothers Grim.
There are, however, two significant differences from earlier publications. First, there is no mention of Beijing’s readiness to engage with the Dalai Lama anymore. Second, it affably praises the Living Buddha reincarnation as a succession system unique to Tibetan Buddhism, and in the same breath lists a series of rules and regulations including the “Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas of Tibetan Buddhism” instituted in 2007. Apparently, no one sees the humour in this.
The timing of the publication was primarily motivated by the fact that the day marks the 60th anniversary of the present Dalai Lama’s flight to India and the tectonic shift this entailed in the status of Tibet at the time. There is also the issue that His Holiness, the present Dalai Lama, has changed his stance considerably in recent days. From saying that there perhaps may not be another Dalai Lama, he now suggests that the next reincarnation may be found in India. Not just that, he went on to say that in this case, the Chinese installed one would have little or no relevance. That’s clearly annoyed Beijing no end. Thus the above treatise and homilies.
There are those who say that the world has lost interest in the Tibet issue. As Chinese power grows, that interest is likely to revive. In the US for instance, Section 4 of the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018, enacted on 19 December, 2018, requires the Department of State to provide an annual report to Congress, regarding the level of access China grants to US diplomats and officials, journalists, and tourists to Tibetan areas in China. This years report notes even more surveillance than before, a development that is hardly surprising given the US-China relations.
In another case, the Human Rights Committee of the German Parliament, in a rare statement, called upon the Chinese government to stop repression in Tibet, citing the over 150 self-immolations and declaring deep respect for the peaceful Tibetan culture. In London, a wreath-laying ceremony marked the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, while rallies and speeches were held in Australia.
So, no, the Tibet issue is not going to go away in a hurry, despite Beijing’s throwing a tantrum every time the subject is raised. Beijing is already on the spotlight for its reported internment and torture of Xinjiang “separatists” alongside its sheer hypocrisy in refusing to designate Masood Azhar as a terrorist. That stance was called out by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently, even while Delhi remains reticent on the subject.
Meanwhile, matters are more complicated by the fact that the status of a new Dalai Lama in India is likely to be considerably different from that of the present head who has not just a worldwide presence but is also truly respected for his intelligence, learning and impish charm. India’s positioning on the Tibet issue will also be heavily influenced by not just the huge increase in Chinese power, but how to balance against it. This, in turn, will mean that the office of the Dalai Lama may be far more politically sensitive in the future, as against the rather lukewarm support that has been evident in the past.
Indeed, many have wondered why New Delhi bothered to host more than 100,000 Tibet refugees and bear the consequences, and yet not give China measure for measure on truly strategic issues like its virtual hand-holding of Pakistan’s nuclear and missile capability. Neither has India ever used the Tibet card to sort out the border issue. All of that, however, could change with a government that is intent on emphasising India’s status as a growing power and quietly making common cause – not yet an alliance – with countries like the US, Japan and Australia.
Matters are only likely to get more complicated as China weighs in even more on the side of Pakistan following the IAF air strikes in Balakot. So far, the Modi government has chosen to give Beijing the benefit of the doubt in terms of whether it wants good relations with India or not. Also, remember that private Chinese investment in India is rising, as also bilateral trade. If there is no reciprocity, that could change, whichever government comes to power.
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Updated Date: Apr 02, 2019 17:12:27 IST