Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?

Dalai Lama; drawing by Pancho

On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,

As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect. During the forthcoming eleventh session of the fourteenth Tibetan Parliament in Exile, which begins on 14th March, I will formally propose that the necessary amendments be made to the Charter for Tibetans in Exile, reflecting my decision to devolve my formal authority to the elected leader.

It is well known that Beijing regularly dismisses the Dalai Lama as a criminal and a “splittist.” But will this announcement that he will relinquish his temporal leadership make it more likely that Tibet will become a truly autonomous part of China, as the Dalai Lama has for years proposed to Beijing?1

As the title of his new book suggests, Tim Johnson thinks that there is no chance of such an arrangement. On the final page he concludes:

As the Dalai Lama’s life enters its final stretch…more and more Han [ethnic Chinese] migrants will arrive on the Tibetan plateau, and almost inevitably Tibet will head the way of Inner Mongolia and other regions of the mainland subsumed by the vast Han majority. The race is nearly over.

The Mongolian comparison is especially grim: in 1949, Mongols in their region outnumbered Hans by five to one. By the year 2000 there had been so much Han migration that there were 4.6 Hans for every Mongol in Inner Mongolia, and now only 17 percent of its population are Mongols, “confined largely to nomadic settlements and ethnic oases in a larger sea of Han.”

This is not what admirers of the Dalai Lama want to hear, and I feel uneasy endorsing it; but from my first visit to Tibet in 1982 I noticed how the Hans were swamping almost every aspect of Tibetan life. Johnson writes that during their annual negotiations in China, the Dalai Lama’s emissaries’ proposal of an autonomous Tibet within the People’s Republic, with its own religious, educational, and other cultural characteristics, has been dismissed by the regime; the Chinese side has insisted that only the “criminal, splittist Dalai” is discussable. In his book To a Mountain in Tibet, Colin Thubron writes tersely, but characteristically to the point, of the Dalai Lama:

His apostleship of peace has brought his country a refracted holiness, but no Chinese concession. The West fetes and wonders at him. As for China, his distrust of material institutions, even of his own office, renders him all but incomprehensible.2

More than incomprehensible: Beijing calls the Dalai Lama “a wolf wrapped in robes, a monster with a human face and an animal’s heart.” I have heard young Chinese studying in British universities like Oxford and the LSE quote Rupert Murdoch, who called the Dalai Lama “a …

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  1. 1

    According to Robert Barnett, an authority on Tibet at Columbia, “It is true that for China and for most of us, we will not see much difference in the short term if his plan goes ahead. The Dalai Lama has said that he will continue travelling around the world as a religious leader and will still speak on Tibetan issues, albeit in a personal capacity. So this is not a monastic vow of silence or an end to his role as the figurehead of the Tibetan people and as the most powerful voice through which their concerns will be expressed.” See Barnett, “Viewpoint: Dalai Lama’s Exile Challenge for Tibetans,” bbc.co.uk, March 14, 2011. 

  2. 2

    Harper, 2011, p. 109; reviewed in these pages by Pico Iyer, April 7, 2011.