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Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?

Johnson mentions Wal-Mart, “the world’s biggest retailer…[which] imports about 70 percent of its products from China,” and perceives what he calls the “Wal-Mart fissure” into which Tibet might fall. The concerns of huge employers like Wal-Mart, he contends, have far more influence on US China policy, and therefore on Tibet, than any number of pro-Tibet Hollywood stars and what he sees as the ineffectual Tibetan government in exile. “Dharamsala has none of the revolutionary zeal of Ramallah in the West Bank, nor does it simmer with the anti-Castro–type conspiracies that roil the Miami of Cuban-Americans.” The readiness to use violence on the West Bank or the roiling conspiracies in Miami seem to me less admirable than the patient Tibetan exile government and its capable representatives abroad.

But the Chinese never let up their pressure on Tibetan matters. In 2009, Johnson says, legislators in California sponsored a resolution to establish “Dalai Lama and Tibet Awareness Day”; before long Beijing’s lobbying, involving threats of economic sanctions, persuaded a majority in the legislature to slide the resolution into limbo. A year later Beijing bullied nineteen countries into boycotting the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo in Oslo. American policymakers are transfixed by Beijing’s huge holdings of US Treasury bonds. Bullying gets ever more effective as Washington and its allies count on Beijing to help negotiate with North Korea, Iran, and perhaps Burma. Under such battering, Tibet fades into the background.

Johnson has asked himself why Beijing doesn’t offer Tibet the same deal that it concluded with Hong Kong: “One country, two systems.” But then, he admits, “I came to my senses. The Communist Party would cede no ground.” Johnson notes that whenever the Dalai Lama’s negotiators put forward proposals for a measure of Tibetan autonomy, Beijing’s reply is that such suggestions are “exactly the same as ‘semi-independence’ and ‘covert independence.’” Other ethnic nationalists, Beijing fears, would feel a spurt of hope. Tibet’s vital minerals and water resources could be lost. Missile bases might have to be withdrawn. Indeed, “most Chinese I knew,” Johnson says, “wanted to pull Tibet more tightly into Beijing’s embrace rather than let up on a bear hug many Tibetans see as suffocating.” He might have added, “How many battalions does the Dalai Lama have?” And what if Communist China collapsed? Other oppressive regimes have perished in recent memory, although in the case of the former Soviet Union the conflicts with some of the ethnic areas—dating back at least as far as Tolstoy—remain long-lasting and deadly.

The pressure on Beijing may well lessen after the Dalai Lama dies. When the Tibetan exile government discusses matters like a democratically elected government and a new prime minister, with the Dalai Lama deliberately absenting himself, it is apparent they are not much interested in a future without the Dalai Lama in charge. In India Johnson met Tenzin Tsundue, one of the leaders of an exile faction of young Tibetans demanding full independence for Tibet. In 2002, when then Chinese premier Zhu Rongji was visiting Bombay, Tsundue scaled a tall building to unfurl a banner saying “Free Tibet.” But even this daring activist admitted to Johnson that many Tibetans in the diaspora wait for indications from the Dalai Lama before they act. “The people worship His Holiness as the Buddha. He’s a Buddha in real life. People say [to him], ‘I will die if you say. You make the decision and I will follow.’” When the parliament in exile recently considered the constitutional change that would lead to a replacement for the Dalai Lama, eleven of the first fourteen members to speak opposed any move that would permit such a change.

Some Tibetans look farther into the future. It surprised Johnson to learn about the Special Frontier Force (SFF) of Tibetan mountain commandos created in India after the 1962 border war between China and India. In a new war, it was imagined, these commandos could fight in the Chinese rear. More interesting still is that this unit is under the command not of the army but of the Indian intelligence agency. It is not well known that several thousand young Tibetans have been trained this way, Johnson writes, who “see their service as keeping hopes for Tibetan independence alive.” Those in the Vikasregiment of the SFF sing:

We are the Vikasi
The Chinese snatched Tibet from us
And kicked us out from our home….
One day, surely one day
We will teach the Chinese a lesson….

The Dalai Lama “bristled” when Johnson mentioned armed resistance. “Our struggle is not military. It is not realistic. It’s suicidal. It’s a waste of human life.”

The illusions of Tibetans and their supporters abroad worry Johnson. He emphasizes that “no matter how worried party leaders may be about Tibet, their public posture reflects no indecision or internal debate.” The outrage of Hollywood stars like Richard Gere has not weakened the tightening Chinese grip on the region. Beijing is on a roll that is hard for anyone to resist including the great powers, much less a few million, usually nonviolent, Tibetans. Johnson warns that Tibetans hoping to outlast the present Beijing regime, gaining hope when they hear that the Dalai Lama has met President Obama or that international street actions and campaigns support Tibet, are doomed to disappointment. “I rarely had the heart to disrupt their delusional dreams.”

On the other hand Chinese leaders react with satisfaction when they hear men like David Milliband state that Tibet belongs to China. It makes no difference in Beijing if those who make such statements believe what they are saying. Words mean everything to the Communist Party, which equates them with acts; that is why they lock up dissidents like Liu Xiaobo—and Johnson knows him well—because of what they have said. And because words mean so much the Chinese “have ensured that he [the Dalai Lama] has almost no way of communicating with ordinary Chinese,” much less Tibetans.6

The Dalai Lama could not be more of a realist: “The crucial question is whether Tibet will become like Inner Mongolia, where Mongols have now become a minority. When that happens the significance of self-rule is lost.” Each year his death draws closer and the world may be faced with the spectacle of what Tim Johnson, in his energetically researched and comprehensive book, calls “dueling Dalai Lamas.” One, beyond Beijing’s grasp, might be a woman, His Holiness has suggested, or, in accordance with traditional ritual, he could identify a reincarnation before his death. The rival Dalai Lama would be like Beijing’s tame Eleventh Panchen, scorned in Tibet, and into whose eyes Renji, the young woman who the Communist Party claims is this faux incarnation’s spiritual daughter, has yet to gaze.

  1. 6

    An exception was the Internet conversation last year between the Dalai Lama and some Chinese, which Johnson describes in his book. See also Perry Link, ” Talking About Tibet: An Open Dialogue Between Chinese Citizens and the Dalai Lama,” NYRblog, May 24, 2010. 

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