To Control Tibet, Communist China Ventures Into the Spiritual Realm
-by Lobsang Sangay for Foreign Affairs
n 1954, China’s paramount leader Mao Zedong met Tenzin Gyatso, the then 19-year-old who was the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. “Religion,” Mao acerbically observed to the young Dalai Lama, “is poison.” Five years later, Chinese forces would roll into Tibet and take over the country, driving the Dalai Lama and many other Tibetans into exile. The communists, who espoused atheism and derided religions, sought to yoke Tibet to China by squashing its local culture and historical institutions; destroying Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, nunneries, and cultural artifacts; and suppressing the practice of the Tibetan Buddhist faith.
In more recent times, however, Beijing has taken an inordinate interest in the ins and outs of Tibetan Buddhism. The Global Times, a Chinese state mouthpiece, has published in the last two years a series of articles asserting the Chinese state’s control not just over territory but over souls. The articles claim that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has the final say over the traditions that guide the Tibetan belief in reincarnation—particularly over the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama.
As the Dalai Lama gets older, China has become increasingly invested in the question of his succession. When a high lama—an important priest—dies, his post is typically filled by someone identified as his reincarnation. This tradition is deeply entrenched in the spiritual and cultural fabric of Tibetan Buddhism. Communist China, which under Mao was so vigorously and uncompromisingly atheist in its orientation, now seeks to control the process that will identify the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. This audacious move points to China’s drive to consolidate its hold over Tibet, a strategy that not only seeks to fatally undermine the institution of the Dalai Lama but also encroaches on the Tibetan people, their rich culture, and their civilization.
In addition to a significant recent uptick in Chinese propaganda on this topic, Beijing has convened a committee composed of government-selected Tibetan monks and key Communist Party officials to preside over the process that will select the next Dalai Lama. Authorities have set up museum exhibitions about the reincarnation of Dalai Lamas in both Beijing and Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet, highlighting the Chinese government’s claims to legitimacy in supervising the selection. Such an orchestration will blatantly violate Tibetan tradition and is a move of monumental concern to the Tibetan people.
The norms of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of reincarnation and the Dalai Lama’s stance on his own reincarnation must steer the process of determining any future succession. In accordance with that tradition, instructions the Dalai Lama leaves before his death should be the basis of any search to identify his successor. Beijing, however, wants to usurp both spiritual and temporal authority in Tibet. The Chinese government’s transgressions are legion, including legislative interference, historical revisionism, and the outright denial of the Dalai Lama’s fundamental right to guide the choice of his successor. Along with the government’s broader efforts to suppress Tibetan culture, China’s actions constitute a grave violation of the basic human rights of the Tibetan people. Click here to read more.