For Westerners, the Dalai Lama is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. For Tibetans, he’s a spiritual leader. But for the Chinese government, he’s a “wolf in monk’s robes” and a “splittist.” Those insults have sped up since this past December, when it was reported that the contentious omnibus U.S. spending bill included a peculiar provision: the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020 (TPSA).
Introduced to their respective legislative bodies by Democratic Rep. James McGovern and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the TPSA supplants the similarly bipartisan Tibetan Policy Act of 2002. The new act is an overdue update. It covers a range of issues, including emphasizing environmental protection of the fragile Tibetan plateau, which is often referred to as the Third Pole because of its massive ice fields; encouraging the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights for American businesses engaged in Tibet; conditioning the establishment of new Chinese consulates in the United States on an establishment of a U.S. consulate in Lhasa; and acknowledging the role of the Central Tibetan Administration.
But the most politically significant provision is the assertion that the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation process should be left solely to the Dalai Lama’s and Tibetan Buddhist community’s wishes, and that Chinese officials who interfere in the process will face Magnitsky sanctions.
That strikes at the core of one of Beijing’s political-theological claims over Tibet; the argument, repeatedly made by Chinese officials, that only the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), cast as the legitimate successor of earlier dynasties, can determine the Dalai Lama’s successor. In the same way as China claims that its territorial boundaries are defined by the furthest reach of the Manchu-ruled Qing Empire, it argues that it is the successor of the role that Qing emperors, looking to legitimize their own relationship with Buddhism, played in recognizing Tibetan leaders.
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