How the exiled Dalai Lama defies China

When the first cracks appeared in the base and bridges of the Qinghai Tibet railway, just weeks after the triumphal opening on July 1 (85th birthday of Chinese Communist party), they were not the only sign that all is not well with China’s policies in Tibet. The cracks seem to be the result of the unstable geology of the Tibetan plateau. Equally worrying to Beijing, shifts in Tibetan political geology have caused cracks in the official Chinese narrative of unity and harmony between Tibet and China.

There had been sporadic unrest for several months: last November the monks of Drepung monastery in central Tibet staged a sit-down against “patriotic education” — the government’s enforced propaganda.

Then last January, the exiled Dalai Lama called on Tibetans to stop wearing wildlife skins to save animals from extinction. The results were dramatic: from Lhasa to Gansu, Tibetans gathered for public fur burnings. Confronted with this evidence of his continuing influence, the government accused the Dalai Lama of promoting “social disorder” and responded, bizarrely, with a pro-fur campaign in which TV presenters were ordered to wear fur on air.

At the end of May, the arrival in Lhasa of a new, hardline party secretary, Zhang Qingli, signalled a renewed campaign against the Dalai Lama’s influence, with a tightening control of religious practice. Zhang announced that the Communist party was engaged in a “fight-to-the-death struggle” against the Dalai Lama. In Lhasa the campaign took on a renewed virulence as the opening day of the railway approached.

But in mid-July, in the great monastery of Kumbum, people began to gather spontaneously, in unusual numbers. They had come to wait for the Dalai Lama. A rumour of his imminent arrival had swept the province with an extraordinary and, for the government, dismaying effect. The Chinese government is engaged in a slow-motion exchange of views with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, but they do not anticipate his return any time soon.

From their viewpoint, they are right to be cautious. If only the rumour of the return of a spiritual leader who left Tibet in 1959 can cause thousands of devotees to gather, then decades of Chinese propaganda have failed to extirpate his influence. The authorities watched the crowds in Kumbum grow for a week, then sent in the security forces.

The upsurge in tension has come at a critical moment for a Chinese government anxious to project an image of harmony to chime with China’s self-proclaimed “peaceful rise”. One impetus for the talks with the Tibetan government in exile is the hope that they might lower the risk of embarrassing demonstrations at the Olympic games in 2008. But how solid is Beijing’s commitment to talks? Reports are sketchy, though the Dalai Lama regards the process as positive. Sceptics believe that the drawn-out nature of the exchanges signals only a slight modification of Beijing’s policy of waiting for the death of the 71-year-old Dalai Lama to deprive Tibetans of a rival focus of authority. If the talks are to have positive outcome, both sides will have to overcome mutual suspicion. On the evidence of Beijing’s continuing campaigns against the Dalai Lama and ever-tighter restrictions on Tibetan religious practice, that is still a long way off. — The Guardian