When the Empires Fall Apart: Managing Diversity in Two Asian Giants — An essay

November 16, 2017 By Tenzin Desal*

The birth of two Asian giants — India and China — is separated by two years. At the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947, administration ruling one-fifth of humanity is passed on from the Colonial British to Independent India. The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru gave his indelible “Tryst with Destiny” speech before the Constituent Assembly in a confident Lutyen enclave of Delhi.

Doyen among modern Tibetan historians, Tseten Wangchuk Shakabpa was witness to this movement. Visiting India and its Buddhist sites with his family, he made it to the then Bombay Presidency in 1946. He saw distant flickering figures of Nehru, Sardar Patel, Sarojini Naidu and other nationalist leaders at a political rally organised by the Congress at the Gateway of India. By his admission, he was moved by the experience and inspired him to work on the most comprehensive work on the political history of Tibet.

Two years later, wresting power from the ruling Republic of China, a group of battle-hardened communists took to the stage and pledged ruling China through a hastily drafted document — the Common Program at the first Chinese People Political Consultative Conference, headed by the helmsman, Mao himself. The Common Program of the 1949 promised “common inherent equality of all nations” and “appropriate representation in local organs of political power.”

A mural painting depicting the plan of the Samye monastery. The site of the “Council of Samye” in eighth century Tibet. Photo: Erik Torner

Mao was a perceptive man. He sensed the centrifugal forces that could lead to splintering of China — as often the case in its long history — should be countered by timely and forceful use of what is rendered in English as the three ‘Magic Weapons’ — The Party, its Military and the United Front.

Gandhi, on the other hand, although genial with his English friends was against the colonial governing model of ruling India through Presidencies. He envisaged an independent India bifurcated along its diverse linguistic lines with no single language taking precedence over other and was then led by leaders who were above all, secularists.

For India, since its early days of planned economy and adoption of federal system and constitutional democracy, it was considered a gigantic experiment. The experiment that has far-exceeded the expectations of India’s nervous sympathizers and proven wrong its early doomsayers. As a visitor from Pakistan crossing into Indian territory through Attari in Pubjab could attest, as they are greeted by a hoarding board, welcoming its visitors to the “World’s Largest Democracy.”

The nascent People’s Republic of China (PRC) was then seeking order and explanation to govern its acquired China. Mao himself was a good reader of history, and his new China would appropriate the claims of its last foreign ruler — the Manchus. The PRC maneuvered to employ all its economic, military and political power to wield influence over the Manchu’s tenuous claims over its ‘protectorates.’

In order to strengthen its rule over these protectorates, China used its third ‘Magic Weapon’, the United Front to cajole and coerce other ‘Nationalities’ by bringing them under its sphere of influence.

In a vast ethnographic project, the Ethnic Identification Project, the nascent Communist China summoned the best minds in the fields of Anthropology, Linguistic, Philology, History and other intellectuals to place its newly acquired population to be governed through a neat 56 ethnic groups.

In the last decade, certain section of Chinese intellectuals and Party scholars pondering over managing diversity within China tend to look westwards to US and its ‘Melting Pot” model for inspiration than its neighbour, India. Although, India serves a better template by virtue of their shared similarities in terms of longevity since their birth as modern states, population size, and their illustrious civilizational history.

The proponents of ‘Melting Pot’ model attempts to blur and erase division along ethnic lines, by essentially Han-ifying all its ruling population of China. However, the Minzhu (Ch: Ethnic) establishment with all its vested interest in retaining the status quo stands to retain the economically preferential yet disempowering treatment in its minority regions.

In a carefully choreographed routine before select members from the international press, five new members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo were introduced to the world. They, along with the currently serving President and the Premier form the highest governing body in China.

They, in all likelihood will captain a seemingly calm water for China with its new-found confidence for the next five years. Whilst, rest of the leading world powers steady their ships that had proven ever so reliable since the aftermath of the Second World War which helped them shape the world order.

The President, Xi Jinping now holds unprecedented power, unparalleled –some argue — since the helmsman, Mao himself. This is evidenced by the induction of his ideological compass, a clumsily phrased — “Xi Jinping’s Thought for the New Era of Socialism with Chinese Special Characteristics” into the constitution of the People’s Republic of China. No other serving President had ever meddled with the content of the constitution of the PRC since Mao.

In his Work Report during the 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping delivered a speech that lasted for over three hours; he further stressed the role of the United Front work to “ensure the success of the Party.”

The United Front Work Department functions by liaising with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). A member from the Politburo Standing Committee heads this organisation. The Charter of the CPPCC enunciates its place in governing China where it states: “The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference is an organization of the united front of the Chinese people, an important institution of multi-party cooperation and political consultation under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.”

This is the very organisation that the representatives of H.H. the Dalai Lama meet with to negotiate the future arrangements for Tibet.

Executive Vice Minister of the United Front Work Department of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC), Zhang Yijiong, in a press conference on the sidelines of the 19th Party Congress reprimanded the foreign government leaders for meeting with H.H. the Dalai Lama for what he accused, for harbouring a “mission of a separatist.”

The rhetoric of the currently serving cadre at the United Front is no different from its predecessors in terms of its tone, tenor and vitriol. His former colleague in the same department, Zhu Weiqun is not unfamiliar with such sharp remarks, to put it mildly.

Executive Vice Minister of the United Front Work Department, Mr. Zhang Yijiong speaking at a press conference on the sidelines of the CCP’s 19th Party Congress.

In a claim that seeks to appropriate Tibet’s intellectual and spiritual history, the Vice Minister, Zhang Yijiong said: “(Tibetan Buddhism) is a special form of religion that originated within China in the process of development… It has originated in China with its roots in China. So, it is an example of being Chinese and it has Chinese orientation.”

Over the centuries Tibetans have assisted various dynasties ruling China by serving as spiritual and intellectual guide. But Tibetan Buddhism has remained uniquely Tibetan, based on rich corpus of Indian literature which were translated into Tibetan and voluminous commentaries written by Tibetans, thereby enriching its culture and bearing its influence on its art, literature, and their way of life.

For Tibetans the question whether Tibetans were to adopt Buddhism with “Chinese orientation” was settled long back in eighth century Tibet.

The stage was set. The two scholars were seated for a debate that was to be adjudicated by no less than the reigning emperor of Tibet himself, Trisong Detsen (756-797 or 804). To the monarch’s right were the “Simultaneists” led by Moheyan (A Chinese Buddhist teacher and a practitioner). And to his left were the “Gradualists” led by Kamalashila (an Indian student of Shantarakshita). The debate was between Chinese and Indian Buddhist tradition, the winner of the debate would be endorsed by the emperor to take firm root in Tibet.

This debate continued for two years, which is later described as the “Council of Samye.” The emperor declared Kamalashila, the Indian master victorious. Tibetans would continue to consult Indian masters and momentous translation projects under various patronages served as the basis for Tibetan Buddhism.

Reading between the lines, China is setting the ball rolling in terms of policies and plans for installing a candidate of their choice for the reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama. The precedence is set by replacing the reincarnation of the previous 10th Panchen Lama recognized H.H. the Dalai Lama, with China’s Communist Party’s own appointment. Gendun Choekyi Nyima was six years old when he was kidnapped after the exiled spiritual leader, H.H. the Dalai Lama named him as the reincarnation of the previous Panchen Lama in 1995.

The State Administration for Religious Affairs issued a document, officially named as the “Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas” in 2007. This ‘decree’ made it mandatory for “all the reincarnations of tulkus of Tibetan Buddhism to get government approval, otherwise they would be declared by the state that purports to be an atheist “illegal or invalid”.

However, H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama still enjoys overwhelming respect and support from Tibetans within and outside Tibet. Many Tibetans in Tibet are deprived of a meaningful contact with their spiritual leader, H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama.

China is now in a position to confidently deal with its long-standing issue with Tibet. There is an argument to be made as now that the Chinese leaders have space for political maneuver that is perhaps lacking with their hands tied since Deng Xiaoping. As China ascends to reclaim its place in the world, finding an amicable solution for the future of Tibet could offer genuine dignity and respect that China deserves.



*Dr. Tenzin Desal is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.




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