Although the Communist Party of China officially proclaims its firm adherence to atheism in its ideology, in its promotions and rankings, and in its policies, it also rather consistently undermines its own atheistic position when it comes to Tibetan Buddhism, specifically, with regard to its policy involving the reincarnations of the Tibetan Lamas. Recently, Zhu Weiqun, Chairman of the Committee for Ethnic and Religious Affairs of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), stated that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama had never been a “purely religious matter”, and that the search for the reincarnation of the Tibetan Lama on the part of Chinese Communists is indicative of “China’s sovereignty over Tibet.” Zhu Weiqun, who continues to have a major say in issues related to Tibet and Tibetans, recently criticised the Dalai Lama at the fourth session of the 12th National People’s Congress held in March 2015, for suggesting that he might discontinue the institution of the Dalai Lama. Weiqun then insisted on its continuance, all the while asserting that only Beijing has the right to recognise the reincarnations of high Lamas. The reason why atheistic Beijing claims the right to weigh in on such a spiritual precept as reincarnation was never explained by Weiqun.
The debate concerning Communist Party’s claim to authority in deciding the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama originated shortly after the 14th Dalai Lama stated that the Tibetan people have the final say on the institution of the Dalai Lama. He further added that he might be the last Dalai Lama. The implication is that a Chinese appointed Dalai Lama might become a political stooge for Beijing, bringing disgrace to the institution of Dalai Lama. This somber yet realistic statement from the Dalai Lama rattled the nerves of the Communist Party officials, as indicated by their response: repetitive and incessant official statements and pronouncements asserting their sole legitimacy in determining the next Dalai Lama.
China’s repeated assertion of its right to determine the next Dalai Lama is part of larger strategies to tighten its grip over various aspects of Tibetan culture, including Tibet’s complex Buddhist traditions of succession and rituals. China believes that installing a Dalai Lama under its patronage will bring stability in the Tibetan areas, where more than 143 Tibetans (mostly monks and nuns) have self-immolated themselves as protest against the repressive governmental policies. In addition to its plan to install a puppet Dalai Lama, China has also adopted other measures to address the problematic spiritual traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibet Autonomous Region party officials have recently established “Temple Management Committees”, and have appointed cadres and representatives in monasteries to control the activities of Tibetan monastic community and maintain stability. To win over the hearts and minds of the monks and nuns, the party functionaries have organized regular award ceremonies to recognize “role model and law abiding monks, nuns, and monasteries”, and present the most obedient ones with cash awards for their service to the state. However, this monastic specific policy has failed to win over the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people in general and the monks and nuns in particular as protest of various forms continue to happen in Tibet.
Selecting an official and politically correct 15th Dalai Lama would be a major foreign and domestic debacle for China. Tibet is already an exacerbating and problematic issue for China; it would be disastrous on their part to venture into the complex realms of Tibetan Buddhist tradition, especially with regard to the reincarnation of Tibetan lamas. Having failed to win over the current Dalai Lama, China hopes that collaboration with his successor – a successor selected by atheistic China itself – will stabilize and consolidate its rule over Tibet. However, China still doesn’t seem to grasp the lesson from the Panchen Lama experience. In 1995, the Dalai Lama named a six-year-old boy living in Tibet as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama, widely considered the second holiest spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese government responded by installing a boy handpicked by them. For 20 years, the boy chosen by the Dalai Lama has not been seen in public and his whereabouts are kept secret. Meanwhile, Gyaltsen Norbu (Ch: Gyaincain Norbu), the Chinese appointed Panchen Lama who swore allegiance to the CCP, is considered a fake and usurper by majority of Tibetans, and “reverence” for him has to be bought by the Chinese government whenever he visits Tibet from his official residence in Beijing. Therefore, a similar situation of two Dalai Lamas will be a big trouble for China. The creation of a Chinese doppelganger of the Dalai Lama would be a catastrophic move on the part of the Chinese government, both for its Tibet policy and its international reputation. Furthermore, it is highly likely that the Tibetans people and followers of Buddhism (which comprises more than 500 million of the world’s population) will reject a Chinese appointed Dalai Lama, bringing the potential for further embarrassment to the rising global power.
*Apa Lhamo is a M.Phil candidate at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and a research officer at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.