The November 5th edition of the Hindustan Times contained a piece titled ‘China’s Tibet: A story of progress’ by Mr. Sun Weidong, the Chinese Ambassador to India. Although the article was nothing more than a compilation of the usual rhetoric of the Communist Party of China on Tibet, the timing of its publication was significant in light of 2019 being the 70th Anniversary of the CCP’s rise to power and the 60th year of the occupation of Tibet by its forces, an event that the Chinese Government has ironically earmarked as ‘Serfs Emancipation Day’.
Therefore, I would like to offer a number of clarifications to Mr. Weidong’s tall claims of the supposed ‘story of progress’ of Tibet. In his articulation of the CCP’s apparent benign rule of Tibet, he offers a number of statistics to bolster the claim that Tibet and its people have enjoyed six decades of religious, cultural and economic progress. However, this places a cover over the thousands of Tibetans who have faced imprisonment or death, the increasing presence of the military and the surveillance grid in Tibet and the irreversible damage to Tibet’s fragile ecology due to extensive mining, deforestation and urbanization in the region. Human Rights Watch has placed Tibet as the second least free region over the past four years and that includes a clampdown on freedom of expression and journalism, which runs counter to Mr. Weidong’s invitation to journalists to come visit Tibet.
Manipulation of history has always been a part of Beijing’s game plan. Mr. Weidong, in his article, makes the much dubious claim that Buddhism was introduced in Tibet from the Tang Dynasty, implying that Tibet was a part of China since ancient times. Buddhism in Tibet was established through the arrival of great masters such as Padmasambhava from India and through the centuries worth of rigorous efforts of its Kings and other patrons and cannot be accredited solely to a marriage between its 33rd King and the Chinese princess. Similarly the priest – patron relationship between the Mongol Yuan Empire and Tibet was one that was common during that historical period, where Tibet provided spiritual ministry to the Mongol court and the latter protected the realm. This relationship was not one of subordination, as the CCP would like us to believe but rather a symbiotic one based on equality. In fact, during the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama, the Qing dynasty invited him as an independent political and spiritual leader in order to mediate between the latter and the Mongols.
The anachronistic resurrection of the 18th Century Qing method of using the golden urn by the CCP in claiming their right to ‘approve’ of Tibet’s reincarnated religious leaders has been rebutted by several noted historians and academics. The late Elliot Sperling, who was the foremost authority on the subject, argued that “the use of golden urn is clearly meant to impart legitimacy to Chinese control over the incarnation of high lamas (with a particular eye to the Dalai Lama’s next incarnation) through the establishment of historical continuity.” Within recorded history, the existence of the golden urn in Tibetan religious and political affairs contains little evidence to confirm whether the Qing dynasty exercised any control over its ‘impartial’ use while many sources indicate that the urn was merely symbolic as the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas were chosen according to the wishes and traditions of Tibetan Buddhist authorities.
Mr. Weidong harkens back to classic CCP propaganda that the China ‘approved’ of the selection of the 14th Dalai Lama through the ‘supervision’ of his enthronement by Kuomintang’s representative Wu Chung – tsin in 1940. As usual, the Chinese claims contain a historical amnesia that conveniently appears to manipulate evidence in their favor. Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, the then Vice-Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, accused the communists of accepting Kuomintang’s propaganda while revealing his own archival research which showed conclusively that Wu Chung – tsin did not preside over the Dalai Lama’s enthronement ceremony. Furthermore, Basil Gould, the British representative at the ceremony, observed that the Chinese delegates were not given priority over the other foreign representatives. A number of noted historians such as Tsering Shakya have categorically argued that there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Wu Chung – tsin ever presided over the enthronement ceremony.
In the past six decades, the exile population has been able to preserve and revive the major Buddhist traditions of Tibet as well as set up Tibetan schools for modern education. The establishment of a robust and vibrant Tibetan administration has been a major achievement of the Dalai Lama and his people. Such remarkable success was possible due to the support of the Indian Government and the people of India for which the Tibetan people will be forever grateful.
The CCP has always asserted that its rule has brought in unprecedented development in Tibet. However, there has always been a rupture between the actual policy and legal limericks of the Chinese Government which has been personified by the protests of the Tibetans against the government in the past 60 years. Since 2009 more than 150 Tibetans have self-immolated inside Tibet, an occurrence that the Chinese authorities have accused the Dalai Lama of inciting yet unsurprisingly are unable to show evidence to back their claims. The increasing use of military and surveillance forces does not show the confidence of the CCP in its rule but rather a realization of its failure to draw legitimacy from the Tibetan people and a fear of losing it altogether.
*Tenzin Tseten is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.