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US Congress moves to keep China away from selection of new Dalai Lama

Move over China-US trade tensions! Move over South China Sea rivalries! Move over Iran, North Korea and Palestine! Here’s an area in which China is most touchy! The United States has “warned” China not to interfere with the process of selecting Tibet’s new Dalai Lama.

At the end of January 2020, a significant event took place in the US which might have gone unnoticed. On January 30, the US House of Representatives passed a bill authorizing financial and travel sanctions against Chinese officials who interfere in the process of selecting a successor to the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso.

The bill, introduced by Congressman James P McGovern, Chairman of the House Rules Committee and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, was passed by an overwhelming vote of 392 to 22.

Now consider a greater fallout of the bill. If it gets passed by the Senate and signed into law, which it will, considering the bi-partisan US position on the Dalai Lama, it will also prohibit China from opening any new Consulates in the US until Beijing allows Washington to open its diplomatic station in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

The bill, just short of becoming a law, says that the succession or reincarnation of Tibetan Buddhist leaders, including the future 15th Dalai Lama, is an exclusively religious matter that should be decided solely by the Tibetan Buddhist community.

The draft legislation also empowers the Trump administration to freeze any American asset of Chinese officials and ban their travel to the US if they are found to be involved in "identifying or installing" a Dalai Lama approved by Beijing.

There is a long history to this, if one wants to put this major event in context. The 14th Dalai Lama is 84-year-old and in a bad condition health-wise. In 2018, he had reportedly “chosen" his own successor- a five-year-old boy from Ladakh.

The boy and his entire family were moved to the US and kept at an undisclosed destination under the surveillance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the prime American agency entrusted with internal security.

On 27 March 2019, the Chinese government came up with a White Paper on Tibet, signaling its shift in its policy on the Dalai Lama. The White Paper omits mention of ant willingness to engage with the Dalai Lama, which is a departure from a similar statement a decade ago.

The Chinese White Paper came even as Beijing tightened security in Tibet ahead of the 60th anniversary of the 14th Dalai Lama’s exile in India. It closed Tibet to foreign journalists and diplomats.

The document, released by the State Council’s Information Office, was titled “Democratic Reform in Tibet – Sixty Years On”.

This effectively meant that China has closed all dialogue with the Dalai Lama and any of his representatives regarding a deal under which the 14th Dalai Lama would be allowed to visit his native place (Tibet) if he declared the Karmapa as his successor and makes a formal announcement which is published in the website of Central Tibetan Administration (CTA).

The 14th Dalai Lama found the Chinese pre-conditions unacceptable and his secret negotiations with Beijing reached a dead end. Now both sides have dumped each other.

China’s White Paper said that the Communist Party’s rule over Tibet has ensured religious freedom in the region and has overseen “orderly” implementation of the reincarnation system used to choose the Tibetan spiritual leader.

The White Paper also marked a “subtle shift” in Beijing’s attitude to the Dalai Lama. The document details Beijing’s policy on Tibet under President Xi Jinping. Policy has shifted from a willingness to engage with the Dalai Lama to implementing a policy of “a great leap to socialist system” under Chinese Communist Party’s rule.

“Tibet has fully implemented the ethnic policy of the Communist Party of China to enhance awareness of ethnic solidarity and a sense of community of the Chinese nation, and to strengthen ethnic communication and integration,” it said.

“By abolishing serfdom, a grim and backward feudal system, Tibet was able to establish a new social system that liberated the people and made them masters of the nation and society, thus ensuring their rights in all matters.”

The White Paper also said that Beijing has further institutionalized the reincarnation process of “living Buddhas”, enshrined in the “Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas of Tibetan Buddhism” guideline published 12 years ago.

The Dalai Lama’s reincarnation has been one of the most contentious issues between the exiled Tibetan leader and the Chinese government.

The latest American draft legislation on curbing Chinese influence in deciding the successor of the 14th Dalai Lama needs to be seen against this backdrop.

Lobsang Sangay’s role

In the whole exercise, the shenanigans of CTA President Lobsang Sangayare an important subtext. Lobsang Sangay desperately tried to find some way to convince the Dalai Lama to name the Karmapa as his successor, but the Dalai Lama refused point blank. Sangay’s US visit last year irked the Dalai Lama further.

Sangay arrived in the US on 10th February, 2019. He was in Washington on February 12 and met with US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That enraged the Dalai Lama the most. Meeting her before the Dalai Lama did was bad enough, but giving her a gift as part of the “Thank You” anniversary was inexcusable. Sangay gifted a Buddhist symbol, the wheel, to Pelosi.

Sangay reached the US via South Africa. The Dalai Lama's most powerful and influential public friends are in South Africa (Desmond Tutu) and the US (George Bush and Barack Obama). It was too much for the Dalai Lama to watch Sangay go to countries he can't yet go to. South Africa had denied him a visa, but allowed one for Sangay, reflective of Sangay’s close ties with Beijing!

China hasn’t yet officially responded to the American draft legislation. But no prizes for guessing that Beijing is furious. The developments need to be watched closely!

(Rajeev Sharma is a strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha)