By Manzoor Ahmed
An article published in the South China Morning Post on 6 March 2019 states in its headlines that “China says Tibet access is restricted because some foreigners get altitude sickness”. The publication of this article was timed to mark the Chinese invasion and takeover of Tibet in March 1950. The 10th of March every year is celebrated by Tibetans the world over as the uprising day; on this day in Lhasa, thousands of Tibetans formed a massive human chain around Norbulingka, the summer palace of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to protect him and their country. Tibetans staged a defiant, yet peaceful uprising against the forceful and illegal occupation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese military in the following days and weeks brutally suppressed the peaceful uprising resulting in the death of thousands of Tibetans.
This underlies the sudden decision of Wu Yingjie, the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) Secretary for Tibet, to state in an interview to the SCMP that the Tibetan people in general do not support the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetans the world over. He said “The Dalai Lama has not brought the Tibetan people any good. While there may be some support for him internationally, Tibetans are very thankful for the prosperity brought to them by the Communist Party.” Both the reported remarks of Wu Yingjie are aimed at reducing the increasing international focus on Tibet, in particular after the US Congress passed the Reciprocal Access to Tibet act. It also comes in the wake of increased focus on the re-education camps in Xinjiang and demands that greater transparency be built into the system of re-education in China.
The remark alluding to the diminished influence of the Dalai Lama in Tibet is an attempt to play down the enhanced visibility of the Dalai Lama within Tibet and the world over. Actually, the popularity of the Dalai Lama in Tibet is currently unmatched and therefore an attempt is being made by China to inculcate gratitude towards the CCP for having converted Tibet into a ‘modern’ region. Of course, this came with the huge price of seeing the traditional Tibetan culture and way of life virtually disappear.
Wu Yingjie also noted that while Tibet remained open to foreigners, restrictions had to be imposed on their entry as some visitors suffered from altitude sickness. This was also being done to ensure their safety, according to Wu Yingjie. In this context, He criticised the American Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act passed by the US Congress in December 2018, saying it “totally does not tally with the facts” and “had seriously interfered in China’s internal affairs”. The US legislation calls for diplomats, journalists and ordinary citizens to have equal access to the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas as their Chinese counterparts enjoy in the US.
The occasion for these remarks came on the sidelines of the Annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in Beijing. Wu admitted that a number of US citizens had visited Tibet in recent years, adding that “after considering the special geographical and climatic conditions, we adopted a series of regulations on foreigners entering Tibet in accordance with the law.” Qizhala, Chairman of the TAR, said in January 2019 that the government would increase the number of special permits issued by the government for foreigners to visit the region to over 40 million this year and cut waiting times for foreign travel permits by half.
While China would like more and more tourists to visit Tibet they want to control the flow in order to ensure that Tibetans do not get into too much contact with the outside world. The US State Department meanwhile, also issued an updated travel advisory in January 2019, warning of extra security measures – including security checks and a stepped-up police presence – in Tibet and the neighbouring Muslim-majority region Xinjiang.
China’s Hanization of Tibet is one of the well known facts of history but not regularly told. As Mikel Dunham recalls in his classic books “Buddha’s Warriors”, “During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, nearly 95 percent of the monasteries and temples of Tibet were razed to the ground and about 1.2 million Tibetans died. There are now over 7.5 million Chinese in Tibet compared with an indigenous population of 6 million.” For anyone interested in Tibet and who wants to understand what the Chinese did to TAR, Dunham’s graphic description of the carnage and violence inflicted by the PLA on the Tibetan population is an important reminder of what military force can do to a population that had no means of defending itself. The odds were clearly levelled against Tibet.
The Dalai Lama and his people came away from Tibet because that was the only way to save the Tibetan culture and its spirit. Based in India, the Dalai Lama has propagated the message of non-violence and peace to the world. Within Tibet, people still revere him, but to keep his photo and worship is sacrilege to the CCP. For the CCP the only god in Tibet should be Mao and now, President Xi Jinping. China’s efforts to hyphenate Tibet and the Dalai Lama are like efforts to separate milk from curd.
Last year, The Diplomat carried a piece by Tim Robertson who visited the Dalai Lama’s birthplace in Takster. The report shows the Chinese state hiding the Dalai Lama’s home behind a high wall and that Takster remains an impoverished village, in an apparent sea of modernity. There is today a far more important reason why Tibetans (as do Uighurs in Xinjiang) live in fear. There is another factor that must be kept in mind when analysing the CCP’s control over Tibet. The CCP has used technology to the hilt and today every Tibetan is geo-tagged, making it much easier for the surveillance state to pick up any sign of dissent, be it in the open or on social media. This is in the state of affairs in which the CCP chief for Tibet says that the people of TAR are thankful to the party and do not show support for the Dalai Lama!
As the Dalai Lama grows older, the need to find his successor becomes urgent. Like everything the Chinese do, it is very likely that Beijing will seek to choose a successor to the Dalai Lama of its choice. That said, every word that comes out of Tibet, including the recent remarks by the CCP Chief for Tibet are a reminder of China’s long-term plan to ensure that Tibet remains a colony and does not move beyond that.
By Manzoor Ahmed