Manipal, India — Nine years after China's Peoples' Liberation Army occupied Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama followed the example of his predecessor and escaped into India. While the 13th Dalai Lama's sojourn was brief, the present stay has extended over 49 years, with little chance of a return to Lhasa.
China's leaders are unlikely to heed the incessant calls of the United States and the European Union, now joined by India, to talk with the Dalai Lama till such time as His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso abandons the three core conditions that he has laid down for a reconciliation. These are: (1) only powers of defense and foreign affairs will be vested with Beijing, the other responsibilities of government remaining in the hands of the Tibetans; (2) the regions of Kham and Amdo will be added to Tibet, thus creating a state that would almost equal India in area; (3) Han settlers will leave this vast territory.
For the Chinese Communist Party -- whose core principles are a monopoly over temporal power and the claim that only the CCP can assure the Han people the pre-eminent position they enjoyed till the previous five centuries of European global dominance -- the conditions that the Dalai Lama has put forward for a dialogue to commence are a poison pill. If swallowed, it could lead to the extinction of the party's rule over the entire country.
For the Dalai Lama, acceptance of anything less would mean an abdication of his spiritual responsibility toward 6 million Tibetans, who even today have created a nightmare for the CCP by giving him primacy over the party. Fortunately for Beijing, the Dalai Lama has from the start been yoked to non-violence -- for there is little doubt that a call by him for active resistance would make Tibet, as well as the provinces of Gansu, Sichuan, Qinghai and parts of Yunnan, ungovernable
Apart from the pacifism of the Dalai Lama, who has remained committed to non-violence despite the steady extinction of indigenous traditions and culture in his native land, the other advantage that Beijing has is India. Since the 1950s, New Delhi has been supine toward the occupation of Tibet, following the example of Pakistan by recognizing Beijing's untrammeled right to administer the region the way the CCP deems fit. The latest visible sign of this complete adoption of the CCP line on Tibet has been the open pressure exerted by the Sonia Gandhi-led ruling coalition to muzzle the Dalai Lama. Any statement on the situation facing the Tibetan population is deemed to be "political" and declared out of bounds for the Dalai Lama.
This was also the case at the University of Washington in Seattle last week, where the university president and provost sided with China's Consul-General in commanding that the Dalai Lama make no reference to the situation in Tibet, but confine himself to beatific expressions of faith. The condition was accepted by the religious leader, who may be at risk of losing the devotion of his people because of his reluctance to express in public what he feels in private about his land and its people.
While symbols of support such as the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor indeed have a glitter that resonates within the international conscience and the media, these do nothing to change the ground reality facing the Tibetan people. They face a continuing choice of becoming Han-ized, in the manner of the Manchus and the Mongols, or remaining at the margins of activity and relevance in a region that was their own until 1950.
Within the expatriate Tibetan community, the view is widespread that the Dalai Lama's non-violent response to CCP rule has had about as little impact on conditions inside Tibet as a Richard Gere movie. The combustion seen on March 10 and 18, and which has flared ever since, does not mark a success for the Dalai Lama -- as the CCP would like the world to believe -- but a snapping of his ability to ensure that Tibetans remain passive and rely on the international community for justice rather than on themselves.
The security organs of the CCP can keep under control the Tibetan population, which is concentrated in the western and southwestern parts of China and is distinguishable by accent and appearance from the Han people. What will be worrying those in charge of public order in Beijing is not even the spread of "Tibet flu" to the Muslim province of Xinjiang, for the system has within its multiple capabilities the means to deal with the Uyghur population as well.
The situation will become uncontrollable only if the Han population follows the Tibetans in overt restiveness. The segment most at risk is the growing Catholic community in the People's Republic of China, now estimated at over 40 million, as compared to the 20 million that follow the officially sanctioned "CCP Church." The inability to openly practice their faith and receive sacraments and other spiritual offerings from bishops anointed by the Vatican is becoming a burden on the faithful, leading to resentment and anger, although not yet acts of defiance as have been witnessed in recent weeks among the Buddhist Tibetans.
The CCP has worked out channels to render harmless to its monopoly on power the desire for material advancement among the Han people. But the party has proved deficient in creating similar safe and sanitized channels to keep in check the growing hunger for faith in the PRC. These urges are particularly extant within the very educated middle class that is the bedrock of CCP support.
A severe economic downturn or a flare-up of anger as a result of some heavy-handed action in the future may lead to Poland-style demonstrations among the Catholics in China, almost all of whom are Han. For a party that has based itself on Han pride, this would prove a disaster.
Small wonder that the guns and truncheons are out in Tibet. The question is: for how long will they be effective? Unless the CCP can integrate faith into its system of governance, the way it has commerce, its stability may be at risk from "Tibet flu."
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)