While the Dalai Lama is revered and respected by many Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike, efforts to re-establish Tibetan self-rule are focused on achieving democratic, not theocratic governance. The Dalai Lama himself acknowledges this and in a 2014 interview in the German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag, stated that he does not wish for a successor. Officially retired since 2011, the Dalai Lama stated that he did not want officials to appoint a successor after his death, arguing that the 450 year old tradition had served its purpose.
The Dalai Lama: China's Castro?
Having defied every leader of modern China since Mao, the Dalai Lama has in a sense become China's Castro: an initially threatening, later perennially just out of reach, half-century old thorn-in-the-side, frustratingly enjoying international support, and achieving mythic levels of intransigence thanks primarily to China's own hyperbolic rhetoric. Just switch out Beijing for Washington, and you have the Castro regime: both even came to international attention in 1959.
Following their victory over the nationalists in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sought to re-establish direct control over the traditional periphery of Qing China. Areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang had, following the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, drifted out of Beijing's orbit, achieving de facto independence. In 1950 the People's Liberation Army (PLA) retook Tibet for the new central government in Beijing.
This move led to ethnic and religious conflict as tensions rose between the Buddhist Tibetans and the Han dominated, officially atheist CCP government. At the centre of Tibetan resistance was the centuries old link between the people and Tibetan Buddhism, as personified by the Dalai Lama. The 14th and current Dalai Lama resisted the Chinese occupation of Tibet, yet following a failed uprising was forced to flee to India in 1959.
The Tibetan government in exile still resides in India, as does a large Tibetan diaspora. Since 1959, the Dalai Lama has become globally renowned, earning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 – much to the chagrin of Beijing – especially given the timing of the award which was most likely heavily influenced by China's actions during the Tienanmen Square protests during the same year.
Beijing's global game of cat and mouse
The Dalai Lama continues to head China's dissident list, with Beijing regularly exercising pressure at the international level to inhibit his movements and counter his popularity. If not acceding to China's 'One China' rule is the paramount deal breaker when engaging with the regime in Beijing; a 'One Tibet' – not parleying with the Dalai Lama – rule is not far behind. While countries such as the United States publicly embrace the Dalai Lama at regular intervals whenever they need to tweak China' nose, smaller nations with less geopolitical clout often cannot.
For instance, in September 2014, South Africa denied the Dalai Lama a visa to visit the country. This was the third such denial in five years; with this most recent refusal preventing the Dalai Lama from attending the 14th world summit of Nobel Peace Prize laureates. The level of irony inherent in South Africa's actions is almost farcical, especially given the passing (in late 2013) of Nelson Mandela: the country's own Nobel Prize winning leader who fought for an oppressed people, and was repeatedly denied entry into various countries.
While the actions of the South African government seem arbitrary, Pretoria has more to lose from angering China than from being a hypocrite. South Africa is China's largest trade partner in Africa, with trade increasing by thirty-two percent since 2012, reaching $27 billion in 2015.
Furthermore, while trade with South Africa only equals four percent of China's trade with the EU, China is South Africa's biggest export and import partner, comprising 13 and 19 percent of Pretoria's trade, respectively. Consequently, South Africa needs to placate China via acts such as denying entry to the Dalai Lama; a move that did not go unnoticed. According to Xinhua, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang stated that China “greatly appreciates” South Africa's efforts, in preventing access to a dangerous separatist.
Interestingly, Xinhua went on to state that the Dalai was simply prevented from attending a meeting in South Africa. By excluding any mention of the nature of said meeting – an assemblage of Peace Prize winners – Xinhua seeks to erode any moral high ground that the Dalai Lama could occupy as a result of South Africa's actions. Excising mention of the Nobel Peace Prize firstly seeks to downplay the international recognition of the Tibetan cause, and secondly sow confusion and suspicion among Xinhua's readership as to the nature and intent of said meeting.
China regularly chastises and punishes countries and institutions which host the Dalai Lama, with Beijing's disapproving scowl following him across the world. In 2017 alone, China: blocked the Dalai Lama's free iPhone app in December 2017, complained about his visit to Botswana in July, fumed at his April 4th visit to Tawang, India, and decided to stop scholarship exchange programs with the University of California San Diego for hosting the Dalai Lama in September.
China maintains it will choose who the next Dalai Lama will be
China's efforts to curtail the Dalai Lama's freedom of movement and international support is premised on the assertion that he embodies a dangerous separatist movement as well as heading a government in exile. Not only is the Dalai Lama not the head of the government, having fostered the creation of a democratic regime in exile since the 1960s, he also officially devolved himself from the political leadership in 2011, claiming the time was right for a new leader. Paradoxically, it is the Chinese government that has become the chief voice emphasizing the importance of the Dalai Lama on the world stage.
The Dalai Lama's personal feelings about the institution aside, by declaring he does not want a successor he is seeking to pre-empt an eventual contested leadership race. Specifically, by refusing a successor he wishes to prevent the emergence of two Dalai Lama's - one recognized by the exile government and community, and another - decidedly more accommodating - pretender chosen by Beijing: back in 2015, China already announced that it would decide who the next Dalai Lama will be. Consequently, while one may think that Beijing would welcome the Dalai Lama's statement, it actually presents a stronger challenge to the government.
During the interview the Dalai Lama highlighted the large and effective network of Buddhist monks and scholars, stating that Tibetan Buddhism was not dependent on or dictated by one person. This statement is primarily a simple acknowledgement of the work of the Tibetan community, as well as characteristic humility, yet it also sends a strong message to China that the struggle over Tibet does not start or end with the Dalai Lama. This is the key point. Beijing would rather keep the focus of Tibetan independence efforts centred on the position of the Dalai Lama, co-opting the position through its own chosen successor, thus seeking to sway the Tibetan people.
The Dalai Lama and Beijing: A waiting game
The eight-two year old Lama also expressed his firm belief that he will eventually be able to return to Tibet. According to assessments of the Dalai Lama's health, doctors have stated that he will likely live to be one hundred, with the Dalai Lama himself stating that in his dreams he sees himself dying at the age of 113. Such potential longevity adds two to three decades onto the Dalai Lama's perspective, in turn making him confident about not only his chances of returning to Tibet, but of China's gradual democratization.
If such a perspective seems naïve, one need only look at the difference that 20-30 years has already made in China with regards to civil society and personal freedoms. The Dalai Lama told Die Welt am Sonntag that China must and will democratize as it can no longer choose isolation nor inoculate itself against globalizing influences.
Interestingly, despite continuing opposition from Beijing, the Dalai Lama expressed his admiration for current Chinese President Xi Jinping, citing Xi's efforts to continue along the path of Hu Jintao's harmonious society, as well as his anti-corruption stance which has caused Xi to make many enemies among the CCP's old guard. While a compliment from the Dalai Lama can also act as a potent delegitimizing symbol to a Politburo member, let alone the President of China, it nevertheless demonstrates an interesting nuance in the relationship.
Lastly, the Dalai Lama argued that he sees these actions as indicative of China's progress toward slowly becoming more open and inclusive; a view buttressed by Xi's March 2014 statement in Paris crediting Buddhism with playing an important part in the development of Chinese civilization. Whether the Dalai Lama will one day return to Tibet remains uncertain, but in many ways the dispute has settled into a waiting game - with the Chinese Communist Party and the Dalai Lama both waiting for the other to die.
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.