China Must Not Choose the Next Dalai Lama - Exclusive

China Must Not Choose the Next Dalai Lama

As the Dalai Lama – the spiritual leader of Tibet – visits the United States to receive medical treatment on his knees, concerns over who will succeed him have become acute. While Tibetans around the world pray that the 88-year-old Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, still has plenty of life ahead of him, China is eagerly awaiting his demise, so that it can install a puppet successor.

Tibetans regard the Dalai Lama as the living incarnation of Buddha. Since 1391, the Dalai Lama has been reincarnated 13 times. When one Dalai Lama dies, the search for the next one begins, with a council of senior disciples taking responsibility for identifying him, based on signs and visions. But in recent years, the Chinese government has insisted that only it has the right to identify the next Dalai Lama.

This would not be the first time China selected a leader of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1995, it anointed its own Panchen Lama, whose spiritual authority is second only to that of the Dalai Lama, after abducting the actual Panchen Lama – a six-year-old boy who had already been confirmed by the Dalai Lama. Almost three decades later, the real Panchen Lama is among the world’s longest-serving political prisoners.

China also appointed the Karmapa, Tibetan Buddhism’s third most important spiritual leader and the head of the Karma Kagyu sect. But in 1999, its appointee, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, fled to India. The ease with which the 14-year-old Karmapa escaped China raised suspicions among Indians about his loyalties. After imposing travel restrictions on him, India decided in 2018 no longer to recognize the China-anointed Karmapa as the legitimate head of his sect. Now, he and his rival Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje, have issued a joint statement pledging to cooperatively resolve the leadership split in the Karma Kagyu sect.

But the Dalai Lama is China’s “white whale.” The incumbent – who was identified as the Dalai Lama in 1937, at age two – has been a thorn in the side of the Communist Party of China (CPC) since China’s 1951 annexation of Tibet. With his relentless espousal of non-violence, the Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, embodies Tibetan resistance to the Chinese occupation. (Had Tibet remained self-governing like Taiwan, it would be the world’s tenth-largest country by area.)

In his past incarnations, the Dalai Lama was not only Tibet’s spiritual leader, but also its political leader, making him a kind of cross between a pope and a president. But the Dalai Lama ceded his political role in 2011 to a Tibetan government-in-exile, which is democratically elected every five years by Tibetan refugees living in India and elsewhere.

Moreover, the Dalai Lama has declared that he might choose not to be reborn – a decision that would undermine the legitimacy of any Chinese-anointed successor. He knows that, for China, a Dalai Lama devoted to the CPC is much more useful than no Dalai Lama at all. He also knows that, while he has retained his mental acuity, his body is weakening. In 2016, he underwent radiation therapy for prostate cancer. He says he was “completely cured,” but he continues to struggle with his knees. Given his advanced age, more health problems are to be expected.

The Dalai Lama’s frailty is one reason why his travel schedule has slowed considerably. But it is not the only one: bowing to Chinese pressure, most countries – including European democracies and Asia’s Buddhist states (except Japan) – are unwilling to grant him entry. Fortunately, some countries have retained their backbones. The US is hosting the Dalai Lama for knee treatment, and India has proudly been his home for more than 65 years. India has officially designated the Dalai Lama its “most esteemed and honored guest,” while the Tibetan leader describes himself as a “son of India.”

In fact, India is home to the vast majority of Tibetan exiles, and has played a central role in helping to preserve the Tibetan culture, including by supporting Tibetan-language schools. By contrast, China has been working actively to destroy Tibetan culture and identity, especially since Chinese President Xi Jinping has been in charge.

Meanwhile, China’s appropriation of Tibetan natural resources has gone into overdrive, with consequences that extend far beyond the Tibetan Plateau. Resource-rich Tibet is a source of fresh water for more than one-fifth of the world’s population and a global biodiversity hotspot. The plateau influences Asia’s weather and monsoonal patterns, as well as the Northern Hemisphere’s “atmospheric general circulation” – the system of winds that helps transport warm air from the equator toward higher latitudes, creating different climate zones.

It is imperative that the US and India work together to foil China’s plan to handpick the next Dalai Lama. Already, America’s Tibetan Policy and Support Act, which took effect in 2020, says that “the wishes of the 14th Dalai Lama, including any written instructions, should play a determinative role in the selection, education, and veneration of a future 15th Dalai Lama.” And it calls for sanctions on Chinese officials who interfere with Tibetan Buddhist succession practices.

But more must be done. For starters, US President Joe Biden should take the opportunity presented by the Dalai Lama’s knee treatment to fulfill a 2020 campaign promise to meet with the Dalai Lama. More broadly, the US should work with India to devise a multilateral strategy to counter Xi’s plan to capture the more than 600-year-old institution of the Dalai Lama. This must include efforts to persuade the Dalai Lama to spell out, once and for all, the rules that must be followed to identify his successor.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

Brahma Chellaney

Professor Emeritus of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

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