XIAHE, China — The sleepy town of Xiahe in northeast China stopped last Sunday for an event that hadn’t happened in five years. Under tight security, the main streets were closed in anticipation of the arrival of the country’s top Tibetan religious authority, the Panchen Lama Gyancain Norbu. A few days earlier, President Xi Jinping had made a surprise visit to Tibet, the first by a Chinese leader in 31 years to one of the country’s most closed and politically sensitive regions. The timing of visits is not casual.
They took place in the week of the anniversary of what Beijing calls “the peaceful liberation of Tibet” in 1951. That year the 17-point Agreement was signed, in which a young Dalai Lama recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. In return, Beijing agreed to maintain the region’s political system, in which there was no separation of church and state. The arrangement was short-lived. According to the Dalai Lama, the agreement was imposed by Beijing, which did not fulfill its part. In 1959, after the crackdown on an uprising against Chinese interference, the Dalai Lama and 80,000 followers went into exile in India.
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Since then, China has carried out an aggressive smear campaign against the Tibetan leader. Outside the country, he is a world celebrity, known for the Nobel Peace Prize and the support of Hollywood celebrities. To Beijing, the Dalai Lama is a “wolf in monk’s robes,” public enemy number one for inciting separatist sentiments. The Chinese government has made it clear that it does not accept autonomous religious leaders in the country. Even if it means determining the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, to ensure that the next leader is aligned with the Communist Party.
Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, is considered the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, in a line of succession that began in the 15th century. In 1995, the Dalai Lama identified a 6-year-old boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as the reincarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama, the second most important authority on Tibetan religion, culture and politics. But the choice was not recognized by Beijing. Three days after the appointment, the boy was taken by the Chinese government and is still missing today. A few years ago, a Chinese official said that “he leads a normal life and doesn’t want to be disturbed.”
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With the support of Buddhist leaders sympathetic to the government, another Panchen Lama was selected, Gyancain Norbu, the same one who visited Xiahe on Sunday, surrounded by security. In a city with 90,000 inhabitants, mostly ethnic Tibetans, the reaction was modest. Among those who lined up on the side of the road to welcome the leader, most were Chinese tourists. Dressed in Tibetan clothing, one young man said that he and most locals did not recognize Gyancain Norbu as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, but that he was welcomed in respect of his predecessor, who died in 1989 under mysterious circumstances.
With restrictions on entry to Tibet imposed by the Chinese government, Xiahe and other cities in Gansu Province, a region that ethnic Tibetans consider part of “great Tibet”, are generally the closest contact foreigners usually have with this culture in the country. . In recent months, the Chinese government has begun to ease access to Tibet province a bit, with trips for foreign journalists. Since May, Tibet has also been officially open to foreign tourists, but only with the permission of the authorities and with state-approved agencies.
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Xiahe’s main attraction is the Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Labrang. Built 300 years ago, it is the largest outside Tibet, with around 2,000 monks. Tourists roam freely through the temples, and monks respond with placid smiles to requests for selfies. But the peaceful climate is deceiving. A police tank was already circling the city on the eve of the visit by the Beijing-authorized leader, and bars and restaurants were ordered to close early. The Dalai Lama is a forbidden name, only spoken in a low voice. Sharing photos of the exiled leader can cause trouble with the police.
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In 2008, after violent protests in Tibet in repudiation of human rights violations and support for the Dalai Lama, Labrang also became a focus of turmoil. Tension continued over the next few years, with Tibetans self-immolation near the monastery. As the crackdown tightens, Beijing has managed to quell protests in recent years, and instability in Tibet has ceased to make headlines in the international press to be replaced by crackdown in Xinjiang province against Muslim minorities.
In both cases, there is a common name: Chen Quanguo. With humble origins and a military career, he rose to posts in the CCP until he was named party leader in Tibet, where he was the architect of the surveillance campaign and an iron fist in the province. In 2016, he was appointed to the top post in Xinjiang, where he implemented the same model to combat hotspots of terrorism and keep Muslim minorities in check. According to analysts, its performance in the country’s most troubled provinces should be rewarded with a position at the top of the CP leadership in 2022.
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President Xi Jinping’s visit to Tibet is a demonstration of the Chinese government’s confidence that the success of the campaign implemented by Chen in the province is immune to setbacks. Taking place on the eve of the opening of the Tokyo Olympics, it is a stark contrast to the atmosphere that preceded the Beijing Games in 2008, when protests around Tibet were the biggest problem for the country’s international reputation.
As in Xinjiang, in addition to the security policy, the government bets on the economy to guarantee the stability of the region and prove the speech that the CP was responsible for taking Tibet “from darkness to light”.
On his recent visit, Xi traveled on a new railway linking the city of Nyingchi to Tibet’s capital, Lhasa. At a cost of $5.7 billion, it is hailed by the Chinese government as “the project of the century,” and described as a gift from the CCP to mark its 100th anniversary.
Prosperity is one side of Beijing’s strategy to stifle the separatist movement. The other is the “sinification” of Tibetan Buddhism, which includes interfering with the Dalai Lama’s succession. In 2019, a government spokesman stated that “the reincarnation of living Buddhas must obey the laws of China.”
It is impossible to predict how Tibetans inside and outside China will react to a forced reincarnation by an atheist government that demonizes its current religious leader, but few believe it will be a smooth transition. The Dalai Lama, who turned 86 this month, is in excellent health, his advisers say, and believes in the prophecy that he will live to be 113 years old. Sooner or later, however, the time will come when Beijing’s reincarnation policy will have its greatest test.
What is clear is that the Chinese government does not intend to give space to any leadership that is not subordinate to the CP. Seven decades after the Chinese army invaded Tibet, the belief is still what Mao Tse-tung whispered into the Dalai Lama’s ear in 1954 at a meeting in Beijing: “Religion is poison.”