The subtitle of Rosemary Righter’s analytical piece on Tibet in The Times highlights Tibet’s religious advantage in its conflict with the current Chinese government, “The Dalai Lama’s spiritual power terrifies Beijing. Might, not persuasion, is its only response”:
When the last imperial dynasty collapsed in 1911, Tibet swiftly declared independence. One of Mao’s first acts after 1949 was to beat Tibet into line.
The second reason why Beijing needs Tibet to be convincingly pacified is ideological. For many people, China has become an easier and freer place to live over the past 20 years, but it remains the case that the Communist Party cannot tolerate any belief system that even implicitly challenges its monopoly over “right thinking”.
This is, if anything, even more true today than it was, because with the demise of Maoism and, now, the jettisoning of Marxist-Leninism, the party lacks a belief system of its own to buttress its legitimacy. Hence the party’s pathological persecution of the eccentric but harmless Falun Gong religious sect. Hence its increasingly harsh control of religious practice in Tibet, where Zhang Qingli, the Tibet Party Secretary sent there two years ago by President Hu Jintao, declared on his arrival a “fight to the death struggle” against the Dalai Lama.
The Chinese are paranoid about the Dalai Lama for essentially the same reasons that the rest of the world respects him: as the humbly persuasive spiritual leader of a leading world religion whose lack of temporal power diminishes in no way the loyalty and love he commands. He is the main reason why China’s methods of ethnic colonisation, fairly effective with other minorities, have failed in Tibet. Not only is Tibetan culture too far removed from Chinese for assimilation to be feasible; it revolves around religious loyalties that the State cannot reach.
Because the Dalai Lama is at the centre of these loyalties, Beijing considers him a dangerously subversive political agitator. They are appalled that he only has to make an address far away in India and his people obey; as when he advised Tibetans to stop wearing fur to save wild animals from extinction, and people rushed out to join public fur burnings. Two years ago rumours that he was returning swept Qinghai province and overnight thousands headed for the great monastery at Kumbum to greet him. To Beijing, this confirms what a danger he is.
The Dalai Lama talks about the Tibet problem in terms of “the identity of a people”. On this, if nothing else, Beijing agrees. It can end resistance in Tibet only by destroying Tibetan identity. It is deliberately swamping the population with Han Chinese and other immigrants, imposing “patriotic education” and Chinese-language qualifications for jobs, and stifling – other than as tourist exhibits – Tibet’s customs. The Dalai Lama seeks for Tibetans the autonomy to which they are lawfully entitled as an “autonomous region” of China. But that would up-end Beijing’s strategy. That is why China’s leaders accuse him of inciting Tibetans to challenge, they say, the “stability of the State”.
Unbelievers—having to prove a negative—are always at an ideological disadvantage when dealing with true believers. At the same time, true believers should not be too quickly dismissed as ‘eccentric but harmless’.