Beijing has reportedly recently contacted the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, but restarting their talks might be challenging, observers said.
The Dalai Lama, who celebrated his 88th birthday earlier this month, said last week that Chinese officials had reached out to him, “officially or unofficially”.
He did not specify when or how the communication happened, but said he was “always open to talk”.
“Chinese officials have now realized that the Tibetan people’s spirits are very strong, so in order to deal with Tibetan problems they want to contact me,” the 14th Dalai Lama told reporters in Dharamsala, India, where he previously set up the Tibetan government-in-exile (TGIE). He stepped down as the political head of the body in 2011.
“I am also ready,” he said, adding that Tibetans were not seeking independence and had decided to remain part of the People’s Republic of China.
Norzin Dolma, a minister with the TGIE, had earlier confirmed that there had been recent “backchannel communications” with Beijing “unofficially and informally”.
She said it was critical to resume negotiations while the Dalai Lama is still alive.
“[The current Dalai Lama] has the moral authority, he has the legitimacy, and whatever solution or resolution that could come about while he is alive, people give that stamp of approval,” Norzin said during a visit to Japan, according to a report by Kyodo News.
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, has been in exile for 64 years, since an unsuccessful uprising against Chinese control of Tibet in 1959. Beijing regards his TGIE as a separatist group.
From 2002 to 2010, the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese government held nine rounds of dialogue, which produced few results. No formal meeting has been held since.
Both sides have reasons to renew contacts as the Dalai Lama ages and is no longer able to travel the world, according to Barry Sautman, an expert in ethnic politics in China at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
“From the standpoint of the TGIE, their highest card internationally has been the Dalai Lama,” he said, adding that the Tibet issue in the West and in India had always been personified by the Dalai Lama, but had faded from Western agendas in past years.
As for Beijing, Sautman said the timing of the outreach may be a result of Western attention being diverted from Tibet by other global issues, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and human rights in Xinjiang.
“The Chinese government knows that what the US can and will do for the Tibetan émigrés is very limited and will likely decrease as the Dalai Lama’s persona fades in Western consciousness,” he said.
He said the Dalai Lama’s latest statement that Tibet is part of China and it is not seeking independence contradicts the TGIE’s claim that Tibet is an independent country under occupation.
“The backchannel contacts may have already produced [this] result,” he said.
Robert Barnett, founder of the Modern Tibetan Studies program at Columbia University, said that if Beijing believed it could negotiate from a position of strength, it was likely to demand more concessions, and offer less in return. As a result, he said recent efforts to make contact did not necessarily indicate that Beijing was interested in restarting talks now, but rather to increase its preconditions for it.
“This would make things very difficult for the Tibetan side.”
Barnett predicted the immediate priority would be around the matter of the Dalai Lama’s succession, or reincarnation, adding that Beijing would “almost certainly” want to get the Dalai Lama to agree on the Chinese government’s ultimate authority on the selection. And another demand was likely to be recognition of the current Beijing appointee as the Panchen Lama, the second-ranked Tibetan spiritual leader after the Dalai Lama.
In 1995 the two sides each named a candidate child as the 11th Panchen Lama, a conflict that has never been resolved.
The Chinese government insists it has the right to approve the appointments of all senior Tibetan Buddhist figures – including the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama – as a legacy inherited from China’s emperors. The assertion has been strongly opposed by the Dalai Lama and his followers.
The Dalai Lama has said the future role of his successor should be decided by Tibetans, and that the incarnation might even be found in India. But China has insisted the reincarnation must follow the strict rituals and history of the religion.
“To have any chance of getting those, Beijing has to act before he dies,” Barnett said.
“It’s always been likely anyway that the Chinese side would push for a deal when it perceives that the Dalai Lama is at his weakest; that’s how tough negotiators work,” he said. (SCMP)