The United States and China Are Fighting Over the Dalai Lama’s Reincarnation Plans
The Chinese Communist Party claims ultimate control over Tibetan souls.
For Westerners, the Dalai Lama is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. For Tibetans, he’s a spiritual leader. But for the Chinese government, he’s a “wolf in monk’s robes” and a “splittist.” Those insults have sped up since this past December, when it was reported that the contentious omnibus U.S. spending bill included a peculiar provision: the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020 (TPSA).
Introduced to their respective legislative bodies by Democratic Rep. James McGovern and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the TPSA supplants the similarly bipartisan Tibetan Policy Act of 2002. The new act is an overdue update. It covers a range of issues, including emphasizing environmental protection of the fragile Tibetan plateau, which is often referred to as the Third Pole because of its massive ice fields; encouraging the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights for American businesses engaged in Tibet; conditioning the establishment of new Chinese consulates in the United States on an establishment of a U.S. consulate in Lhasa; and acknowledging the role of the Central Tibetan Administration.
But the most politically significant provision is the assertion that the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation process should be left solely to the Dalai Lama’s and Tibetan Buddhist community’s wishes, and that Chinese officials who interfere in the process will face Magnitsky sanctions.
That strikes at the core of one of Beijing’s political-theological claims over Tibet; the argument, repeatedly made by Chinese officials, that only the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), cast as the legitimate successor of earlier dynasties, can determine the Dalai Lama’s successor. In the same way as China claims that its territorial boundaries are defined by the furthest reach of the Manchu-ruled Qing Empire, it argues that it is the successor of the role that Qing emperors, looking to legitimize their own relationship with Buddhism, played in recognizing Tibetan leaders.
When then-U.S. President Donald Trump signed the omnibus spending bill, the TPSA became the new main legislative measure guiding U.S.-Tibet policy. Zhao Lijian, a bellicose Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, immediately released a statement admonishing the United States for interfering with China’s “internal affairs.” Zhao cited the CCP’s Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas, otherwise known as State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5, to justify China’s outrage; the CCP in 2007 issued the Kafkaesque “Order No. 5,” a decree that dictates that Buddhist temples must file a reincarnation application and obtain approval from several government agencies for upcoming reincarnations—all in the name of protecting religious freedom. China demonstrated further insecurity when the Chinese Embassy in India, inflamed by the triumphant Indian media coverage of the TPSA, sourly accused the Indian media of advocating the new act.
The dalai lama lineage spans centuries, but the power and status of the role exponentially increased through formal relationships between Mongol rulers beginning around the 16th century. Through these alliances, both parties found mutual benefits; the dalai lama gifted Mongol rulers culture and prestige, and the Mongol rulers allowed the dalai lama to amass political clout in Tibet. By wielding a role that interred spiritual and political aplomb, the dalai lama played a significant role in the cultivation of Tibetan Buddhism in the domestic and international sphere.
The fifth Dalai Lama, known as “The Great Fifth,” oversaw the construction of the Potala Palace and the consolidation of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. In the power struggles among the clashing empires of the Qing dynasty and Central Asian leaders in the 18th century, the seventh Dalai Lama was established as the head of the Tibetan government. Manchu ambans—an official role somewhere between regional commissioners and ambassadors—were stationed across Tibet, but they largely acted as observers, not governors. When the Qing dynasty collapsed in the early 20th century, the 13th Dalai Lama expelled the Manchu observers and formally declared Tibetan independence.
Of course, Tibet was not Shangri-La. Internal politics involving the lamas, ministers, and monasteries created a cloud of distrust in the central government. And the hesitance of Great Britain, India, and Russia to fully recognize Tibet as an independent government helped embolden China to invade Tibet in the 1950s. The powerful monastic community, determined to prioritize the cultivation of Tibetan Buddhism and their own power, eschewed the creation of a Tibetan military. So when the People’s Liberation Army stormed in from eastern Tibet to Lhasa, the imbalance was palpable. Tibet’s status rapidly deteriorated—under duress, the 14th Dalai Lama’s representatives signed off Tibet’s de facto independence in China via Mao Zedong’s Seventeen-Point Agreement, a document that promised religious freedom, the authority of the dalai lama, and gradual CCP reforms. Mao swiftly reneged on these policies among many others.
Tibetans resented their loss of freedom and the devastating Maoist policies. Fights erupted between Tibetans and Chinese soldiers, which led to the massive 1959 uprising, when Tibetans gathered around the Dalai Lama’s palace and loudly called for Tibet’s independence. The escalating violence concerned the Dalai Lama and his advisors. After consulting with an oracle, the young Dalai Lama fled Tibet and into exile in India.
Though the CCP disparages the Dalai Lama as a “splittist,” he and his representatives have repeatedly and explicitly stated that they merely desire self-determination for Tibetans in Tibet while remaining under China’s rule. The Dalai Lama’s representatives have met with Chinese representatives nine times. But in the face of preconditions imposed by the CCP, such as the requirement that the Dalai Lama “admit” that Tibet has always been an integral part of China, a stalemate has ensued; Tibetan leaders will do anything save concede to ahistorical drivel. After establishing the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala, the 14th Dalai Lama relinquished his political role to the democratic institution in 2011. Despite his political abdication, the Dalai Lama remains both an enemy of the Chinese government and an icon for Tibetans and non-Tibetans, due to his legacy of nonviolent, compassionate struggle.
In the past few years, many have speculated on the Dalai Lama’s next reincarnation, or whether he would have one at all. Supporters worry about the Dalai Lama’s aging, as he is currently 85, but he has promised he will try to live as long as 113 years—a particular age that was prophesied by an 18th-century lama. Though the Dalai Lama has not yet completely confirmed the reincarnation question, evidence points that the dalai lama tradition will endure. Throughout the years, the Dalai Lama has stated that the next reincarnation will likely be born outside of Tibet, and he has suggested the possibility of a female dalai lama. The 14th Dalai Lama has affirmed that the dalai lama lineage will continue if the majority of Tibetan people wish for it to continue. At the 14th Tibetan Religious Conference in November 2019, Tibetan religious leaders and representatives of the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism adopted a unanimous resolution urging the Dalai Lama to continue the reincarnation tradition.
The Chinese government will try to appoint a puppet dalai lama. The Dalai Lama has not been the first major Buddhist figure whom the CCP has tried to co-opt—the Chinese government kidnapped Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama (a lama rank that is only second to the Dalai Lama’s), when he was just 6 years old in 1995. His whereabouts today are unknown. The Chinese government’s replacement Panchen Lama serves as a saccharine figurehead, and Buddhists have rejected his appointment.
The CCP’s efforts to interfere in the 14th Dalai Lama’s reincarnation are more than a power play—this is a one-sided antagonism, in which China is attempting to undermine the Dalai Lama. The CCP is attempting to control Tibetan Buddhism in order to destabilize the diaspora Tibetan communities, for disruption would weaken morale; disunion of diaspora Tibetans would give China the chance to elevate its propaganda. Nevertheless, 340 Tibetan community leaders and representatives at the 3rd Special General Meeting, which was hosted by the Tibetan government-in-exile in 2019, passed resolutions resoundingly rejecting any Chinese interference in Tibetan reincarnation. In the future, the CCP will bombastically parade around its artificially ordained dalai lama, but it will be a weak farce.
Before the TPSA passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 392-22, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gave a speech on the House floor. She remarked that, “If we don’t speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests, then we lose all moral authority to speak out for human rights in any other place in the world. And I’ve said on this floor, ‘To those who take the repressive Chinese government’s side, we ask: What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and suffers the loss of his soul?’ I urge a strong vote for this legislation and support the Tibetan people as they seek to defend their culture, their identity and their pursuit of a future of freedom and dignity.”
The desire for religious freedom transcends borders. The U.S. government’s support for the TPSA is profound for Tibetan Americans, and that sentiment also resonates for Buddhists at large and non-Buddhists around the globe. Time and time again, Tibetans have unwillingly become the canary in the coal mine of Chinese totalitarianism; the U.S. government’s decision to emphatically support the Dalai Lama’s true reincarnation process exemplifies solidarity that should be replicated by other countries.