Why Doesn't China Want To Let the Dalai Lama Resign?

Tibet's spiritual leader says he's giving up political power -- but it's not that simple.

At least one unelected life-long world leader has decided to hand over power to his citizens, and it hasn't come on the heels of protest in the streets. On March 10, the anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising for independence in 1959 and of a wave of major protests that began in Lhasa three years ago, the Dalai Lama announced that he intends to retire from his political responsibilities. This will not change his spiritual role, or end his travels round the world. Nor will it avoid almost certain conflict over his reincarnation, as the Chinese government still insists only it has the right to choose.

But it is a major challenge for Tibetan exiles, because the Dalai Lama also made a radical demand to his exile parliament, based in Dharamsala, India: He asked it to change the constitution and replace his position with "a democratic system in which the political leadership is elected by the [Tibetan] people for a specific term."

This means that a 350-year era of Tibetan history will come to an end, and Dalai Lamas will no longer be the political leaders of the Tibetan people.

Instead, the leader of the Tibetan government, which now exists only in exile in India and is charged with "rehabilitating Tibetan refugees and restoring freedom and happiness in Tibet," will be their prime minister. The last two prime ministers have been chosen democratically by the 150,000 exiles, and an election was held to choose the next one on March 20. (The front-runner is a 42-year-old Tibetan named Lobsang Sangay who graduated from Harvard Law School; however, the final results won't be announced until late April.) The winner would become the ultimate leader of Tibetan exiles if this proposal is accepted by the exile parliament, which alone has authority to change the exile constitution. But so far 42 of the 43 exile parliamentarians, meeting in northern India this week, are still insisting that the Dalai Lama remain in power, though they have agreed to set up a committee to examine the issue.

Then again, the most important reaction to the Dalai Lama's statement will come not from the exiles, but from the 5.5 million Tibetans in China, whose willingness to accept Chinese rule is at the root of the China-Tibet question. They constitute just .4 percent of China's population, but, like Mongols in Inner Mongolia and Uighurs in Xinjiang, inhabit vast areas of China where the central government's territorial claims are weakest. Each of these peoples has supporters in large numbers among fellow ethnics living just across China's borders with India, Nepal, Central Asia, Mongolia, and elsewhere. As a result, their ability to draw the worried glance of Beijing and so impact Chinese politics is far out of proportion to their actual numbers. The authorities respond to even slight indications of dissent among these nationalities with disproportionate force and angry rhetoric.

Some of the government's defensive moves expose it to ridicule and exacerbate relations. Last week, for instance, the Party-appointed governor of Tibet, Padma Choling, told the international press that the region has been closed to foreign tourists for the remainder of this month because of "extreme cold" and lack of hotels. This might sound credible to ethnic Chinese audiences, but everyone in Tibet knows that the weather in Lhasa is not severe (the mean temperature minimum there in March is 27 degrees Fahrenheit, about the same as Chicago) and that the city has a glut of hotels. The real reason for the ban on foreigners is not a secret in Lhasa: Tibetans often stage protests on or around March 10 to mark the failed uprising of 1959.

Tibetans have already taken to the streets this March. On March 16, the anniversary of the shooting deaths of at least eight monks in a protest against Chinese rule in 2008, a 20-year-old Tibetan monk burnt himself to death in the local marketplace in Ngaba, an area of eastern Tibet now within Sichuan province. This is only the second time a Tibetan monk is ever known to have used this form of protest. Suicide breaches basic Buddhist vows against self-harm and the Dalai Lama's policy of non-violence, but among ordinary Tibetans such an act is seen as the highest form of dedication to defending the community and its values. Last Wednesday several hundred monks joined protests, which were disbanded by security forces wielding electric batons.

In these tense times, the Dalai Lama's decision to resign is likely to increase anxiety among many Tibetans, desperately worried about a future without a well-established leader. At the same time, his determination to introduce democracy to the Tibetan government in exile will increase his standing among Tibetans remaining within China. It will also remind them that China's leaders have done nothing to devolve the absolute power of the Communist Party despite constitutional promises of "multi-party cooperation." Just last week, Wu Bangguo, chairman of the National People's Congress, reaffirmed that China's leaders had "made a solemn declaration that we will not employ a system of multiple parties holding office in rotation." 

The party has used two main methods to counter opposition in Tibet. The first is striving to better economic conditions. Over the last 30 years, it has directed billions of dollars worth of subsidies into Tibetan infrastructure and salaries to boost the region's economy (Beijing gave $4.32 billion to Tibet in subsidies in 2007 alone). This has helped push GDP growth rates to more than 12 percent annually for the last 15 years -- higher even than the rest of China -- and improved living conditions in Tibet.

But the second method has been to increase restrictions on Tibetan culture and religion. These were stepped up in the mid-1990s, with bans on worship of the Dalai Lama, on any Buddhist practice among Tibetan students or government employees, on any increase in monks or monasteries, on any criticism of Chinese migration policies, and so on. Chinese officials apparently fear that these practices encourage Tibetan nationalism.

China's current development policies in Tibet have also added to the problem: They are perceived by many Tibetans as an attempt to erode Tibetan culture. In the past two decades, the authorities have openly encouraged Han Chinese traders to move to Tibetan towns; by the year 2000, more than half the males of working age in Lhasa were non-Tibetans, even according to the official census.  In 2010, the government announced that Mandarin would replace Tibetan as the principal language of instruction in schools in eastern Tibetan areas, leading to protests by hundreds of Tibetan students.

These are some of the issues that the Dalai Lama has been asking Beijing for 30 years to resolve through face-to-face negotiations. Since 2002, Beijing has held nine largely fruitless rounds of talks with his representatives. It refuses to enter into full negotiations with the exile government, which it considers an illegal entity, or with the Dalai Lama, whom it terms "a political renegade" --  claiming that he is secretly plotting Tibetan independence, despite his public utterances that he only wants Tibet's autonomy within the current Chinese system. Will the Dalai Lama's decision to hand over power to an unknown layman end any chance of a negotiated settlement?

So far the Chinese government has denounced the Dalai Lama's planned retirement. Its spokesperson in Beijing described it as "tricks to deceive the international community," while the state-run newspaper in Lhasa declared that his "nonsense talk of retirement" had "laid bare the true face of the Dalai as a "political salesman" and "exposed the reactionary nature of the Dalai clique."

This denunciation contradicts the usual position of the Chinese authorities, who have always derided the Dalai Lama for retaining a political role. In principle, his new decision should make it easier for them to talk with him. And buried in his statement to his exile parliament is a clue that the Dalai Lama may be trying to ease the path toward effective talks: In the last sentence of his statement, he announced that two declarations passed by the exile parliament in 1963 and 1992 that call explicitly for Tibetan independence would henceforth become "ineffective." Behind the scenes, Chinese officials have long been pushing  exiles to nullify these two documents. If they are withdrawn, it would increase the credibility of the Dalai Lama's claim to be seeking autonomy (not independence) for Tibet.

The Dalai Lama's new proposals may increase anxieties about the future among some Tibetans. However, his proposals should also make it easier for Beijing to open negotiations with him or his government -- especially if the last formal documents calling for Tibetan independence have been withdrawn. Beijing may soon find itself under increased pressure to consider serious talks with the Dalai Lama (if not with the Tibetan government) and grapple at last with the situation in Tibet.

Getty Images/Raveendran


Kan Do?

Japan's embattled prime minister learns to lead.

In the days before the devastating earthquake and tsunami that has killed at least 10,000, left hundreds of thousands homeless, and had the world holding its breath as workers struggled to control a failing nuclear power plant, Japan faced a crisis of a different, more mundane sort. Naoto Kan, Japan's prime minister, appeared to be facing his final days in office. Four days before the earthquake, Seiji Maehara, his foreign minister, the most popular member of his cabinet, and the man many expected to succeed Kan sooner or later, resigned after reports surfaced that he had accepted donations from a long-term Korean resident of Japan in violation of campaign finance laws and the day before the earthquake, reports surfaced that Kan too had received donations from resident Koreans. The prime minister's political future was being measured in weeks, if not days.

The crisis has changed all that. Kan himself has not been altogether inspiring during the crisis -- at least compared with Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, who became the face of the government as he worked tirelessly to keep the public informed (and inspired a campaign on Twitter encouraging him to get some sleep). But his government on the whole performed well given the sheer difficulties it faced after the initial disaster: the situation at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, still unresolved as of this writing; the humanitarian relief mission complicated by snowy conditions and hoarding by citizens in Tokyo alarmed by the uncertain nuclear situation; and a sharp increase in the value of the yen combined with a steep drop in share prices at the Tokyo Stock Exchange in the first days of trading after the disaster. Kan moved quickly on the humanitarian relief side, dispatching a 100,000-strong contingent of Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) -- nearly half the country's military personnel -- to the stricken region to rescue citizens and deliver relief, and mobilizing the SDF's reserves for the first time. His government quickly accepted the assistance of the United States, which directed warships to Japanese waters and deployed troops stationed in Japan, including helicopters from the controversial Futenma Marine air station on Okinawa, to assist with humanitarian relief.

While its crisis management has been far from flawless -- critics have complained of everything from poor communication with the public to confusion regarding rolling blackouts to over-reliance on the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to solve the nuclear crisis -- compared with Japan's poor performance in response to the 1995 earthquake in the city of Kobe, the Kan government's initial response was decisive. Its response was even more impressive given that in its first year and a half in power, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) faced nothing even remotely close to a crisis of this magnitude, described by the prime minster as the most serious faced by Japan since World War II. While it is too early to render a final verdict, particularly as fears rise over contaminated food supplies, it has so far managed to juggle the many challenges of the first week after the earthquake without becoming wholly overwhelmed.

As for Kan's individual performance, the public is ambivalent. His pronouncements have struck the right tone, but they have been infrequent and the prime minister has been overshadowed by Edano, his spokesman. The Japanese people's reaction has been mixed: The first public opinion poll saw the government's approval rise by more than 10 points, but a slight majority also disapproved of the government's handling of the Fukushima crisis.

But for the time being, Kan and the DPJ are here to stay. The challenges of reconstruction make it unlikely that the DPJ will change leaders again, and the country is in no condition to hold the snap election that the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had hoped to force the government to call. The political stalemate -- with the opposition in control of the upper house, the legislative process had ground to a halt as opposition parties refused to fund the government's budget for fiscal 2011 -- has eased somewhat, not least because the opposition has little choice but to rally around the flag and stand with the government. It now seems likely that the Kan government will get its way on the budget, which needs to be finalized by the start of the new fiscal year on April 1.

Recognizing his government's shortcomings in crisis management and internal coordination, Kan has tried to bolster his ability to govern. He used the crisis to bring Yoshito Sengoku, a capable manager who was hounded from office by the opposition over his alleged mismanagement of last year's diplomatic crisis with China, back into government to head the disaster response. Meanwhile, to facilitate cooperation with the opposition, Kan asked LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki to join the cabinet as a deputy prime minister. Although Tanigaki declined, the public is unlikely to accept a return to the bickering that characterized pre-quake politics.

The tasks facing Japan in the near term are straightforward. The government and opposition parties will have to hammer out a plan for rebuilding the devastated north and minimizing the long-term damage to the national economy. Undoubtedly, the parties will also conduct a post-mortem on the nuclear crisis, reviewing what went wrong -- especially in the relationship between the government and TEPCO, which operates the Fukushima plant -- and considering stronger regulations for the nuclear power industry.

At some point, however, politics will return to normal, perhaps sooner rather than later. Nationwide local elections are scheduled for next month, except in disaster-stricken areas, where they will be postponed up to six months. But what will "normal" mean after the quake? When it comes to how the Japanese political system will function, there are still more questions than answers.

The first is, can Kan last? Given that the prime minister did not exactly rise to the occasion -- while not striking out either -- it is still an open question whether Kan will serve out his two-year term as DPJ leader, which will expire in September 2012. Before the crisis not only was Kan facing accusations of impropriety -- he was losing his grip on his own party, as DPJ parliamentarians openly declared their opposition to the government's proposals. While Kan is probably safe for the reconstruction period, the DPJ may still look to replace him with someone more popular before the general election that must be held by 2013.

More important than the fate of the prime minister is the impact of the crisis on the DPJ. Has dealing with a major crisis taught it to lead? In its first year and a half in office, the novice ruling party has struggled to articulate an agenda and communicate its policies to a frustrated and weary public. Reviving its fortunes over the longer term will require the DPJ to make some hard decisions and defend them vigorously -- not the party's strong suit thus far. Having been tested by crisis, will the DPJ be more willing to take risks, more adept at managing the government, and more capable at explaining what it wants to accomplish? In at least one sense, the DPJ should have an easier time of governing going forward: Before the crisis, the DPJ had been paralyzed by internal squabbling over whether to revise its 2009 election manifesto in light of Japan's parlous finances. Now, facing the enormous task of rebuilding, the DPJ will have little choice but to scrap some of its campaign promises.

Another important question is whether the opposition will be more cooperative. After losing control of the upper house last summer, the DPJ government became a de facto minority government despite its large majority in the lower house. Now the DPJ and the opposition Liberal Democrats and Komeito party have been forced to cooperate as they consider how to recover from the disaster. But what will the next phase be? Will there be a return to confrontational politics? Will the LDP or Komeito emerge from the crisis chastened and willing to participate in developing a national agenda beyond reconstruction? Or will they see more political advantage in obstructing Kan?

The biggest question of all is whether the crisis becomes a turning point in how Japan is governed. The Japanese political system -- with five prime ministers in as many years, leading politicians dogged by scandal, a disappointing change in ruling party, indecisive leadership, and ongoing economic decline -- appeared to have reached a nadir. Japanese leaders have often seemed paralyzed in the face of demographic decline, persistent deflation, and massive and growing government debt. But amid a horrible disaster, if a more forward-looking, confident Japan emerges to meet its many challenges head on, then perhaps some good will come of this tragedy.