Is China Really Loosening Its Tibet Policy?
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Is China Really Loosening Its Tibet Policy?

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Reports that Beijing is “experimenting” with its Tibet policy have surfaced recently, with suggestions that it was lifting – unofficially at least – a decades-old ban on the Dalai Lama’s image in certain ethnic Tibetan regions. Some outside observers saw it as a new gambit under recently inaugurated President Xi Jinping to appeal to Tibetans and put an end to the series of self-immolations that have damaged China’s human rights image.   

Beijing quickly refuted the reports. But analysts believe Chinese authorities would want to keep any changes quiet, which for now are likely being tested in certain areas. For the moment, then, it’s a matter of wait and see.

Since 1994, Beijing authorities have run a particularly hostile campaign against the exiled Tibet’s spiritual head, the Dalai Lama, including prohibitions on the display of his photographs and requirements for monks and nuns to denounce the Dalai Lama. The policies led to mass protests inside Tibet in 2008 as well as ongoing religious suppression in the region.

“News of discussions on a softer approach to the Dalai Lama in Tsolho (Chinese: Hainan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai (the Tibetan area of Amdo) emerged on a Chinese website and from Tibetan sources in the area following three meetings held in a monastery in Chabcha (Chinese: Gonghe) and the provincial capital of Xining,” said the rights group International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), which is based in Washington D.C.

That news coincided with the publication of bold new suggestions of engagement with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and a critique of Tibet policy by Professor Jin Wei, director of ethnic religious studies at the Central Party School.

In an interview given to Hong Kong’s Asia Weekly on June 12, she said that treating the Dalai Lama as an enemy is alienating the six million Tibetans who believe he is the living Buddha: “The Dalai Lama is the key to the issue of Tibet,” she added, recommending that China re-start its stalled dialogue with him and invite him to Hong Kong or Macau. She also proposed negotiating with the Buddhist leader about his next incarnation, and in the future, allowing him to return to Tibet itself.

Jin further suggested that Tibet policy be taken away from Hu Jinato’s supporters, who in the past have insisted on a hard-line policy on Dalai Lama, resulting in religious suppression on the Himalayan plateau. Tibet watchers note that the professor was unlikely to have made her comments without official approval.

The Dalai Lama celebrated his 78th birthday on July 6 with the exiled Tibetan community in Southern India. The day before he agreed that change may be afoot. Speaking to media in the Indian city of Bengaluru, he said, “I am very optimistic, but we have to wait for a little longer. The new Chinese leadership seems ready now, to accept reality.”

Kate Saunders, spokesperson for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) not only confirmed for The Diplomat that discussions about experiments in some areas are undergoing, but also indicated that Tibetans are taking bolder steps in asserting their views on anti-Dalai Lama policy*. “Both the Qinghai (the Tibetan area of Amdo) proposals for a new approach and the Jin Wei comments indicate that the current leftist, conservative hard-line policy on Tibet is being questioned and discussed within the PRC. Since the 2008 protests and crackdown, Chinese and Tibetan officials and intellectuals are known to have expressed concern about the increasingly aggressive rhetoric against the Dalai Lama and its detrimental impact – there seems to be a deepening acknowledgement now that the anti-Dalai Lama campaign has been counter-productive,” she said.

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