US, China Again Clash Over Dalai Lama’s Successor; Engage In ‘Shadow-Boxing’ To Secure Authority In Tibet

US-China Conflict: There are complaints that China, in the process, is systematically eliminating Tibet's linguistic, cultural, and religious identity and building influence and dominance across the Buddhist world.

At the ongoing 51st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting in Geneva, China and the United States (U.S.) have indulged in diplomatic shadow-boxing over who will succeed the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet’s supreme spiritual leader, who lives in self-exile in India.

On October 4, on the sidelines of the UNHRC session, China held an event called the “International Webinar on the Religious Rituals and Historical Customs of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas.”

In this event, Beijing claimed to have “reaffirmed” its jurisdiction over Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, with Chinese scholars saying that “The affairs related to the reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama belong to the domestic affairs of Tibetan Buddhism in China, which must respect the wishes of the Chinese Tibetan Buddhist community and the majority of religious believers, and accept the management of the Chinese government.”

This webinar came ahead of the Chinese Communist party’s 20th Party Congress, scheduled to be held this month under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.

The same day (October 4), the U.S. Mission in Geneva also hosted a side event titled – “The Global Implications of the Dalai Lama’s Succession.” During the event, the report “Tibet, the Dalai Lama, and the Geopolitics of Reincarnation,” prepared by a global coalition of Tibet-related non-governmental organizations called International Tibet Network (ITR), was launched.

The report has been cosponsored by the U.S., the UK, Canada, the Czech Republic and Lithuania.

Incidentally, in a tweet, ahead of hosting the U.N. Human Rights Council side event on the Dalai Lama’s succession, U.S. Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights and U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan issues, Uzra Zeya reaffirmed Washington’s stance on the succession issue.

“We will continue to support members of the Tibetan community’s religious freedom, including the ability to choose their own religious leaders,” Zeya tweeted.

China’s Plan For Tibet

The 32-page ITR report (ITN Reincarnation Report.pdf ) points out how China will be using the Dalai Lama’s passing as a “strategic” and “historic” opportunity to firm up its control of the region. Central to the Chinese plan is co-opting the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and naming a pro-Beijing leader in his place.

It is obvious that China views control over Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation as a critical component in its efforts to secure authority in Tibet.

There are complaints and criticisms in many parts of the world that China, in the process, is systematically eliminating Tibet’s linguistic, cultural, and religious identity and building influence and dominance across the Buddhist world.

A precedent in this regard was set in 1995 by Beijing’s seizure and disappearance of the young boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, recognized by the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama (the second highest spiritual leader of the Tibetans), and the installation of their candidate, Gyaltsen Norbu.

Tibetan tradition holds that senior Buddhist monks and other respected religious leaders are reincarnated in the body of a child after they die. And here, concerns over the advancing age of the Dalai Lama, now 87, have renewed uncertainties in recent years over his possible successor after he dies, with Beijing claiming the right to name his successor and the Dalai Lama himself saying that any future Dalai Lama will be born outside of China.

On March 14, 2011, the Dalai Lama issued a historic letter to the exiled- parliament of Tibet, based in Dharamshala in India (where the “Kashag,” Central Tibetan Administration, is also located) to devolve his political authority to a democratically-elected leadership.

The Dalai Lama stated that “the essence of a democratic system is, in short, the assumption of political responsibility by elected leaders for the popular good” and that “the time has come for me to devolve my formal authority to such an elected leadership.”

Since then, a Sikyong (Tibetan President), elected by Tibetans across the Diaspora, has taken over all political responsibilities of the exiled administration.

In September 2011, the 14th Dalai Lama made a formal written declaration concerning his succession, giving a definitive statement of his authority over the process of succession, thus denying any CCP legitimacy in the process.

Dalai-Lama (1)
File Image: The Dalai Lama Via Wikipedia

Giving his reasons for making the statement, the Dalai Lama said: “The authoritarian rulers of the People’s Republic of China, who as communists reject religion, but still involve themselves in religious affairs, have imposed a so-called re-education campaign […] concerning the control and recognition of reincarnations […] This is outrageous and disgraceful. The enforcement of various inappropriate methods for recognizing reincarnations to eradicate our unique Tibetan cultural traditions is doing damage that will be difficult to repair.”

He added: “Moreover, they say they are waiting for my death and will recognize a 15th Dalai Lama of their choice. It is clear from their recent rules and regulations and subsequent declarations that they have a detailed strategy to deceive Tibetans, followers of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and the world community. “Therefore, while I remain physically and mentally fit, it seems important to me that we draw up clear guidelines to recognize the next Dalai Lama so that there is no room for doubt or deception.”

The 14th Dalai Lama has often repeated that the purpose of reincarnation is “to fulfill the previous [incarnation’s] life task” and that his life is outside Tibet and “therefore my reincarnation will logically be found outside [the PRC].”

He has also stated that the next Dalai Lama could possibly be a woman, remarking, “If a woman reveals herself as more useful, the lama could very well be reincarnated in this form” and further stated that he will decide on the matter after close consultation with senior Tibetan religious heads, Tibetans, and other “concerned” people who follow the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, “when he is about 90”.

In 2018, the Dalai Lama again indicated that the traditional practice of finding an infant reincarnation of the Dalai Lama was by no means a certainty, saying that his successor could be “a high lama or high scholar” or a person “around 20 years old.”

In 2020, the Dalai Lama told a BBC interviewer that the matter of his reincarnation would be up to the “Himalayan Buddhists of Tibet and Mongolia.” Himalayan Buddhists include Buddhists in India’s Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nepal, and Bhutan, according to Tibetan culture and tradition.

It is to be noted that two Dalai Lamas were born outside what now constitutes Tibet. The fourth, Yonten Gyatso, was born to a descendent of Genghis Khan in Mongolia, and the sixth, Tsangyang Gyatso, was born in Tawang in what is now the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Tawang is also significant as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama sought initial refuge at Chuthangmo in the state following his dramatic escape from Tibet in March 1959.

India China US War
File Image

China Tightens Control

On the other hand, the Chinese authorities have implemented a series of severe measures designed to further consolidate Beijing’s control over the Tibetan reincarnation system, including the so-called “Order No. 5” and setting up an official reincarnate lama database subject to CCP approval.

Order No. 5, or “Management Measures for the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism,” was passed by the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) for implementation from September 1, 2007.

The Chinese law stipulates a ban on searching for and recognizing a ‘tulku’ by ‘unauthorized’ groups and individuals, stipulating that “Reincarnating living Buddhas shall not be interfered with or be under the dominion of any foreign organization or individual.”

This also means that ‘living Buddhas’ must forfeit their status as tulku if they leave the PRC.

In other words, for China, any Buddhist lineages outside the borders of the PRC are invalid. In fact, this law makes it clear that reincarnations of ‘living Buddhas’ who do not have government approval are “illegal or invalid.”

However, the Chinese position on the Dalai Lama is not accepted internationally. The U.S. has the Tibet Policy and Support Act (December 2020) that states that the role of deciding the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation belongs to the Tibetan Buddhist system, the Dalai Lama, and other Tibetan leaders, and not to any government.

The Act makes it official U.S. policy to hold that the Dalai Lama’s succession is a strictly religious matter that can only be decided upon by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhist community.

Under the Act, if Chinese leaders attempt to identify a future Dalai Lama, they will face sanctions that could include having their assets frozen, and their entry to the U.S. denied.

The U.S. State Department is also tasked to work with like-minded countries worldwide to push back against China’s plans to install its own imposter Dalai Lama. Two bills passed in the U.S. Congress and Senate in February 2022 and July 2021, respectively, reaffirm U.S. policy regarding the Dalai Lama’s succession or reincarnation as well as the religious freedom of Tibetan Buddhists.

Similarly, under Sec 3307 of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, any “interference by the Government of the People’s Republic of China or any other government in the process of recognizing a successor or reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama and any future Dalai Lamas would represent a clear abuse of the right to religious freedom of Tibetan Buddhists and the Tibetan people”.

While no European member state has developed similar legislation yet, the European Union (E.U.) has reaffirmed its position that China should respect the 14th Dalai Lama’s succession in accordance with Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

According to Josep Borrell, the E.U. Foreign Affairs Chief and Vice President of the European Commission, “The European Union has consistently indicated that it expects China to respect the Dalai Lama’s succession, in accordance with Tibetan Buddhist standards.

This position was also recalled at the previous meeting on April 1, 2019. The European Union will continue to express its position on this issue.”

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. CONTACT:
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Prakash Nanda
Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: