The waiting-game strategy raises doubts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 March, 2009, 12:00am

Beijing appears confident in playing what is essentially a waiting game with the Dalai Lama over Tibet, but some experts say there are good reasons to question that confidence.

The central leadership points to its economic integration policies, which feature generous state subsidies and the influx of non-Tibetan settlers.

The policies have lifted millions of people out of poverty in Tibet, changing the social and economic landscape in the past five decades.

The deteriorating health of the exiled spiritual leader, who turns 74 this year, further boosts the government's confidence.

It seems to be betting that when the Dalai Lama dies, his international support will dwindle and the Tibetan community will become too divided to rally against Beijing.

But as seen from the heavy military and police presence in Tibetan regions on the recent 50th anniversary of a wide-scale revolt - marked last year by protests - Beijing is still far from winning over all Tibetan hearts and minds.

While pouring money into the Tibetan plateau has created more material prosperity and consolidated the restive region's economic reliance on Beijing, the strategy has yet to shift Tibetan people's faith and allegiance away from the Dalai Lama.

Despite a heavy military presence that has brought temporary peace and stability, experts say simmering resentment and frustration among Tibetans over the political and economic dominance of Han Chinese are likely to erupt into unrest.

Furthermore, they say, Beijing's constant maligning of the Dalai Lama will not sway world opinion to its advantage - and even fewer Tibetans.

Martin Mills, senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen in Britain, says Beijing has underestimated the Dalai Lama's importance in maintaining the status quo in Tibet.

'Whatever China may claim, the present Dalai Lama's personal authority remains both a unifying force and an important brake on violent protests within Tibetan communities,' Dr Mills says.

Experts warn that Beijing's strategy will have serious consequences, possibly as soon as the need arises for the selection of a new Dalai Lama once the present one dies.

Beijing may be confident that it can manipulate the appointment of another Dalai Lama. But experts say if there was a dispute over the Dalai Lama's reincarnation, it could have a disastrous impact on Tibet's stability.

Dr Mills says in the absence of the Dalai Lama, the pro-Tibetan movement - both inside and outside Tibet - would almost certainly fragment, leading to more violence and possibly on a much larger scale than before.

'Under such circumstances, however, there would be no one [for Beijing] to negotiate with,' Dr Mills says.

Meanwhile, Elliot Sperling, a professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University, warns 'China is staking a solution on the Dalai Lama's death and is not thinking beyond that'.

Experts say Beijing holds the key - that China should break the political stalemate and negotiate a solution to the Tibet question while the Dalai Lama is alive.

However, deep-rooted mistrust and a lack of genuine interest in negotiations have led previous rounds of talks nowhere.

This is an edited version of an article by Shi Jiangtao that ran in the South China Morning Post on March 12