Tibet’s government in exile is stepping up challenges to China’s claim of sovereignty over the Himalayan region in hopes of pushing Beijing to engage with it, the body’s leader has said.
While the India-based Central Tibetan Administration faces an uphill battle in persuading governments to question Tibet’s status, concerns about Chinese president Xi Jinping’s increasingly assertive international strategy and harsh policies in neighbouring Xinjiang and Hong Kong could fuel sympathy for the Tibetan complaints.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Penpa Tsering, who was elected Sikyong, or leader of the administration, by exiled Tibetans in 2021, said the group needed leverage against a Chinese state that was tightening political suppression in Tibet.
Penpa said this required emphasising Tibetan historic claims to independence, which had been downplayed since Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, adopted a conciliatory “middle way” approach to Beijing in the 1980s.
“We thought it’s important to change our strategy to focus on the historical status, while being committed to the middle-way approach,” Penpa said. “We are bringing back the leverage. Otherwise, there’s no reason for China to come and talk to us.”
The Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in 1959 eight years after Chinese communist troops marched into Lhasa, has called for Tibet to be granted genuine autonomy within China rather than independence. He handed administrative and political power to the Central Tibetan Administration in 2011.
Beijing has accused the Dalai Lama of “engaging in anti-China separatist activities” and the Tibetan government in exile of being an “out-and-out separatist political group and illegal organisation in total violation of China’s constitution”. It asserts that Tibet has been part of China for centuries and its claim to the region is accepted internationally.
The government in exile says Tibet’s relationship with imperial Chinese dynasties fell well short of vassalhood, and the region was clearly independent before being forced to accept rule from Beijing in 1951.
The Sikyong, who was in Edinburgh as part of a trip to the UK, Norway and Denmark, said he was giving copies of books by non-Tibetan experts that made the case for the region’s historic independence to foreign ministry officials in the countries he visited.
“Since there is no counter-narrative to the Chinese historical narrative on Tibet, we’re losing the game,” Penpa said, adding that he was heartened by a bipartisan draft legislation introduced in the US Congress in February that asserted the legal status of Tibet “remains to be determined”.
Human rights groups have accused Beijing of imposing intense political control and surveillance on Tibet and undermining its indigenous culture and religion.
A group of UN experts last week said Chinese “labour transfer” and “vocational training” programmes in Tibet that reportedly involved hundreds of thousands of people were being used to undermine religious, linguistic and cultural identity and for political indoctrination.
China said the report was “completely unfounded”. “China’s Tibet Autonomous Region enjoys social stability, economic development, ethnic solidarity and religious harmony. People there lead a happy life,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning.
Penpa said he was keenly aware of the importance of the Dalai Lama, a globally celebrated Nobel Peace Prize laureate, in maintaining international interest in Tibet’s plight.
Some of the Dalai Lama’s supporters were dismayed when video was widely shared on social media in April showing the 87-year-old monk kissing a young boy at a public event and telling him to “suck my tongue”.
The Dalai Lama has said he regrets the incident and has apologised for any hurt caused. Penpa accused “Chinese sources” of promoting a heavily edited clip of the encounter that had been misinterpreted by victims of sexual abuse and others.
“We have made the full video available for people to see and judge for themselves as to whether this is a grandfatherly love or lust,” he said. “His Holiness, being a monk, is oath-bound to celibacy and you know his whole life he has been teaching that sensorial pleasures are very temporary.”
As the Dalai Lama turns 88 this year, there are questions about his successor. According to Tibetan Buddhist beliefs, the souls of senior clerics such as the Dalai Lama and the second-ranking Panchen Lama are reborn after their deaths, and the resulting “soul boy” can be found through interpretation of arcane signs.
The Dalai Lama said in 2011 that he would consult senior lamas, the Tibetan public and other followers when he was “about 90” on whether he should be reincarnated. Penpa said the government in exile’s department of religion would gather resolutions passed by groups and associations on the issue to present to the Dalai Lama.
China’s avowedly atheist Communist leaders are determined to control the process of selection of a successor to the Dalai Lama, but Penpa said even the government in exile could have no role.
“The reincarnation of His Holiness lies entirely with His Holiness because it’s him who is going to be reborn,” he said.
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