Can he be seen or not? Last week, different organizations that follow Tibet, including Radio Free Asia, reported that in certain Tibetan regions, local authorities appeared to be allowing images of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, to be openly venerated for religious purposes. The seeming policy shift in parts of Sichuan and Qinghai provinces with large Tibetan populations was seen as possible evidence of a gentler approach to the troubled region by the new Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief Xi Jinping. (Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was once the hard-line party head for Tibet and his decade in power as China’s top leader was marked by continued repression on the Tibetan plateau.)
Adding to the positive indications, London-based advocacy group Free Tibet said on June 27 that local officials told monks at a monastery in Lhasa, the tightly controlled capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), that the Dalai Lama’s image could now be publicly displayed for the first time in 17 years. This report provoked particular interest because government suppression of Tibetan spiritual and cultural expression has been harsher in the TAR than in Tibetan parts of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.
But on June 28, China’s Foreign Ministry told journalists in Beijing that there had been no change at all in the country’s Tibet policy. On July 1, Free Tibet reported that Tibetan residents of Qinghai province had received a text message on their cellphones saying that the government’s policy toward the Dalai Lama — whom Chinese officials have called everything from “a wolf in monk’s clothing” to a cult leader akin to David Koresh of Waco fame — remained the same. The text message, according to a translation provided by Free Tibet, was attributed to the spokesperson of the Qinghai Nationality and Religious Affairs Committee and said:
In the recent days, some people have spread rumors online, by SMS and on Wechat [a Chinese social-media service] saying a new policy has been introduced in the Tibetan Area [of Qinghai]. We clearly announce that there is no change in the policy of CCP and Government toward the 14th Dalai [Lama]. The policy is consistent and steady. So the rumors spread by some people are only exaggeration. It is their purpose to distort what they see and disturb the minds of the people. They intend to ruin development and security in the Tibetan area. Relying on the care and help given by Central Government for many years, economy and society in Tibetan areas of our province have been comprehensively improved. The life of farmers and nomads is conspicuously improved. The people are enjoying protection of freedom of faith and of the regular activities of religious practice. We should cherish this good state, which is rare to achieve. We should not make rumors, should not believe rumors, and should not spread rumors but should develop the economy of Tibetan area in our province and should spontaneously try our best to guard the social security of Tibetan area.
The text message was sent eight days before the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6, a date around which Tibetans have rallied despite earlier government diktats banning them from celebrating the date. Since 2009, around 120 Tibetans have burned themselves in protest of the Chinese government, which they accuse of heavy-handed repression. Many of those who have died in fiery dissent have chosen as their final words praise for the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed rebellion against the Chinese state. Last month the 77-year-old Dalai Lama said the self-immolations have had little ability to influence Beijing’s Tibet policy but that he understood the desperation that has led everyone from monks to young mothers to douse themselves with petrol and strike a match.
For its part, the Chinese government accuses the Dalai Lama (and his supporters) of orchestrating the self-immolations, a charge he denies. Beijing says that the CCP has dramatically improved the living standard of Tibetans since its troops marched onto the high plateau in 1950. Certain Tibetan areas are, indeed, profiting from a mining boom, and cities in the region have expanded quickly. But some Tibetans say that members of China’s Han ethnic majority, who have poured into the region in recent years looking for economic opportunities, have profited disproportionately from that growth.
A Human Rights Watch report released on June 27 estimated that since 2006 more than 2 million Tibetans have been relocated, often forcibly, as nomads and farmers are pushed off the land and into resettlement enclaves or so-called New Socialist Villages. In late June, the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CCP, announced that the extensive reconstruction of Lhasa’s old town, where some of Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred monuments exist, had the support of 96% of locals. Nevertheless, 100,000 people worldwide have signed a petition asking UNESCO, which has designated Lhasa a World Heritage site, to investigate reports that the city’s cultural legacy is being destroyed.
And what of the Dalai Lama’s image? When I was in a Tibetan part of western Sichuan in late 2011 to report on the rise of self-immolations, I saw his photos displayed discreetly in countless places: in small provisions stores, in monks’ quarters, on cellphone screens, even in large temples where Han Chinese tourists flock to. No one I talked to seemed clear as to whether his image was formally banned or not. But that didn’t stop them from quietly worshipping his picture.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups who follow Tibet have been hampered by the strangulated flow of information from the high plateau. Often when a self-immolation happens, phone and Internet access to the area is compromised. For such a vast, lightly populated region, the security apparatus in Tibet is fearsome. Still, Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, the director of Free Tibet, has sounded a guardedly optimistic note: “For the present, the regional government believes it is necessary to deny any such change in policy,” she says. “But this does not preclude the possibility that a change may be introduced later.”