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Exiled leader says China erases Tibetan culture

Saransh Sehgal in Vienna
December 7, 2023

The leader of Tibet’s exiled government accuses Chinese authorities of imposing monoculturalism on Tibetans, eradicating ethnic identities and suppressing political activities.

 Penpa Tsering in Vienna
Penpa Tsering, the head of Tibet's government-in-exile, has called for greater international support for the Tibetan causeImage: Saransh Sehgal/DW

Penpa Tsering, the head of an India-based organization known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), which serves as Tibet's government-in-exile, has told DW that the latest round of "back-channel" negotiations with China, which are focused on a range of issues, including the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, have been taking place since the start of 2023.

In an interview in Vienna, Tsering said the talks were still at an early stage, but stressed that both sides wanted to reestablish formal contact.

The statement is significant as formal talks between China's government and the CTA stalled in 2010. Tsering declined to name the officials involved in the talks.

Will the talks lead to a breakthrough?

After coming to power in 1949, China's Communist Party overthrew the Buddhist theocracy that was running Tibet in 1951. 

Beijing says Tibet has been a part of China for many centuries, a claim the government uses to support its sovereignty over the territory. But many Tibetans reject China's claim, pointing to periods of history when Tibet enjoyed self-rule. 

Following a failed uprising against China in 1959, the Dalai Lama, the head of the dominant school of Tibetan Buddhism, fled into exile. He has since been living in Dharamsala, a hillside city in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The CTA is also based in the city. 

Tibetans worry about post-Dalai Lama world

Beijing doesn't recognize the CTA and has denounced it and the Dalai Lama for "attempting to separate Tibet from China."

For years, Chinese authorities have also slammed the exiled spiritual leader as a "separatist" and a "wolf in monk's robes." But the Dalai Lama has repeatedly said he is only seeking genuine autonomy for Tibet, not separation from China.

Against this backdrop, Harsh V. Pant, professor of international relations at King's College London, said it would be very surprising if something came out of these talks. 

"Such back-channel discussions in various forms have been going on for quite some time, but so far there has been nothing to show for them," he said. 

Pant said Chinese President Xi Jinping, after opening several fronts at the global level, was now trying to take a step back. 

"There has been a stronger-than-expected pushback from various global players and the Chinese economy is weakening, so Xi has an incentive to loosen up," he said. However, he added, "it is highly unlikely that Tibet would be an area where Xi would do it." 

Raising awareness about human rights in Tibet

Many Tibetans fear that their Buddhist culture is at risk of erosion by Chinese political and economic domination.

Tsering recently visited the United States, Canada, Latin America and Europe to raise awareness about the human rights situation in Tibet.

He painted a grim picture of life there, accusing Chinese authorities of imposing monoculturalism on Tibetans, eradicating ethnic identities and suppressing political activities. 

He also denounced Beijing for creating a constant state of fear through extensive surveillance, anti-espionage laws and the widespread collection of sensitive data, among other measures. 

Tibetan Buddhist monks in ceremonial hats gather for a morning prayer assembly
China's communists, after coming to power in 1949, overthrew the Buddhist theocracy running Tibet in 1951Image: Ashwini Bhatia/AP Photo/picture alliance

Furthermore, China is accused of running colonial-style boarding schools in Tibet, where children are separated from their families, from their culture, from their language and from their religion. 

The United States even said in August it was imposing visa sanctions on Chinese officials for pursuing the "forced assimilation" of children in Tibet, where UN experts say 1 million children have been separated from their families.

Tsering said the Chinese government wanted to avoid ethnic conflict by assimilating young Tibetans. 

"I think they are looking for a way to manage the situation in Tibet without losing face,” Tsering said. "They know that the status quo is unsustainable.”

Who will have the say over the next Dalai Lama?

Tsering also spoke about the question of the Dalai Lama's succession. 

He said the CTA was "not concerned” about the Chinese government's attempts to control the process of selecting the successor. 

The Dalai Lama, now 88, has already said he could break Buddhist tradition and pick his own reincarnation or declare the institution over, fearing that officially atheist Beijing would identify and groom a pliant successor.

Flight of the Dalai Lama to India

Tsering said China's government "does not believe in life after death" and officials "do not understand" the Tibetan Buddhist concept of reincarnation. 

"How can an atheist government which does not believe in religion be responsible for finding the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama?" he said.

Tsering also called for greater international support for the Tibetan cause, noting that the United States is the only country that has a law on Tibet, the Tibetan Policy and Support Act passed by the US Congress in 2020. 

The legislation makes it official US policy that the succession of Tibetan Buddhist leaders, including the succession of the Dalai Lama, be left solely to Tibetan Buddhists to decide, without interference from China's government.

Stating that the European Union is "fractured in many ways," Tsering urged the bloc to have a more uniform foreign and trade policy toward China. 

Tsering said he was in regular contact with the about 150,000 Tibetans in diaspora communities worldwide. They represent just 2% of the overall Tibetan population. About 6.3 million Tibetans remain in China. 

He said some Tibetans in exile were growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in dialogue with the Chinese government. 

Tsering remains "hopeful" for the future of the Tibetan cause.  

"There is an unwavering spirit of Tibetans inside and outside Tibet," Tsering said, "and we will never give up on our struggle.” 

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru