Dagny Dukach is an intern for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In early June 2013, Dr. Jin Wei, a senior Chinese government advisor and director of ethnic and religious studies at Beijing’s Central Party School, made headlines when she published an article in the Hong Kong journal Asia Weekly suggesting that there were serious problems with China’s coercive policies in Tibet. In the paper, she pushed for a more open, less oppressive policy towards the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people; strikingly, she referred to the Tibetan leader as the “Dalai Lama,” as opposed to the pejorative terms “Dalai” or “Dalai Clique” used by Chinese officials and media outlets.
Following the publication of Dr. Jin’s new, more open-minded approach, several signs of a loosening Tibet policy began to emerge. In late June, reports indicated that in some Tibetan areas, the seventeen-year ban on displaying photographs of the Dalai Lama had been lifted as a part of a new “experimental” policy. In addition, the daughter of the Tenth Panchen Lama was allowed to visit Lhasa for the first time; and just a few days after that, U.S. ambassador Gary Locke became the first American dignitary to be allowed into Tibet since 2010.
Moreover, Beijing-based blogger and poet Tsering Woeser republished and commented on a critical report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in her own widely-read blog, implicitly criticizing and questioning official Chinese assurances that China’s rehousing projects in Tibet were “widely welcomed by local residents.” Other prominent figures in China have followed suit in recent weeks, publishing critiques of the status quo and supporting a more tolerant Tibet policy.
Amidst such signs of openness, however, a challenging, often volatile, political environment prevails in Tibet. Not one month ago, on the Dalai Lama’s seventy-eighth birthday, Tibetan celebrations turned bloody when Chinese police opened fire on a gathering of several hundred Tibetans, severely injuring at least fifteen. The Chinese government has denied the incident entirely. A similar incident just two weeks ago saw seventeen Tibetans seriously injured in a border dispute that turned violent when a gang of a hundred armed men, hired by residents of a Chinese village and described by one source as “Chinese goons,” attacked the border village of Dola (Qilian, in Chinese). These recent incidents follow last month’s report by HRW which condemned the “socialist-style” rehousing of over two million Tibetans since 2006 in what Sophie Richardson, the China director at HRW, has dubbed the largest and most intrusive social restructuring scheme attempted in the post-Mao era.
While Dr. Jin and others may be sowing the seeds of debate within Beijing, tangible change remains elusive. China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs has fervently denied any changes in official policy or rhetoric, insisting that “our policy toward the Dalai clique is clear and consistent, and has not changed.” Analysts have observed a growing debate within Beijing on China’s North Korea policy for at least two years, and yet it is still unclear if any real policy changes will be made by China. Tibet, an emotionally charged issue on which Beijing has rarely demonstrated flexibility, will in all likelihood take at least as long, and be at least as difficult, to resolve.