Even Amid Talks, Party Moves to Curb Influence of Dalai Lama
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
BEIJING, August 4 - China's Communist Party has been tightening its grip on Tibet in recent months, resorting to language and measures not seen since the repression of the late 1990s, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
The pressure comes as the Dalai Lama's envoys continue to negotiate with Beijing about his possible return to Tibet after more than 40 years in exile. The religious leader is regarded by the Chinese as bent on independence for the region, and his followers are seen as subversives.
"In the last few weeks, we have seen an increasingly repressive political climate on Tibet as Beijing emphasizes its domination of the region," said Kate Saunders, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet. "It's difficult to discern the intentions of the senior leadership on the ongoing dialogue between the Dalai Lama's representatives and Beijing."
Nongovernmental organizations in Tibet say they have started to feel the pressure. Some contracts to work in the region reportedly have not been renewed. Last month, a study program between American universities and Tibet University was closed in the city of Lhasa after 20 students arrived and were turned away, sources said on condition of anonymity. The official reason for the closure was that the teachers were too busy.
Also last month, authorities shut down the blogs of a well-known Tibetan writer who posted a photograph of the Dalai Lama and wished him a happy birthday, his 71st.
Some Tibet observers say the timing of the tightening could be a sign that various factions in the Communist Party are engaged in a power struggle, with hard-liners opposed to any deal that would bring the religious leader back from his exile in Dharamsala, India. But others argue that Chinese leaders have several cards and are playing them simultaneously, essentially negotiating on Tibet while still cracking down on the Dalai Lama's followers, said Robbie Barnett, professor of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University.
"Perhaps this is to wear down the Dalai Lama and threaten his power base," Barnett said.
A story run in two Chinese newspapers and carried by the official New China News Agency asserted late last month that, while the Dalai Lama has told the world he seeks autonomy or a "middle way" rather than independence, he is not to be believed. "Given the fact that the Dalai Lama gives out different signals at different times and even at the same time, one can hardly agree his 'middle way' is different from 'Tibetan independence,' " the article said.
The Chinese government has moved to block any influence the Dalai Lama has over Tibetans. Earlier this year, after the religious leader made a plea to protect endangered species and his followers began destroying their fur-lined traditional robes, the Chinese government banned Tibetans from burning fur pelts. Then, after monks clashed in a dispute over clay statues of an obscure deity at a monastery near Lhasa, the city's mayor accused the Dalai Lama of stirring up trouble and trying to "sabotage the unity of Tibet."
There have long been cycles of repression and relaxation in Chinese policy toward Tibet. The previous two party secretaries in the region were considered technocrats who were more focused on economic development, observers said.
But the current secretary, Zhang Qingli, who once served in the Communist Youth League with President Hu Jintao, has a strong record of making ideological statements against separatism. A former commander of the paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, Zhang had been charged with border security and presiding over the migration of millions of Han Chinese to Xinjiang.
An informed source in Lhasa who spoke on condition of anonymity said thousands of government workers in Phenpo, a rural area just northeast of Lhasa, had been asked to write criticisms of the Dalai Lama. Similar campaigns have targeted monasteries in the past, but the source said it was unusual to involve civil servants.
After being named to the post in May, Zhang had quickly declared a stepping-up of the Communist Party's patriotic education campaign in Tibet, beyond monasteries and nunneries to the wider population. He said it was a "fight-to- the-death struggle" with the Dalai Lama, who was "the biggest obstacle hindering Tibetan Buddhism from establishing normal order," according to state media reports.
Said Saunders, of the International Campaign for Tibet: "It was almost Cultural Revolution language."
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry did not return a call seeking comment.