China – To what extent is the Dalai Lama a threat to China? (2)

By Claire Joy (2015)

Ever since China made claim to the territory of Tibet in 1950, relations have been strained between the three main actors in the dispute: Tibet, China and the Dalai Lama (The BBC, 2011). Questions over the autonomy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the region of Tibet have been continually debated. However such debates will be kept out of this analysis, as this essay requires the focus of analysis on the extent to which the Dalai Lama as a figure is a threat to China and its sovereignty. Firstly, this essay will briefly outline the context of the situation in order to develop a basis for such an analysis. In doing so, this essay will analyse how the Dalai Lama is seen as a threat to China through six main points: the religious leadership of the Dalai Lama and the importance he has as a figurehead for Tibet, the powerful intertwining of politics and religion which makes the Dalai Lama an important religio-political figure (Kolas, 1996: 57) in Tibet, the representation he has for a whole region in China, the Dalai Lama’s international status, his advocacy of democracy and the 14th Dalai Lama as a charismatic figure, which has been utilised to maximise the voice of the Tibetan people. This essay will then analyse the counter-arguments to this, expanding on how some of these arguments could have little legitimacy in practise; such as the inability to alter the long-standing system of China’s political and religious policies. The essay will utilise both primary and secondary sources as well as examples such as the 2008 Tibet up rise and the Uyghur’s in China to support the analysis, in which it will conclude that despite such reasons that may undermine the threat of the Dalai Lama in China, ultimately the Dalai Lama is a threat to China and its sovereignty.

The region known as Tibet, situated in Western China, is the traditional homeland of the Tibetan people. The region maintained its autonomy until 1950 when Tibet became incorporated into the PRC (the BBC, 2011). Since then, ‘periods of unrest and sporadic uprisings’ have called into question Beijing claim to Tibetan rule (the BBC, 2011). Many Tibetans have advocated political separation of Tibet from China, where they argue that China has suppressed Tibetan culture, freedom of expression and worship (the BBC, 2011). They are particularly resentful of efforts by China to displace their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama with a communist-approved alternative (the BBC, 2011). Tibetans called upon the Dalai Lama to assume full political power after what they advocate as an ‘invasion of Tibet’ and not a ‘peaceful liberation of Tibet’ (Gyatso, 2008b and Donnet, 1994: 11). However, after subsequent failed peace talks between the Dalai Lama and China and the suppression of the Tibetan national uprising in Lhasa in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala, northern India, to form a government in exile (Gyatso, 2008a).

Dual status: a powerful figure as both political and religious leader in Tibet

Having briefly set the context, let us begin this analysis with the role the Dalai Lama has as a religious figure to the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama is known as the reincarnation of the ‘Bodhisattva’, which refers to those who are able to achieve enlightenment, but postpone this in order to teach others their knowledge and to help them reach ‘nirvana’, the goal of the Buddhist path (Otero, 2010: 1 and Bentz, 2012: 292). The Bodhisattva is channelled through the Dalai Lamas, which, as Bentz (2012: 292) highlights, is a position advocating the Dalai Lama as the father of the Tibetan nation. The Dalai Lama is known as a Bodhisattva that has ruled Tibet for centuries in the different lives in which he has been reincarnated; a fact that gives him divine attributes (Otero, 2010: 1). The political power of the Dalai Lama, as Kolas (1996:57) reiterates, makes the Dalai Lama effectively ‘the only unquestioned leader of the Tibetan people’. The Dalai Lama is thus a ‘supreme temporal and religious leader of all the Tibetans’ (Donnet, 1994: 16).

The Dalai Lama also performs a dual role of encompassing both politics and religion in his leadership of the Tibetan people (Bentz, 2012: 298). This is due to the historical roots of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan society, in which this ‘all-encompassing’ symbol that the Dalai Lama has formed is a powerful symbol of national coherence for the Tibetan people, which dates back to the first Dalai Lama in 1391 (Bentz, 2012: 288 and Donnet, 1994: 53). In this sense, the Dalai Lama is not just a religious figure, but a preserver of all elements of Tibet, from politics to religion, history and culture (Crowe, 2013: 1128). As a political leader, the Dalai Lama, as a “Patron and Priest”, is regarded as both the ruler of Tibet as well as a religious advisor to the Chinese (Wylie 2003: 317 cited in Crowe, 2013: 1102 and Kolas, 1996: 53). This set in motion a chain of events that linked the Dalai Lama with political power and religious hierarchy in Tibet (Wylie, 2003: 317 in Crowe, 2013: 1102). This makes the Dalai Lama, the ‘God-King of all Tibetans’ (Donnet, 1994: 107), intertwined with ‘higher powers which transcend the mind of man’ (Bentz, 2012: 298), placing a powerful level of trust, judgement in and devotion to the Dalai Lama by the Tibetan people (Donnet 1994: 52). This inheritance as both political and religious leader in Tibet is a position in which the Dalai Lama has historically inherited and has been ingrained through tradition and custom in Tibetan history. In essence, the Dalai Lama is so important to Tibet that he is not only a religious figurehead, but he also encompasses the essence of Tibetan identity (Otero, 2010: 1).

This position of power does not align with China’s political and religious politics. The PRC ‘has adopted a largely regulatory relationship with religious institutions; it permits some form of state-monitored religious worships and bans other forms’ (Ashiwa and Wank, 2011: 771). ‘Religious organizations are now viewed by the Communist Party as parts of the state-building processes, as long as the organizations activities do not contradict with the state’s official policies and ideology (Ashiwa and Wank, 2011: 771). Tibet is a threat to Chinese sovereignty insofar as China advocates that in order for Tibet to be fully integrated into Chinese society, it must fully support the Chinese Communist regime, which Tibetans do not advocate (Donnet, 1994: 22). As Wellens (2009: 434) further adds, the CCP fear of the link between religion and the rise of religion and separatism has meant that the country places many constraints on the practise of freedom of religion. As the Dalai Lama is the figurehead of such a separatist group, he is a threat to China’s religious social order. This is because the practise of religion that is not in accordance with state policy and regulation is ultimately a threat to Chinese authority as it represents and enacts an alternative conception of society away from the control of Chinese central government. In the Tibetan perspective, the Dalai Lama provides ‘a more legitimate set of values than the Communist Party’s doctrine’ (Kolas, 1996: 56), which threatens the CCP’s control and stability of religion through the centrality of the state.

The Dalai Lama’s role in Chinese territorial politics

Further to the spiritual and political leadership the Dalai Lama holds in Tibetan society, the Dalai Lama is a further threat to Chinese sovereignty as a whole because he combines this position with territorial politics (Kolas, 1996: 64) This is because Tibet covers around one quarter of Chinese territory (David, 2007: 159). In this light, the Dalai Lama not only holds a vital leadership role for Tibet, he also represents a group of people who live in the territory of China, which Tibetans may use to further autonomy and thus threaten the territorial unity of China as a nation. This helps to explain why China insists that Tibet is an integral part of the territory of the Republic of China (Crowe, 2013: 1105), because the Dalai Lama in Tibet poses a threat to Chinese sovereignty insofar as his proposals for genuine autonomy for Tibet completely negates the value of the existing system of China’s ethnic regional autonomy in Tibet (Sautman, 2002: 82-83).

The Dalai Lama further antagonises China as a sovereign nation because of the possibility that the case of the Dalai Lama in Tibet may advocate other regions or pockets of China to attempt to gain autonomy away from the PRC, for example, such separatist groups as the Uyghur’s and the Falun Gong. As Wellens (2009: 434) explains: ‘the suppression of the riots in Tibetan areas and the response to the violent attacks on police in Xinjiang in the prelude to the 2008 Beijing Olympics leave no doubt that any threat, whether actual or potential, to the “ethic unity and the unification of the nation ” is considered a legitimate ground for heavy-handed interference of the state with day-to-day religious activity’. In this sense, China’s emphasis on the issue of Tibet as an ‘inseparable part of Chinese territory’ is integral to China counteracting this threat (Davis, 2007: 169). The Chinese, presenting themselves as ‘liberators’ of the Tibetan people, aimed to gradually erode the immense political power and the pervasive spiritual influence of the Dalai Lama over Tibetan society in order to consolidate their position in the territory of Tibet as much as possible (Donnet, 1994: 22).

The Dalai Lama as an international figure

The Dalai Lama has further threatened Chinese sovereignty by internationalising the Tibetan issue. Firstly, the Dalai Lama in exile has shifted the importance to internationalise the Dalai Lama as a figure of Tibetan culture as well as Tibetan Buddhism across the globe. As Bentz (2012: 294) notes, ‘exile has made a tremendous impact on the Dalai Lama’s importance and visibility, on both political and religious levels’. The ‘internationalization’ of the 14th Dalai Lama has enhanced Tenzin Gyatso’s authority in the Tibetan community: he is now the unique and unquestioned leader of the Tibetan cause not just within Tibet itself, but is recognised as the figurehead for this cause around the world (Bentz, 2012: 287). By supporting ‘separatists’ in Tibet, foreign countries are deemed by China to be interfering in China’s internal affairs, which China claims is an act of hostility against China (Donnet, 1994: 12) This not only threatens China’s control over its internal affairs, international involvement also reasserts the Dalai Lama’s political involvement in Tibet (Donnet, 1994: 108). The Dalai Lama has highlighted, internationalised and challenged China’s religious policies of secularisation and strengthened his political role in Tibet. As Wellens (2009: 439) points out: ‘In general, any totalitarian state will feel uncomfortable about large organisations catering to the existential convictions of its citizens which it cannot fully control because they are transnational’.

An advocate of democracy

Also crucial in aiding international attention in Tibet is the fact that the Dalai Lama has advocated the promotion of democratic values. The Dalai Lama’s government in exile has served as an example for Tibetans in Tibet, who contest that Chinese Communism is undemocratic and does not serve the wishes of the Tibetan people (Kolas, 1996: 64). Further strengthened by international support particularly in the West, new ideas on international law and human rights are being expressed by politically concerned Tibetans (Kolas, 1996: 56). This poses a threat to the unity and sovereignty of China as a nation, as well as counteracting the Communist regime that is anti-democratic by nature (Donnet, 1994: 176). As Li Zhaoxing, a Chinese diplomat, expressed in 1988 (cited in Donnet, 1994: 196): ‘we are firmly opposed to any organisation or individual who supports the Dalai Lama’s activites directed at sabotaging the unity of the motherland’. The Dalai Lama has threatened the Communist regime in China by laying the groundwork for Tibetans to believe that they will achieve a democratic and genuine autonomy in China in the future (Donnet, 1994: 176).

The Dalai Lama himself

Finally, the Dalai Lama, with particular reference to the current 14th Dalai Lama, as a charismatic figure further aids the Dalai Lama’s ability to effectively popularise Buddhism and internationalise the Tibetan cause. As Bentz (2012: 288) notes, the Dalai Lama received new visibility in exile which required him to demonstrate charisma and passion in order to identify more strongly with the entire Tibetan population. Levenson (1993: 199 cited in Bentz, 2012: 294) further adds that by winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Dalai Lama because a more familiar figure to the West. In order to maximise the potential this reach had for the Tibetan cause, the Dalai Lama accepted a number of proposals destined to make him even more popular among Westerners. For example, he took part in the Apple’s advertising campaign ‘Think Different’, he appeared on the famous American TV show Larry King Live, and he agreed to the creation of wax figures for the Madame Tussaud’s museums in London, New York and Amsterdam’ (Bentz, 2012: 296). All of these additions made the Dalai Lama an increasingly popular figure As Bentz (2012: 299-300) concludes, whilst the Dalai Lama has naturally inherited the incarnation of Bodhisatvva, ‘charismatic authority is a matter of choice, not of fate’. Thus, the Dalai Lama as a charismatic figure has strengthened the support for the Tibetan cause, much to the dismay of the Chinese.

How legitimate are these arguments in practise?

The analysis above has given support and evidence for the overall argument that the Dalai Lama is a threat to China and its sovereignty as a nation. However, in a number of ways, it can equally be argued that the Dalai Lama as a threat to Chinese sovereignty is ultimately a limited one. For the remainder of this essay, analysis will focus on analysing the counter-arguments to this line of analysis, bringing this essay to a conclusion.

China has a long-standing legal, political and religious system which restricts religion when the state wishes to do so. As Wellens (2009: 444) points out, the integration of central policy on religion in China limits freedom of religious beliefs for minority religions ‘by reducing the discretion local authorities might enjoy in implementing a vague and general law’. This is especially seen with the Buddhist Tibetans and Muslim Uyghur’s (Wellens, 2009: 454), which ‘both experience severe limitations in their religious practise because China advocates a linkage between religion and ethnic separatism’. Crowe (2013: 1128) points out that the same treatment is enforced for ‘anyone or group in China which crosses those invisible yet well drawn “lines in the sand” that, if violated, will bring them face-to-face with a police state mechanism’. The fact that Tibet has not received the genuine autonomy or any democratic form of government that the Dalai Lama advocates, despite the international support of the Dalai Lama, shows how effective the Chinese system is. As Crowe (2013:1129) adds, ‘None of these governing ideals bode well for Tibetans throughout China, who face the powerful strains of sinicization that has already changed the face on much of the rest of China’. Thus, ‘periodic diplomatic protests seem to have little impact on a political system wedded to maintaining power at all costs’ (Crowe, 2013: 1129).

The Dalai Lama’s international support is undermined by the rise in power of China as a nation. China is gaining increasing importance in the global economy, which means that it can afford to test the boundaries of its weight in the international arena. As Crowe (2013: 1128) points out, ‘China is emerging as a major economic and military force in the world, and its leaders now comfortably brush aside human rights issues by reminding international leaders that it resents attempts by any country to involve itself in Chinese domestic issues’. China remains an attractive market for Western companies and governments which means they may not want to risk such relations and may be more inclined to listen to China when the government ‘strongly advises governments not to correspond with the Dalai Lama otherwise they may sabotage good relations with China’ (Donnet, 1994: 197). This is exemplified by Otero (2010: 1) who notes that: ‘the news of Tibetan occupation may have created international interest on the topic, but no political intervention took place due to the fact that China is a powerful country, and most countries are not willing to break economic ties because of an issue that does not directly affect them’.

Furthermore, as an international and charismatic figure, the Dalai Lama is moving back and forth, presenting himself both nationally and internationally (Bentz, 2012: 288). Bentz (ref) argues that, ‘there is evidently a potential contradiction between these two sides of the symbol, which may lead to a number of tensions regarding the kind of symbol that the Dalai Lama is ultimately seen as embodying’. This has led Bentz (2012: 296) to conclude that ‘the Dalai Lama’s increasing symbolic importance was obviously deemed beneficial to the cause of Tibet, but there were drawbacks as well: if or when the symbol was misused, the Dalai Lama’s image but also subsequently the image of Tibet would be affected in the eyes of the world.

Finally, the issue of democracy in China is regularly questioned and considered as China strives to strengthen its global position. Crowe (2013: 1130) contends that the fate of Tibetans in China today is now closely linked to the forces of democratization in China, in which the hope is that as China becomes a more truly open, democratic state, the Tibetans will begin to enjoy the autonomy they have sought for so long. Yet China seems far from this goal, if democracy is the goal for China at all. A democratic form of government may or may not be a future scenario for China, but if Tibet and the Dalai Lama rely on this for Tibet to achieve genuine autonomy, then this goal may be even further away than Tibet and the Dalai Lama anticipate.

To conclude, this essay has analysed the extent to which the Dalai Lama is a threat to China. It has sectioned the essay into two parts, which has provided analysis of both sides of the argument. The first half of this essay contends that the Dalai Lama has an important place in Tibet because he encompasses both political and religious leadership for Tibetans. The Dalai Lama, as Bentz (2012: 287) puts it, ‘encompasses everything Tibetan to the Tibetan people’. This threatens not only China’s political system; but it defies China’s well-established religious system of secularism (Veer, 2012: 726). Furthermore, the Dalai Lama’s territorial politics and historical important to the region of Tibet ignites the threat of Chinese losing its grip on its own territory and the unification of its nation, as well as exploring the possibility of inspiring other secular movements to revolt against the central government. The latter half of this essay has provided analysis which questions the extent to which the Dalai Lama is a threat to China and its sovereignty. It has contended that despite the Dalai Lama having such a long-standing and powerful symbol within the Tibetan community as well as gaining such international support, Tibet ‘does not seem to have made any real progress in the past 50 years’ (Bentz, 2012: 288). However, the mere fact that China perceives the Dalai Lama as a threat in at least the six ways analysed, whether this has much clout in reality, supports the argument that China sees the Dalai Lama as a threat to China and its sovereignty.


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Levenson, C. B., 1993. ‘La longue marche du Dalaï-Lama’, in O. Moulin (ed.) Tibet, l’Envers du Décoŕ. Geneva. Editions Olizane, cited in: Bentz, A-S., 2012. Symbol and power: The Dalai Lama as a charismatic leader. Nations and Nationalism.[Peer-Reviewed Journal] 19(2) pp.287-305 Available through: <; [Accessed 29 April 2015].

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Veer, P V-D., 2012. Religion, Secularism and National Development in India and China. Third World Quarterly. [Peer-Reviewed Journal] 33(4) pp.721-734 Available through: Loughborough University Library Website: <> [Accessed 5 May 2-15].

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One thought on “China – To what extent is the Dalai Lama a threat to China? (2)

  1. Excellent analysis. The essay is very well researched, well written, very well referenced, and demonstrates remarkable understanding of the case study and excellent critical thinking.

    In terms of what to improve, apart from a few typos and minor errors in punctuation, sometimes the argument could be developed and brought ought even more sharply and explicitly. The essay makes many points well and quickly, but in the rush to move ahead sometimes claims can be a little underdeveloped or could be explained a little more clearly. Moreover, it might have been interesting to reflect on sinicization a little bit further, as that is clearly a policy used by the Chinese government to counter the threat posed by Tibetan separatism.

    Nonetheless, this remains a very good, thoroughly researched and well argued essay which answers the question well.


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