March 21, 2011

Wagging the Chinese dog

The Dalai Lama may have commenced a process to sink authoritarian China, analyses N.V.Subramanian.

14 March 2011: The Dalai Lama's decision to transfer his political leadership of Tibetans to an elected government-in-exile here may become an unintended case of a tail wagging the dog, with likely monumental consequences for China.

It is true that the Dalai Lama has conveyed his determination to shed his political role on the anniversary of the 2008 unrest in Tibet.

But it is sagaciously also timed amidst the Middle East and North Africa risings and during/ after the annual session of China's National People's Congress (NPC), where divisions in the ruling hierarchy glaringly are evident.

Rationalizing his decision for an elected Tibetan leadership, the Dalai Lama penned a brilliant and astonishingly candid note, in which one phrase stands out: that the "time of one person's rule is over".

He was poking one finger at himself. But the remaining were thrust towards the Chinese. They better beware.

The present Chinese leadership will make way for a next-generation regime in 2012. The presumptive 2012 leadership has less international exposure than Hu Jintao, the president, or Wen Jiabao, the premier.

It would also not have been chosen by the last of China's great revolutionary leaders, Deng Xiaoping, to gain natural legitimacy.

The apprehension is that the 2012 regime will get more closely aligned with PLA hardline than the present leadership did ever.

For the current fear and distress which China has generated in its neighbourhood and the distrust produced in India, Hu and Wen cannot escape blame.

But it seems increasingly the case that the present leadership is not comfortable with the hardline of the PLA or of a section of the ruling party. It believes the hardline will hamper China's growth but more important prevent its stabilization.

Runaway growth has spurted inflation and magnified inequality of which at least Wen never passes up an opportunity to speak.

Despite criticism, Wen has repeated at the conclusion of the NPC session that political reforms have to match economic growth or that will choke.

China prided on "learning" from the Soviet collapse not to privilege glasnost over perestroika. But Wen wants it. He has followed the party line to reject multi-party democracy without appearing entirely convinced.

Here's where the Dalai Lama's decision to demit political office carries real significance with its wag-the-tail potential.

A genuinely elected leadership for Tibetans will produce tremors within China, however much the Chinese leadership tries to suppress them.

This is not a change happening in distant Tunisia or Egypt or Libya but, in a virtual sense, in one greater Tibetan province within China.

A Tibetan tail, so to speak, will concentrate intelligence, initiative and power to wag the Chinese dog to a point of weakening and unraveling central rule. After that, a Soviet-like collapse cannot be overruled.

It is not possible to give timelines for this. But this would the larger consequence of the Dalai Lama stepping aside for an elected leadership.

To be sure, China will fight back with bloody repression in Tibet. Simultaneously, PLA control of China's political affairs will increase after 2012 leading to build-up of dissent within the country.

But authoritarian control cannot keep the lid on this forever.

Perhaps the Dalai Lama foresees this. Perhaps he doesn't. World attention is focused on how the Dalai Lama is trying to insulate the Tibetan diaspora from Chinese machinations after him.

But he has set in motion processes which will in time frontally assault China's one-party dictatorship.

N.V.Subramanian is Editor,, and writes internationally on strategic affairs. He has authored two novels, University of Love (Writers Workshop, Calcutta) and Courtesan of Storms (Har-Anand, Delhi). Email:

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