China Continues 'Test Policy' on Tibet

Despite official denials, new details from Tibet confirm that authorities have allowed Buddhist monks in at least some areas of both Qinghai and Sichuan province to venerate the religious leader the Dalai Lama in what appears to be a pilot-test of policy adjustments at the grassroots level.

Citing sources inside Tibet, one well-placed monk based in the US said local authorities have invited administrative heads from several monasteries in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (海南藏族自治州) - called Tsolho by Tibetans - to meetings in which officials have told them they can now display the pictures and venerate the Tibetan spiritual leader.

"We have heard that there have been changes in Hainan Prefecture where monks are asked to come to meetings," he said. One source contacted by Asia Sentinel near Labrang in Gansu also said that he had seen the discussions of such changes on WeChat, a popular phone messaging system but said he had witnessed no specific changes in his area.

The news of easing Chinese policy towards religious practice spread following the publication of Asia Sentinel's story based on a Tibetan language website which had reported on a meeting at China's Tibetan-populated Qinghai province where a new "test" policy aimed at easing religious practice was discussed.

Qinghai's Hainan Prefecture, with nearly 70 monasteries and nearly 235,000 ethnic Tibetan citizens, has experienced self-immolations as well as large-scale student protests especially over bilingual education aimed at making Mandarin the predominant medium of instruction.

Robbie Barnett, director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University in NY, said reports "suggest that there have been proposals to test potential policies in certain localities in Qinghai, and possibly some local tests have started there and perhaps in some localities in Sichuan too."

The consensus view among analysts is that since this is a grass-roots level policy change claims of major policy change in Beijing or even at the provincial level are mistaken. Hence, Beijing's denial of the local adjustments as a "policy change" as reported in some mainstream media are not surprising and to be expected, they believe.

"This is a localized way of experimenting and testing the situation (on the ground)," concurred Tsering Shakya, a professor of Tibetan studies at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada.

Although the purported policy experiments are all unofficial and local, Barnett said: "Almost all policies are preceded by a series of pilot tests, usually three, in appropriate areas at a local level. A policy change would depend on the results of those tests."

At this point, analysts believe the calibrations seem to only apply to the specific attitude towards the Dalai Lama and returning to conditions to pre-2008 situation when major protests rocked Tibetan areas in Qinghai and Sichuan in the run up to the Olympics as a result of rigid policies.

Indicating the localized nature of the experiments is the situation in the Tibetan Administrative Region (TAR) which continues to remain unchanged and where the rhetoric towards the Dalai Lama remains as hardline as before. Meanwhile, reports which had earlier said monks in Lhasa's Ganden monastery, one of the largest and most prestigious Tibetan universities, have been allowed to display the pictures of the Dalai Lama remain unconfirmed.

China had been severely criticized for its hard-line Tibet policy following the wave of self-immolations, which have occurred in the Tibetan plateau since 2009. Since the Tibetan conundrum is seen as a major blemish in China's image, the new leadership headed by Xi Jinping might be interested in softening its policy towards Tibet for its own sake, some analysts said.

"That would be important because it would show that smarter, more pragmatic leaders are now in position in Beijing, and that they are willing to try something constructive to slow down the wave of immolations," Barnett said.

Yet specialists said that these are expected to be quiet and unnoticed and reading them as a policy change from Beijing risks gross oversimplification and, at worst, might even hinder or even cancel whatever changes that might be on the horizon.

"Perhaps it can be said there is no change in overarching policy but that the rules are becoming more flexible, (政策变但是措施灵活, zheng ce bu bian, dan cuo shih ling huo)," said one long-time Tibetan observer with a deep knowledge inside Tibet.

The reports of changes on the ground came as US ambassador Gary Locke visited Lhasa earlier last week.

The article - based on a meeting note published in the Tibetan language website khabda.org - reported that during the June 14 official meeting a political educator had told a meeting in Qinghai that monastics would no longer be forced to besmirch the Tibetan spiritual leader and refer him by the "the wolf in a monk's robe" moniker often used by Beijing and they be allowed to venerate him from a religious point of view.

There would be no more repression, the educator went on, in the monasteries through forceful patriotic education and others, and acknowledged the 'autonomy' of monasteries. A "document" to that effect, the report said, is expected to be distributed in schools and villages from August and its contents implemented. Experts do not foresee any specific policy announcements in August, nor has anyone seen the document.

Meanwhile, reports of a relaxation in certain Tibetan areas does not seem to have any direct connection, experts said, with the statement by Jin Wei, a director of ethnic and religious affairs at the Central Party School at Beijing think tank Central Party School, who told Hong Kong-based Asia Weekly magazine to rethink China's Tibet policy.

In an interview with the Hong Kong magazine Asia Weekly she suggested restarting the long-stalled talks with the Dalai Lama's envoys and proposed that the Nobel peace laureate might even be invited onto Chinese soil, Hong Kong and Macau as well discussing the issue of reincarnation with the Dalai Lama himself.

"The Beijing debate so far is focused more on the question of talks with the Dalai Lama, not on adjustments to grassroots-level practices in Tibetan areas," one analyst said.

Since 2009, as many as 119 Tibetans living under China's rule have set themselves on fire demanding freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama from exile. 102 of the self-immolators died while the condition of more than 10 remains unknown.

While the deaths of innocent Tibetans have radicalized some segments of the Tibetan community, the Dalai Lama, who turns 78 next week, has continued to promote the Middle Way policy - which seeks a peaceful co-existence under the Chinese constitutional framework - as the best way forward for Tibet.

(Tsering Namgyal is a journalist and writer currently based in New York and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.)