China's Post-Dalai Lama Endgame

March 2009 will go down as the month in which Tibet entered the countdown for the era after the Dalai Lama.

A month supposed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 'peaceful liberation' of Tibet ended with the region in a virtual state of martial law, with heavily armed troops patrolling the streets and the Dalai Lama denouncing Chinese rule of his homeland as 'hell on earth'.

For his part, China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi warned foreign countries not to allow the Dalai Lama to visit. "They should not let him use their territory to engage in secessionist activities," he told a news conference on March 7.

The growing hostility between the two sides made several points clear. One is that there will be no meaningful negotiations between Beijing and the Dalai Lama and no change in the status of Tibet.

The second is that, despite widespread public support in the west, the exiled Tibetan government will receive no significant help from a major power.

In March, more than 100,000 people, including film stars and several Nobel Peace Prize winners, signed an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, calling for an improvement to the human rights of Tibetans, and Tibetan exiles held demonstrations in capitals around the world. But the reality is that no major government will come to their aid. As the financial crisis worsens, so the economic strength and diplomatic clout of China strengthens. More than ever, the major powers need its capital, investment and access to its market.

Safe in this knowledge, Beijing can treat Tibet as an internal matter. Its policy is, while ruling with an iron fist, to raise living standards to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans. According to official figures published this month, the region's economy has grown at an annual average of at least 12 per cent a year over the past seven years, with a GDP in 2007 of 34.2 billion yuan in 2007. The annual income of urban Tibetans in 2005 was 9,000 yuan, up from 400 in 1979, while those of rural Tibetans rose to 1,200 yuan from 150 over the same period.

It said that, over the past five years, the government had invested 8.22 billion yuan in education in Tibet and provided free medical care to the farmers and shepherds, who account for 80 per cent of the population. The average life expectancy has risen from 35.5 years in the 1950s to 67 now.

Since 1980, the government says it spent more than 700 million yuan on 1,400 monasteries and cultural relics. It said the number of ethnic Tibetans in Tibet doubled from 1.21 million in 1964 to 2.41 million in 2000.

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With the impasse in negotiations, each side is preparing for the post-Dalai Lama era. Beijing intends to pick his successor in accordance with traditional rites -- a young boy in the territories in China occupied by Tibetans. It will then control both the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, the second highest leader in Tibetan Buddhism.

Faced with this, the Dalai Lama said last year that he may appoint a successor himself or have one chosen democratically by the senior Tibetan monks. His most likely choice is to split his political and religious duties: he will remain as a religious leader and give someone else his political functions.

This has become more likely with the deterioration in his health. Last year, he had surgery to remove gallstones removed in a New Delhi hospital, six weeks after spending six days in a Bombay hospital for abdominal pain. He is 73.

The front-runner to succeed him in his political role is Karmapa Lama, 24, the head of Kagyu sect, who ranks third in Tibetan Buddhism. Born in a mountainous area of eastern Tibet, he was recognized as the leader of the Kagyu sect at the age of seven after a joint search by the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama and enthroned on September 27, 1992.

In late December 1999, at the age of 14, he fled Tibet for India, where he lives in Dharamsala and has devoted himself to study and preaching and spoken little about politics. The Dalai Lama holds him in high esteem.

For years, the Indian government banned the Karmapa from going abroad and does not allow him to visit his sect's headquarters in exile in Sikkim. In 2008, he made his first trip to the United States, visiting New York and San Francisco, the first step toward a larger international profile. He speaks Chinese and Tibetan and some English and is a strict vegetarian, and a keen follower of Chinese culture, including religious texts and calligraphy.

In an interview in March, the Karmapa told the BBC's Chinese service that the talks were going nowhere because Beijing did not want to communicate. "We must wait until China is more open and more democratic and then the DL's 'Middle Way' will have an opportunity. I hope to solve the Tibetan problem in a quick and peaceful way and play a role in this."

He said that his decision to flee was his own and was because he found he had no freedom in his own temple or anywhere in Tibet. "I wanted to go to India to study from teachers but my application to leave China was repeatedly denied. I feared that, when I was 18, I would be appointed a vice chairman of the NPC or CPPCC and forced to criticize the Dalai Lama. Every Tibetan wants to return home one day. I am very hopeful of that day."

While Beijing was enraged at his escape to India, it considers him a better interlocutor than the Dalai Lama. He is a man who grew up under Chinese rule and understands intimately the Chinese position. He does not have the historical responsibility of the Dalai Lama, who led his people into exile in 1959. On his slender shoulders may rest the future of his homeland.