While most believe China is a relatively stable country, the pace at which recent labour protests gripped international media attention is noteworthy. Watchdogs have long warned of gross mistreatment of workers in China, at both state-owned and private factories. But the media had by and large failed to report on the matter until two incidents earlier this year: strikes at the carmaker Honda’s plants in China, followed by suicides at Taiwanese companies that make iPods for Apple. Although journalists are now writing about Chinese workers, there is much to undo in the long framing of China – despite the contradictions inherent in the ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ model – as the ultimate destination for manufacturers.
Something similar happened with the 2009 demonstrations inside Tibet, which saw the most widespread airing of anger in decades, followed by the largest show of military might on the plateau since the ‘liberation’ of the area in 1950. While large-scale protests continue to occur every decade or so (and Tibetans do not manufacture iPods on overtime), there has been little analysis of why such demonstrations occur on a regular basis. Some say political freedom or democracy, others cite economic inequality, while some others attribute the ongoing discontent to the denial of religious freedoms. In his biography, Arjia Rinpoche emphasises the importance of thinking that Chinese and Tibetans are indeed facing the same predicament. As such, he says, it is important to ‘free China, before freeing Tibet.’
That is easier said than done, however. In June, during a speech to the Tibetan community in Minneapolis, he seemed quite pessimistic about the pace of change with regards to Beijing’s policies, thanks to the rigidity of the Chinese system. Still, change is not to be ruled out entirely, particularly under certain scenarios. By some counts China is extremely unstable, particularly if one considers that the country experiences, by some counts, an estimated 80,000 protests every year. ‘What if even half of those protests happen in one place, in one day?’ he asked.
Rinpoche, who fled Tibet in February 1998, has a unique story to tell. That tale includes his birth to nomadic parents, his recognition as the reincarnation of the Seventh Arjia Rinpoche (one of Tibet’s leading monks) in 1952 when he was just two, the takeover of Tibet by Chinese forces, his life in Kumbum (in Amdo) during the Cultural Revolution, his meteoric rise through the higher echelons of Beijing’s power circles and, finally, his escape into exile. Perhaps the most important element of Rinpoche’s story is how he narrates his ringside account of one of the most important events in the history of modern Tibet, the controversial reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama, the second highest-ranking monk in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy. The details of the event, normally reserved only for the coterie of high-ranking lamas, add much colour to his narrative.
On 29 November 1995, Rinpoche was asked to attend the official (read: organised by Tibetan Autonomous Region officials) selection ceremony for the Panchen Lama inside Lhasa’s Potala Palace. He recalls how the top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and several lamas sat in the front row at the ceremony, as the monks performed the Golden Urn Ceremony inside the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred of Tibetan temples. According to tradition, the names of the ‘finalists’ were put in a large golden bowl, from which the winner is picked. Rinpoche goes on to describe how, incredibly, the selection of Gyantsen Norbu as the new Panchen Lama was faked by the Chinese authorities.
A few days after the ceremony, Rinpoche boarded a plane to Beijing with government officials, during which the latter recounted with much satisfaction the process that led to the historic event. Rinpoche says he witnessed, in what amounted to a Freudian slip, China’s top leader on religious matters, Yeh Xiaowen, say how the government had manipulated the entire process of the reincarnation. ‘When we made our selection we left nothing to chance,’ Rinpoche says that Yeh said aloud. ‘In the silk pouches of the ivory pieces we put a bit of cotton at the bottom of one of them, so it would be a little higher than the others and the right candidate would be chosen.’ Rinpoche continues, recounting his own explanation: ‘We were dumbfounded! Certainly we had had our suspicions, but we never expected proof that the process was completely rigged.’
China’s atheistic government’s intense interest in religious matters (albeit not in relation to Tibet) has long attracted much commentary. Slavoz Zizek, the noted Slovenian philosopher, once wrote that what Beijing wants to do is to use Buddhism to ‘promote social harmony to curb the excess of social disintegration caused by the capitalist explosion.’ It is not without reason that Yeh Xiaowen had earlier told China’s state-sponsored media that ‘religion is one of the important sources from which the government draws strength.’
To put this into context, many Tibet observers were surprised last year when Beijing announced Order Number Five, a law that governs the process of finding reincarnations of deceased lamas, including in Tibet. According to Zizek, this is China’s attempt to ‘prohibit Buddhist monks from returning from the dead without the government permission.’ In other words, what the Chinese government is interested in is using Buddhism to promote social harmony while at the same time curbing political power of the religion, a system that might as well be termed ‘religion with Chinese characteristics’ for the entire country.
Even though he held a very high position in the echelons of the CCP leadership, Rinpoche had to toe the government’s line on all matters. He rose quickly in the echelons of the Chinese leadership, perhaps because of his Mongolian ancestry, which some had surmised might make him less sympathetic to the Tibetans (Mongolians practice Tibetan Buddhism, though of course belong to a different ethnic group). In addition, as the head of the Kumbum Monastery, one of the largest Tibetan monasteries, he was, if tradition is an indication, one of the highest-ranking Tibetan lamas inside Tibet, and thus certainly a force to be not only reckoned with but harnessed to CCP’s advantage in its rule over Tibet.
But in the end, he said, he could not violate his inner conscience – including a final straw that triggered his decision to flee into exile. That turned out to be the Chinese government’s ‘invitation’ that he begin to tutor Gyantsen Norbu, the surrogate incarnation of the Panchen Lama. Becoming the tutor of this Panchen Lama would certainly risk earning the wrath of the majority of the Tibetans who are loyal to the one recognised by the Dalai Lama.
In leaving, however, he would be giving up a very high stature. At the time that he left China, Rinpoche held a total of five major positions. These included deputy chairman of the Buddhist Association of China, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (NCCPPCC), deputy chairman of the All-China Youth Federation, chairman of the Qinghai Buddhist Association of China, deputy chairman of the Qinghai Provincial Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and dean of the Tibetan Buddhist College of Qinghai province. (Qinghai is located in the northeastern part of the Tibetan plateau, where roughly a fifth of the population is Tibetan.) ‘Resigning from my administrative positions was impossible,’ he writes. ‘It would only lead to endless harassment until I changed my decision, or until they simply reappointed me over my objections. Escape began to look like the only possible solution.’ Eventually, he flew from Beijing to Guatemala, which did not have a Chinese embassy, and thus was granted a visa on arrival. Two months later, he went on to New York, dressed as a civilian.
When Rinpoche first arrived in exile he met with the Dalai Lama, who told him to make contact with the Chinese leadership, hoping that the well-connected incarnate might be able to ‘facilitate a dialogue’ between the two sides. After some thought, Rinpoche wrote to officials with the Chinese United Front Department (which generally deals with the Tibetan government-in-exile) and also to President Jiang Zemin. Both wrote back, but Jiang sent a poem in response, which included the line, ‘Awaken to your homeland where you belong.’ The poem ‘was a touching reminder of Kumbum [monastery] – its beauty and the depth of its connection to all the past Arjia Rinpoches,’ writes the author. ‘But I also felt the poem’s ominous undertone. I had acceded to the request by the Dalai Lama. I had also effectively cut my ties with the dragon.’
Rinpoche is a good storyteller with a keen sense of humour. He says writing the memoir has long been an ambition of his, particularly in order to tell his tale to the younger generation of Tibetans, to better understand Tibet’s recent past. But in fact, when Arjia Rinpoche stresses that change must also come from within China, he is offering insight for all. His statement that Chinese people must liberate themselves from their own ‘dragon’ does not seem entirely misplaced.
~ Tsering Namgyal is pursuing his graduate work at the University of Minnesota in the US.