Tibetans Begin to Fear That Peking May Never Let Dalai Lama Return

Times Staff Writer

There is a growing realization in Tibet that recent efforts at reconciliation between the Dalai Lama and China have failed and that it is likely that Tibet’s exiled former leader will never return.

In the early 1980s, representatives of the Dalai Lama undertook a series of negotiations with Chinese officials aimed at arranging the Dalai Lama’s first visit to China since 1959. That was the year he fled from Lhasa to India during an unsuccessful Tibetan revolt against China’s Communist regime.

The chance that the Dalai Lama might come home aroused considerable excitement among Tibetans. Two years ago, Western correspondents visiting Qinghai province, formerly a part of Tibet, were besieged with questions about the negotiations.

“When will the Dalai Lama return?” they were asked. “What have you heard?”


Breakdown of Talks

The negotiations broke down when China insisted that the Dalai Lama not only renounce the cause of Tibetan independence but spend most of his stay in China in Peking. He would be allowed to return to Tibet, where he had been spiritual as well as political leader, for only a brief period and under carefully controlled conditions.

On June 11, at a press conference in London, Hu Yaobang, general secretary of China’s Communist Party, said the Dalai Lama can visit Tibet after he spends some time in China. Hu said that “a new generation of leadership has emerged” in Tibet and that as a result, “it would not be desirable or appropriate that the Dalai Lama return to Tibet and give directions without knowing the conditions there.”

In Tibet, the Dalai Lama continues to be revered. Pictures of him are treasured objects. Tibetan children and old people beg foreigners for his picture the way children elsewhere beg for money. And the pictures are displayed virtually everywhere--at temples and monasteries, in homes and markets.


Ba Zhu, a Tibetan who belongs to the Communist Party and is a farmer and deputy leader of a production team about 20 miles from Lhasa, displays a photo of the Dalai Lama next to a picture of Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai, the men who led China in 1959, when the rebellion in Tibet was suppressed.

Apathetic on Return

“In my view, whether the Dalai Lama comes back or not doesn’t matter,” Ba said. He said the Dalai Lama’s picture is on the wall because his wife and sister wanted it there. “According to Tibetan custom,” he said, “some people believe in Buddhism in this family.”

For the time being, an uneasy truce prevails in Tibet. The Chinese government has allowed far more economic and religious freedom in the 1980s than it did in the two decades after the 1959 rebellion was crushed. And signs of overt Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule have declined.


“We get a lot of reports from Tibet about resentment (of the Chinese), but nothing about resistance,” a diplomat in neighboring Nepal said.

China now gives Tibetan exiles in Nepal and India the freedom to visit relatives in Tibet, in many instances letting them travel on passports that list them as “overseas Chinese,” the classification given to ethnic Chinese living abroad.

Some Problems Exist

But despite the improvement, China still confronts serious, long-term problems in Tibet.


Tibet remains among the very poorest areas of China. Infant mortality continues high, and children are noticeably less healthy here than elsewhere in China. Even by official Chinese estimates, the literacy rate is no more than 50%, and by some estimates it is as low as 25%.

Of the 300 counties in China with per capita income of 200 yuan or less a year ($63), 70 are in Tibet. For Tibet’s 2 million people as a whole, per capita income is 352 yuan a year ($110).

In an unusually blunt speech last March, Doje Cering, a Tibetan who has just been elected chairman of Tibet’s regional government, told local officials that they had been “divorced from Tibet’s realities” and had “not truly focused on enriching the masses.”

Development Urged


“Tibet is a poor and backward border, minority-nationality area,” he went on. “No matter what we are doing, we must think of the three words minority, border and poor.” Government officials should try to develop Tibet, he said, but “eating comes first, construction second.”

Doje’s job as head of the government is an important one, but the most powerful official in Tibet is the regional head of the Communist Party. No Tibetan has ever held this post, although 96% of the population of the region is ethnic Tibetan.

There is virtually no industry in Tibet, not even in the principal cities, Lhasa and Xigaze. Trade officials say the main export from the region is still raw wool, just as it has been for decades.

Tibet Seen as Drain


Increasingly, Chinese are coming to look upon Tibet as a drain on the national treasury. “Economically, China is putting a heavy burden on itself,” a Chinese official working in Tibet said, asking not to be further identified. Last year, the Shanghai newspaper World Economic Herald said Tibet “is more dependent than ever before on state subsidies.”

Foreign diplomats estimate that China spends about 800 million yuan a year ($250 million) on subsidies for Tibet, including money for the regional government, food and manufactured goods. By official Chinese estimates, the central government gave 87 billion yuan ($27 billion) in financial aid to Tibet from 1951 to 1985.

A Chinese spokesman said these subsidy figures do not include the cost of stationing troops from the People’s Liberation Army in Tibet. In the early 1980s, it was estimated that China had 250,000 troops in Tibet. The number is probably lower now, because China has demobilized many soldiers nationwide.

Dissidents Arrested


Beyond the economic difficulties, China confronts continuing political problems in governing Tibet. Last month, Tibetan exiles in India reported that about 500 young Tibetans had been arrested in Tibet for dissident activities or for having contacts with political groups in exile. Chinese officials have said only that they made some arrests of people accused of criminal activities.

China’s sensitivity on the subject of Tibet remains especially keen. Government officials have been instructed to refer to the region as “China-Tibet” in all contacts with foreigners, in order to emphasize Chinese sovereignty.

Chinese officials in Tibet would not permit a Times reporter to interview any official in the regional government or Communist Party. Questions submitted in writing were left unanswered, even on such apparently non-controversial subjects as economic development.

Travel Restricted


Foreign diplomats and correspondents were prevented from traveling to Lhasa last September for China’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of Tibet’s incorporation as one of China’s “special autonomous regions.” The travel ban was imposed after authorities in Tibet expressed concern about “public order” during the celebrations and warned about the need to guard against the possible theft of weapons, ammunition, explosives or toxic agents.

It was precisely because of these problems that China had toyed earlier with the idea of bringing back the Dalai Lama. The Chinese regime was seeking some sort of political solution under which the Dalai Lama would have signaled his acceptance of Chinese sovereignty in Tibet. In exchange, he was to have been allowed to return to Tibet at least for a visit and might have been given some formal but limited political role.

China was seeking to work out a visit for the Dalai Lama in 1985, perhaps to coincide with the anniversary last September. But both sides backed off. China apparently grew fearful that even a short visit by the Dalai Lama might spark a resurgence of Tibetan nationalism. And despite his personal desire to return to his homeland, the Dalai Lama heeded the warnings of Tibetan exile groups that he would be giving up too much if he endorsed Chinese rule.

Such details are lost on ordinary Tibetans, who were hoping for the Dalai Lama’s return. They still are.


“Last year, I heard the Dalai Lama would come back,” said a farmer named Changbo Denjin who lives outside Lhasa. “I don’t know why he hasn’t come yet. I never got any information about it.”

Failed Negotiations

But Tibetans who know about the failed negotiations say it is possible that the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who is now 50 years old, may spend the rest of his life in exile. According to the customs of Tibetan Buddhism, whenever a Dalai Lama dies, a search party is dispatched to find his reincarnation in the body of a young child.

Comoingling Dandzin Chilai, a monk who is vice president of the officially sanctioned Tibetan Buddhist Assn., was asked what would happen if the present Dalai Lama were to die in exile. He replied: “This problem has been of great concern to the masses of Buddhists recently. We are discussing this question now and trying to find an appropriate way to solve this problem.”


If the Dalai Lama should die without returning to his homeland, China might refuse to permit or recognize the selection of a successor. Or it might try to influence the choice of a new spiritual leader inside Tibet, perhaps as an alternative to choosing from among Tibetans in exile.

The exiles emphasize that the political future of Tibet does not depend entirely on the Dalai Lama.

“There was a Tibet and Tibetan people before the institution of the Dalai Lama, and there will be in the future, even if there is no Dalai Lama,” said Tenzin Tethong, the Dalai Lama’s representative in New York.

Nevertheless, he said, “It’s very likely that if he should pass away, either in Tibet or in exile, there would be a strong popular expression for the continuation of this institution.”