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In 2018, Buddhist diplomacy Beijing-style promises to become the main weapon to upstage India, the birth place of Buddhism
On New Year’s Eve, President Xi Jinping delivered an 11-minute televised speech to extend his greetings to all Chinese and …friends all over the world.
Xi said that Beijing is dedicated to safeguarding peace. "China will act as a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development and an upholder of the international order."
“Building a community with a shared future for mankind, an important concept of China's diplomacy in the new era, calls for win-win cooperation and turning planet Earth into a harmonious family,” he asserted.
This sounds good, but the ‘Chinese family’ itself is not too harmonious. The increasing repression in Tibet and Xinjiang are reminders of the sad fate of the ‘minorities’ in China.
Will the New Year bring improvements?
Some movements appeared at the end of the year.
In November, the Dalai Lama appointed Prof Samdhong Rinpoche, the former Prime Minister of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and Sikyong Lobsang Sangay (the present head of CTA) as his ‘personal emissary’; later in the month, the Rinpoche secretly visited China. He landed in Yunnan province (where he is born) and then proceeded to Wutaishan, a sacred Buddhist site in Shanxi Province. Mount Wutai is linked with Manjushri and is one of China's most important Buddhist pilgrimages.
For years, it has been the Dalai Lama’s dream to one day visit Wutaishan. It is rumoured that Samdhong had talks with officials of the United Front Work Department who deal with Tibet, for an eventual visit of the Tibetan leader to China (not to Tibet) in 2018.
Is it part of China's ‘diplomacy in the new era’, dear to President Xi?
We should get an answer in 2018.
In the meantime, China’s propaganda is going on full steam about Tibet and …Buddhism. Beijing has been extremely active to ‘sell’ its version of the present situation on the Roof of the World.
On December 19, Xinhua reported that a collection of thangkas, or traditional Tibetan Buddhist scroll paintings, had been put on display for the first time in Israel. The news agency quoted one Kalsang Chi, manager of a Tibetan culture company in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province (China has attached several parts of Tibet to neighbouring Chinese provinces). Kalsang told the Israeli media: “About 100 thangkas are displayed, in the city of Haifa, for three days to show the essence and style of Tibetan thangkas and culture. …It allows the Israeli public to appreciate the unique Chinese art form at close range."
Then, a cultural delegation of scholars in Tibetology as well as ‘Living Buddhas’ visited Sri Lanka from December 14 to 16. They accompanied a photo exhibition on Tibetan culture and held a seminar on Buddhism. According to Chinese sources, it was attended by officials from Sri Lanka’s Buddhism Affairs Department, Sino-Sri Lanka Buddhism Friendship Association and more than 200 local teachers and students.
Zhang Yun, head of the delegation and director of the Institute of History, China Tibetology Research Center, a Chinese himself, stated that China and Sri Lanka have long attached great importance to religious exchanges [sic].
This exchange comes after Sri Lanka signed a 99-year lease of the strategic port of Hambantota with China. The New York Times said: “Struggling to pay its debt to Chinese firms, the nation of Sri Lanka formally handed over, in a deal that government critics have said threatens the country’s sovereignty. …Sri Lankan politicians said the Hambantota deal, valued at $1.1 billion, was necessary to chip away at the debt.”
One of the characteristics of the Chinese foreign policy is that soft and hard diplomacy must go hand-in-hand.
While in the Island, the delegation met local Buddhist monks. “The two sides expected more religious and cultural exchanges,” a communiqué said. The delegation then headed for Myanmar, another strategic country for China.
The ‘Chinese’ Tibetans met with some Myanmar ministers and briefed them about China's policy on ethnic groups as well as the preservation of religion and culture in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).
Zhang Yun told his hosts that “ethnic groups are equal, united, helping each other and enjoying common development and Tibet's development has been supported throughout China, especially after the reform and opening-up in 1978.”
Myanmar Minister of Ethnic Affairs Nai Thet Lwin told the Chinese visitors about Myanmar's policy related to protection of its ethnic groups' rights and interests; of course, not a word about the Rohingyas. The Chinese delegation proceeded to Yangon for a ‘China Tibetan Culture Picture Exhibition’ at the Shwedagon Pagoda.
It is what President Xi calls diplomacy …with Chinese characteristics in the new era.
Two weeks earlier, a delegation of legislators from the TAR paid a four-day tour to Canada. Led by Tenzin Namgyal, vice chairman of TAR's People's Congress, they visited Montreal and Ottawa. They are said to have met Canadian members of Parliament as well as researchers, said an official Chinese communiqué: “The delegation had talks with the Canadian side on topics covering the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as Tibet's economic development, religious and cultural protection, local people's lives and China's preferential policies for Tibet's development.”
Are these delegations able to convince their interlocutors?
It might not be too difficult as most of the officials hosting the delegations belong to ‘friendship’ groups. The same pattern is used elsewhere, in Australia for example, where China has scores of sympathetic ears.
Again according to Chinese media, at a press conference held in Ottawa, the delegation answered questions about Tibet's poverty alleviation efforts, protection and development of traditional cultures and ecological protection of the plateau; all is fine on the Roof of the World!
Already in August, a Chinese Tibetan delegation of China's State Council Information Office paid a two-day visit to Sydney in Australia and later went to New Zealand. Xinhua said that it helped to erase foreign misconceptions toward the region and showcase a true Tibet to the world.
The Global Times quoted Zhaluo, a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who said: “Some in the West have a biased perception of the Tibet Autonomous Region, smear government policy and question Tibet's sovereignty. …Sharing personal experiences of scholars, local officials and religious people could alter Western perception.”
He added that the delegation served as an ambassador of the true Tibet and promotes Tibetan culture: “President Xi Jinping has given high priority to Tibet's stability and development.”
No need to mention Nepal, which appears to become more and more of a Chinese colony. Also in August, an exhibition on Tibetan Embroidery Arts and Crafts “showcased dozens of magnificent art works created by the Chinese artists,” reported Beijing.
In 2018, Buddhist diplomacy with Chinese characteristics will continue to be the main weapon to out-stage India, the birth place of Buddhism.