In a strong gesture of support for religious freedoms in Tibet, the US Senate has stepped in to affirm the right of the Tibetan people to choose the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama for themselves.

The resolution, which passed on April 25, commemorates “the 59th anniversary of Tibet’s 1959 uprising as ‘Tibetan Rights Day’” on March 10. It also marks “the 10th anniversary of a series of protests in Lhasa, which spread across Tibet, and which were suppressed by Chinese forces,” and notes the horrifying statistic that “since the 2008 protests, at least 152 Tibetans in Tibet are known to have self-immolated” in a desperate act of defiance against the status quo.

At the center of the bill’s intent, however, is a defense of Tibetan Buddhists’ right to choose tulkus, the reincarnations of spiritual leaders, whose selection process is supposed to proceed on religious, not political, lines. The bill states that the Senate “expresses its sense that the identification and installation of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders, including a future 15th Dalai Lama, is a matter that should be determined solely within the Tibetan Buddhist faith community, in accordance with the inalienable right to religious freedom.”

“This bill confirms that the decades-long support that the US Congress has provided to the Tibetan people is as strong as ever, and this is something the Chinese government will have to keep clearly in mind if they really decide to act and select the next Dalai Lama and to continue to interfere with religious freedom and basic human rights in Tibet,” Matteo Mecacci, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, told Tricycle. As examples of former acts of Congress on Tibet of particular importance to Tibetans, Mecacci named The Tibetan Policy Act, passed unanimously by Congress in 2002 and signed into law by George W. Bush, that binds the US government to take certain actions in support of the Tibetan people, as well as the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama in 2007. Both bills had broad bipartisan support.

Attempts to interfere in the selection of lamas inside and outside of Tibet by the Chinese government go back decades. In 1932, the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, made a prescient prediction that warned against the Chinese Communist revolutionaries. “Already they have consumed much of Mongolia, where they have outlawed the search for the reincarnation of Jetsun Dampa, the incarnate head of the country. They have robbed and destroyed monasteries, forcing the monks to join their armies or else killing them outright. They have destroyed religion wherever they’ve encountered it,” he said.

Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, China has perpetrated an increasingly brutal takeover of Tibetan life that has culminated in decades of totalitarian rule and egregious human rights abuses. And the institution of the tulku has not been spared.

“China has been stage-managing the selection of reincarnated lamas for some time,” notes Greg Bruno, author of Blessings From Beijing: Inside China’s Soft-Power War on Tibet. “There have been around 870 tulkus that China has officially approved. The irony, of course, is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is atheist. Religions are protected under the constitution, but the CCP’s attitude seems to be,  ‘If we protect them, we’ll do so to benefit the party, not the believer.’”

The most notorious story of China’s “reincarnation management” is the kidnapping of the Panchen Lama at the age of 6. In 1991 the party for the first time issued a directive that said reincarnation is allowed, but the process has to follow strict controls. In 1995 the Dalai Lama identified the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama, “a very senior, important figure in the Gelug tradition,” explains Bruno, who spent years living with Tibetans in exile. “These two lamas have traditionally played a role in the identification of the other. What the Chinese essentially did by kidnapping the Dalai Lama’s candidate and then installing their own was to give China a role in identifying the next Dalai Lama. The question is: what’s become of the legitimate Panchen? He was arrested when he was 6; he is now 29 years old. Sources continue to suggest he’s still alive and well.”

(The Dalai Lama recently said that the Panchen Lama is alive and having a normal education.)

With the Tibetan-chosen Panchen Lama under wraps and a Chinese one in his place, Beijing appears to be preparing for an act of bold political theater upon the current Dalai Lama’s death: a replacement chosen by the Chinese in an attempt to complete their remaking of Tibet within the belly of the Chinese whale.

China’s efforts to disempower Tibetans extends beyond the attempts to control tulkus and reaches past the borders of Tibetan territories in China. The stage-managing of reincarnations is just one branch of what Bruno calls China’s “soft power war,” a campaign that includes espionage, cyber-surveillance, propaganda, international bullying, and tight control over Tibetan activities in China, but increasingly Tibetans in exile as well. According to Blessings from Beijing, for years members of the Tibetan government have assumed, with good reason, that all of their communications are tracked by China; the Tibetan exile community in India is inundated with Chinese spies, who have allegedly attempted to collect DNA samples from the Dalai Lama’s hairs and pass them back to the Chinese government so they can analyze his health.

China’s efforts have paid dividends both in weakening external pressure to respect Tibetan culture and human rights and in raising doubts within the Tibetan community itself about the Dalai Lama’s moderate nonviolent approach, one Beijing has consistently refused to work constructively with. Meanwhile, the situation in the Tibetan region remains dire. Freedom House’s latest index ranked Tibet the second-least free region in the world, slightly freer than Syria but less free than North Korea. China made international headlines last year when it arrested Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan activist, for having the temerity to suggest China follow its own laws and support Tibetan language education.

In this context, the US Senate bill is bound to come as a significant encouragement in an era where the Tibetan struggle has largely disappeared from media coverage.

“It’s relevant from the Tibetan perspective because it keeps the issue alive,” Bruno said. “The resolution keeps it in the public consciousness, and that’s something that has been diminishing over the years. Simply to have a bipartisan resolution that not only recognizes their religious rights but also the right to choose the 15th Dalai Lama suggests that the American people will not stop supporting Tibetans even after the current Dalai Lama is gone.”

As for the Dalai Lama himself, he has indicated that he may not reincarnate at all in a possible bid to prevent China from taking over the Tibetan leadership through a lama surrogate after his death. It may also be a reflection of his well-known preference for democratic and socialist forms of government, a preference reflected in his retirement and call for free elections in 2011. The decision not to reincarnate has drawn many critics, not least of which is China itself. “I believe that the tradition will be maintained [and] the Dalai Lama will be reincarnated,” Jia Xiudong, senior research fellow at the China Institute of international studies in Beijingtold the BBC in 2017, in a comment that likely reflects Chinese state opinion. “There’s a role for the current Dalai Lama to play for the reincarnation, but I believe he should not exaggerate that role. For example, he just cannot stop the tradition individually.”

Not reincarnating at all is only one of the options the Dalai Lama has suggested, however; reincarnating outside Tibet and reincarnating as a woman are also possibilities he has considered publicly (see here, here and here). Both options can be seen as moves that might disempower China’s straightforward manipulation of the office, making it harder to get their hands on the child in the former case and creating a Dalai Lama radically outside the traditional limits of the power structure in the latter. (The mainstream Tibetan orders have very rarely recognized female tulkus, and when recognized, they have never risen to a position of great power.)

The Dalai Lama’s stalwart commitment to peaceful tactics has played a key role in preventing one of the last major nonviolent movements in the world from degenerating into bloodshed. With his passing, it is possible that younger Tibetans who have felt constrained from choosing open warfare will no longer feel held back from taking up arms. China appears to be relying on the apparatus of its police state and the hope it can control Tibetans through Chinese-controlled lama mediators. The latest American resolution seems to signal that Congress believes a greater hope for the stability of Tibetan politics lies in allowing them religious freedom.

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