As resentment against the Communist Party's iron yoke boils over in the Tibetan-inhabited areas of China, Beijing has begun admitting that the Dalai Lama's hold runs deep in these areas.
This is a major policy shift. Since 1959, when the Dalai Lama escaped to political asylum in India, the Communist Party has insisted that the Tibetans are a happy lot. The communist apparatchiks have passed off growing public protests, like the 40 self-immolations by Tibetans in the last four years, as the work of a few malcontents, instigated from "foreign countries" by the "Dalai Clique".
But, with the Communist Party's 18th Party Congress looming, denial is no longer an option. Acknowledging the Dalai Lama's widespread popularity, party bosses in Tibet have slapped harsh restrictions on news, media and communications, ordering that the views of the exiled leaders views must be blocked from reaching Tibetans, particularly those living in rural Tibet.
A fortnight ago, the Communist Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Chen Quanguo, urged officials to "make sure that the Central Party's voices and images can be heard across 120 thousand square kilometres (of Tibet)," and that "no voices and images of enemy forces and Dalai clique can be heard and seen." This call was published in an interview in the Communist Party's official newspaper, Renming Wang on June 27.
Tibetans face tightened controls on internet use, text messages, phone ownership, music publishing, and photocopying. Instead of independent news, Tibetans now get intensified political propaganda in villages, schools, and monasteries, and sharp restrictions on travel into the TAR.
Since March 12, controls have been tightened on travel from other provinces into the TAR. Additional restrictions on travel by foreigners to the TAR were introduced in May 2012 and again in early June.
An authoritative new report from Human Rights Watch traces the Communist Party's shifting stance that acknowledges the Dalai Lama's growing influence, especially in rural Tibet, where 85 per cent of the population lives.
Until 2008, Chinese officials in Lhasa declared that Tibetans hardly supported the Dalai Lama. In 2001 an official survey purportedly found that 86 per cent of Lhasa's residents regarded the "Dalai as a separatist or a politician." Wu Jilie, TAR's deputy governor told foreign journalists, "the Dalai Lama has aroused the distrust and resolute opposition of the vast majority of people here (Reuters, August 20, 2004).
According to Human Rights Watch, TAR's chairman said in 2007 that "the majority of Tibetan people do not want the Dalai Lama to return to the region" and that "his influence is very limited" (Xinhua, June 20, 2007).
The first signs of change date back to 2010, when TAR's governor, Padma Thrinley (Baima Chiling in Chinese) declared, "to say that the Dalai has no influence at all in Tibet is impossible... The Dalai Lama has some influence for sure" (reported in Ifeng News, November 6, 2010). On March 12, Thrinley said, "Let's face the reality: the Dalai Lama and his followers do try to attract young Tibetans, but what we need to do is not to compete with them Instead, the key is to improve people's livelihood... the popularity of the government will depend on its work" (Xinhua, March 7, 2012). He admitted to a Chinese reporter that, "right now, the Dalai is indeed competing with us for the younger generations."
Tibetan anger is simmering not just in TAR, but in the adjoining Tibetan-inhabited areas as well. TAR is merely the western half of the Tibetan plateau, home to half of China's Tibetan population, which is 2.9 million out of 5.7 million officially recognised ethnic Tibetans. The other 2.8 million Tibetans live on the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau, in designated Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures (TAP), and Tibetan Autonomous Counties (TAC) within the four provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan.
Chinese government statements that are directed towards non-Tibetan audiences still pretend there is widespread Tibetan support for China's policies. However, local articles in Tibetan areas increasingly describe the Dalai Lama as having widespread influence.
Since late 2011, official speeches throughout Tibetan areas have referred repeatedly to campaigns directed at "the masses" or "the foundations," rather than primarily at monks and nuns, indicating an attempt to change the thinking of rural Tibetans on a scale not seen since the beginning of the reform era in the 1980s.