The bombshell claim, which could signal that in the early years of his term Xi was open to the most radical shift in China’s Tibet policy in decades, was made during an interview for a book by Indian journalist Sonia Singh, an executive at the Delhi-based television channel NDTV.
The Dalai Lama appeared to let the detail slip casually in the November 2018 interview, according to an audio recording the Observer has heard.
“I have a brief meeting with prime minister Narendra Modi, [and] when Xi Jinping came to Delhi, I also wanted a meeting with him,” he said. “So I already have some connection, some contact directly through my friend. So Xi Jinping agreed, but the Indian government … was a little cautious.”
“That would have been a landmark meeting if it had happened,” Singh replied. The Dalai Lama appears to agree before the talking moves on.
The stray remark might have been attributed to a misunderstanding or the use of imprecise language by the Dalai Lama, 83, who speaks English fluently but with a heavy accent. But Singh says she sent the transcript of the interview to his office for approval, and received no objections.
Nor has Tibet’s government-in-exile, based in the Indian Himalayan city of Dharamshala, issued a denial or any other comment since Singh’s book, Defining India: Through Their Eyes, was released in Delhi last week.
China’s ministry of foreign affairs said in a statement sent to the Guardianthat the claim was “sheer nonsense”. “With regards to the 14th Dalai Lama, our policy has been consistent and clear,” the statement said.
The 14th incarnation, born Tenzin Gyatso, has lived in India since fleeing the province in 1959 after a failed uprising.
The Dalai Lama does not advocate independence for Tibet but more autonomy for the region. Yet successive Chinese leaders have portrayed him as a dangerous “splittist” and “wolf in monk’s robes”, and sought to prop up alternative Buddhist leaders. The officially atheist Chinese Communist party says it has the right to approve his successor.
China claims it “liberated” the far west region in 1950, overturning feudal practices and bringing the remote region into the modern era. Activists and rights advocates say Tibetans face cultural and religious repression – as Beijing has launched a harsh, years-long campaign to stifle dissent, namely self-immolations by protesting Buddhist monks. Beijing says Tibetans are free to practise their own religion and culture.
The Dalai Lama’s exile in India has been a persistent source of discord – and, for Delhi, leverage – in the relations between Asia’s two rising powers. “If it’s correct, it’s a very major development,” said Robbie Barnett, former director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Programme at Columbia University. “I’ve never seen any suggestion of a [Chinese official] meeting with the Dalai Lama, let alone at this level.
“It would completely overturn [Beijing’s] standard working method for dealing with Tibet, which since 1994 has been to insult the Dalai Lama literally at every opportunity, while also holding talks with his representatives, which have also mainly turned into attacking the Dalai Lama.”
A handful of academics and policy advisers had written articles after Xi came to power in 2012 urging a relaxing of the hardline Tibet policy of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, Barnett added. “But we never saw any sign or rumour that they were successful. This is the only indication that there might have been a possibility of a major rethink.”
Amitabh Mathur, a high-ranking former Indian intelligence official who served as an adviser to the government on Tibetan affairs between 2015 and 2018, said he had heard that the Dalai Lama had lobbied for a meeting with Xi during his first visit to India five years ago, but was not aware if the offer had been accepted or if India had scuttled it. Delhi would have had reason to object to the meeting, he added.
“I think it is a bit much to ask of the Indian government, which had recently been elected and had the Chinese premier visiting for the first time,” Mathur said. “It is a bit much to ask to take the focus away completely from what was a bilateral visit.”
Rather than signalling a shift in policy, agreeing to the meeting may have been part of a long-term Chinese campaign to exploit points of tension in the relationship between Delhi and the Tibetan leader, he said. They might have accepted the invitation knowing India would be likely to veto it.
“The Chinese would certainly like to drive a wedge between His Holiness and the government of India,” said Mathur. The Narendra Modi government in its first years was seen to be willing to risk Chinese opprobrium by playing the “Tibet card”, said Manoj Joshi, a fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. Modi invited senior Tibetan leaders to his inauguration and sent ministers to receive the Dalai Lama at events.
However, the situation had changed by the time the Dalai Lama gave his interview last year, amid a push by Indian diplomats to improve relations with Beijing.
Senior Indian officials have been asked to keep their distance from events surrounding the 60th anniversary of Tibet’s abortive uprising against Chinese rule this year. “A certain coolness has crept in,” Joshi said.
Barnett said that in revealing the meeting plans, it was possible the Dalai Lama had been sending a message to those in his movement who dismissed his strategy of trying to engage with Xi’s administration. Equally, the spiritual leader may have just unintentionally said too much.
Since 2014, China under Xi has maintained its repressive policies towards Tibet. In a white paper released in March 2019, the government excluded a reference found in earlier policy documents to being open to engaging with the Dalai Lama.
The fact the Dalai Lama’s office allowed the release of the information also suggested the window for meeting had closed, said Barnett. “It does suggest they’ve given up any hope that it could happen again.”
For Xi, who launched his belt and road initiative in late 2013, agreeing to such a meeting could have had diplomatic benefits.
“The main thing the Chinese would gain from it is soft power from the world because the Dalai Lama is seen as a person of peace and the world sees china as oppressing people,” said Adrian Zenz, who focuses on ethnic policies in China, in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Although India hosts the Dalai Lama, it has not been outspoken about oppression in India. Last year, authorities banned Tibetans from marking the 60th anniversary of the failed uprising against Chinese rule.
“They don’t want to rock the boat,” he said. “[India] tends to favour relations with China, at least over Tibetan issues in general,” said Zenz.