China’s 20th Party Congress and the Tibetans

As the Chinese Communist Party prepares to begin its 20th National Congress on Oct. 16, 2022, I must note that China has not been able to come up with a credible Tibetan leader since 2014 when Bapa Phuntsog Wangyal Goranangpa, the last such individual, passed away.

The 10th Panchen Lama, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme and Bapa Phuntsog Wangyal were three Tibetans who enjoyed some sort of pan-Tibetan acceptance after the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the post-1959 period. All three of them were met by the first fact-finding delegation that the H.H. the Dalai Lama sent to China and Tibet in 1979 (see photo), and separately by other visiting Tibetan leaders from exile. In a way, the Chinese authorities tried to use them as their vehicle to seek control over the Tibetan people.

Members of the first fact-finding delegation sent by the Dalai Lama with the three Tibetan leaders in Beijing in 1979. Standing (from left) Dharamsala official Phuntsok Tashi Taklha, 10th Panchen Lama, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, Phuntsog Wangyal Goranangpa, Dharamsala official Thupten Namgyal Juchen. Kneeling (from left) Dharamsala officials Tashi Topgyal and Lobsang Dhargay Phunrab and the Dalai Lama’s brother Lobsang Samten Taklha.

The Panchen Lama endeared himself to the Tibetans, even though he was not initially recognized by the Tibetan government, because of his forthright championing of the cause of the Tibetan people and for his steadfast devotion to the Dalai Lama. His petition on the situation in Tibet addressed to Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai was a direct challenge to the Chinese policies on Tibetans, and according to Isabel Hilton (author of “The Search for the Panchen Lama”), the petition is the “most detailed and informed attack on China’s policies in Tibet that would ever be written.”

On Jan. 23, 1989, the Panchen Lama delivered a speech in Tibet in which he said: “Since liberation, there has certainly been development, but the price paid for this development has been greater than the gains.” Five days later, he passed away mysteriously.

Ngapo was a minister in the Tibetan government before the Chinese takeover, and he led the Tibetan delegation in the talks with the Chinese government in 1951, during which he was made to sign the controversial 17 Point Agreement. He worked within the system thereafter, opting to stay back in Tibet in 1959, and rose up in the Chinese hierarchy.

Many Tibetans accuse Ngapo of not speaking more forthrightly and openly on behalf of the Tibetan people, as the 10th Panchen Lama did. Nevertheless, the two of them worked together to see how they could be of benefit to the Tibetans within the Chinese system, including through the establishment of the Tibet Development Fund to implement developmental projects in Tibetan areas.

Also, Ngapo did correct certain historical distortions that were being promoted by the Chinese government. For example, in a speech in an internal meeting in 1988 he said this on the nature of the 17 Point Agreement: “Such an agreement has never existed between the central government and any other minority regions. We have to consider the special situation in Tibetan history while drafting policies for Tibet in order to realize its long-term stability.”

In 1989, Ngapo corrected the official Communist Chinese report that claimed that in 1940 the then-Chinese envoy, Wu Zhongxin, sent to the Tibetan capital Lhasa for the enthronement of the 14th Dalai Lama, had “presided over” his enthronement, and as evidence showed a photograph of her with the Dalai Lama. Obviously, this was being done to indicate that Tibet was politically subservient to China. However, Ngapo said this in Tibet Daily on Aug. 31, 1989: “Wu Zhongxin’s claim of having presided over the enthronement ceremony on the basis of this photograph is a blatant distortion of historical facts.” Tibetan historians have also written that records show the Chinese envoy did not get any special treatment than what was given to other foreign dignitaries attending the ceremony then. Apparently, the photo was taken not on the day of the ceremony, but a few days after it.

Ngapo passed away in 2009.

Phuntsok Wangyal, or ‘Phunwang,’ is of another category. He did not have the religious background nor the political background of the Panchen Lama and Ngapo. He in fact was a devoted Communist and in the 1950s he was the highest-ranking Tibetan in the Chinese Communist Party, and he accompanied Zhang Guohua, the commander of the 18th Army, to Lhasa. Thus, his involvement with the Chinese Communists resulted in Tibetans regarding him negatively. At the same time, in subsequent years, he did not gain the trust of the Chinese authorities, too, on account of his commitment to the welfare of Tibetans, which made him suspect to them.

While aligning himself with the Chinese government, Phunwang was vocal in urging it to change its Tibet policy. He submitted open letters to Chinese leaders, including Hu Jintao, calling for a review of their attitude toward the Dalai Lama.

He passed away in 2014.

In between and subsequently, the Chinese authorities have tried to cultivate several Tibetan leaders to be their token Tibetan. However, none of them have received the same respect and support among Tibetans as the three mentioned above had gotten. From the Chinese side, despite official claims of equality and ethnic unity, in practice there is a trust deficit when it comes to Tibetans. Thus, very few Tibetans have fit the category of having some presence among Tibetans but also enjoying the Party’s trust.

Ragdi and Phakpalha Gelek Namgyal are two such individuals.

Ragdi is from northern Tibet and assumed leadership positions both in Lhasa and in Beijing. For some years in the 2000s, he was the “Tibetan face” of the Chinese Communist Party. But after the 16th Party Congress, in 2007 and 2008, he had to step away from his party and government positions. He does figure now and then on the political stage, but his influence is not clear.

Phakpalha, who is a reincarnation and head of a major monastery in eastern Tibet, is the longest lasting of the Tibetan leaders. Starting in the 1950s, he has continued to hold positions in Lhasa and Beijing. Currently, he is simultaneously a vice chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the Tibet Autonomous Region People’s Political Consultative Conference. However, these days he is rarely seen in meetings, and one gets to occasionally hear of him when visiting senior Chinese officials call on him while in Lhasa.

So as the Chinese Communist leaders gather in Beijing, they do so with the knowledge that while they have physical control of Tibet, they have not been able to win over the Tibetans even after six decades of occupation. The fact that they do not have even one Tibetan leader who enjoys Tibetan public support and who they can trust completely is a testimony to this. Even the Panchen Lama selected by the Chinese Communist authority has been said to be not totally trusted to be left on his own.

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Bhuchung K. Tsering

Bhuchung K. Tsering joined the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, DC in 1995 and is currently the head of the Research and Monitoring Unit. He worked as a journalist with Indian Express in New Delhi, and as an official of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India, before joining ICT.
He is a member of the Task Force set up by the Central Tibetan Administration to work on issues relating to the dialogue process with the Chinese leadership. He was also a member of the team led by the envoys of H.H. the Dalai Lama in the discussions that they had with the Chinese leadership between 2002 and 2010.
He has contributed articles on Tibet and related issues to Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, Swiss and American journals. He has also testified in Congress on behalf of the International Campaign for Tibet and spoken at Universities and Think Tanks.