In their long and fruitless struggle against Chinese rule, Tibetans have often leaped on any reason to stay optimistic — and, for some, a new leader in Beijing offers a fresh glimmer of hope.
The rise of Xi Jinping (習近平), who is seen as China’s president-in-waiting, has set off a ripple of speculation that he may bring about a change of policy towards Tibet, which has been subject to a military crackdown since 2008.
One reason is that Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun (習仲勳), met and came to know the Dalai Lama in Beijing in the early 1950s, before the Tibetan spiritual leader fled a failed uprising.
Xi senior, a party official at the time, later became a liberal vice premier known to be sympathetic towards minorities, and Tibetan exiles and analysts raise the possibility that such thinking may have passed down a generation.
“His father was familiar with Tibet and had an association with the Dalai Lama,” said Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile in the Indian hilltown of Dharamsala.
“Whether the son can be like the father is still to be seen,” he said. “Tibetans are always hopeful.”
Sangay is this week hosting a special meeting on how to respond to the scores of self-immolation protests against Chinese control, and delegates admit they are monitoring the Chinese transfer of power that is likely to start next month.
Beijing-watchers say that little is known about Xi Jinping’s true political leanings, though he has expressed the government’s routine disdain for the Dalai Lama and also vowed to “smash” any attempt to destroy stability in Tibet.
“His father did encounter the Dalai Lama when the Dalai Lama visited Beijing for a period in 1954,” said Barry Sautman, a Tibet expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It is possible that Xi Jinping might take more interest in Tibet as a result of his family, but it is a slender reed on which to base your hopes.”
Sarah McDowall, China expert at the IHS research group in London, sounded a similar note of caution over predictions that Xi would listen to Tibetans’ calls for autonomy and their complaints of increasingly brutal repression.
“It is really unlikely there will be any softening of policy towards Tibet,” she said.
“The security situation is still volatile after [unrest in] 2008, combined with the self-immolations, which have given renewed incentive to retain a hardline policy. It is not going to be the time for any new leader trying to consolidate their power base to be seen as weak on a matter of national integrity,” she said.
The last fatal protests were four weeks ago and analysts say each self-immolation case worsens a vicious cycle of further clampdowns by Chinese security forces and more anger across the Tibetan-inhabited areas of China.
“So long as the self-immolation problem persists, the Tibet policy is going to stay hardline and the Tibetans will actively resist that,” said Nathan Hill, a Tibet expert at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
“Some officials in China understand this, but they are looking out for their careers and they are generally never blamed for tightening things even further,” he said.
Despite such dire warnings many Tibetans see fundamental change in China as their greatest — and perhaps only — hope, more than half a century since the Dalai Lama fled in 1959.