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Reading Xi Jinping In Dharamsala: Do China's New Leaders Have Plans For Tibet?

Article illustrative image Partner logo Global Day of Action for Tibet in Dharamsala

DHARAMSHALA - Tenzin Tsundue adjusts his red headband, wrapped around his mess of hair. He straightens it and then declares: "Xi Jinping cannot change the whole system by himself. If China is to change, it will be done by the masses."

Tsundue is sitting on a cement step in a courtyard of Dharamshala, a town in the far north of India that clings onto the Himalayan foothills. Behind Tsundue and his scarlet headband are the snow-covered peaks of the Dhauladhar mountain range soaring towards the sky, an emblem of the Tibetan people's struggle in India.

"He will only bring about a few small changes," he adds. "The main objective for them is to keep the system in place."

Dharamshala, Tibetans' "capital" in exile, will be watching with skepticism when China's transition of power concludes over the next few days, which will result in Xi Jinping assuming power at the Communist Party Congress.

Even though there has been a recent surge in the number of self-immolations -- around 60, illustrating the growing despair at the heart of Tibet -- the Tibetan diaspora have otherwise resigned themselves to patiently waiting for China to relax its position on Tibet. Although, most of them do not really believe this will happen.

"When you look back at the previous rulers, you realize there is nothing to be optimistic about," says Lobsang Sangay, the new head of government in exile. "But we will continue to hope for a more moderate policy to prevail."

Officially, the plan is to keep the door open to dialogue, even though two Tibetan negotiators resigned just before the summer "because of rising tensions in Tibet," explains Mr. Sangay. "We are still prepared to enter into talks without reservation," he adds. The last set of talks between Beijing's envoys and Dharamshala were at the beginning of 2010.

Those who remain optimistic want to believe that Xi Jinping's family history will inspire the future "number one" with an enlightened vision for the Roof of the World. Mr. Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, a veteran of the Revolution, met with the Dalai Lama in 1954 in Beijing when he was head of the state propaganda department. The Dalai Lama even gave him a watch. After Xi Zhongxun was reinstated after the purges of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, he apparently expressed his desire to see the Dalai Lama again before he died; however, it was a wish that was never realized.

"We shouldn't exaggerate the impact that this story could have," Mr. Sangay says in the Dalai Lama's office in Dharamshala. "But it won't stop us from hoping that the new leaders will be more sympathetic to Tibet's cause."

“At a boiling point”

In the eyes of Dharamshala's Tibetans, the Chinese government can no longer ignore the fact that the situation is worsening in Tibet, as shown by this recent wave of tragic suicides. "China's image has been besmirched by what is happening in Tibet," says the head of the government in exile Lobsang Sangay. "It contradicts the idea that China is becoming more tolerant and peaceful."

Djorjee Tseden, the director of Students For Free Tibet India, thinks that, "these immolations prove that China has lost control of Tibet. Tibetans within the country are engaged in numerous movements of civil disobedience," he adds. "Resistance is becoming much stronger. Xi Jinping could well be the last Chinese leader to rule over Tibet."

Although, without saying as much, Dicki Chhoyang, the minister for foreign affairs of the government in exile, judges that "historic events are never linear. It could go in any which way," she says. "China is at boiling point."

The question of which position to take, in regards to Beijing in this period of transition, has opened up old wounds between the hardline partisans and the adversaries of the midway policy, which has historically been upheld by the Dalai Lama. He has largely moved away from demanding outright independence and has settled for greater autonomy. Now that the Dalai Lama has retired from politics, focusing his efforts on being Tibet's spiritual guide, the government in exile has kept in line with his strategy; however, this could cause some to become too impatient for change.

"His declarations of good-will count for nothing," says the film director Tenzing Sonam. "We have made a lot of concessions and it has weakened our movement while reinforcing China's grip."

Lhasang Tsering, a bookseller, poet and partisan of this hard-line stance against Beijing, has a much more drastic vision of the situation: "China is raping Tibet. How can you negotiate with a rapist?"

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