Guest Post: Dragged into a Power Struggle: Mongolia caught between the Dalai Lama and Beijing

By Manlai N

On January 28th 2020, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India has announced that the long-awaited Tibetan Policy and Support Act was passed in the US House of Representatives. The bill was sponsored by Senator James McGovern and it is the most comprehensive policy bill on Tibet since the Tibet Policy Act of 2002. The bill has ensured that any involvement from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhism will be a violation of human rights and religious freedom, ruling out Chinese claims over the selection of the next Dalai Lama. The selection processes surrounding Dalai Lama is a highly politicized matter involving not only Beijing and the CTA but also other major actors like India and the US who all have a stake in the matter to varying degrees. Beijing and Dharamsala each claim authority over the selection of the next Dalai Lama. As the current Dalai Lama approaches his 85th birthday, the dispute is spilling over to third party-actors like Mongolia with its special ties to Tibetan Buddhism. While issues like these often used as a bargaining chip among great powers, specifically today in the midst of US vs. China standoff, more immediate impact often falls on weaker stakeholders like Mongolia who has more to lose than to gain.

Counter Claims

The main rationale behind Beijing’s claim to select the Dalai Lama lies in the selection system known as the “Golden Urn”, a process introduced during Qing dynasty. As a successor to the Qing, both, ROC (Taiwan) and the PRC have adopted the Golden Urn procedure.

The Golden Urn was first used in 1758 to appoint the third Jebtsundamba Khutukutu, the highest-ranking lama among Mongols. His predecessor, who sympathized with an anti-Qing rebellion, was put to death in 1756, and the Manchu emperor decreed that all subsequent reincarnations should be born in Tibet, not in Mongolia.

From 1792 on, all the highest lamas of both Tibet and Mongolia, including Dalai and Panchen lamas, were selected through the Golden Urn. In 1926, with the birth of the socialist Mongolian People’s Republic, the government declared that the Jebtsundamba institution had ended. During this time, the ninth Jebtsundamba was “found” by the Dalai Lama in Tibet in 1933. His identity was kept secret over decades. Only when the communist bloc fell apart in the 1990s and Mongolia brought back religious freedom, did the current Dalai Lama reveal his name.

The Golden Urn was legalized in the PRC Reincarnation Law in 2007 and since then it was used only once to select the second-highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism – Panchen Lama, when the Dalai Lama-promoted Panchen suddenly disappeared at the hands of CCP.

Mongolia’s Part in the Process

For the past few years, the battle over legitimacy between China and the CTA has been stuck in deadlock. Recently, however, the dispute is spilling beyond to third-party actors who can play role of a tiebreaker between the two parties. For both CTA and Beijing having support of the third party actors means an important acquisition strengthening their cause going forward. Similar to the another politicized case of Karmapa – one of the historically high ranking lamas in Tibetan Buddhism, Mongolia’s involvement in the matter has further fragmented already broken religious circles forming various religious and political interest groups.

With its historic role in reincarnation politics, Mongolia was dragged into this geopolitical chess game when the Dalai Lama visited Mongolia in 2016 to reincarnate the tenth patriarch of Mongolian Buddhism. For Beijing, however, the Jebtsundamba institution had been dead since 1926. By “reinvoking” reincarnations himself, the Dalai Lama effectively undermined the Golden Urn and with it, Beijing’s claim to legitimacy over the reincarnation process.

This instigated full-scale Chinese activity in Mongolia through all channels, from statements, sanctions and border closures to long-term campaigns aimed at the Mongolian public. This included “proper” portrayal of Tibet for Mongolian worshippers by putting on at least one Tibet-related event in a year. The homepage of the Chinese embassy in Mongolia now has a permanent section of Tibet-related materials on “Chinese Tibet in the eyes of Mongolia”. These were the results of the works of several influential Mongolian reporters, researchers and other personalities who travelled under the embassy organized trip to Tibet. Upon return, they were tasked to produce various Tibet-themed contents to promote the development and progress in Tibet under PRC. In addition to circulation of various media contents across Mongolian media, a photo exhibition was the final piece of the last year’s Tibet program.


While campaigns such as these are generally considered to be legitimate channels of influencing in the capacity of public diplomacy, China has been accused many times of overstepping the mark. The “Dorje Shugden” controversy is one such example. Starting from 1976 this controversy split the Dalai Lama’s followers and the followers of a Tibetan deity called Dorje Shugden. The dispute revolves around the correct path for Yellow Hat Buddhism (Gelug sect) – the current dominant sect which Dalai and Panchen lamas all belong to. The Shugden followers insist upon an aggressive purge on other sects while Dalai Lama kept more progressive stance calling for non-sectarian cooperation among all the other branches of Tibetan Buddhism.

The most prominent figure in the International Shugden Community in Mongolia is Zava Damdin, the reincarnation of one of the high-ranking Mongolian lamas. He is a controversial figure with his lavish lifestyle and luxury store in the central Ulaanbaatar, openly opposes Dalai Lama, declaring himself – a real Mongolian lama, calling for Mongolian Buddhism’s break away from Dalai Lama’s institution. There are rumours that supporters of the main monastery in Mongolia – Gandan Tegchlen Khiid have distrust with Zava Damdin and his Shugden followers with occasional Shugden rituals in Amarbayasgalant khiid  as a front for Chinese politico-business interests that pose a threat to Mongolian sovereignty.

While these are all alleged rumours put against China with United Front Work Department in the lead under Central Committee of CCP, cultivating ties with Dalai Lama-unfriendly monasteries, exploiting and fostering sectarianism and religious nationalism seems to be consistent with tactics deployed in countries with Shugden controversy.

If these allegations are proven to be true, for China in the midst of global discussions around 5G, BRI and the influencing campaigns in the post-COVID-19 world, its meddling, intended or not, in the internal affairs of its immediate neighbours, will have negative implications not only for a target country but to China itself. With ongoing problems in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, China risks not only causing instability in the region but also losing its hard-earned soft power it may have gained in the recent years. As with the discussion around Chinese influencing, Chinese campaigns in Mongolia are the prime examples of the most recent, up-to-date technique deployed from Beijing through all channels which rest of the world with its complex relations with China should be aware of.

About Manlai Nyamdorj

Manlai Nyamdorj holds an M.A in Contemporary East Asian studies from the University of Duisburg-Essen. He wrote his master thesis on China’s soft power potentials and limitations from its societal resources. He can be found all across social media @mchonos

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots
This entry was posted in Buddhism, China, Dalai Lama, History, Manlai Nyamdorj, Religion, Social Issues, Society and Culture, Tibet. Bookmark the permalink.

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