When foreign leaders bow to China’s irate demands that they do not meet with the Dalai Lama it is by no means out of respect. It is because China transforms into a thug, totally resistant to reason.
By Mette Holm, 8 February, 2015
Recently, Tibet’s exiled religious leader the Dalai Lama attended President Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. The US president is one of very few leaders in a position to ignore the Chinese demand not to meet the Dalai Lama. Most other states kowtow to China’s threats of freezing foreign policy, trade and/or aid in order to keep them from meeting the Tibetan leader.
So when the Dalai Lama visits Denmark on February 11 and 12 for public teachings, the Danish government will not receive him, neither will other European leaders – apart from, perhaps the Pope, although a date for such a meeting has not yet been fixed.
In general, China wants to play a responsible role in the world and spends billions of dollars on an international charm offensive, and dollar as well as panda diplomacy – only not on the issue of Tibet; here, China’s growing confidence in diplomacy and force of argument stops short, and bullying takes over.
Trade or reason?
Countries don’t have much choice, e.g. China’s neighbour Mongolia where Dalai Lama is religious leader to more than half the population; here the Dalai Lamas ninth visit to the democratic Mongolia was cancelled, because China’s president and communist party boss, Xi Jinping, came to visit. And these days no representatives of the government will meet with Dalai Lama, although a large number of MPs will.
Denmark hesitates to sacrifice a blossoming relationship with China. Several Danish prime ministers have met with the Dalai Lama, most recently in 2009, which unleashed China’s wrath and cost dearly on trade and cultural exchange.
In 1989, when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the wake of the People’s Liberation Army’s crackdown on student demonstrators in Tian An Men, China was enraged – but impotent due to international isolation following the crackdown.
However, in 2010, when a Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was awarded the Peace Prize China simply froze diplomatic and trade relations with Norway, ignoring the fact that the prize is awarded not by the Norwegian government, but by an independent organisation.
In 2014, when the Dalai Lama returned to Oslo to celebrate the prize he received 25 years earlier, the Norwegian government snubbed him and thus earned the – undesirable – praise of the Chinese government.
In 2001, the Dalai Lama met with 11 foreign leaders. In 2013 it was down to two. The British leader David Cameron met him in 2012. Here too, China froze relations, and Mr Cameron was forced to cancel a trip to China the following year.
Prominent Global Ambassador for his cause
The Dalai Lama has promoted the Tibetan cause incessantly during his 56 years in exile. During those same years, China’s communication has evolved from primitive propaganda to offering a sophisticated narrative on many platforms, domestically as well as internationally.
China invests heavily in controlling and managing information in a large domestic intranet as well as in the wide surrounding world to conquer hearts and minds of the rest of us: the exertion of soft power, including the Xinhua News Service’s huge flat screen in Times Square in New York City, a massive world-wide promotion of culture and language and a global TV news channel to challenge the world view of e.g. BBC World, al- Jazeera and CNN.
This new, relatively sophisticated soft power approach makes it even more remarkable that China’s rulers on the issue of Tibet and the Tibetans have remained locked in their own myopic propaganda, albeit here too, they now rely on 21st century communication.
The Dalai Lama has, in turn, become one of the world’s foremost global ambassadors with his message of and desire for peace and peaceful coexistence with China, in accordance with the Chinese constitution. Dalai Lama is the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, the political and religious leader of Tibet for almost 500 years.
“Liberation” of Tibet
China’s People’s Liberation Army “liberated” Tibet in 1951, and the founder of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong, felt called to convert the Dalai Lama to communism. Mao declared, “Religion is poison!” – which was hardly the way to convince or convert Tibet’s leader at the tender age of 17.
Systematically and violently, China set out to break down the Tibetans’ feudal rule and destroy their faith. Feudalism was easily dispelled, the Tibetans’ faith proved much stronger. In 1959, an armed uprising in Lhasa to get rid of the Chinese “liberators” failed and the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he has lived in exile ever since along with about 150,000 exiled compatriots. In China, Mao Zedong severely punished the Tibetans for their unwavering faith with the destruction of 6,000 shrines during the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76.
China manages Tibet with imprudence, arrogance and brutal superior force. Domestically, China has led a ceaseless, often outright mendacious propaganda campaign to convince the Chinese that the “Dalai clique” are international terrorists, the Dalai Lama is an evil separatist, who calls for rebellion and secession; they have smeared him as a human, an institution and a monk, described him as a demon, a fiendish “splittist” and more to that effect.
Dalai Lama responds that because they repeatedly put his patience, endurance and strength to the test the Chinese leaders have been his best teachers. They sharpen his sense of humour and compassion, he says. And throughout the years he has used his moral authority to sustain the non-violent course, although Tibetans are tortured, imprisoned and killed in China, described by the Dalai Lama as “cultural genocide.”
Democratisation of Tibetan politics
In 2011 the Dalai Lama realised a long-cherished dream of democratisation of Tibetan politics. He handed over his political powers to a Prime Minister, Lobsang Sangay, Harvard Doctor of Laws, born and raised in exile and democratically elected by exiled compatriots. Like the rest of the Chinese populace, Tibetans in China have no say in the choice of leaders.
The Dalai Lama has stated that his successor, the 15th reincarnation, likely will not be reborn within China. Furthermore, last autumn he hinted that the institution might stop with him, which China – rightly – perceived as a powerful obstacle to its plans of hijacking the appointment and succession of the Tibetan spiritual leader.
In the absence of biological heirs to high office in Tibetan Buddhism, the top two lamas, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, identify and appoint each other’s reincarnation. The 10th Panchen Lama died in 1989. And from his exile, in 1995 the Dalai Lama recognised a six-year-old boy in China to be the 11th Panchen Lama. The central government in Beijing apprehended the boy and his parents. They haven’t been seen since. The Chinese leaders installed a boy of their choice as the official reincarnation and moved him to Beijing to be trained by teachers loyal to the central government. Tibetans do not regard the Chinese Panchen Lama as legitimate, even if they are forced to give that impression.
Atheist China shows “belief” in re-incarnation
Tibetans jokingly state that China’s atheist leaders have taken to believing in reincarnation, but of course, their intent is to install their own handpicked 15th Dalai Lama when the time comes (the current will turn 80 this year). And voila, Beijing has equipped itself with the spiritual abilities and authority to appoint the Tibetan religious leader. In this respect the Dalai Lama’s relinquishing of political power was a severe blow to Beijing’s ambitions in Tibet.
In October, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman declared that in terms of re-birth of the Dalai Lama and other living Buddhas, China has a “set religious procedure and historic custom. China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, and this naturally includes having to respect and protect the ways of passing on Tibetan Buddhism.”
And then, in classic Chinese propaganda-style: “The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government, which has hundreds of years of history. The 14th Dalai Lama has ulterior motives, and is seeking to distort and negate history, which is damaging to the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism.”
Ulterior motives? It takes one to know one! It is very difficult to imagine that even the Chinese rulers themselves sincerely believe that interpretation of Tibetan history.
When visiting Tibet, it is painfully obvious that Chinese and Tibetans have very little in common, and their coexistence is precarious. The Chinese are enthralled by material progress and economic development. Tibetans are not against development, but spiritual values, nature and the balance of the universe are equally important, and culture and religion are intertwined. And apparently, the more the Tibetans’ belief is trampled on, the stronger it gets.
China maintains an overwhelming and heavily armed military and police presence among Tibetans, who make up less than half a per cent of China’s population, are declared pacifists and whose most potent weapon is self-immolation.
Decades of massive domestic misinformation means that many Chinese believe that the six million Tibetans are a gang of violent terrorists with evil intentions – led by shadowy forces abroad. China tries to communicate the same message abroad, but less successfully.
It is strange that the Chinese leaders do not recognise – and perhaps even do not understand – that you may well be a friend of China, respect and admire the country’s progress, recognise the nation’s unity while wholeheartedly supporting the Dalai Lama’s earnest, peaceful struggle for genuine autonomy in Tibet in full compliance with China’s constitution; rather, China perceives any suggestion of dialogue with the Tibetans as an insult and undue interference in internal affairs.
The tragedy is that decades of brutality and false speech has been of tremendous damage to both Chinese and Tibetans, and thus to China – and the world.
Ms Holm is senior Asia correspondent, frequent commentator and author from Denmark.