So yesterday I was having dinner with a good friend from the East Coast. And the topic of Obama’s recent meeting with the Dalai Lama came up.
“Why does the Dalai Lama Visit anger China so much,” he asked, among other questions.
On the one hand, the question my friend asks is very legit. The Chinese government holds all the cards. With every passing day, Tibet is changing. What do they have to worry about an “old, limping, but kind and gentle-hearted monk”?
On the other hand, things aren’t as simple. The Chinese government sees the Dalai Lama as a separatist. Historically speaking, Dalai Lama’s people were involved with the CIA from the 1950’s through the 1970’s actively instigating civil unrest as well as engaging in guerrilla warfare against the government. Many believe that two years ago, the Dalai Lama also had a role in instigating the 2008 riots. Regardless of what you believe, we could probably all agree nationalist fervor is still being actively instigated in many (ok – at least some) of the Tibetan monasteries today.
When I was in Tibet last October, visiting Lhasa and then hiking, camping and paying pilgrimage to the various monasteries outside of Lhasa, I asked my guide Sonam why the Tibetans rioted in 2008.
“Freedom,” he said as a matter of fact.
“Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from government regulations?” I asked.
“No. Freedom from the Chinese. Freedom to be independent. Freedom to have the Dalai Lama rule over all of Tibet.”
Sonam had spent 10 years with the Tibetan government in exile – first studying there and then working there. He left when he was only 13, after his mom had passed away, and his family became too poor to care for him. He came back around 2000 and had been working as a guide in Tibet since.
But his answer – while not typical of most other ethnic Tibetans I met – troubled me. To be honest, if this is what the Freedom of Religion that the Dalai Lama talks about means, I am not sure if Freedom of Religion as understood by the Dalai Lama is the same Basic Right as understood in the West or declared under Chinese laws. Freedom of religion to me means freedom of conscience, of religious practice – not an excuse to consolidate political power, demand nationhood or foment civil wars. If it does, what’s the purpose of having a separation of Church and State? Doesn’t religion deserve special political protection precisely because it is about a personal conviction above and beyond mere worldly politics?
Anyways, after hearing my reminiscing more about the rest of my trip, my friend pointed out to me a recent interview published in the BU school paper that he thought was interesting. After reading it, I thought that it was as balanced an understanding as anyone in the West has articulated. It’s amazing how in a world that is so filled with misinformation and ideological babble that a little truth and reality can bring such a refreshing whiff of fresh air. Here is an excerpt of the interview:
BU Today: Is the media blitz about Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama overblown?
Hawks: No. The Tibet issue is extremely sensitive. If Obama had met with the Dalai Lama in the Oval Office, that would be affording him the dignity of a head of state. It was important for the president not to impinge on the national sovereignty issue, which China cares so much about. Before the Communists, in imperial China, ceremony was a way to reinforce hierarchy, and it’s still crucial, even though in the United States we’re much more informal.
Does China hold the cards here?
China is an economic superpower and is changing its world profile. It’s absolutely critical that we remain engaged. Obama’s got it right; he’s engaged in China, but he’s asserting the U.S. commitment to religious freedom. He must welcome a visit by the Dalai Lama. And he must show respect to China.
You visited Tibet in 2007. What were your impressions?
I led a group of 25 BU students, most from CGS, to Tibet in late May, when there was a festival honoring the Buddha’s birthday. Pilgrims were pouring into Lhasa, and we toured monasteries with native Tibetans. All of us fell in love with the land, but we’re not alone. The Chinese love Tibet too. It’s become a popular destination for Chinese tourists.
Has Chinese tourism made the Chinese more aware of ethnic Tibetans’ struggle for religious freedom?
There is an increase in progressive sentiment toward Tibet within China. There have been recent petitions, including a constitutional initiative drawn up by some Chinese legal scholars that recommended policy shifts in Tibet, and said that the Tibetan riots of March 2008 expressed some legitimate grievances, albeit violently. It emphasized how Tibetans have been marginalized by the increasing population of Han Chinese, who Tibetans believe are given more job opportunities.
How did the Chinese government respond?
The president of China, Hu Jintao, is considered an expert on Tibet. From 1988 to 1992 he was Communist Party chairman in Tibet, and his handling of student demonstrations there convinced the late Party leader Deng Xiaoping to promote him. He wants to increase China’s role as a superpower, but he knows and cares about Tibet.
Do you see the Tibetan situation changing?
I think most [exiled] Tibetans would accept a compromise. The exiled Dalai Lama is 74 years old, and it’s hoped that he could make a visit to Tibet in his lifetime — that would be a very positive sign. And I saw some positive interactions between Han Chinese and Tibetans. But important policy shifts are needed to end the rancor created by differences in opportunity, and religious issues. Monasteries are open, but many Buddhist monks have left Tibet. These problems are very complicated, with no dramatic improvement in store in the near future.
How would you gauge Chinese feelings about the Dalai Lama and Tibetan autonomy?
Ordinary Chinese might distrust the Dalai Lama, because all Tibetans regard him as sacred and he does have immense power. It’s an emotional and polarizing issue for Chinese. They argue about it, it’s troubling, but Chinese and Tibetans must continue talking. Tibet has a magical feeling, and I think most Chinese dream of visiting there, but they also adamantly feel that both Tibet and Taiwan are part of China.
How do the Chinese feel about the United States?
People feel that the American government and its people are too critical of the way Tibet has been handled. They point to America’s treatment of Native Americans and our takeover of Hawaii. But it’s interesting that the Hollywood movie Avatar is incredibly popular in China. The theme of a deeply spiritual people who live their lives in nature, confronted by a military force to extract their minerals, resonates for Chinese, because their country has been industrialized so rapidly, rural land is disappearing, and the environment has suffered so much. But Tibet is one place that’s still untouched. The sky is so blue, the air is clean, and there’s a sense that Tibet deserves to be preserved. I think most Chinese people feel that Tibet is deeply spiritual and a refuge for nature.