Dalai Lama takes his case to Chinese émigrés

Although Beijing ignores his appeals, some Chinese are listening.

By , Correspondent

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    The Dalai Lama, exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, seen here during a three-day visit to the Netherlands, on Wednesday June 3.
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When the Dalai Lama traveled to the Netherlands last week his Buddhist teaching was heard by 10,000 people and he was received by the mayor of Amsterdam.

But the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader had another engagement that was less in the spotlight but equally important: a private meeting with Chinese pro-democracy activists.

The Dalai Lama and about 30 Chinese émigrés, mainly from Europe, discussed the need for dialogue between Tibetans and Chinese and for reform in China. Trust between Tibetans and Chinese is crucial in reaching a solution for Tibet, the he emphasized during the meeting, which took place on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.

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Reaching out to overseas Chinese – whether activists, journalists, Buddhists, or ordinary people – is a priority for the Dalai Lama. This soft diplomacy has taken on greater importance after talks with the Chinese government last fall broke down.

Although the Dalai Lama says his faith in the Chinese government is "thinning," he insists that his faith in Chinese people "is never shaken."

China contends that he aims to split the country by advocacy for a free Tibet. The Dalai Lama stresses that he wants autonomy for Tibet under China with better conditions for Tibetans, not independence from Beijing.

Still flamed over the torch

Last year, the Dalai Lama sought to defuse nationalistic anger among Chinese worldwide over disruption of the Beijing Olympic torch relay by pro-Tibet activists. He was "almost desperately trying to meet Chinese people," recalls Tenzing Sonam, a filmmaker who tracked the Dalai Lama around the world before the Olympics.

With Olympic fervor in the past, droves of Chinese protesters no longer greet the Dalai Lama on his global travels. Yet, reaching out to Chinese people remains an urgent priority for Tibet's spiritual leader, says Chhime Chhoekyapa, joint-secretary in the Dalai Lama's exiled government offices in Dharamsala.

"Governments will come and go. The most important thing is to reach out to Chinese everywhere so they understand His Holiness's stand. In the future, Chinese and Tibetans will have to live together," Mr. Chhoekyapa says.

Appeals for calm

This year, an aggressive Chinese clampdown on Tibet leading up to March 10 – the 50th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese forces – stifled major protests like the ones that had flared across Tibet a year earlier. On the anniversary, the Dalai Lama appealed to "Chinese brothers and sisters" and urged them "not to be swayed by propaganda, but, instead, to try to discover the facts about Tibet impartially, so as to prevent divisions among us."

Sympathies from some Chinese

Not all Chinese are appeased. Some maintain that the Dalai Lama is a "splittist." Chinese officials have branded him as a "wolf dressed in monk's robes."

Chinese who support the Dalai Lama and Tibet are often viewed as traitors, but some remain steadfast in their support.

Chin Jin, vice-chairman of the Federation for a Democratic China, has met with the Dalai Lama several times since their first meeting in 1992 in Sydney. Mr. Chin, a pro-democracy activist who emigrated to Australia, believes the Dalai Lama can help promote democracy in China.

"I hope the Chinese government will treasure the opportunity that the Dalai Lama is still alive and willing to take his peaceful route," he says.

Beauty on Tibet's 'surface'

Zhu Rui, a Chinese writer, lived in Dharamsala for several months this year and met the Dalai Lama. She first traveled to Tibet in 1997 and admits she had preconceived notions, like most of her compatriots. "Everyone thought the Dalai Lama was evil," she says. "No one knew the truth about Tibet."

While in India, Ms. Zhu became fascinated by Tibet's distinct culture. A year later, she settled in Lhasa as a journalist for the Chinese journal Tibetan Literature. Before emigrating to Canada in 2001, Zhu saw ruined monasteries in Tibet and undercover Chinese police at Tibetan festivals. She also Tibetans who had been jailed for decades.

"On the surface, everything looks beautiful," says Zhu. The reality, she says, is that Tibetans "live terribly."

Zhu's beliefs about the Dalai Lama also changed when she saw how Tibetans in Tibet secretly revered banned photos of the spiritual leader.

"It's important for Chinese to come into contact with Tibetans," Zhu says. "If they understood the Dalai Lama they would understand Tibetan culture and history. They would understand why Tibet wants freedom."

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