Impasse with China erodes Dalai Lama's patience

On his recent European tour, Tibet's exiled leader preached compassion, but expressed frustration over 'lies and hypocrisy' from Beijing

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

  • close
    Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama arrives on stage for a public lecture at the RAI Conference Centre in Amsterdam last week.
    View Caption

China's ramped up criticism of Europe's embrace of the Dalai Lama hasn't effectively blunted popular support here for the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. And European politicians are still giving him a platform.

During a visit to Europe that ended in Paris Monday, the Tibetan offered a new and more urgent plea for help as well as a break with decades of a "turn the other cheek" policy. The change comes amid a Chinese crackdown in Tibet that began last year over broad dissatisfaction among Tibetans with Chinese policy, and an uprising among monks. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the timing of the visit.]

The Dalai Lama may not be welcome in Tibet's capital of Lhasa. But several European cities have made him an honorary citizen. Rome and Venice gave him the title in February. He is expected to be given the keys to the City of Warsaw in July. On Sunday, he became an honorary citizen of Paris.

Recommended: Default

But Tibetan advocacy groups are quietly dismayed over a lack of a unified and consistent European policy. In 2007, the Dalai Lama in polls was ranked as the most respected world leader in Europe. He has since fallen to third place – being bumped from the top spot by Barack Obama. (German Chancellor Angela Merkel is No. 2.)

Despite the warm welcomes in Europe, an intense campaign by China to isolate and vilify the Dalai Lama has seemingly spooked many European politicians.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen met the Dalai Lama in Copenhagen, despite an official call in Beijing for Denmark to "take concrete actions to correct its wrongdoing on Tibet-related issues."

But a meeting with Dutch leader Jan Peter Balkenende was cancelled at the last minute; the Dalai Lama instead met the Dutch foreign minister at a church in The Hague. Mr. Balkenende cited an "irresponsible risk."

In her recent trip to Beijing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was told by China's top legislator, Wu Bangguo, that Taiwan and Tibet were the two most sensitive issues in US-China relations.

As the Dalai Lama readies for a 74th birthday celebration in July, he faces a growing list of challenges.

Tibet has been under a martial crackdown by China for the past year and young Tibetans are increasingly impatient with his nonviolent message of patience.

Beijing authorities are suggesting they will choose and validate the next Dalai Lama. Longtime observers of the Dalai Lama see him beginning to openly challenge a Chinese leadership that has not, in his view, acted in good faith.

'They are awaiting my death'

During his recent Europe tour, the spiritual leader gave talks on "Compassion in Turbulent Times" to large gatherings. Speaking to the press, however, he bluntly decried conditions in Tibet as a "hell on earth," and spoke of official Chinese "cruelty." He repeated a statement he made in Rome in February that now is the "darkest period in Tibetan history."

University of Hong Kong legal professor Michael Davis, who has followed the Tibet issue closely, says the sharper tone is born out of frustration.

"Neither Tibet, the Dalai Lama, or the exiled Tibetans have gotten anything in all their efforts to quietly negotiate," Professor Davis says. "The Dalai Lama's years trying to create a more conducive atmosphere has failed, and there's an accounting of that."

In Paris on Sunday, in front of 4,500 people, the Dalai Lama appeared jocular and relaxed. He offered a message on how individuals can learn to be as unconditionally compassionate toward each other as a mother is toward her children.

He highlighted the concept of "secular ethics" – that being and doing good has a universal quality that is achievable not only through formal religion.

At the end, he said, "The 20th and 21st centuries are the most important in world history. We have a responsibility to develop compassion more universally. A lot depends on individuals."

Yet, with reporters asking about Tibet and China, he offered that: "'I am getting old, and the Chinese are especially preoccupied with that! They are awaiting my death.... I have little hope of reaching a negotiated solution with the Chinese government. My trust in that government is very thin, because the whole communist political system is based on lies and hypocrisy. The local authorities lie to the regional leaders, who lie to Beijing, who then broadcasts those lies to the rest of the world!"

Pico Iyer, author of "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the 14th Dalai Lama," noted in a recent New York Review of Books article that "in the 34 years I've been regularly talking and listening to him, I've grown used to seeing the [Dalai Lama] begin each day by praying for his 'Chinese brothers and sisters,' and constantly asking his fellow Tibetans to 'reach out to the Chinese people and make better relations,'" but that "for the first time … he could no longer contain his impatience and disappointment with Beijing."

Rare support from inside China

During the Dalai Lama's European trip, the Open Constitutional Initiative, a group of independent Chinese legal scholars, issued an unusual dissenting report on Beijing's insistence that the Dalai Lama is responsible for last spring's violent uprisings in Tibet.

The group, in a fact-finding mission to Lhasa and Gansu, found that it was China's restrictive policies and the marginalization of Tibetans in their own land, not the Dalai Lama, that brought the uprising in spring 2008.

"Even though research was carried out in the field for only a month, we deeply sensed the popular discontent and anger behind the incidents, and the complexity of their social roots," the scholars' report stated, adding later that a violent protest in Lhasa on March 14, 2008, "was reaction made under stress by a society and people to the various changes that have been taking place in their lives over the past few decades."

Kate Saunders, of the London-based International Campaign for Tibet, says the report "Is the first time an independent group in China has openly disagreed with the position of the state … and state propaganda. It is very courageous." [Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of the group.]

60 years of exile

The Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet in 1959 as it became clear that Mao Zedong's China would take complete control of the region, and perhaps abduct him. He has lived since in the Tibetan exile community of Dharamsala, India, where he has begun work on creating structures of democracy and even a secular system of rule among Tibetans. He has also intensified his outreach to the Chinese people.

In the past 15 years, Tibet has been flooded with Han Chinese. Fears are mounting that the Chinese are overrunning the Himalayan kingdom, assimilating Tibetan culture, and denying a free practice of Tibetan religion.

Olympics spat

Current dynamics have brought a kind of Alice in Wonderland quality to the Dalai Lama's attempts to travel.

He continues to assert, as he has since the late 1980s, that he does not advocate Tibetan independence, but wants negotiations on autonomy – in keeping with China's constitution ensuring minority rights.

Beijing continues to claim that the Dalai Lama wants independence. Hence, under China's definition, any world leader or state that meets or hosts him is complicit in what China terms the Dalai Lama's "splittist" activities.

The situation led Paris's Mayor Bertrand Delanoe to state with some exasperation that, "I have never been in favor of Tibet's independence. I am not a Buddhist. I take positions related to Paris's values and my deep convictions. I do not pretend to rule over the world."

The Paris leg may have been the most sensitive of the European trip. Franco-Chinese relations suffered after protests in Paris over the Olympic torch run last year, and after President Nicolas Sarkozy, as president of the European Union, met the Dalai Lama in Poland.

The Paris protests, broadcast around the world, were an embarrassment ahead of China's Summer Olympic Games coming-out party, and forced Beijing to offer "talks" with the Dalai Lama's exile community in India. Those talks never seriously materialized once the Olympics ended.

Before the Olympics, China asked the exile community to set out its talking points. Dharamsala responded in the fall with a "Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People."

China immediately derided the memo, and said any talks would focus on limiting the Dalai Lama's "splittist" activities. At a key meeting in Dharamsala, and with pressure on the Dalai Lama to appease younger Tibetans impatient with 50 years of stalemate, the exiles nonetheless resolved to continue with the nonviolent "third way" to resolve the dispute.

China, meanwhile, resumed its earlier campaign to isolate and demonize the leader, who it has termed a "wolf in monk's clothing."

"Beijing trashed the Tibetan memorandum and used it as the basis for the campaign against the Dalai Lama," says Davis, the legal scholar from Hong Kong. "That flies in the face of a growing view that China is better off negotiating with the Dalai Lama right now. He's the one who can make a reasonable deal. After him, I don't know."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...