What’s the Case for Heads of State Meeting the Dalai Lama?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On Thursday in Washington, the Dalai Lama attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast hosted by President Barack Obama, angering China's leaders in Beijing who have long called the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader a "splittist" and considered his meeting with heads of state meddling in China's "internal affairs." — The Editors


Why does the Dalai Lama want to meet heads of state and world leaders? Does he want to spread Buddhism or does he want to draw attention to the Tibetan cause?

If he wanted to spread Buddhism possibly nobody would oppose him, and few would pay attention. In fact, people pay attention because the Dalai Lama wants to talk about Tibet, a very controversial issue since Beijing considers the territory its internal affair.

Is the Dalai Lama successful in his efforts? It depends on how one gauges success. The Dalai Lama’s world tours have intensified Chinese pressure in Tibet and on governments and organizations which might be sympathetic to the Tibetan cause. If his goal was to show the world how bad the Chinese government is then the Dalai Lama has been successful. If his goal was to improve the lives of Tibetans in Tibet and expand his own political breathing space, then he has failed.

China, growing rich and powerful, is irked by the Dalai Lama and is making the Tibetan cause more difficult. Decades of experience suggest that Beijing’s irritation will push it to an even harder crackdown. In the international community many may be willing to meet the religious leader, but very few are willing to uphold the idea of Tibet out of concern for offending China.

So, the question is this: what does the Dalai Lama really want? To bring down communist China? Many have tried with little success. Besides, a more democratic China could be worse for Tibetans as it could see nationalists campaign more freely and thus push harder against minority rights.

Of course this is hypothetical. First, because China’s communist rulers have shown remarkable skill at staying power and, second, if they were to fall, the world would quickly lose interest in Tibet as it turned its focus to coping with a brand new China.

This suggests that the Dalai Lamais digging an even bigger hole for Tibet, much to the satisfaction of Beijing’s hawks who point to his tours as reason to push for harsher measures against his cause.

Perhaps the Dalai Lama should choose a dramatic new course. He could aim for smaller goals such as pushing Beijing in a better direction. There are no guarantees this would work, but what has he got to lose after 55 years of defeat?

Were the Dalai Lama to reopen negotiations to return to Beijing, he would have little leverage. But looking at history and the arguments I’ve laid out above, his leverage today will only decrease the longer he waits. It is too complicated in this forum to go into all the options on the table: but, yes, there could be politically viable and interesting solutions.

If Tibet is not about politics but indeed truly about religion then we must pray to God, as all this reasoning is useless. If we allow ourselves to be cynical, and guess that the Dalai Lama’s goal is merely the preservation of the organization that supports him, then his goal is achieved, temporarily, though it grows more unsustainable day by day.

There are two very different issues here, and the problem is that it’s not clear how they are connected. One is how to handle meetings between foreign leaders and the Dalai Lama, given Chinese sensitivities. The other is how to improve the long-term situation in Tibet.

That first question, about meetings with the Dalai Lama, has different meanings in different places. In India, the Chinese don’t even dare to threaten leaders about their relations with the Dalai Lama, because India holds too many cards that China needs it not to play. In the US, Chinese bluster now has negligible effect, so such meetings are a minor, lost-cost way of signaling to China that it can’t get everything it would like from Washington. They've become part of a diplomatic dance in which the U.S. reaffirms its values and domestic profile, while doing little harm to overall relations.

But in Western Europe the opposite applies: the skillful use by Chinese diplomats of almost entirely empty threats about Dalai Lama meetings has exposed the incapacity of western European governments (less so with eastern Europeans) in negotiations with China over issues it insists are sensitive. Those governments need to re-establish their ability to handle on certain Chinese demands that seem unreasonable and are sometimes feints. Accusing those who meet the Dalai Lama of being anti-Chinese supporters of independence is one such demand, since Beijing itself has met with his representatives and says it will meet with him too. So for Europeans, this issue is not really to do with Tibet or the Dalai Lama, but about how to find a mature and balanced way of working and coexisting with China other than by being terrified of what its officials might one day say.

The big question, which Sisci raises, is whether gestures of foreign support help the situation of Tibetans in Tibet (and that’s 97% of all Tibetans). In fact, such gestures were among the factors that helped to bring China back to the talks process with the exiles in 2002. But those talks came to a halt five years ago without producing concessions by Beijing. And these gestures are seen within China as opportunistic and provocative attempts to damage China. Perhaps more worrying, given the series of political suicides by Tibetans, is the impact within Tibet of news reports about these foreign gestures of support: once they are broadcast into Tibet, they can easily give the impression that foreign help will be substantive and decisive. Neither is true. This can lead to false hopes, tragic miscalculations and cycles of repression in response.

But this doesn’t mean that meetings should not take place—it means that much greater attention should be paid to what their purpose is, how they are done, what is said, and how they are reported. A balance needs to be struck between recognizing China’s domestic sensitivities and U.S. interests in seeing a reduction of tensions in China’s West. That’s why this week’s joint appearance is a somewhat smarter tactic than the previous Map Room meetings, because no words are exchanged between the two leaders, and that represents a concession of sorts to China’s needs, but not a major one. The same signal is sent as before, but at a much lower temperature. No Chinese official will praise this in public, but it will not go unnoticed in Beijing.

The Obama administration had tried a very similar move in 2009 when it postponed rather than cancelled a planned meeting with the Dalai Lama: it conceded on an important detail, but not on the main substance. In that instance, the administration’s handling of the U.S. media misfired badly, leading to the White House being accused of a climbdown by the press. But this kind of nuanced move by diplomats, giving face to China on symbolic matters rather than on substance, is exactly what the western Europeans urgently need to learn to do. If this were matched by a new and more sophisticated approach from the Tibetan side, with much less said by its leaders, fewer accusations and more substance, it’s not impossible that some progress could still be made.

I very much wish I could share in Robbie Barnett’s cautious optimism as expressed in his last line, “its not impossible that some progress could still be made.” Given the extraordinary and horrific upsurge in religious and ethnic violence we see erupting literally around the globe, in places generally distant from the frontlines, from Paris to Kunming to Ferguson, Missouri. Globalization, once thought to be a means of breaking down prejudice and abrogating the physical and ideological boundaries traditionally separating human communities from each other, now seems to be actually perpetuating stereotypes and images of ethnoreligious atrocity. As an anthropologist whose focus is identity politics, it seems to me that Barnett’s disagreement with Francesco Sisci’s position is over the invidious distinction Sisci makes between the Dalai Lama’s religious and political or communal role. Sisci suggests that if His Holiness were merely spreading Buddhism, he would be welcomed everywhere. However, it is his message of concern about the treatment of his followers under Chinese rule that raises China’s hackles and makes U.S. and European leaders wary of welcoming him. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile have advocated peaceful resolution and non-violent activism, rejecting even the goal of independence in their dealings the Chinese government. Nevertheless, ongoing tensions in the region and the cessation of all negotiations suggest little hope for “politically viable and interesting solutions,” as Sisci seems to believe.

President Obama’s warm welcome in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast today suggests that it is the Dalai Lama’s personal example that should be emulated, not his political agenda: “I want to offer a special welcome to a good friend, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, who is a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion, and who inspires us to speak up for the freedom and dignity of all human beings. I’ve been pleased to welcome him to the White House on many occasions and we’re grateful to have him join us here today.” The very fact of the Tibetan leader’s repeated presence at the White House, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, speaks volumes over any joint statements or official tête-à-têtes. It also important to note that President Obama has steadfastly refused to extend the same warm welcome to Rebiya Kadeer, the elected leader of the World Uyghur Congress, the people's only umbrella group, who resides in Washington, D.C., despite her similar commitment to non-violence and accommodation to Chinese rule.

It could very well be that changes in the treatment of the Tibetan or Uighur people within China may not come at all from outside pressure, but from internal debates and reforms within China. Although President Xi Jinping has severely tightened control over these border regions since his rise to power, ongoing violence in the regions, especially the bloody 2009 Urumqi riots, terrorist attacks in Kunming in 2014, and the unabated occurrence of political suicides in the Tibetan regions, have engendered a widespread debate throughout China, both on the street and in the think tanks over China’s ethnic autonomy policy. Indeed, one prominent Beijing-based scholar has suggested this policy of trying to divide religious from ethnic identity (encouraging expressions of cultural and national identity, but discouraging religious practices, especially among Tibetans and Uighurs), has not only failed over the last 60 years, but has perhaps even exacerbated and perpetuated tensions between minorities and the Han majority. Rather than reforming the “minzu” (national autonomy) policy, as has been attempted on many occasions by many of China’s greatest leaders, from Zhou Enlai, to Chairman Mao, to Hu Yaobang, to Deng Xiaoping, it should be dismantled, and “de-politicized.” Surprisingly enough, this proposal originates from a U.S.-trained anthropologist, specializing on Tibet and ethnic policy at Peking University. Prof. Ma Rong received his Ph.D. from Brown University and has held numerous post-doctoral and visiting scholar positions at Harvard and several European universities. Even more remarkable is the fact that Prof. Ma is a minority himself, of Hui Muslim descent, and argues that the U.S. model of ethnic pluralism is one road to follow, where nationality status is not recognized (except for some Native American tribal confederations) but cultural difference is celebrated. While the ongoing racial tensions as evidenced in the Ferguson riots suggest that the U.S. has a long ways to go toward resolving its own problems, despite its elected African American President, the Peking Professor alludes to the former Soviet Union as a counter-example: If China does not radically reform or even dispense with its nationality policy, it may end up dissolving along ethnic lines like the U.S.S.R., from whence China inherited its nationality policy in the 1940s and 1950s. Pressure from outside leaders might indeed engender internal debate, but as Sisci suggests, will most likely be counterproductive. If China is to make any progress toward resolving its own enormous challenges of integration, it must chart its own course. While the past suggests the Chinese are very good at this, I am even less optimistic than Barnett or Sisci that change will come anytime soon.

Ceremonial high-level meetings such as the one between the Dalai Lama and President Obama generate headlines that are important for keeping Tibetan issues in the international public eye. That has value, regardless of the absence of obvious short-term gains. For President Obama, a refusal to meet the Dalai Lama would also be tacit admission that China has undue influence over the U.S. President’s diplomatic schedule.

The question is how to turn international awareness and goodwill into constructive action that will improve the circumstances of Tibetans living inside the P.R.C. Here, I believe a lot more can be done. But people-power, rather than politicians, should be the main actor.

I wholeheartedly agree with Dru’s suggestion changes in the treatment of the Tibetan or Uighur people could—I would hasten to say should—come from within China.

I believe there is a critical mass of P.R.C. Han and Tibetans ready to grapple with the tough issues that plague most multicultural societies. The trick is to be creative about fostering an environment where these conversations can take place.

In recent months, I have discussed ethnic discrimination, prejudice, unfairness, mistrust and fear of “the other” at over a dozen venues in China following screenings of my documentary "Nowhere To Call Home: A Tibetan in Beijing." I’ve been impressed by the openness and eagerness to discuss issues raised in the film.

The story shot over a three-year period follows a Tibetan widow and her child, as they transition from life in a traditional farming village to surviving as a single-parent street vendor household in Beijing. In the capital, they are confronted with blatant discrimination and in-your-face racism. In the hidebound village, they are faced with patriarchy and stigma as a family without a dad.

The audiences across four cities have been mostly younger Han students, academics and a smattering of minorities. The potential change makers have included anthropologists who advise the government, high school and college students, senior editors at Xinhua News Agency and ethnologists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Party School.

After each screening, inevitably someone in the audience raises the issue of how to remedy the situation for Tibetans. A few have rattled off defenses of current government policies, but more often I hear calls for an urgent need for change, and thoughtful queries about who should be leading the change. Often someone asks why no Chinese media has looked into the issues.

The younger viewers are predictably more open-minded.

Take this Wechat message by a Han high school student: who was moved to tears by the film:

“I think it is very important for the marginal ethnic people to first know who they are and what they want. Their minds should not be constrained by their inherited labels. As more and more people today begin to embrace the idea of global citizen, maybe one day the disparity in ethnics would not be that much emphasized as today. I hope the government would be supportive for all differences and pushing the pan-equality.”

At about the same hour that President Obama was extending a warm welcome to the Dalai Lama at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington last week, a P.R.C. Han student was profusely thanking me in a theater in Birmingham, England for having made my film. He had spent a lot of time in Tibetan areas and the tensions and unfairness he witnessed deeply bothered him.

Later that evening, he sent me an email:

“I will try my best to eliminate discrimination between Tibetans and Han Chinese." He thinks the underlying reason for prejudice on both sides is the lack of communication and poor mutual understanding.

Government censorship makes it extremely difficult for anyone to be well informed about P.R.C. Tibetan views, and state security policies pose a risk for Tibetans who wish to express themselves. But I do believe there is much more that can be done within the current constraints to create space for a dialogue. I look forward to hearing others’ ideas on innovative approaches.