How He Sees It Now

It is open season on the Dalai Lama and not just for Beijing, for whom he is “a monk in wolf’s clothing,” or for Rupert Murdoch, who dismissed him as a “very old political monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes.” During his trip to London in May, when I met the Dalai Lama three times, Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown declined to receive him at 10 Downing Street, as Tony Blair had done; earlier, Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged both China and the Tibetans “to show restraint.”1 When the Dalai Lama visited Oxford, the head of one of the institutions where he spoke, who has connections with China, stipulated that the name of the place must not be used in news reports; nor could a picture be taken of the outside of the building while the Dalai Lama was there. (The Dalai Lama spoke without such limitations elsewhere at Oxford.) The New York Timescolumnist Nicholas Kristof, once the paper’s Beijing bureau chief, recently wrote:

The Dalai Lama has won acclaim internationally, but that acclaim triggers the deep Chinese sensitivity to foreign bullying and thus has antagonized the audience that may count the most: China. The Dalai Lama missed opportunities by neglecting outreach by General Secretary Hu Yaobang in 1981, by spurning an invitation to China in 1989 and by announcing the choice of the Panchen Lama in a way that Beijing felt insulting.2

More hurtful to the Dalai Lama, as he observed recently in London, are the views of some Tibetans within Tibet and abroad who say openly that his “Middle Way” of nonviolence has allowed China to overwhelm their country. During his visit to Britain, at his news conferences and a meeting with members of Parliament, he was asked whether he has lost the battle for nonviolence in Tibet, and if Tibetans are better off materially under Chinese rule. He was asked, too, if he wants Tibetan independence, as Beijing asserts, and if he is contemplating abstention from political activity. A Chinese reporter asked him to compare human rights in Tibet before and after the Chinese occupation.

* * *

Has his lifelong advocacy of nonviolence failed? This question for the Dalai Lama came not long after innocent Chinese in Tibet were beaten and killed by young Tibetans in March. In India, Europe, and the United States I have heard young Tibetans, after affirming their respect for the Dalai Lama, urge that it is time to take up arms against the Chinese. The Dalai Lama said in London that the recent violence of Tibetans against Chinese made him sad and caused him pain. “There are Tibetans who are critical of myself,” he said. “And now after fifty or sixty years of Chinese policy there is a rule of fear. The majority of people now in Lhasa are Hans [ethnic Chinese] and in daily life even the Chinese language is becoming the most important. It is possible that the Tibetans will become an insignificant minority.”3

The Dalai Lama observed that in other non-Han regions of China, such as Mongolia and Manchuria, the native culture is either under threat or has largely disappeared. But if his insistence on nonviolence proves useless to Tibetans, the Dalai Lama admitted, he has, since 1987, been prepared to resign his political responsibilities, which include “speaking for Tibetans,” and settle for life as a monk. “I am already half-retired,” he said.

So is he anti-Han? he was asked more than once. Has Chinese rule in Tibet done nothing but harm?

Some Chinese think I feel that way. Take Buddhism. It got to China some centuries before Tibet, so in that respect they are our elder brothers. Also Tibet, a landlocked place, needed modernization in many fields and Tibetans welcome it. No Tibetans want a return to the old system. We were spiritually advanced but materially backward. But what we also need is the preservation of our culture, our values, and our religion.

The Chinese have repeatedly accused the Dalai Lama of “splittism,” of seeking independence. In London he replied:

We think Tibet is a part of China. History is history, the past is the past. We concentrate on the present and future. I have said one thousand times we do not seek independence. China should manage defense and foreign policy. Inside Tibet, Tibetans should be responsible for education, religion, and the environment. We want the preservation of Tibetan culture inside the People’s Republic of China.

The threat to Tibetan identity does not come only from the Chinese. In her recent unique and eye-opening book A Year in Tibet, Sun Shuyun observes that young Tibetans chosen by the authorities to be educated in China

are immersed in an atheist Communist ideology, the very antithesis of Buddhism, the foundation of Tibetan society—they lose touch with the values, outlook, etiquette, attitudes to marriage and the family—everything their parents and grandparents cherish. And they are going to run Tibet one day.4

Members of Parliament asked the Dalai Lama about negotiations with the Chinese. He pointed out that his envoys had just concluded an “informal” round of negotiations with Chinese officials and that in June new “formal” negotiations will begin. He hoped that the Chinese might agree to slow down Han immigration into Tibet, which I expect they will refuse to do. The Dalai Lama noted that President Hu Jintao has said such talks should be “serious,” and he hoped that Hu’s new policy of “harmony”—which seems to be a call for “stability,” that is obedience, throughout China—would smooth the negotiations. The Dalai Lama said that “direct contact” began in 1978 when his older brother met Deng Xiaoping and Party Secretary General Hu Yaobang on several occasions:

In the early Eighties I was hopeful. In 1983 I said I would go to China and Tibet. In 1984 my delegation visited Tibet. But in 1985 and 1986, when the Democracy Movement began in China, and with the departure of Hu Yaobang their policies hardened, and after Tiananmen in 1989 things were even more difficult. But at one of our negotiations they said they believed we no longer wanted independence. Now they say I am not sincere.

He recalled a popular British television series. “I think they don’t like me because I don’t say ‘Yes, Minister.’”

* * *

On May 30, at the place at Oxford that cannot be named, I attended a meeting that the Dalai Lama told me was “most unusual, most welcome.” He met 240 descendants of forty British diplomats, officials, soldiers, and travelers who had been in Tibet before 1950. These included political officers, garrison commanders, radio operators, and doctors. Five of those present had actually been in Tibet over sixty years ago, and others were the descendants of three of the four British representatives who were present at the installation of the infant Dalai Lama in 1940.

George Patterson, originally a missionary in Kham, a region of Tibet, in 1947, returned to Tibet in 1964 where he filmed Tibetan guerrillas (“not the CIA ones”) attacking a Chinese military convoy. “They slaughtered the Chinese,” he told me. “When the Khampas [a Tibetan ethnic group] caught a Chinese they would cut off his nose and send him back to his base.” An elderly descendant of Sir Charles Bell, a legendary British official whose connection with Tibet reached back to 1904, and who was close to the present Dalai Lama’s predecessor, gave the Dalai Lama a photograph Sir Charles had taken in Lhasa early in the twentieth century. Dick Gould, the son of another famous British official, Sir Basil Gould, who saw the Dalai Lama’s installation, showed the Dalai Lama a painting of himself as an infant, done in his father’s time, and remembered that his father presented the Dalai Lama with a movie camera. The Dalai Lama recalled his excitement at the possibility of such “foreign presents,” including a car “in which I had an accident.” The actress Joanna Lumley told me that as early as 1908 her grandfather had been a captain in the British residence at Gyantse, a Tibetan town.

Gazing about at the assembled guests, some very old, some infants in arms, the Dalai Lama observed:

All of you are friends of the Tibetan people, even the small children here, all with the same blood and DNA. Religion is a matter for each individual. But culture, including the precious Tibetan culture, is for the whole community.

In my view the Chinese are lucky the Dalai Lama is still alive. He is not merely the deeply spiritual and charming Buddhist incarnation described by many of those who meet and write about him, most recently Alexander Norman, Pico Iyer, and Robert Thurman.5 He is responsible for keeping the lid on Tibet, although he admits his influence with younger Tibetans is waning. He has repeated endlessly that he hopes for greater autonomy for Tibet, but not, definitely not, independence. He makes no attacks on the Chinese as a people and reserves his criticisms and condemnations, reasonably enough, for how their leaders have treated Tibetans, and how Tibetan culture is under immediate threat.6

The Dalai Lama is almost seventy-three. He has said to me that when he dies he expects the Chinese will “discover” a child who will be presented as the fifteenth incarnation. They anticipated this maneuver after the tenth Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second-highest religious figure, died in 1989, and the Dalai Lama, as is traditional (which Nicholas Kristof appears not to know), designated a successor. The Chinese kidnapped that child in 1995 and installed their own Panchen. But when will they have their chance to install a new Dalai Lama? Beijing may be in for a surprise. In Oxford the Dalai Lama whispered into my ear that “my doctors tell me I am in very good health. Everything fine. They think I will live to 102.”

  1. Contrast this with the unprecedented open letter from 370 Chinese intellectuals in the May 15, 2008, issue of The New York Review, calling on Beijing to stop abusing the Tibetans and to show restraint.
  2. International Herald Tribune, May 18, 2008.
  3. In his article on Tibet in the May 29, 2008, issue of The New York Review, Robert Barnett, a Tibetanist at Columbia University, wrote, "The anti-Chinese riot in Lhasa, ugly though it apparently was, could have been predicted: it was by no means the first display of ethnic unrest by Tibetans in Lhasa or elsewhere [Barnett saw such violence in Lhasa in the late 1980s, and reported it], and might have been expected in any city in the world that is pursuing a policy of rapid reversal of demographic balance while suppressing any form of local disagreement.... It pointed to the long-term failure of governance of people who want to maintain their cultural identity."
  4. London: HarperCollins, 2008, p. 68.
  5. Alexander Norman, Holder of the White Lotus: The Lives of the Dalai Lama (London: Little, Brown, 2008); Robert Thurman, Why the Dalai Lama Matters (Atria, 2008); Pico Iyer, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Knopf, 2008), reviewed by Robert Barnett in The New York Review, May 29, 2008.
  6. Robert Thurman, once a Buddhist monk, now a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia, offers Beijing advice in his new book. If Beijing presented Tibet with genuine autonomy within China, he suggests, "China would gain the Dalai Lama as an ally and the Dalai Lama would campaign for the Tibetans to join a federal union with China." I fear a big obstacle here is China's president, Hu Jintao, whom Thurman appeals to as a reasonable man. In Lhasa in 1988, when he was Party secretary in Tibet, Hu told me that Tibetans were uncultured and dangerous.
Dalai Lama, Human Rights, Tibet