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Cover Feature

Hope For the Dalai Lama’s Return Home

As the Dalai Lama arrives for a three-week lecture and teaching tour of the United States, prospects for reconciliation between his government-in-exile and Beijing appear more hopeful than ever.

China’s new leadership under President Hu Jintao—who previously served as the Communist Party chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region and is known to harbor an affinity for Tibetan culture-—continues to consolidate its control over the vast Chinese bureaucracy. There are increasing signs of moderation in Beijing’s policies on many sensitive issues, including Tibet.

The most noteworthy development has been the resumption of direct contact between Beijing and the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile, severed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square military crackdown and subsequent ousting of all liberal officials from the Beijing leadership. On the glacial timescale of Chinese politics, it has taken this long for progressive views to regain ascendancy. The result has been two visits by envoys of the Dalai Lama to China and Tibet in the past year, the release of several high-profile Tibetan political prisoners, and a softening of rhetoric regarding the Dalai Lama and the Tibet question in the official Chinese media.

Lodi Gyari, who headed the four-member delegation that visited China in June, said he was “greatly encouraged” by the meetings, and that the Chinese leaders “showed keen interest in continuing the process of dialogue.

“We see our reception despite Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and other political changes in China as an indication of the importance the new Chinese leadership places on resuming serious negotiations,” Gyari told reporters at the government-in-exile’s base in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala.

Gyari declined to specify any differences that emerged on his visit. “With our Chinese counterparts keen to continue with the present process, some details must remain confidential,” he continued. “We conveyed the Dalai Lama’s wish to visit Wutai (Five Peak) Mountain in Shanxi Province,” Gyari continued. The sacred Lama Buddhist learning center, 500 miles northwest of Beijing, is considered far enough away from Tibet to serve as a useful litmus test of all sides’ responses to the visit without jeopardizing the sensitive détente effort.

Pros and Cons of Reconciliation
China’s new leaders are well aware of the potential political and economic windfall that could result from a successful rapprochement with the Dalai Lama. First and foremost, it would be a huge impetus to China’s cherished desire to become an admired and respected member of the international community. Human rights and religious freedom abuses remain two of the most prominent obstacles to China’s full acceptance by its Western trading partners.

Reconciliation could also provide a significant stimulus to Tibet’s destitute economy (it remains by far the most impoverished province in China). Tourism alone could rejuvenate the Himalayan region. More than one million tourists have traveled to Tibet in 2003, accounting for revenue of more than ¥1 billion ($120 million). And this is despite the outbreak of SARS, and ongoing political crackdowns on Dalai Lama-loyalists that result in the frequent closing of tourist destinations.

Any hint of reconciliation between the Dalai Lama and Beijing would spur intense interest in travelling to Tibet on the part of people worldwide interested in the culture and landscape of the Roof of the World. But many obstacles to reconciliation remain.

Hardliners in the Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) view Tibet and the Dalai Lama through the lens of China’s centuries of subjugation by Western Imperial powers and, more recently, the Cold War.

“While you Westerners see the Dalai Lama as a peaceful, smiling monk, and award him your Nobel Prize [in 1989],” says a high-ranking Beijing official whose political views on most matters are not notably extreme. “We Chinese see a surrogate of foreign powers who are intent on undermining the sovereignty and independence we fought a Revolution and millions of Chinese spilled their blood for. And it is all under the hypocritical auspices of promoting ‘religious freedom.’”

A cynical view held by many Communist Party officials is that Beijing should use stalling tactics until the Dalai Lama dies (he is only 68 years old, but last year had to cut short a religious ceremony in India to receive emergency medical treatment and often suffers from exhaustion due to his busy traveling and teaching schedule). Without their spiritual leader to unite them, these Chinese advocates of realpolitik maintain, the Tibetans will be easier to divide and assimilate once and for all.

The danger of this policy is that it could backfire, and the strictly non-violent struggle for autonomy that the Dalai Lama has led since escaping into exile in 1959 (after an unsuccessful uprising in Lhasa against Chinese rule that left more than 100,000 Tibetans dead), is that young Tibetans-many born in exile and inculcated with extremist views of Communist China, could opt for violent means of resistance.

“I respect His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s powerful example of peaceful struggle,” says a young Tibetan activist born and raised in exile. “But I, and many of my compatriots, sometimes think that the Palestinians have gotten far more publicity for their struggle than Tibetans through intifada and armed resistance.”

The Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way”

Ironically, in this geopolitical chess game, the new moderate leadership in Beijing and the Dalai Lama share common interests and objectives. Both have a vital stake in keeping their respective extremist camps in check in order to avoid the nightmare scenario of eye-for-an-eye retribution.

The words of the Dalai Lama may express this challenge best: “Violence might lead to more publicity in the short term. But after all, the most important thing is that China and Tibet have to live side by side, whether we like it or not. In order to live harmoniously, in a friendly way, and peacefully in the future, the national struggle through non-violence is very essential.

Another important matter is that the ultimate agreement or solution must be found by the Chinese and Tibetans themselves. For that we need support from the Chinese side. I mean from the Chinese people’s side; that is very essential. In the past, our stand was the genuine non-violent method; this already creates more Chinese support, not only from the outside but inside China also. There are more supporters among the Chinese for our cause. As time goes on, more and more Chinese are expressing their deep appreciation and their sympathy. Sometimes they still find it difficult to support the autonomy of Tibet, but they appreciate our way of struggle. I consider this to be very precious. If Tibetans take up arms, then I think we will immediately lose this kind of support.

So you see, the Chinese people are our most valuable allies. What they want-peace; the ability to make a decent living for themselves, their families, and their communities; good education and health care for their children; self-government; the ability to make the important decisions that affect their lives-we want also. When the Chinese people achieve these aims, the Tibetan people will also achieve these aims. No sooner. So we must promote positive, progressive, peaceful change in China.”

Hope For the Dalai Lama’s Return Home
Meditation and Science: A Meeting of Minds

An Interview with the Dalai Lama

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Copyright 2003, by China Now Magazine. All rights reserved.