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
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.
For the Dalai Lama’s Return Home
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
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.”
Meditation and Science:
A Meeting of Minds
An Interview with the Dalai Lama