His Holiness the Dalai Lama has already made a cameo appearance in the 2012 U.S. presidential race.
On the day that Jon Huntsman (governor of Utah 2005-2009, Ambassador to China 2009-2011) launched his campaign, there was some Internet buzz over a photo he posted on his Facebook site of him meeting with the Dalai Lama. It turns out the photo was from May 2001 during His Holiness’ visit to Utah, at an event hosted by then-Governor Mike Leavitt.
It’s not that His Holiness has not been brought into U.S. presidential campaigns before. Recall Republican nominee Sen. John McCain met with him in Colorado in July 2008. And candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton corresponded with him earlier in 2008 in response to the uprising in Tibet.
This shows that connections to the Dalai Lama are politically positive for politicians. He is an iconic figure, revered and respected by Americans from across the political spectrum. His Holiness ranks among the world’s most popular leaders in polls conducted in several countries including the U.S. – in 2010 he came in second to Obama (which likely means he polls ahead of the President domestically). It is worth noting that Huntsman didn’t post any photos of himself with Chinese leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, whom he has met many more times than the Dalai Lama.
But why did this photo with Huntsman go viral? Candidate Obama posted a picture of himself and HHDL on his campaign site in 2008, which did not attract media attention. It’s expected that candidates will post pictures of themselves with important and interesting people. Here is an AFP article on the photo. Radio Free Asia may also be running a story.
On one level, it merely demonstrates the media’s competitive quest to hyper-scrutinize every aspect of a candidate’s story. With Huntsman, it shows that his years as Ambassador to Beijing (under Obama) will get attention beyond the question of how his opponents will try to paste a big “O” on his forehead.
Evan Osnos, who writes for the New Yorker from Beijing, cites the photo in a look at how the state-run Chinese press is looking at Huntsman the candidate. He writes that the cheers that greeted Mandarin-speaking Huntsman’s arrival as Ambassador in Beijing have turned to coolness, as the Chinese press speculates on the obstacles in his campaign.
Osnos asks why the Huntsman campaign hasn’t moved to patch up relations, which seems to me an odd question. For one, they are focused with his standing among Republican primary voters, not with Chinese officials. For another, Huntsman may recognize that leaving a little space between himself and the Communist leaders in Beijing may be useful as he tries to define himself in a crowded field.
I had the opportunity to meet him twice during his tenure as Ambassador. His reputation as an active ambassador on human rights is well deserved. He was also engaged on the Tibet issue. But I also sensed he was an astute politician who, inasmuch as he was planning at that time to run for President, understood the future political benefits of gaining such a reputation.
Will Huntsman’s entry, and his Dalai Lama photo, lead to more focus on China on the campaign trail? We can only hope. China was an absentee issue in 2008, and with Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya dominating the headlines, it has not been an issue so far, despite all the economic, security and moral challenges in U.S. engagement with China.
It will be interesting to see how Huntsman plays the question of his service in China in the campaign. He can’t actively critique President Obama’s China policies, as he was the implementer of them. Perhaps this will cause his opponents to try to use China, and critique of Obama’s China policy, as a wedge against him. At the same time, Huntsman can’t run away from his service there, the reputation he gained, and the subtly provocative things he did. While I am inclined not to read too much into the Dalai Lama photo on Facebook, perhaps it is a signal of the approach Huntsman will take in his quest to be the next President.