Last month President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama
for the third time since taking office, conversing for an hour in the Map Room of the White House. The Administration reiterated its commitment to supporting the Middle Way Approach
in their official statement, while making it clear that they do not support Tibetan independence. As one might expect, Chinese officials and media organs reacted in a manner completely out of step with this highly reasonable meeting and statement, variously accusing President Obama of having “perverted purposes
,” playing the “Dalai card
,” forming an “unholy alliance
,” and following the “abominable precedent
” set by former President George H. W. Bush, the first American President to welcome the Dalai Lama to the White House.
Amidst all this froth
, one particular narrative consistently pushed by Chinese officials and their media mouthpieces was the idea that all Chinese citizens, including Tibetans, were offended by the meeting. An opinion piece in China Daily penned by Lian Xiangmin, a director of the Communist Party-backed China Tibetology Research Center, claimed
that the Dalai Lama's activities not only lack the support of Tibetans, but are actively “condemned
” by them. Another China Daily piece, this one an unsigned editorial
, said that the Middle Way approach is “against the will” of Tibetans. A third one
alleged that the Dalai Lama's influence in Tibet has “waned.”
The writers are conspicuously silent on sourcing these claims, which leaves them suspect given the prohibition against opinion polling in Tibet. Chinese propaganda outlets apparently can't help but to try to speak on behalf of Tibetans, despite being repeatedly contradicted by the words and actions of the Tibetan people throughout the decades. Completely misjudging the relationship between the Dalai Lama and Tibetans is something of a Party specialty at this point. In 1979, for example, Chinese authorities held meetings
in advance of the arrival of the Dalai Lama's first fact-finding delegation into Tibet, asking that locals refrain from throwing stones or spitting at them. Instead, they were shocked to see that each successive delegation was enthusiastically greeted by thousands of Tibetans at each stop- “mobbed” by them, as Tsering Shakya put it
Ten years later the Dalai Lama was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. The news spread through Lhasa by word of mouth over the next few days, and soon thousands of Tibetans gathered in the heart of Lhasa to celebrate. Ronald D. Schwartz, a sociologist who personally witnessed
many of the defining moments of the late 80's in Lhasa, wrote of Tibetans “speaking openly of their delight in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama.” Festivities continued for days, ending only when authorities intervened and threatened to arrest celebrants. Both the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007
and the Dalai Lama's first meeting with President Obama
in 2010 were greeted by celebrations across Tibet as well.
Official claims that Tibetans opposed the Dalai Lama and Obama meeting were visibly contradicted by Tibetans posting at the time on Weibo, a Chinese social media network similar to Twitter. There, reactions[i]
ranged from joy over the meeting to a rejection of Chinese propaganda on the subject. “Thank you Obama,” one reposted message said, while others posted combinations of smiling faces, peace signs, flowers, and candle icons in reaction to the news:
“Elder brother, this afternoon you said something very good. Therefore I praise you.”
Other Tibetan posters expressed derision towards Chinese propaganda in the form of laughter at a particularly hard-line editorial. Still others posted an image of Obama's face photoshopped onto the body of a Khampa Tibetan, accompanied by approving comments:
There were also an unusually high number of references to posts being deleted on the two days following the meeting among Tibetans I checked, from which we might reasonably infer that even more explicit or popular messages in support of the meeting may have been quickly culled. Although this is still no substitute for scientific polling, at the end of the day all of the reactions I found among Tibetans on Weibo were positive, and I didn't encounter any instances of them condemning the meeting.
The unsigned China Daily editorial
did make one point I think we can all support: it closes by calling on Obama to do more to benefit “people in Tibet.” I concur, and suggest that he begin by sparing no effort to support the Dalai Lama and the Middle Way Approach by whatever methods are appropriate.
Links haven't been provided to these posts in order to protect the identities of the Tibetans who posted them.