Chinese misrepresenting Tibetan aspirations

On Wednesday, March 12, 2014, in Recent, by John N

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:

tweet

“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:

Barack Obama Khampa Tibetan

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.


[i] Links haven’t been provided to these posts in order to protect the identities of the Tibetans who posted them.

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What is this “Middle Way” the Dalai Lama preaches?

On Tuesday, February 25, 2014, in Dalai Lama, US Government, by Bhuchung K. Tsering

The Dalai Lama unveiled his Five Point Peace Plan

The Dalai Lama unveiled his Five Point Peace Plan, a key milestone for the Middle Way, in the U.S. Congress in 1987.

The latest meeting between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and President Barack Obama on February 21, 2014 has led to some developments, including in the Chinese Government asking the question, “What is this “middle way” the Dalai Lama preaches?” (via a Xinhua report on February 22).

If the Chinese authorities feign to know this even after the past many years of dialogue with his representatives, I believe the answer can be got by looking at some outcomes of the Obama-Dalai Lama meeting.

First, the meeting was followed by the most categorical statement to date by the White House about President Obama supporting the Middle Way approach of the Dalai Lama. In diplomacy where each and every word in such statements are weighed, the President not only “commended” the Middle Way approach (as has been done in 2010 and 2011), but also “expressed support” for it. The Chinese Government has sensed this and hence their Xinhua piece as well as the consternation shown by the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman.

Secondly, and equally important is that the White House explained its understanding of the Middle Way. Spokesman Jay Carney told the media on February 21, “The United States supports the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” approach of neither assimilation, nor independence for Tibetans in China.”

This is very much in tune with the thinking of the Dalai Lama who has always maintained that his Middle Way was avoiding the two extremes: between the present critical situation of the Tibetan people where their very identity’s survival is at stake and the other extreme of regaining Tibet’s independence.

Thirdly, it is also significant that the White House Spokesman says “The United States supports the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” approach…” To me, this indicates that the support is not just the personal belief of the President, but also of the United States Government as a whole.

Therefore, the White House statement not only explains the fundamental concept of the Middle Way, but in the process it is a strong refutation of the Chinese Government’s attempt to discredit the Middle Way.

The Dalai Lama came forth with his Middle Way approach in earnest; as a sincere attempt to provide a solution that is mutually beneficial to the Tibetan and to the Chinese, and which takes into consideration China’s stability concerns. He started formulating this approach internally way back in the 1970s and so when the then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sent a message to him in 1978-79 that other than the issue of the independence of Tibet, everything else can be discussed and resolved, the Dalai Lama was able to respond positively.

Since then the Dalai Lama has stopped talking about Tibetan independence and has been calling for a solution that will enable the Tibetan people to live in dignity by preserving and promoting their distinct identity and heritage.

Diplomatically, the Dalai Lama came out with a series of initiatives, beginning with the Five Point Peace Plan in 1987 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to the Strasbourg Proposal at the European Parliament in 1988, etc. Instead of responding to these initiatives positively, the Chinese Government has continued to sweep the Tibetan problem under the carpet and to control the Tibetan people by force.

Above all, the Memorandum for genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people, which the Dalai Lama’s envoys presented to the Chinese Government in 2008 clearly spells out the Tibetan position. It outlines 11 areas in which the concerns of the Tibetan people needed to be addressed, all within the framework of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.

However, China ignores this aspect because it does not fit their political agenda and seek recourse to propaganda.

Those who know the Tibetan issue, know that Xinhua and the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman repeats their well known narrative; since the Chinese authorities lack the political courage to address the genuine concerns of the Tibetan people, they find fault with each and every initiative of the Dalai Lama under his Middle Way approach.

The Chinese Government says, “the “middle way” approach demands independence by its very nature.” But the White House statement reflects the international community’s acknowledgement that the Dalai Lama’s approach is one that is not of independence, but of securing dignity and respect for the Tibetan people while addressing stability concerns of China.

Therefore, if there is one clear political message from the Obama-Dalai Lama meeting, it is this: the United States is against the assimilation of the Tibetan people and that the Middle Way is the solution to the Tibetan problem.

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Dalai Lama

Party policy sanctions routine vilification of the Dalai Lama in Chinese state media.

Chinese state-media is no stranger to articles featuring false accusations, selective reasoning, and extreme argumentation, especially when it comes to the Dalai Lama and what are now 124 Tibetan self-immolations. The latest in the line of such articles appeared recently on the main English-language web portal for state-produced news and commentary on Tibet, China Tibet Online. This particular article weaves impassioned quotes from the Dalai Lama regarding Tibetan self-immolations with cynical commentary that attempts to blame him for Tibetans setting themselves on fire in political protest, yet ends with an appeal for his involvement in helping end such protests. It is often easy to dismiss such articles based on their propagandistic purposes to convey the Party’s self-serving version of the truth. Read more closely, however, and we can see that these articles don’t simply appear as isolated responses to contingent circumstances, but largely derive from the policy decisions the Party has made regarding its approach to the Dalai Lama.

Such vehement attacks on the Dalai Lama that appear with seeming regularity in state-media have in large part been sanctioned by the Communist Party for nearly 20 years, since the Party’s Third Tibet Work Forum, held in 1994. The Tibet Work Forums are major policy meetings held on occasion to set the Party’s overall strategy as it relates to Tibet (the most recent forum, the fifth, was convened by the Party’s top echelon in January 2010). At the crucial Third Tibet Work Forum, however, Party leaders abandoned what had been a relatively less hostile approach, and began to publicly condemn the Dalai Lama, and citing him as the root cause of instability in Tibet.

Prior to the Third Work Forum, denigrating the Tibetan spiritual leader was not an explicit goal of Party policy. It follows that without that key decision, or a subsequent one like it, we probably wouldn’t see such articles teeming with utter contempt for the Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Laureate. We would see Party leaders better positioned to sincerely engage with the Dalai Lama on the problems in Tibet, rather than shrouding their invitations for his greater involvement with cynicism and spurious claims, which has the effect of actively working against attempts at mutual cooperation.

As long as the Party leadership maintains their course of giving license to public condemnations of the Dalai Lama, they will face the contradicting goals of seeking to diminish the Dalai Lama’s influence, while at the same time seeking to utilize that very stature in order to address issues, such as the Tibetan self-immolations, that the Party itself has proven ill-equipped to face.

Perhaps recent suggestions emanating from within the Party that leaders in China cannot simply ignore the Dalai Lama’s religious significance could pave a way forward, and create the pretense needed for authorities to safely begin to confront the reality of the Dalai Lama’s role in Tibetan society. However, without ending the public condemnations, Party leaders allow themselves few realistic avenues for engaging with the Dalai Lama in order to address what is taking place in Tibet today. The first step Party leaders must take, is to stop denigrating the Dalai Lama.

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Dalai Lama, Beijing, and Tibetan self-immolation

On Tuesday, May 21, 2013, in China, Dalai Lama, Self-Immolation, by Chris Ratke

Tapey

Tapey, who self-immolated on February 27, 2009.

On February 27, 2009 a monk from Kirti monastery named Tapey set fire to himself along the main road in Ngaba county town. It has been over four years since his self-immolation protest, the first in Tibet. With over 100 such protests taking place since then, the self-immolations continue to generate a multitude of questions (and answers) among commentators and observers of Tibet. While the questions range from wondering if there is religious justification for these harrowing protests, to their political efficacy, most seek in some way to help us better understand how seemingly healthy, well-adjusted individuals (despite Beijing’s baseless – and shameless – propagandistic claims to the contrary) choose to undertake a form of protest that so clearly accepts death as an outcome. Presumably by answering these questions our increased understanding will lead to some action that will help bring a stop to the self-immolations.

Rather than directing these questions to Party leaders in China, holding them to account for the conditions in Tibet today that have led to the self-immolations, another line of inquiry is often pursued which seeks to reconcile popular notions about the Dalai Lama and his relationship with the Tibetan people, with his perceived inaction regarding the self-immolations. This is usually articulated as some variant of, “why hasn’t the Dalai Lama condemned the self-immolations?” or simply, “why hasn’t the Dalai Lama put a stop to the self-immolations?” These questions are largely based on the assumption that it is possible for the Dalai Lama to issue a proclamation that would bring an end to the self-immolations – an assumption that on some level accepts that the Dalai Lama is allowing, or even in some way causing, the self-immolations to continue.

This sentiment was again raised in a recent blog-posting on the Council on Foreign Relations website which asked, “why hasn’t [the] Dalai Lama used his moral authority to issue a public statement asking for Tibetans to stop the practice?” The writer asserts that “[i]t is widely believed that self-immolation cases would drop significantly if he makes such a move.”

The Dalai Lama was asked a similar question in a recent interview, in which he in part replied that, “I have always seen myself as a spokesperson of the Tibetans, not their sovereign. These people are responsible and make their decisions independently. Unfortunately, I’m not in the position to offer them a concrete alternative.”

While the Dalai Lama is widely recognized as the most revered spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism, the manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion whose teachings and words carry the highest religious and moral relevance to millions of people, and the national figure for a nation without a state, he is not a dictator, a monarch, or even a Chairman. While it is not always recognized by others, the Dalai Lama has made clear that his position is not absolute and is bound by limitations. This includes not exercising dominion over the Tibetan people.

In addition to these more pragmatic considerations, the Dalai Lama has made clear the ethical dilemma he faces when addressing the self-immolations. Speaking to Reuters last August, he stated, “I will not give encouragement to these acts, these drastic actions, but it is understandable and indeed very, very sad.” As the leader of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama must reconcile not encouraging the self-immolations with knowing that if he “say[s] something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their own life. It is not easy.” It is with this in mind that the Dalai Lama concludes that “the best thing is to remain neutral.” (The Hindu, ‘Meaningful autonomy is the only realistic solution’)

It is deeply cynical to contend that the Dalai Lama has the power to halt the self-immolation protests by issuing a verbal proclamation, yet disavows that ability and allows them to continue, all the while acknowledging how tragic these acts are.

Beijing has not hesitated to indulge in this reasoning, often pointing to the absence of a condemnation by His Holiness as evidence that he is either secretly behind the self-immolation protests, or simply has no regard for human life. (It should not be lost that in raising these points, Beijing never directs their comments to the Dalai Lama himself. Presumably, that would be too close to a direct dialogue with the Tibetan spiritual leader.)

Whether it comes from the leadership in Beijing, a Western journalist, or a casual political observer learning of the self-immolations for the first time, searching for a solution to the self-immolations based on preconceived notions of the Dalai Lama’s authority over Tibetans obfuscates the Chinese government’s responsibility to investigate and address the self-immolation protests. This double-standard that seeks answers from Dalai Lama before the Party is not only due to recognition on some level that the Dalai Lama’s position with the Tibetan people is far greater than that of the Party’s, but because the Dalai Lama is accessible (to those outside of Tibet) and upholds democratic principles, neither of which can be said of the Party. It is the leadership in Beijing who claims to be the sovereign over all Tibetan areas and desperately seeks recognition of its legitimacy. And as things stand, it is to Beijing where the gaze of commentators and world leaders must turn in order to find an answer to the question of how to truly bring an end to the self-immolations.

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