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How China sees the Dalai Lama and his cause

April 5, 2008

By Pallavi Aiyar
Daily Mirror
Friday, April 04, 2008

What those urging China to negotiate with the Dalai Lama fail to
recognise is the fact that Beijing’s main constituency is not the
international community but its own domestic public. For Beijing to
appear ‘soft’ on the Dalai Lama would be as politically unpalatable
domestically asit would be in the United States were Washington to
decide to engage in dialogue with Osama bin Laden.

With tensions in Tibet continuing to bubble, pundits and politicians in
both India and the West are increasingly calling for talks between the
Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.

One argument supporting the utility of talks between the Chinese
leadership and the pre-eminent Tibetan Buddhist leader reasons that
contrary to the dominant belief in Beijing, the Dalai Lama is in fact
China’s best bet for a long-term and stabl e solution to the Tibet
issue. Only the Dalai Lama has the stature and authority to convince the
Tibetan population at large that its interests lie within rather than
separate from China, this line of reasoning proceeds. Thus it is argued
that if Beijing loses out on the opportunity to reach an accommodation
with the exiled leader now, it may end up with an even more
unpredictable and hard to control situation regarding Tibetan
aspirations for self-determination after the Dalai’s death.

Others are urging the Chinese leadership to negotiate with the Dalai
Lama to prove to the world that it “deserves” to host the Olympic Games.
Beijing will be able to boost its international image and prove its
critics wrong if only it would agree to talks, it is claimed.

What neither of these arguments takes into account, however, is how
strongly divergent perceptions of the Dalai Lama within China and
abroad, combined with the deep vein of government-stoked nationalism
that runs through contemporary Chinese society, mak it virtually
impossible for Beijing to sell any potential deal reached with the Dalai
Lama to its public. While in the West the Dalai is widely seen as a
Nobel prize-winning, peace-loving figure of moral authority, within
China the monk is regularly projected as not only a separatist but also
a duplicitous trouble-maker not above unleashing violence.

In the aftermath of the recent riots and protests in Tibet, Internet
chat rooms in China are abuzz with anger and indignation at what many
see as the biased portrayal of the situation by the western media and
the ‘hypocritical’ actions and statements of the Dalai Lama.
Revealingly, many Chinese have even lashed out at the authorities for
their ostensible leniency in dealing with the protests, in sharp
contradistinction to the ‘repressive crackdown’ most commentators abroad
have criticised Beijing for.

The majority of Chinese have little awareness that there is a Tibet
problem at all. Although a relatively high-profile issue abroad, thanks
in part to the efforts of Hollywood, within China Tibet is usually far
less prominent in the consciousness of the average Chinese than Taiwan.
In school, Chinese youngsters are taught how the region has only
benefited from Communist rule. The feudal theocracy of the Dalai Lama
was replaced by the enlightened policies of the People’s Republic, they
are told, with the result that Tibet has enjoyed rising living standards
and economic development.

While the Dalai Lama is portrayed as a sinister figure working to split
Tibet from the Chinese nation, he is also described as having little
support among the Tibetan population at large. When I gave a lecture to
a class of about 50 students at one of Beijing’s top journalism
universities a few years ago, I discovered that not one of the bright,
young things I was talking to was aware that the Dalai Lama had won the
Nobel prize.

Moreover, many Chinese regard Tibetans as being unfairly privileged
since they are granted certain special subsidies and benefits from the
government because of their ethnic status. For example, they are
exempted from the one-child policy that restricts urban Han Chinese
families to a single child.

Given this background, the TV footage and photographs of rampaging monks
in Lhasa and elsewhere attacking Han civilians and security forces have
bewildered many Chinese. They are particularly outraged at western media
stories that consistently blame the Chinese government for its handling
of the situation while bolstering the Dalai Lama’s version of events.

With the Olympics being held in Beijing this August, 2008 was intended
as a year for the Chinese to showcase their new globalised and friendly
face to the world. Instead the reaction of the West to the Tibet issue,
widely publicised daily in all official media, is leading to feelings of
victimisation among the Chinese and a correspondingly sharp response
from the authorities. “If the terrorists insist on carrying out their
attacks on lives and properties of the Chinese nation,” opined one
netizen on the English language China Daily website chat room, “[the]
next step would be to exterminate them, like so many cockroaches.” He
added: “The Olympics is only a party to celebrate China’s successes. It
is not a goal in itself. Allowing the terrorists to run amok would
jeopardise the 30 years of successes from all that hard work and smart
work of the Chinese citizenry.” What those urging China to negotiate
with the Dalai Lama fail to recognise is the fact that Beijing’s main
constituency is not the international community but its own domestic
public. The Olympics, important though they may be to the country’s
prestige, are seen as far less important than China’s territorial integrity.

There is a range of scholarship on contemporary China that demonstrates
the fundamental utility of nationalism as a source of legitimacy to the
country’s ruling party. Given this fact, for Beijing to appear ‘soft’ on
the Dalai Lama would be as politically unpalatable domestically as it
would be in the United States were Washington to decide to engage in
dialogue with Osama bin Laden.

The door for dialogue and genuine compromise between the Chinese
government and the Dalai Lama was open briefly in the 1980s. The two
sides held secret talks in Beijing in 1982 and 1984. At the time
however, the Dalai Lama was less clear than he states he is today on the
issue of how far he was willing to accept Chinese rule over Tibet. The
exiles repeatedly insisted that any solution must entail the governance
of Tibet under a totally different political system than what the rest
of China had. This would mean transforming the region into a
self-governing democratic entity, something that was patently
unacceptable to Beijing.

When in 1989 the Chinese authorities invited the Dalai Lama to
participate in a religious ceremony in an effort to re-start stalled
talks, the exiled leader refused. He chose instead to appeal to the West
to put pressure on China to accede to his demands. For Beijing this move
branded the Dalai Lama as a chronically unreliable negotiator. Since
then the Chinese leadership’s preferred approach is to wait for the
monk’s passing. The idea is that any successor of the current Dalai is
unlikely to inspire similar veneration in Tibetans and would thus lack
the clout enjoyed by the current leader.

Thus while Chinese leaders have repeatedly, in recent weeks, stated that
they are open to talks with the Dalai Lama, they reiterate the caveat
that he must give up his demand for independence. The Dalai Lama in turn
has repeatedly insisted that he has no such claim. The Chinese respond
by pointing to the riots in Lhasa and hence the Dalai’s ‘obvious
insincerity.’ And so on it goes, in circles. Even were the government
persuaded to attempt a compromise with the exiled leader, its room for
manoeuvre is slim given the way the public views the situation. Any
change in Beijing’s position, including talks with the Dalai Lama, would
appear as bowing to foreign pressure and failing to respond firmly to

In 1989 the Dalai Lama won the Nobel peace prize. However, beyond
symbolic gains for his cause, his strategy of appealing to the West for
support failed to make China compromise on Tibet. In fact, it
precipitated a more hard-line policy on the issue, which persists till
today. With the recent protests and the upcoming Olympic Games, the
Dalai and Tibet are once again in the international limelight. However,
given the Chinese reaction there is little cause to believe any
fundamental shift in Tibet’s situation will be precipitated.
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