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Harper wrong to roll out carpet for Dalai Lama

September 25, 2007

Prime Minister's official welcome of the Tibetan leader would damage our
trade and relations with China

The Gazette (Montreal) OpEd

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's insistence on personally meeting the
Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, only reinforces the view his
ideological biases can undermine important Canadian interests.

Harper has decided to meet the Dalai Lama in his official capacity as
prime minister at a "government site" when the latter visits Canada next

The encounter would be only the second time a Canadian prime minister
had met with the Dalai Lama. Paul Martin met with the Tibetan spiritual
leader for a few brief moments in 2004 at the residence of the Roman
Catholic archbishop in Ottawa. That encounter provoked a strong outcry
from the Chinese, causing some Canadian businessmen to warn such
meetings could harm Canadian trade with China, now our fourth-largest
export market.

Not surprisingly, Chinese authorities have made it clear they totally
oppose Harper's proposed meeting with the Dalai Lama.

In a statement, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa said, "We are against the
provision of venues by foreign countries to the Dalai Lama's
secessionist activities and also against foreign dignitaries meeting
with him."

Many Canadians undoubtedly would back Harper's meeting with the Dalai
Lama, as they applaud the Tibetan spiritual leader for championing the
rights of the Tibetan people to be free from Chinese rule imposed on
them in 1951 following the coming to power in China in 1949 of the
communists led by Mao Tse-tung.

Many in the international community share the same high regard for the
Dalai Lama, resulting in his being honoured by prominent leaders,
including U.S. President George W. Bush who awarded him a Congressional

Such sentiments elevated the current 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso),
Tibet's primary spiritual leader, to the status of international
celebrity after his 1959 flight from Tibet following a failed uprising
by native Tibetans, ultimately winning him the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize
for his non-violent struggle to liberate his fellow countrymen from
Chinese rule.

While many admire the Dalai Lama as an individual, some nevertheless
regard the role and teachings of Tibetan religious leaders as
anachronisms in the modern era.

In addition, until the Chinese reasserted their traditional hegemony
over Tibet in 1951 - Tibet was conquered by the Mongols in the 13th
century and dominated by the Manchus from the 18th century - Tibet was
essentially a feudal society and still manifests feudal practices to
this day.

Despite the sophistication and charm of the globe-trotting Dalai Lama,
he and his predecessors ruled their country as personal fiefdoms.
Democracy, as the Dalai Lama has admitted publicly, was an unknown
concept in a rigidly theocratic state. Only in recent times has there
been any effort to promote authentic democratic practices among the
Tibetan community living in exile in India.

In fact, all four of the major Buddhist schools of thought in Tibet were
the equivalent of religion-based aristocracies, imposing their own
spiritual and political rule over their followers, most of whom, until
the Chinese intervened, were illiterate.

Notwithstanding these considerations, many in the West, including
prominent Hollywood film stars, have managed to rationalize such archaic
and dubious practices as if they were perfectly normal, if not laudable,
deserving of unquestioning respect.

They have accepted the concept that the present Lamas - the
controversial 16-year-old Panchen Lama promoted by Beijing is still in
Tibet - are the living reincarnations of deceased Lamas. Such religious
leaders are identified at an extremely young age, even at the age of 4,
through "signs." The selections can run awry with rival candidates
suddenly materializing, as happened in the case of the 11th Panchen Lama
when the Chinese replaced the Dalai Lama's candidate with one more to
their liking.

And yet few seem prepared to think deeply about the implications of such
practices, as if to do so were to demonstrate intolerance of irrational
thinking and its potentially harmful consequences for society in a
modern world.

One reason for this may have to do with anti-communist sentiment.
Putting aside the historical claims of China over Tibet, which predate
the communist takeover of China by centuries, some have become the Dalai
Lama's supporters not because of shared religious beliefs but rather
because he is regarded as challenging the communist regime in Beijing.
He is particularly popular in right-wing circles in the United States -
and the Harper government - where he's portrayed as a crusader against
godless communism.

While the issue of human rights in China remains a concern for many,
including Canadians, some would like to think that the sweeping economic
changes taking place in China would also eventually lead to other
meaningful changes, including respect for democratic principles and the
rule of law.

Although Harper might derive personal satisfaction from publicly
displaying his unwavering commitment to human rights by meeting with the
Dalai Lama, such seemingly ideologically-driven actions are unlikely to
advance the cause of democracy in China or relations between Canada and

** Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator.

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