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Interview: The Dalai Lama's Visit to D.C.: A Short Interview with Historian A. Tom Grunfeld

February 27, 2010

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Professor of History, UC Irvine
The Huffington Post
February 24, 2010

The lead-up to the Dalai Lama's meeting with
President Barack Obama at the White House last
week received a great deal of attention from the
press, and there was also a considerable amount
of after-the-fact assessment of the event. In
order to place what happened into a broad
historical perspective, I put a few questions to
A. Tom Grunfeld, who is a past contributor to
"China Beat" and the author of The Making of
Modern Tibet. Here are the results of our
interview via e-mail, and if you live in New York
and want to hear him talk about the subject live,
he'll be giving a couple of lectures on related
issues in early April through a program sponsored
by that state's Council for the Humanities.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: What did you think of the
media coverage of the Dalai Lama's meeting with
President Obama and the general tenor of commentary on the event?

A. Tom Grunfeld: It's not very good in that it is
largely uninformed. General news reporters, or
those with White House beats, cannot be expected
to know much about Sino-Tibetan history or the
nuances of the current state of affairs between
the Dalai Lama and Beijing. But, of course, they
could take some time and consult someone who has this knowledge.

I suspect that for the US media the Dalai Lama is
more of a symbol than anyone of real importance.
He has become a cultural icon rather than a
political player. This is understandable when we
keep in mind that apart from the moral issues of
human rights Tibet is not very important to the
US politically, strategically, economically or militarily.

JW: Do you have any thoughts on how this meeting
was similar to or different from past
interactions between the Dalai Lama and American presidents?

ATG: President Obama is the fourth president that
the Dalai Lama has met. George H.W. Bush and Bill
Clinton met him privately, not in the Oval Office
where official guests are taken. There was no
press allowed and pictures were few, if any.

George W. Bush changed that by meeting with the
Dalai Lama publically, in front of the press and
presenting him with a Congressional Medal of Honor.

President Obama's meeting reverted to past
practice. And, in spite of the public
condemnations, I suspect the Chinese government,
knowing it couldn't prevent the meeting, was satisfied with how it played out.

JW: One point that various people made, including
me when I was interviewed about the visit on NPR,
was that there were many aspects of the Dalai
Lama's trip to Washington, as well as the
official Chinese reaction to what took place,
that were predictable and stuck to familiar
scripts. Was there anything about the event or
the discussion it generated, on either side of
the Pacific, which surprised you?

ATG: The photos of the Dalai Lama exiting the
White House through the backdoor and having to
pass by mounds of garbage. They could have done
something a little more dignified. The entire
episode is like a Kabuki play where the actors
use scripts agreed to long ago and play their
parts accordingly and the outcome is known long before the event itself.

The real question is what good does it do?
Meeting the president in the White House
(regardless of the room) gives the Tibetan exiles
and their supporters a moral boost. But it
doesn't help the Dalai Lama-Beijing talks.

If anything, it hinders them because Chinese
officials see it as a renewal of the Dalai
Lama-CIA collaboration of the 1950-1960s, which
was intended to destabilize the Chinese government.

In addition it gives Tibetans inside the PRC the
erroneous notion that Washington supports the
Dalai Lama politically, if not militarily. This
can only lead to disappointment and feelings of
betrayal much like how Tibetans felt when China
became an American ally after the Kissinger-Nixon
visits and the CIA abandoned their Tibetan allies.

If the goal of the Dalai Lama and the Tibet Lobby
is to further the interests of the Tibetans
inside the PRC and to facilitate the Dalai
Lama-Beijing talks, then presidential visits have been failures.

JW: If you were able to pose one question to the
Dalai Lama about the meeting, what would it be?

ATG: How far are you willing to go in
compromising your positions if the Chinese are
also willing to compromise some of theirs?

JW: Is there any question you wish you'd get
asked by members of the audience when you speak
about Tibet--or by people like me who interview
you about it--but your interlocutors never bring up?

ATG: The complications of the
internationalization of Tibet and the involvement
of the US government and Congress. The
extraordinary success of the public relations
campaign on behalf of the Dalai Lama and the
independence of Tibet has masked the effect that
this campaign has had inside China. It has
strengthened the political positions of the
hard-line Chinese officials who wouldn't mind
assimilating all the Tibetans, and who are
opposed to dealing with the Dalai Lama in the
belief that all their troubles will go away when he is no longer alive.

Yet the Dalai Lama has few resources and very
little leverage against China. The campaign has
given him prominence and publicity, which he can
use to some extent in his negotiations. So his
internationalization of the Tibet issue has
created a double-edged sword, which has
complicated the relationship between the exile
Tibetans and the Chinese government.

* This piece first appeared earlier today at "The China Beat"
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