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The importance of the Dalai Lama's Taiwan visit

September 1, 2009

The Dalai Lama has arrived in Taiwan for a
six-day visit, angering China. Claude Arpi looks
at the significance of the Tibetan spiritual
leader's attempt to reach out to ordinary Chinese.
Claude Arpi
Rediff
August 31, 2009

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of the
Tibetans travelled directly from the mountains of
Ladakh, where he had been giving Buddhist
teachings to local people and Tibetans for the
past two weeks, to another Buddhist region, the
Republic of China, as Taiwan is known.

The official reason for the visit is to pray for
the victims of the typhoon Morakot which hit the
coasts of Taiwan on August 8 and claimed some 700
lives. The leaders of seven municipalities
touched by Morakot (all belonging to the
opposition DPP or Democratic Progressive Party)
invited the Tibetan leader to visit the island to
console the survivors and pray for the souls of the departed.

Their invitation has put President Ma Ying-jeou
in a tight spot, especially after he was heavily
criticised for his poor handling of the aftermath
of the deadly storm. Ma's problem is that he had
made it a priority for his government to
establish more convivial relations with the
opposite side of the Straits; the visit of the
Buddhist leader comes truly at a wrong time.

However, he had little choice but to accept to
the proposed visit in view of his extremely low
ratings in opinion polls (below 20 per cent).
Probably against his better convictions, Ma had
to declare: 'The Dalai Lama could come to Taiwan
to help rest the souls of the dead and also pray
for the well-being of the survivors."

The Dalai Lama had visited the island in March
1997 and April 2001 during the DPP's rule when a
more independent policy towards the Mainland was advocated.

A few days before his first visit to Taipei in
1997, I had the privilege to interview the
Tibetan leader. At that time, he had spoken about
his motivations: "My main purpose is to show to
every Chinese that we are not anti-Chinese. This is Number One."

"This is a signal for the Chinese Communists in
Beijing [ Images ]," he added. His main argument
was: "Our image (with the Chinese people) will
improve; the impression of millions of overseas
Chinese and eventually in the Chinese Mainland
will be different." He thought that ordinary
Chinese would then realise that he was able to
have friendly relations with Chinese people.

This might still be one of his motivations for
accepting the present invitation at very short notice, but there is more.

During his stay in Ladakh, he said that he had
hoped for a change in Beijing's Tibet [ Images ]
policy after last year's unrest on the plateau:
"Last year's protests were not just in the Tibet
Autonomous Region, but also in the Tibetan areas
of Qinghai, Yunnan, Gansu and Sichuan. So I
really was hopeful that China would adopt a more
realistic approach," he told Voice of Tibet radio.

He hoped that the Chinese leadership would have
looked at the "real" situation in Tibet: 'But
that did not happen. Instead, they resorted to
violent measures of crackdown on the Tibetans."

In November 2008, the Dalai Lama called for a
General Meeting to ascertain the opinion of the
Tibetans on the future of the negotiations with
Beijing (which had not really taken off). At that
time a majority said they were ready to follow
the Tibetan leader in his Middle Path approach.

It, however, appears that the Dalai Lama now
tries another strategy: as the present
authoritarian regime in Beijing has not shown any
signs "understanding and far-sightedness," as he
put it after the July incidents in Xinjiang, he
has begun to enlarge his personal contacts with the people of China.

The bloody incidents in Urumqi have probably
strengthened the Tibetan leader' opinion that it
was the right way for the present.

In this context, a first Sino-Tibetan Conference
called 'Finding Common Ground' was organised
between August 6 and 9, 2009 in Geneva. In his
address, the Dalai Lama pleaded with the Chinese
participants: "I seek your advice and frank
opinions on what steps to take in future to solve
the Tibetan problem. Secondly, I request your
help in carrying a message to the Chinese people
that we Tibetans harbour no hatred against our
Chinese brothers and sisters, and that we
Tibetans are neither anti-Chinese nor anti-China."

e said that he did not want 'the issue of Tibet
being turned into an issue of racial prejudice
and antagonism between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples."

After the conference, attended by Chinese and
Tibetan scholars, educators, writers and human
rights advocates, the participants issued a
"final document" which stated: "The aims of the
conference are to inform the Chinese people and
the international community that Tibetan culture
and way of life are gravely endangered."

The conclusions of the conference were hopeful:
'Tibetan culture is a precious treasure among the
many cultures of humanity. Without freedom for
Tibet, there will be no freedom for China. The
extinction of Tibetan culture would not only be a
tragedy for the Tibetan people, but would be a
disgrace for the Chinese people and an
irreplaceable loss for the whole of humanity."

This statement must have been welcomed by the
Dalai Lama. But will this new strategy work better than the previous one?

The Dalai Lama has repeatedly made his point: He
has no problem with the people of China; the
difficulties are only with the present regime.
However as long as the Chinese Communist Party
remains in power in the Forbidden City, nothing
seems able to move forward, whether it is in
Tibet, in Xinjiang or in China. It is not that
the Beijing bosses are not trying to change their poor image.

At the end of his recent four-day tour of
Xinjiang, President Hu Jintao declared that a
directive has been issued by his government "to
make studies in ethnic harmony compulsory for
high school students sitting the national college entrance exams."

But for the local "minorities" or
"nationalities," it is only one more gimmick as
it does not translate into more autonomy for the regions.

Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li
Keqiang also went on tour in two other "minority"
regions, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and
the Qinghai province respectively. During his
trip to Inner Mongolia, Xi asked the local cadres
to promote education on patriotism. Does he
realise that for the "minorities," patriotism has no meaning?

Despite these professions of faith from Beijing,
the problem may remain as long as the Party keeps
its firm grip on the "nationalities" affairs. The
only foreseeable change is a change inside China.

Interestingly, a report prepared by a Chinese
think-tank, Open Constitution Initiative or
Beijing Gongmeng Consulting on the 2008 riots in
Tibet is an eye-opener. It entirely contradicts
the party's official version. The authors are
lawyers "committed to building a modernised China
and promoting human rights, democracy, and rule of law in China."

Their research team spent one month in Tibet
'interviewing Tibetan monks, nomads, farmers,
scholars, migrants, artists, and business
people." Their objective was to come into
personal contact with voices which can give "a
clear and objective outline of ordinary people's
living conditions in Tibetan areas."

The final conclusions are not far from the
Tibetan Diaspora's views: "Earnestly listen to
the voices of ordinary Tibetans and on the basis
of respecting and protecting each of the Tibetan
people's rights and interests."

A similar conclusion was arrived at in the 70,000
character petition sent by the previous Panchen
Lama to Premier Zhou Enlai in 1962, for which the
former spent 17 years in jail.

In Ladakh, the Dalai Lama said he had heard about
680 articles and essays in Chinese language on
the Internet supporting the Tibetan people, and
often criticising the Chinese government's policies in Tibet.

The problem is that Hu and his colleagues'
speeches on "ethic harmony" do not translate into
reality. For example Xu Zhiyong, one of the
founders of the Beijing Gongmeng has been
arrested in early August and though he has since
then been released on "bail," he will probably
not be able to continue to do his work on human
rights and other "hot" topics like Tibet. He is under official "surveillance."

The Dalai Lama is right to reach out to "ordinary
Chinese;" in the long run, it could only pay rich
dividends, but the results won't probably be seen in the immediate future.

His visit in Taiwan should be seen in this perspective.

When the presidential spokesman Wang Yu-chi
declared that the Dalai Lama's visit would be
strictly religious, with no political overtones,
he was entirely right, but religion and politics
are often not far apart in Asia.
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