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Opinion: China contributes to Dalai Lama's mystique

February 9, 2010

The more the Chinese threaten and scold, the more
they promote the Dalai Lama's importance around the world.
Global Post
February 8, 2010

BOSTON -- As tectonic plates rub up against each
other, causing shivers and quakes along
continental fault lines, so do nations —
especially when the rising power of one is seen
as a challenge to the once unchallenged power of another.

So it is with China and the United States these
days. The United States scolds China about its
currency valuation, its internet censoring, and
China scolds the United States about legally
mandated arms sales to Taiwan, and, habitually,
any presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Nevermind that Barack Obama postponed seeing the
Dalai Lama before his trip to China last year,
out of consideration for China’s sensibilities,
and nevermind that he fully informed China of his
future intentions to see Tibet’s spiritual head
at some future date. When it comes to the point
of an actual meeting, China predictably has a fit.

And it’s not just the American president. Nicolas
Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany
got the same treatment when they received the
Dalai Lama. Obama shouldn’t take it personally,
nor can it be considered a serious impediment to
the world’s most important bilateral
relationship. The Chinese know they have bigger
fish to fry with the U.S., but they ritually
react when it comes to anything having to do with Tibet.

Although the Dalai Lama has said time and time
again that he is interested in local autonomy for
Tibetans, not independence, China considers him a
dangerous separatist — or “splittist,” as the Chinese are wont to say.

The Chinese are not all wrong to fear the Dalai
Lama’s unique prestige. After all the brutal
suppression, and the flooding of Tibet by ethnic
Chinese, the Tibetan people have still not
reconciled themselves to Chinese rule, any more
than the Palestinians have reconciled themselves
to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Whereas Tibet had long been a kind of satrapy of
China, it enjoyed virtual independence in its
mountain fastness until the new Communist
government began re-imposing Chinese imperial
power and invaded Tibet in 1950. After first
trying to accommodate to Chinese rule the Dalai
Lama fled to his present exile in India.

Unlike many other exiled leaders, however, the
Dalai Lama has been remarkably successful at
keeping the cause of Tibet alive. His success,
like Gandhi’s, is due to uncanny political
astuteness combined with an outward simplicity
and spirituality that taps into the power of
non-violent resistance. Just at the British had
trouble coming to grips with just what Gandhi
represented, so are the Chinese baffled by the
Dalai Lama’s worldwide popularity. Invariably, the Chinese over-react.

I happened to be in Tibet when the last U.S.
president met with the 14th incarnation of
Tibet’s most important spiritual and once
temporal leader, in the autumn of 2007. President
Bush was about to receive the Dalai Lama in
Washington, and my first notice of China’s
reaction was when foreign television broadcasts
in my Lhasa hotel room went off the air. The
omnipresent military presence was increased, and
public gatherings were curtailed. Parts of Tibet were shut down.

In the provinces I found that Tibetans had their
own ways of finding out what was going on. One
woman told me she knew all about the Dalai Lama
receiving a medal from President Bush, and she
went up into the hills to light a Yak butter candle and pray.

Shortly after I left, Tibet broke out into
serious rioting, pouring gasoline on the flame of
Chinese paranoia about Tibet. China is hard-wired
to fear that the slightest weakness seen towards
minorities will result in the country’s
disintegration, which has happened again and
again in Chinese history when central power
flags. China looks with horror to what happened
in Russia when the Soviet Union dissolved.

In many ways the discontent of the Muslim Uighurs
in Western China is potentially more dangerous to
China than Tibetans. But what the Chinese don’t
understand is the mystique that Tibet holds in
the Western imagination — a mystique the Dalai
Lama both understands and manipulates with considerable skill.

Because it was so long isolated and so difficult
to reach, and because the Tibetans themselves
resisted foreign penetration for so long, Tibet
became the goal of explorers and adventurers for
200 years. That, and the mysterious, deep
spirituality of Tantric Buddhism, combined to
make Tibet irresistible in the Western imagination.

When Jiang Zemin ruled China, he used to say that
he could not understand why in the West, where
"education in science and technology has
developed to a very high level,” how there could
be so much reverence for the monk-ridden,
superstitious, feudal theocracy that Tibet once
was. Had not China brought modernization, a
higher standard of living? There had been some
dreadful damage done during the Cultural
Revolution, but was that not true in the rest of China in that period?

For Westerners, however, as Orville Schell wrote:
It was the dream of Shangri-La itself that was at
stake, referring to James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon”
that so romanticized hidden Tibet. “For many
westerners who had allowed themselves to dream
the dream of Tibet, Chinese rule represented a
paradise lost.” For Tibetans it represented
“cultural genocide,” as the Dalai Lama put it.

Today Tibet’s mystique lies at the confluence of
two powerful rivers of Western emotion: The
search for spirituality that modern society seems
unable to fill, and human rights. The more the
Chinese threaten and scold, the more they forbid
even his picture to be displayed, the more they
promote and buttress the Dalai Lama’s importance,
not only inside Tibet but throughout the world.
By over-reacting every time a head of state
agrees to see the Dalai Lama, China itself
unwittingly contributes to his wordwide celebrity status.
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