Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Obama and the Dalai Lama: Image vs. Reality

February 23, 2010

Rebecca Novick
The Huffington Post
February 22, 2010 08:40 AM

After snubbing him during his Washington DC visit
last October, President Obama finally met with
the Dalai Lama on February 18th this year.
Predictably, China's leaders warned of damage to
Sino-US relations if the administration went
ahead with the meeting (while making the rather
bizarre claim that by doing so the U.S. side
would be violating international rules).

But even though the meeting was held in the face
of China's objections, the details were a
delicately choreographed display of tiptoe
diplomacy--no public appearance with the
president, the ultra low-key backdrop of the
White House map room, and only one official photographer allowed.

The photograph that was released to the press,
with the President appearing as if he's lecturing
the spiritual leader sets a very different tone
to the photo of the two men in smiling
camaraderie taken when Obama was a mere Senator.
Clearly, everything was being done not to press
the buttons of China's leadership any harder than
necessary. After the meeting, the Dalai Lama was
repeatedly asked by one persistent reporter what
practical assistance he had been offered. All he
could answer was that the president had been "sympathetic" and "supportive".

Obama encouraged the Dalai Lama to continue his
efforts to find a resolution through
negotiations. His words came only weeks after the
Dalai Lama's envoys and China's Communist
leaders, in the 9th round of talks between the
two parties, failed yet again to find any common
ground on which to even begin a meaningful
dialogue. Beijing, as usual, used the occasion to
reinforce to its citizens a negative view of the
Dalai Lama and his proposal of "genuine autonomy"
for Tibet as independence in disguise. From the
perspective of its international image, the talks
also offer China proof that it is engaging with
the Tibet issue. By contrast, the Tibetan envoys,
unversed in international diplomacy and
completely outmatched by the sophistication of
China's politicians, came away with nothing to
show for their conciliatory stand. Zhu Weiqun,
the executive vice minister of the United Front
Work Department, the sector of the Communist
Party that oversees these talks, even refused to
accept that the Dalai Lama had any right to
negotiate on behalf of the Tibetan people.

"The Chinese government and the government of
Tibet Autonomous Region under its leadership are
the only representatives of Tibetans," he said in
a statement to media at a press conference after
the talks. The private representatives "have no
legal status to discuss with us the affairs about Tibet Autonomous Region".

In such an environment, it's hard to imagine how
any real progress could be made.

The White House statement gave a nod to human
rights while reassuring the PRC that the United
States views Tibet as an integral part of its
territory. Said White House press secretary
Robert Gibbs, "The president stated his strong
support for the preservation of Tibet's unique
religious, cultural and linguistic identity and
the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People's Republic of China."

In standing firm on his meeting with the Dalai
Lama, President Obama may appear to be standing
for human rights. But the absence of any plan or
action that could in any way contribute to their
improvement suggests that when it comes to
Sino-US relations the US administration is as
mired in gestures of form without substance as their Beijing counterparts.

If the Obama administration is serious about
wanting the dialogue between the Tibetans and
Chinese to achieve any degree of success, then
offering to provide an experienced third party
mediator to monitor the talks would be a practical gesture of sincerity.

With the Chinese government holding nearly $800
billion of federal U.S. debt, and being a key
player in sensitive negotiations with Iran and
North Korea, the United States is naturally
reluctant, in the words of Elie Wiesel, to 'speak
truth to power'. But the citizens of totalitarian
regimes continue to look to America to do just
that. During Obama's first official visit to
China in November 2009, one Chinese blogger asked
the president's media staff the following
question, comparing China's Draconian control of
the internet to the Berlin Wall: "Will President
Obama together with us demolish the firewall that
Chinese citizens are suffering under right now?
We do hope that when President Obama meets with
President Hu Jintao, he will ask, would you
please close down the firewall, please."

While even the most idealistic observer would
have to concede that Obama's meeting with the
Dalai Lama was more symbolic of the US's belief
in the idea of freedom rather than a commitment
to its realization, for Tibetans inside Tibet it
was an altogether different story. In one of the
world's most information-deprived societies,
people there received the news stripped of all political nuance.

The meeting between their beloved leader and the
leader of the free world was a cause for
celebration and a collective expression of hope
that this time some change might come. Under the
threatening gaze of a fresh influx of armed
personnel, Tibetans turned out in their thousands
to mark the occasion with prayers, flowers, incense and fireworks.

Their world sits in poignant contrast with the
pragmatic and far more cynical world of
Realpolitik. The meeting between President Obama
and the Dalai Lama was not a game-changing event
and it was never intended to be.

But perhaps false hope is better than no hope at all.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank