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Interview: Why the Dalai Lama’s Visit Angers the Chinese

February 23, 2010

Shelley Hawks on Tibet, and how Avatar fits in
BY SUSAN SELIGSON
BU Today (Boston University, MA)
February 22, 2010

China scholar Shelley Hawks, a CGS assistant
professor of social science, in Lhasa, Tibet, in 2007.
In the face of thunderous disapproval from the
Chinese government, President Barack Obama met
with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader
of Tibet, for an hour on February 18. Although
the conversation was condemned in China Daily as
“instigating a potentially destructive downward
spiral in relations,” the world’s largest and
third-largest economies remain joined at the hip,
with $366 billion in mutual trade and $755
billion in Chinese-held U.S. Treasury bills.
China’s holdings of U.S. Treasuries reportedly
have increased more than tenfold over the last decade.

The two Nobel Peace laureates met in the White
House Map Room, not the Oval Office. The setting
was a signal to the Chinese government that this
was not a diplomatic visit and that the Dalai
Lama has no official standing in Tibet. Such
symbolic gestures are crucial to our favorable
relations with China, says China expert Shelley
Hawks, a College of General Studies assistant professor of social science.

BU Today: Is the media blitz about Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama overblown?
Hawks: No. The Tibet issue is extremely
sensitive. If Obama had met with the Dalai Lama
in the Oval Office, that would be affording him
the dignity of a head of state. It was important
for the president not to impinge on the national
sovereignty issue, which China cares so much
about. Before the Communists, in imperial China,
ceremony was a way to reinforce hierarchy, and
it’s still crucial, even though in the United States we’re much more informal.

Q: Is Tibet more sensitive than our relationship,
and billions in arms sales, to Taiwan?
Tibet and the Dalai Lama issue is far more
sensitive. When it comes to Taiwan, we’ve had a
bipartisan foreign policy since the ’70s, and
we’ve developed a middle position, committing
ourselves to supplying defensive weapons. It’s a
delicate diplomatic situation, but the sale of
weapons to Taiwan is the status quo and shouldn’t
anger the Chinese government. With the Dalai
Lama, adhering to the status quo is more
complicated, and Obama must make the gesture of
supporting Tibetans’ right to religious freedom
while keeping the visit low-profile.

Q: What about fears that angering China may cause
it to oppose U.S. sanctions against Iran and
North Korea because of their nuclear development,
or to thwart our efforts on climate issues?
All of these issues are in doubt. China is
watching us to see what kind of respect and
cooperation we extend to them. I think Obama has
stepped very carefully and hasn’t done anything
to endanger U.S.-China relations in the long run.

Q: Does China hold the cards here?
China is an economic superpower and is changing
its world profile. It’s absolutely critical that
we remain engaged. Obama’s got it right; he’s
engaged in China, but he’s asserting the U.S.
commitment to religious freedom. He must welcome
a visit by the Dalai Lama. And he must show respect to China.

Q: You visited Tibet in 2007. What were your impressions?
I led a group of 25 BU students, most from CGS,
to Tibet in late May, when there was a festival
honoring the Buddha’s birthday. Pilgrims were
pouring into Lhasa, and we toured monasteries
with native Tibetans. All of us fell in love with
the land, but we’re not alone. The Chinese love
Tibet too. It’s become a popular destination for Chinese tourists.

Q: Has Chinese tourism made the Chinese more
aware of ethnic Tibetans’ struggle for religious freedom?
There is an increase in progressive sentiment
toward Tibet within China. There have been recent
petitions, including a constitutional initiative
drawn up by some Chinese legal scholars that
recommended policy shifts in Tibet, and said that
the Tibetan riots of March 2008 expressed some
legitimate grievances, albeit violently. It
emphasized how Tibetans have been marginalized by
the increasing population of Han Chinese, who
Tibetans believe are given more job opportunities.

Q: How did the Chinese government respond?
The president of China, Hu Jintao, is considered
an expert on Tibet. From 1988 to 1992 he was
Communist Party chairman in Tibet, and his
handling of student demonstrations there
convinced the late Party leader Deng Xiaoping to
promote him. He wants to increase China’s role as
a superpower, but he knows and cares about Tibet.

Q: Do you see the Tibetan situation changing?
I think most Tibetans would accept a compromise.
The exiled Dalai Lama is 74 years old, and it’s
hoped that he could make a visit to Tibet in his
lifetime — that would be a very positive sign.
And I saw some positive interactions between Han
Chinese and Tibetans. But important policy shifts
are needed to end the rancor created by
differences in opportunity, and religious issues.
Monasteries are open, but many Buddhist monks
have left Tibet. These problems are very
complicated, with no dramatic improvement in store in the near future.

Q: How would you gauge Chinese feelings about the
Dalai Lama and Tibetan autonomy?
Ordinary Chinese might distrust the Dalai Lama,
because all Tibetans regard him as sacred and he
does have immense power. It’s an emotional and
polarizing issue for Chinese. They argue about
it, it’s troubling, but Chinese and Tibetans must
continue talking. Tibet has a magical feeling,
and I think most Chinese dream of visiting there,
but they also adamantly feel that both Tibet and Taiwan are part of China.

Q: How do the Chinese feel about the United States?
People feel that the American government and its
people are too critical of the way Tibet has been
handled. They point to America’s treatment of
Native Americans and our takeover of Hawaii. But
it’s interesting that the Hollywood movie Avatar
is incredibly popular in China. The theme of a
deeply spiritual people who live their lives in
nature, confronted by a military force to extract
their minerals, resonates for Chinese, because
their country has been industrialized so rapidly,
rural land is disappearing, and the environment
has suffered so much. But Tibet is one place
that’s still untouched. The sky is so blue, the
air is clean, and there’s a sense that Tibet
deserves to be preserved. I think most Chinese
people feel that Tibet is deeply spiritual and a refuge for nature.
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