DELHI, India — During his U.S. presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised that he would be prepared to meet with so-called rogue rulers like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran or Kim Jong Il of North Korea in the interests of peace.
Now in power, he apparently has realized that there are bigger issues at stake, so no such meetings have yet taken place, and even a chance encounter and book present from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez caused consternation. Yes, one can understand that the United States does not want to give the rogues a propaganda coup without being assured of something substantial in return.
Does this mean that cruel realpolitik has completely taken over the White House? Obama this month snubbed someone who is undoubtedly a man of peace and nonviolence in the interests of currying favor with a totalitarian state. The snub was the greater since the man of peace had met every American president since 1991 and is a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — the Dalai Lama.
Obama’s staff claimed that the president has not given up on Tibet, but is much more interested in getting results rather than making empty gestures. The Dalai Lama himself was nice enough to go along with this argument, saying he did not want to “cause embarrassment” just before Obama went to Beijing to meet President Hu Jintao.
I hope that Obama understands that the Dalai Lama was challenging Obama to prove yourself by getting some results. Obama now should consider himself obliged to press Hu to resume serious talks with the representatives of the exiled Tibetan leader. If he succeeds, Obama may rescue his own reputation as a serious peacemaker and do China a big favor, too.
It is clear from several recent interviews given by the Dalai Lama that he is no “splittist,” Beijing’s pet insult for him. He has accepted that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China. He is prepared to talk directly to China rather than insult Beijing’s sensitivities by appealing to the United Nations. He has condemned violence by Tibetans, Uighurs and Han Chinese, and reacted to the recent rioting in Xinjiang by saying it was “very sad . . . quite a lot of Han brothers and sisters suffered.”
The Dalai Lama spelled out his position in a BBC interview in August; it is worth reading by both Obama and Hu. He told the BBC’s China editor Shirong Chen: “The very reason we are not seeking separation and are fully committed to a solution within the framework of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China is economic interests. Tibet is backward, materially very backward. We want more material development. So, as far as material development is concerned, remaining within People’s Republic of China gets greater benefit.”
Of course, the Dalai Lama is also a canny political operator, even though he claims to have passed the political power of the Tibetan government in exile to Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche, whom he calls “my boss.”
Although he has conceded that Tibet is part of China, he wants freedom of religion and expression for Tibet. On paper, such freedoms would be the same as Hong Kong already enjoys — with the central government in charge of defense and foreign affairs, and a Tibetan government in charge of the rest of its destiny. Perhaps the real challenge is that a truly autonomous Tibetan government would not be the pussycat that Hong Kong has been.
Or is Hong Kong just an economic colony? The Dalai Lama added: “Of course, I totally agree with the importance of economy. But human beings are not like animals. For animals, just providing food, shelter and no immediate disturbances is OK. But we are human beings. Even though the economy (may be) poor, (we prefer to be) mentally happy and free.
“If you ask two groups of people, and make available food, shelter, clothes and everything but no freedom to one, while the other is not fully provided with (material) things yet has complete freedom — I think that most better educated people would choose (the freedom).”
Despite Beijing’s “splittist” accusations, there have been eight rounds of talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama’s representatives, but they have all foundered. The Dalai Lama says Beijing’s suspicion and distrust is to blame: “They always look from one angle, how to keep their power, their control.”
It is easy to see how the disagreements happen. My friend Sir Mark Tully says the single word that best describes the Dalai Lama with his beaming moon- shaped face and constant bursts of laughter is “joy” — in complete contrast to China’s Hu, whose stern expression would make a lemon feel sugar-sweet.
Hu emphasizes “harmony,” but to a stern Communist Party leader, harmony is seen through his own experiences and spectacles, including his formative years as the tough party secretary in Tibet, with little room to appreciate how the variety of experiences of the Dalai Lama and his exiles might strengthen Tibet.
The Chinese president also must consider what happens if he does a deal granting autonomy to Tibet: How many other parts of China might clamor for similar freedom.
But Obama might point out to Hu that repression is a mark of weakness, not strength. The Dalai Lama himself is under pressure from younger Tibetans in exile who consider his policy as compromise and talking as a mark of weakness. He could also point out that the Dalai Lama is a much changed man from the god-king who fled Tibet 50 years ago — more human, more amenable to questions, more mellowed.
It is long past time for Beijing to talk realistically and sensibly with the Dalai Lama and stop the childish insults. Delay is only playing to hardliners, especially among Tibetans. Perhaps the Dalai Lama can teach Hu something about humility and joy, as well as better governance of Tibet.
And if Obama prods Hu in the right direction, he can tell the Nobel committee when he collects his prize that he has at least taken a step toward earning it.
Kevin Rafferty is a journalist specializing in Asian economic and social issues. He formerly was in charge of Asian coverage for the Financial Times.