A less blinkered view of the Dalai Lama

by Frank Ching

As expected, China reacted strongly to the meeting between Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, saying this had “grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs, hurt the feelings of Chinese people and damaged Sino-U.S. relations.”

This was similar to the reaction to President Obama’s meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader last year.

In 2010, China suspended military relations with the United States after the meeting with the Dalai Lama and Washington’s announcement of an arms sales package for Taiwan.

Aside from rhetoric, China has not taken any action. Perhaps it is waiting to see what the Obama administration does with Taiwan’s request for advanced F-16 fighter jets — a request that the administration will reportedly decide on by October.

In the meantime, China may think it in its interests not to allow the bilateral relationship to deteriorate so as to retain some influence over Washington.

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden is scheduled to visit China this summer, followed by a trip to Washington by his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. If China wants to demonstrate its anger, it is possible that these visits will be postponed. However, Xi is expected to succeed President Hu Jintao as the party leader next year, and the Chinese leadership may well think it important for him to visit Washington before that. After all, Hu did this as vice president and Xi may well want to do the same thing.

In a melodramatic gesture, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned the American charge d’affaires in Beijing, Robert S. Wang, to receive a protest over the Obama-Dalai meeting in the middle of the night. China’s reaction, while not unexpected, is totally disproportionate to the event.

Drawing on China’s own analysis of the American domestic political situation, the official People’s Daily newspaper said “American pragmatists” were making use of the Dalai Lama meeting for domestic political purposes.

The Chinese believe that U.S. presidents meet with the Dalai Lama because voters want to see their government stand up for human rights and to show American dissatisfaction with China.

This is true to an extent. After all, presidential meetings with the Dalai Lama only began after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. That year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

There are signs, though, that China, too, is handling the issue with an eye on its domestic audience. The Foreign Ministry’s Chinese-language website was dominated by criticisms of the presidential meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader. Yet, on the same day, the ministry’s English-language website didn’t carry a word.

Interestingly, while the People’s Daily toed the official line, its sister newspaper the Global Times carried at article that seemed to question the official Chinese position. While the Foreign Ministry said the meeting had “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” the Global Times article said: “Chinese society doesn’t seem to be paying much notice to Obama’s performance.

“The Dalai Lama is essentially an outdated topic among ordinary Chinese. …China should gradually move its attention away from foreign politicians’ meetings with the Dalai Lama.”

The article added that It is useless for the U.S. to play the Dalai Lama card “as long as Tibet remains stable.”

This is good advice. If the Dalai Lama, after more than 50 years in exile, still poses a threat, then Beijing should ask itself what it is doing wrong.

It is hard to see how foreign leaders can damage China’s core interests by meeting with the Dalai Lama. After all, the White House quoted the president as having said during the meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader that “Tibet is a part of the People’s Republic of China and the United States does not support independence for Tibet.” How much clearer can the American position be?

Moreover, Vice President Xi was in Tibet last week to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the region’s “peaceful liberation” and said then that “all ethnic groups in Tibet” — presumably including Tibetans — “have forestalled separatist and sabotage activities staged by the Dalai group and foreign forces.”

If Tibetans are opposing the Dalai Lama, why does China fear meetings between him and foreign leaders?

The Global Times article concluded by saying that the Dalai Lama, now 76 years old, “will be increasingly marginalized” as long as Tibet remains stable. The Chinese government, it said, should allow greater political flexibility in Tibet. After all, “A few fugitives will not sidetrack the general situation.”

That is good advice. Hopefully, the Chinese government is listening.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. He can be contacted at the following email address: Frank.ching@gmail.com