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Off the wall thinking

Demonising the Dalai Lama is counterproductive for China

Written by Dibyesh Anand |
March 13, 2009 12:19:08 am

Rapid modernisation,economic development and social change in China rightly awe foreign commentators,including critics. China is a rising global power,and the clearest evidence of a shift away from a West-dominated geopolitics. Given the scenario,why does China bother with few thousand exiled Tibetans and their supporters? All the countries in the world,including Britain since October 2008,have recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Why then does a meeting between the Dalai Lama and a Western leader elicit harsh protests from China with hints of payback,even when the leader may labour that she is meeting the religious head of Tibetans in a personal capacity? Why is every proposal made by the Dalai Lama rejected as “independence in disguise”?

China spends so much energy and resource to put forward its version of the story because a pacified Tibet is inseparable from the idea of harmonious,rising China. Because Tibet has already undergone ‘peaceful liberation’ followed by ‘democratic reform’ for more than fifty years now,the government finds it difficult to accept any criticism of its policies. Tibet has become a battleground over which the Chinese government is waging a war of public diplomacy against the Dalai Lama-led exiled Tibetans. China’s sensitivities spring from a mix of various factors — strategic,military,political,historical,and nationalist.

The sole source of legitimacy for the Communist Party today in an authoritarian capitalist setup is the promise of political stability for economic development. Tibet and the Dalai Lama become an important life and death matter for the Chinese government precisely because of this narrow notion of stability. Any criticism of the government,especially by its minorities living in peripheral parts of China is interpreted as splittist. Of course,the world rarely gets to hear the views of Tibetans living inside China except through occasional protests or loyalist officials paraded by Beijing. It is the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetans who then claim to be the voice of Tibetans.

There is some justification in Beijing’s contention that the exile voice gets over-representation in the West with its exoticised imagition of a Shangri-Laesque Tibet and latent Sinophobia. Tibetans inside China are far too numerous,diverse and divided to be represented by the government in exile. However,as the geographical spread of the protests,tight control over independent media,and visible coercive machinery of the state in Tibetan regions since 2008 show,Chinese claims of normality fail to convince anyone. Tibetans are restive not because the Dalai Lama encourages them. They are restive because China’s Tibet,despite its promises of economic transformation,has failed to address a basic demand of Tibetan people. That demand is personified in the freedom to worship the Dalai Lama. Currently,in most parts of the Tibet Autonomous Region,possessing his photo is illegal. While marshalling historical and cultural arguments that there are many other sects of Tibetan Buddhism who do not revere the Dalai Lama,China also realises that the demand to worship is more than about freedom of religion. It is a political claim by protesting Tibetans to have a say in their own affairs. It is about validation of Tibetan history against an onslaught of official criticisms of Old Tibet. It is holding Chinese to their rhetoric of liberation and democratic reforms.

If China really wants stability in Tibet and flourish as a peaceful rising power,it needs to rethink its current strategy. Demonising the Dalai Lama will not work. Nor will a transformation of Tibet through massive development pacify the Tibetans. Nor will searching for a scapegoat. Officials blame everything on the splittist Dalai clique and his backers in the West,while President Hu Jintao calls for building a “Great wall against separatism”. A wall might give an illusion of security but it also separates and thus isolates. By casting out the Dalai Lama,the faltering negotiations are brought to a grinding halt.

The only action that could work in favour of China is more openness. The only solution to the crisis — yes,it is a crisis of legitimacy in the present system by a minority group within multiethnic China now — is treating protesting Tibetans with dignity,listening to their voices,clarifying what the government is willing to concede,and drawing a line on what is unacceptable. By allowing Tibetans to worship the Dalai Lama as a temporary measure and by inviting the Dalai Lama to witness for himself the development work in Tibet,the Chinese government can defang the Free Tibet movement. It will be in a win-win situation. If the Dalai Lama refuses the invite,the government can always say that it tried. If the Dalai Lama visits Tibet and sees the impressive changes brought on by China and allays the anxieties of Tibetan population there,it’d be a coup for the government. By bringing the Dalai Lama on the inside of the ‘great wall’,China will resolve the biggest international public relations headache it has,and show to its own people that its promises of a harmonious society is not empty rhetoric.

The writer is an associate professor at Westminster University and the author of ‘Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination’

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