He's No Foe of Beijing

June 15th 2008

Sydney, Australia, 14 June 2008 (By Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor, The Australian) - The Dalai Lama has a dilemma. The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism believes he is an honest friend of China and describes himself as pro-Chinese. 

He does not seek independence from China for Tibet and the six million Tibetans who live there and in surrounding Chinese provinces. Nor does he support violence of any kind, not that directed at the Chinese state or conducted by anyone else.

He proposes a middle way, in which China would grant Tibet a degree of internal autonomy under a one-country, two-systems style of arrangements somewhat similar to those pertaining in Hong Kong.

But the Chinese Government relentlessly portrays him as an enemy of the Chinese people, so that now he frequently faces demonstrations and hostility from Chinese, burning under the hot fires of nationalism that the Chinese Government is constantly stoking.

I meet the Dalai Lama for 40 minutes in a private room at the Novotel Hotel at Sydney's Olympic Park. It is his only one on one, sit-down newspaper interview while in Australia. He sits cross-legged on a hard chair, in what is meant to be his lunch hour during a gruelling day of teaching. He is here mainly to instruct on meditation and life philosophy.

Officially, he has stepped aside from his former position of head of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Now, he says, he is merely its senior adviser and it doesn't always take his advice.

But in truth he is the best known Tibetan in history. A senior US official tells me that one reason the Chinese so mismanage Tibet is that they simply cannot comprehend the Dalai Lama's immense standing and good name throughout the West, indeed throughout the world. Beijing wants to paint the Dalai Lama as a narrow ethnic separatist. The Western public thinks of him as a cross between Mother Teresa and the Pope.

I have met and interviewed the Dalai Lama before. He is an impressive man. Unlike some, I am not emotionally bowled over to meet him. But I am impressed. As before, he answers all my questions directly. He is good humoured, self-deprecating in his way, makes no extravagant claims, and radiates goodwill towards all the players in the tragedy of Tibet: even the Chinese Government.

While I don't feel inclined to embrace Buddhism or take up meditation as a result of talking to him, I do feel I've dealt with a man of integrity and compassion who cares deeply about his people and the human condition more generally, and a man who has told me the truth.

"Actually as far as social economy goes, I'm a Marxist," he says, with that characteristic staccato laugh.

"I am more red than the Chinese leaders, who seem to be only concerned with money. In Marxist theory there is a concern with the equal distribution of wealth. So this has a moral principle which capitalist theory doesn't.

"I don't agree with the authoritarian side. Authoritarianism has ruined Marxism."

From the Dalai Lama's point of view, Kevin Rudd pulled off the right balance when he criticised Beijing for its human rights abuses while visiting China, yet remained on good terms with China: "The Australian Government took the right stand. While keeping genuine friendship and good relations with China, it stands firm on matters of principle.

"There is an old Chinese saying that real friends can be very frank. If you just ignore your friend's fault, you are not a good friend."

The Dalai Lama also gives the Rudd Government high marks for urging Beijing to resolve the Tibet issue through dialogue with his representatives. China cancelled the latest round of talks because, it said, of the priority of responding to the earthquake victims in China. Canberra has quietly urged Beijing to resume these talks soon, before the Olympics.

"Hopefully, the talks will take place within the next month," the Dalai Lama says.

He keeps stressing how pro-Chinese he is. He has never urged a boycott of the Beijing Olympics and wants other countries to go to Beijing. He supported China's entry into the World Trade Organisation and has consistently supported all reasonable outside engagement with China. However, he also tells the truth about China's behaviour inisde Tibet, which is frankly appalling. He believes about 200 Tibetans were killed in the crackdown following the Tibetan demonstrations in March, although even he finds accurate information incredibly difficult to come by.

He also accuses Beijing of undertaking cultural genocide in Tibet.

"The Chinese Government accuses us, they say these problems (demonstrations in Tibet) are started from outside, by the Dalai clique," he says, smiling at this anachronistic Stalinist vocabulary.

"So I want to carry out investigations. I say to the Chinese, please allow the international community, the international media, to go to Tibet, and I say to the international community and media, please go there and see what's happening."

It is one of his most powerful arguments. If the Chinese are not violently suppressing Tibet, why are they scared of permitting outsiders, especially the media, to go there?

The Dalai Lama constantly urges non-violence and moderation on his followers but he believes many of them are getting impatient with his moderate ways and frustrated that even when the Chinese engage in formal talks, nothing changes on the ground.

In the fifth round of talks in February 2006, he tells me, the Chinese acknowledged that Tibetans were not seeking independence: "But then in April-May 2006 the Chinese intensified their accusations against me as a splittist, and political repression in nunneries and monasteries (in Tibet) increased."

As a result, he says, his own people are criticising his moderate, middle-path approach.

The Dalai Lama does not want independence for Tibet, but he would like internal democracy: "Yes, we very much want democracy. Tibetan autonomy must come within the framework of the Chinese constitution. In the early 1950s our agreement (with the Chinese government) was very much in the spirit of one country, two systems. If that was carried out, the crisis of 1959 (when the Chinese militarily invaded Tibet) would never have occurred. But after the mid-'50s, Chinese policy became more leftist."

The Dalai Lama believes that the cultural genocide being committed in Tibet is partly intentional and partly unintentional. He lists some of the ways this is happening.

"Subjects involving Buddhism are being withdrawn from schools. Up to the '70s, Buddhist logic was taught in Lhasa (Tibet's capital). Not any longer. Schoolbooks with words which carry Buddhist meaning are being removed. Nunneries and monasteries are forced to emphasise Chinese political education. Schoolchildren are forbidden to visit temples.

"Two-thirds of Lhasa is now Han Chinese. Most shops are Han Chinese. I met some Tibetan students from eastern Tibet a few years ago who could speak no Tibetan. They had asked the Chinese authorities (to be instructed in Tibetan) and were told Tibetan was of no use." This is despite the Chinese at one stage affording Tibetan the status of an official language.

He is hopeful of one day returning to Tibet after forging a compromise with Beijing. He does not believe the communists can win forever through repression alone.

"More suppression is only the seed for more crisis in the future, as has happened over the last 50 years. The young people involved in the recent demonstrations didn't witness the atrocities of the '50s, but it goes on from generation to generation."

The Chinese people, he believes, ultimately want democracy and there are many trends in China that he likes. But the big problem is the lack of accurate and reliable information for the Chinese people, which allows the Chinese Government to manipulate their emotions.

Although he doesn't use the word, the Dalai Lama is plainly disturbed by the violent nationalism the Chinese Government intentionally stirs up among Chinese people.

He frequently encounters hostile demonstrations from Chinese nationalists these days; when he can, he explains to them that he is not anti-Chinese. He recounts a meeting with Chinese students in Rochester, in the US, in April this year.

"I met seven Chinese students and while I explained my views, two listened very carefully and at the end they smiled and were very calm and friendly. But the other five had too much emotion, there was no desire to listen. Luckily there was a long table between us or otherwise they would have taken physical action."

The institution of the Dalai Lama, he says, may pass away after he dies, or it may continue. It is normally continued by discovering the new reincarnation of the deceased Dalai Lama, but he is open to the community using alternative methods to find a new Dalai Lama, or simply abolishing the position altogether.

The institution exists, he says, only to serve the Tibetan people.

Indeed, like Mother Teresa or pope John PaulII, the Dalai Lama is a figure of great religious and cultural stature, a global presence of little power but extraordinary influence.

Perhaps irreplaceable, certainly irrepressible.



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