The organizer of the event, Lobsang Sangay, a senior fellow at Harvard Law School, set out the simplest of ground rules: civil discourse and no photographs taken until after the discussion. Moderator Tu Weiming, professor of Chinese history and philosophy and Confucian studies at Harvard, urged all sides to allow a genuine exchange of ideas, celebrate their differences, and refrain from trying to convert others.
But the participants hardly needed coaching. The Chinese scholars were respectful and open-minded, often acknowledging false impressions they had originally held about Tibetans, the history of Tibetan-Chinese relations, and the role of the Dalai Lama. For his part, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists seemed to surprise many of the younger Chinese academics as he described the three- and four-hour audiences he had with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing more than a half century ago.
Some in the audience were amused when the Dalai Lama said he had once been attracted to the moral principles of socialism, particularly its ideal of equal distribution, and had even asked to join the Chinese Communist Party. There were no challenges and no raised eyebrows, however, when he said that today there is a ruling Communist Party in China without communist ideology.
Free from official mediation, the academics heard the Dalai Lama say that he welcomes the material progress China had brought Tibet - but also that his people were suffering nonetheless because they lacked freedom of expression, religious freedom, and freedom from fear.
Drawing a distinction between autonomy for Tibet and political independence, he explained the request his envoys made to Chinese officials last summer, shortly after the violent clashes on the Tibetan plateau in March 2008. He said they had asked only for forms of autonomy consistent with those promised to national minorities in China's constitution - especially the right to preserve Tibetan language, culture, and religion. Yet Chinese officials falsely accused him of demanding independence for Tibet, calling him a liar and a demon.