Winter 2010, Vol. 12, No. 3

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

An Army of One

From the Editor:
The End of the Christian Right

The Open and Affirming Lutherans

Angling for Anglicans

The Fighting Atheists

Not in My Canton

China's Lama Obsession

Scientology's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

Letter to the Editor


New books

China's Lama Obsession
Alexander D. Salvato


Reuters’ Thomas Ferraro began his October 6 report, “The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled religious leader—brushed aside by U.S. President Barack Obama in favor of communist China—was saluted at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday for his work for human rights.” 

“[T]here’s one solid foreign relations arena where Obama has signaled that he doesn’t give a damn—human rights,” opined New York Post editorial writer Robert A. George on the NBC Washington website. Obama’s decision was “about the bluntest form of global Realpolitik since the days of Nixon and Kissinger. Conservatives may still call Obama another Carter. After his Dalai Lama move, liberals may cry, ‘If only.’”

Since George H. W. Bush became the first American president to sit down with the Dalai Lama in 1991, His Holiness (as he is addressed) has met with the American head of state whenever he has been in Washington. This time, he was coming to town to receive the first Lantos Human Rights Prize, established in honor of the late U.S. representative from California and Holocaust survivor, Tom Lantos. 

When asked for details, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs explained in his October 6 press briefing, “There was an agreement to do [the meeting] later in the year and that’s what’s going to happen…this was mutually agreed upon…. Tibetan people know that our relationship, our strong relationship with China helps them. So I think this was mutually agreed upon, and it’s what’s going to happen.” 

News that the meeting had merely been postponed did not satisfy the critics.

“This is obviously a concession to the Chinese,” sniffed syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer on Fox News’ Special Report October 7. “I’m not against concessions but I want to see a concession that gets something in return of significance. For 18 years, presidents have met the Dalai Lama. All of a sudden our president has delayed it. That is an obvious signal that everybody understands. It is bending a knee to the Chinese.”

Specifically, Obama’s decision appears to have been related to a summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao scheduled for his trip to China in November. As the Washington Post’s John Pomfret wrote October 5, “The U.S. decision to postpone the meeting appears to be part of a strategy to improve ties with China that also includes soft-pedaling criticism of China’s human rights and financial policies as well as backing efforts to elevate China’s position in international institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund.”

For its part, the Office of the Dalai Lama turned the other cheek to the apparent snub. “The decision not to meet the Tibetan leader was made amid efforts to improve U.S.-China relations,” Paul Ekert wrote in an October 8 posting on “[T]he Dalai Lama…said he was told by envoys that Obama’s decision was taken ‘in order to avoid embarrassment to the Chinese president.’”  

Eckert went on to quote the Dalai Lama himself: “Describing Obama as ‘not only sympathetic’ but eager to do ‘something practical’ to help the rights situation in Tibet… [he] urged critics ‘to think more holistically’ and not to focus on the lack of a meeting at the White House.” 

In the melee over the postponement, journalists tended to overlook what has, since 2007, become standard Chinese operating procedure towards countries whose leaders meet with the Dalai Lama.

In October of 2007, after one such meeting involving German Chancellor Angela Merkel, China canceled a series of talks on human rights scheduled for December. “[Der Spiegel] quoted Chinese government officials as saying Merkel’s move would have ‘a lasting impact’ on China-German relations,” Reuters’ Erik Kirschbaum wrote on October 13 of that year. “Merkel ‘crossed a red line.’”

The same month, President Bush personally presented the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given in the United States. In response, China pulled out of a “planned international strategy session on Iran sought by the United States,” AP correspondent Anne Gearan reported October 15.

On October 19, China Daily quoted Chinese ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao as calling the award “a blatant interference in China’s internal affairs.”

“It has hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and gravely undermined bilateral relations….The Chinese people’s resolve to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is firm and unshakable….Any attempt to interfere in China’s internal affairs using the Dalai Lama is doomed to failure.”

In addition to canceling the strategy session, China refused to allow nine U.S. naval ships routine docking in Hong Kong the following month.

Nor are Germany and the U.S. alone. In late October 2007, Canada was on the receiving end of threats from China after Governor General Michaëlle Jean and Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with the Dalai Lama publicly.

“[Chinese Embassy Counselor] Lushan refused several times to specify what consequences the Chinese Government had exactly in mind but dismissed any negative impact on the two countries’ trading relationship,” Jack Aubry of the Montreal Gazette reported on October 30.

Chinese hostility to the Dalai Lama stems from his insistence that Tibet become an “autonomous region,” enjoying a greater degree of independence than it has now, though not the full independence it possessed prior to China’s invasion of the country in 1950.  For their part, the Chinese contend that Tibet has always been part of China, and that the invasion was merely reclamation of Chinese land. 

Recently, the Chinese government has accused the Dalai Lama of stirring up nationalist activity in Tibet; it holds him responsible for instigating the violent Tibetan protest in March of 2008. Any country that meets with him is now considered to be aiding his “separatist” efforts.

Under the circumstances, the Obama administration’s decision to postpone the president’s meeting should have come as no surprise. However, what couldn’t have been anticipated was the Chinese reaction to the delay.

Taking it as a sign that the U.S. might be joining the “Chinese camp” on the Tibet question, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang drew an analogy to American history.

“He is a black president, and he understands the slavery abolition movement and Lincoln’s major significance for that movement,” he told New York Times China correspondent Edward Wong November 13. “Thus, on this issue we hope that President Obama, more than any other foreign leader, can better, more deeply grasp China’s stance on protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

That was too much for Alexa Olesen, writing in the liberal Huffington Post on November 15:

“Ministry spokesman Qin Gang’s argument broke down like this: Obama, as the first black U.S. president and admirer of Abraham Lincoln, should appreciate the importance of liberating slaves—exactly what China says it did in Tibet in 1959…..Such reasoning struck some as patently offensive to Obama for linking his policy decisions to the color of his skin.” 

 First Things’ Joe Carter weighed in the same day with a similar post on the conservative magazine’s First Thoughts blog with a post titled, “If the Dalai Lama is Jefferson Davis, Who is the Tibetan Robert E. Lee?”

For sure, if Qin’s comments signal his government’s approach to the Obama administration, then many more awkward PR moments are yet to come.

China’s determination to punish countries that host the Dalai Lama does attest to the influence, or at least perceived influence, the famous exile retains. As Austin Ramzey wrote in the October 15, 2007 edition of Time, “[W]hile the Chinese government may loathe the Tibetan spiritual leader, their defensiveness in recent weeks show that in their own way they respect him too.”

Nor does it look like the Chinese will be able to stop playing defense any time soon.

On February 5, the White House announced that President Obama would be meeting with the Dalai Lama during his trip to Washington D.C. two weeks hence. True to current form, the Chinese issued an immediate call for the meeting to be canceled, “so as to avoid further negative impact on bilateral relations.”

White House spokesman Bill Burton immediately retorted: “The president told China’s leaders during his trip last year that he would meet with the Dalai Lama, and he intends to do so…The Dalai Lama is an internationally respected religious and cultural leader, and the president will meet with him in that capacity.”

The meeting took place on February 18. But when it comes to His Holiness, religion and culture can still trump politics and economics.


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