China's Lama Obsession
by Alexander D.
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
“[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.”
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 DalaiLama.com.
“[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.
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
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.”
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
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.