BOSTON — As tectonic plates rub up against each other, causing shivers and quakes along continental fault lines, so do nations — especially when the rising power of one is seen as a challenge to the once unchallenged power of another.
So it is with China and the United States these days. The United States scolds China about its currency valuation, its internet censoring, and China scolds the United States about legally mandated arms sales to Taiwan, and, habitually, any presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Nevermind that Barack Obama postponed seeing the Dalai Lama before his trip to China last year, out of consideration for China’s sensibilities, and nevermind that he fully informed China of his future intentions to see Tibet’s spiritual head at some future date. When it comes to the point of an actual meeting, China predictably has a fit.
And it’s not just the American president. Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany got the same treatment when they received the Dalai Lama. Obama shouldn’t take it personally, nor can it be considered a serious impediment to the world’s most important bilateral relationship. The Chinese know they have bigger fish to fry with the U.S., but they ritually react when it comes to anything having to do with Tibet.
Although the Dalai Lama has said time and time again that he is interested in local autonomy for Tibetans, not independence, China considers him a dangerous separatist — or “splittist,” as the Chinese are wont to say.
The Chinese are not all wrong to fear the Dalai Lama’s unique prestige. After all the brutal suppression, and the flooding of Tibet by ethnic Chinese, the Tibetan people have still not reconciled themselves to Chinese rule, any more than the Palestinians have reconciled themselves to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
Whereas Tibet had long been a kind of satrapy of China, it enjoyed virtual independence in its mountain fastness until the new Communist government began re-imposing Chinese imperial power and invaded Tibet in 1950. After first trying to accommodate to Chinese rule the Dalai Lama fled to his present exile in India.
Unlike many other exiled leaders, however, the Dalai Lama has been remarkably successful at keeping the cause of Tibet alive. His success, like Gandhi’s, is due to uncanny political astuteness combined with an outward simplicity and spirituality that taps into the power of non-violent resistance. Just at the British had trouble coming to grips with just what Gandhi represented, so are the Chinese baffled by the Dalai Lama’s worldwide popularity. Invariably, the Chinese over-react.
I happened to be in Tibet when the last U.S. president met with the 14th incarnation of Tibet’s most important spiritual and once temporal leader, in the autumn of 2007. President Bush was about to receive the Dalai Lama in Washington, and my first notice of China’s reaction was when foreign television broadcasts in my Lhasa hotel room went off the air. The omnipresent military presence was increased, and public gatherings were curtailed. Parts of Tibet were shut down.
In the provinces I found that Tibetans had their own ways of finding out what was going on. One woman told me she knew all about the Dalai Lama receiving a medal from President Bush, and she went up into the hills to light a Yak butter candle and pray.
Shortly after I left, Tibet broke out into serious rioting, pouring gasoline on the flame of Chinese paranoia about Tibet. China is hard-wired to fear that the slightest weakness seen towards minorities will result in the country’s disintegration, which has happened again and again in Chinese history when central power flags. China looks with horror to what happened in Russia when the Soviet Union dissolved.
In many ways the discontent of the Muslim Uighurs in Western China is potentially more dangerous to China than Tibetans. But what the Chinese don’t understand is the mystique that Tibet holds in the Western imagination — a mystique the Dalai Lama both understands and manipulates with considerable skill.
Because it was so long isolated and so difficult to reach, and because the Tibetans themselves resisted foreign penetration for so long, Tibet became the goal of explorers and adventurers for 200 years. That, and the mysterious, deep spirituality of Tantric Buddhism, combined to make Tibet irresistible in the Western imagination.
When Jiang Zemin ruled China, he used to say that he could not understand why in the West, where “education in science and technology has developed to a very high level,” how there could be so much reverence for the monk-ridden, superstitious, feudal theocracy that Tibet once was. Had not China brought modernization, a higher standard of living? There had been some dreadful damage done during the Cultural Revolution, but was that not true in the rest of China in that period?
For Westerners, however, as Orville Schell wrote: It was the dream of Shangri-La itself that was at stake, referring to James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon” that so romanticized hidden Tibet. “For many westerners who had allowed themselves to dream the dream of Tibet, Chinese rule represented a paradise lost.” For Tibetans it represented “cultural genocide,” as the Dalai Lama put it.
Today Tibet’s mystique lies at the confluence of two powerful rivers of Western emotion: The search for spirituality that modern society seems unable to fill, and human rights. The more the Chinese threaten and scold, the more they forbid even his picture to be displayed, the more they promote and buttress the Dalai Lama’s importance, not only inside Tibet but throughout the world. By over-reacting every time a head of state agrees to see the Dalai Lama, China itself unwittingly contributes to his wordwide celebrity status.