From the Archives: On Lamas in the White House

I gave YJ a llama for Christmas this year. The venerable organization Heifer International allows you to sponsor various animals as a fundraiser for their worldwide relief efforts.  In  a moment of altruism, I bought a llama for YJ and named the llama “Dolly.”

When she got the card, she stared at it for a moment.

“Why ‘Dolly’?”




“You’re an idiot.”

Yeah, I am. To prove it, I probably laughed at my own stupid (and completely unoriginal) joke for like…five minutes.  Sometimes my own idiocy amuses even me.

Tomorrow President Obama welcomes the real Dalai Lama to the White House.  Not the Oval Office of course, but the Map Room: The sleazy “No-Tell Hourly Motel” of White House diplomacy.

Despite the official White House position on meeting the Dalai Lama (To paraphrase: “It’s a kiss on the lips but no tongue!”) the Chinese government has no choice but to respond to this horrendous interference in China’s internal affairs.

From Reuters:

“The United States’ arrangement for its leader to meet the Dalai would be a gross interference in China’s internal affairs and is a serious violation of the norms of international relations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.

“It will seriously damage Sino-U.S. relations. We urge the United States to take seriously China’s concerns, immediately cancel plans for the U.S. leader to meet the Dalai, do not facilitate and provide a platform for Dalai’s anti-China separatist activities in the United States,” she added.

Spokeswoman Hua then did a pirouette, jammed a yak-horn knife into the upper thigh of New York Times correspondent Ed Wong, and smeared Ed blood on her face while dancing the Unity and Loyalty Dance right there on the carpet of the MOFA press room.

(Apologies to Reuters. I may have invented one of those paragraphs.  In my own defense, I’ve been breathing a lot of air in Beijing today and I’m currently down to two living brain cells.)

Most long-time China watchers roll their eyes when the subject of Tibet comes up. They know what it brings. The shouting and name-calling back and forth. The insane zealots on both sides of the argument.

Last week Central Committee member and go-to guy on ethnic issues Zhu Weiqun wrote:

“As China becomes more involved in international affairs, and as Tibet and Xinjiang further open to the world, more and more Westerners will have an understanding of Tibet and Xinjiang that better accords with reality,”

Of course, Zhu followed that up with:

“We can only push the West to change its way of thinking if we let them understand that China’s power cannot be avoided.”

As a former student wrote on my Facebook page: “I don’t think he really gets what ‘win over’ means.”

Looking at it from another perspective, I tend to agree with something Kaiser Kuo wrote on his Facebook page last week: Demonizing Han Chinese for “their” treatment of Tibetans does little to foster any kind of mutual understanding.

Most Chinese are well aware of the “Western” perspective on Tibet and are understandably prickly about the kinds of epithets used to describe Chinese control over the region.

I’m not advocating that we (as in the “West”) need to sugarcoat what is happening in Tibet so that our Chinese friends can feel warm and fuzzy, but the habit of talking at the Chinese about Tibet is likely no more productive in the long run than the Chinese PR ‘strategy’ outlined in the article.

I think the first place to start is acknowledging that the “Chinese” perspective, no matter how stridently stated, is a valid perspective. They invaded it. It’s theirs. That’s the way the game was played.

Even the ahistorical argument that “Tibet has since the Yuan Dynasty been an inseparable part of China” has, with some quibbling over the timeline, a certain validity. The Qing Empire conquered Tibet. The ROC and then the PRC claimed (whatever you think of those claims) the most expansive definition of the old Qing imperial boundaries as their own and (with the important exception of the USSR getting involved in Outer Mongolia) the world acquiesced or at least failed to care sufficiently enough to stop them.

Now that narrative is highly selective and lacking appropriate nuance. I don’t personally buy those arguments, either. But I understand why somebody would. What happens though is that “Chinese” and “Westerners” call each other names like “Imperialist” and “Brainwashed” without even trying to acknowledge that the other’s arguments have any validity whatsoever.

In terms of the Dalai Lama, however, I think China is missing an important opportunity.

Whatever the world thinks of His Holiness, to the Chinese government the Dalai Lama is  Yasser Arafat.

I’m not comparing their careers. No matter what the CCP says, the Dalai Lama is not a terrorist and is — in almost every measurable way — a  significantly better human being than Arafat ever was. But China feels the same way about the Dalai Lama that Israel felt about Arafat. He’s an arch-enemy. Their bête noire. The figure they love to hate and whom they can blame for almost anything.

When Arafat died there were few tears in the Israeli government. Flash forward  a decade later and in their darkest moments I think there are people in the security establishment who miss Yasser a little. Why? Because they may have hated the PLO Chairman with the white heat of a supernova but they knew him. He was a known quantity.  They knew how to work with him.

Compare then to now. Israel’s attempts to reach accommodation with the groups and leaders who have emerged since Arafat’s death have yielded, at best, mixed results.

China faces a similar dilemma. They may hate the Dalai Lama, but they know each other. He knows them and, a little bit like Arafat, this incarnation of the Dalai Lama is relatively moderate compared with what is waiting in the wings.

Moreover, just as Arafat had the stature and the credibility to compromise with Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton, it is possible that this Dalai Lama is the only figure in the Tibetan community who could work with Beijing and then sell a deal to the majority of Tibetans.  He may only be the head of one sect of Lamaism, but his stature looms larger than that, and it definitely overshadows any possible successor.

If the Chinese government is serious about moving forward and forging a truly multi-ethnic state, it needs to walk back the rhetoric of unity over all and recognize a plurality of perspectives on the past and present. [ED note: I wrote this in 2014. Reading that line sitting in Beijing in 2019 I had to laugh to keep from crying.]

China should work with this Dalai Lama  while it has the chance. This Dalai Lama preaches non-violence and there’s good evidence that his leadership has kept more extreme elements in check.  He is moderate. He is a known quantity. He has expressed an interest in meeting with Chinese leaders.  The time is now. Is China ready?