The Dalai Lama as dupe

Elliot Sperling directs the Tibetan studies program in Indiana University's Department of Central Eurasian Studies.

The Dalai Lama’s rationale for keeping Tibet in China has always had a certain logic to it: China is a great country, and Tibet would benefit by being part of it. Alas, most of the benefit to being a part of China on display in recent weeks has not been very tempting.

The fact is, despite displays of clear Tibetan nationalism and calls for Tibetan independence coming from Tibet, the Dalai Lama has long since made up his mind about Tibet’s future and will not be moved. And China has long since made up its mind about the Dalai Lama and -- more seriously -- has made very astute use of him.

Since the early 1970s, the Dalai Lama has had no desire to see Tibet independent, though he did not publicly acknowledge this changed position until 1988, when he offered a proposal for partial autonomy. Whatever hopes he may have had for a settlement with China on that basis have come to naught, however.


He started out by asking for “genuine autonomy,” with only defense and foreign affairs controlled by China, and over the years ratcheted down his position to “cultural autonomy.” In February, his prime minister said Tibetans only wanted the basic rights written into China’s law on nationality autonomy. But China decided years ago that it was simply better off without him -- that he would always be the symbol and focus of Tibetan nationalist aspirations, regardless of his stated position.

More important, China has been using the Dalai Lama’s political naivete to manipulate him. His pronouncements against Tibetan independence have been rejected with assertions that he is insincere; that he has to restate his position sincerely. And he has done so, again and again, repeating these declarations to the world leaders who received him. Given the taint attached to China’s incorporation of Tibet into its territory in 1951, and Chinese spokespersons’ lack of credibility, the Dalai Lama has been effectively turned into China’s prime spokesman against Tibetan independence.

At the same time, he explains China’s repeated demands for him to renounce independence by saying that China simply doesn’t understand him.

This is sadly ludicrous. With legions of officials working on Tibetan affairs in Beijing, one can rest assured that each word of the Dalai Lama’s is parsed. It is the Dalai Lama’s exile government, short on resources and talent, which is hard-pressed to understand China and Chinese policies.

And so China handily makes use of the Dalai Lama to marginalize and portray as extremists those Tibetans who want to see an independent Tibet, no matter how nonviolent they may be, no matter how great a majority of the Tibetan population they may be. China thus bides its time, waiting for the 72-year-old Dalai Lama to die, whereupon it will select a new Dalai Lama, one educated within and loyal to China.

Ironically, the otherwise idealistic Dalai Lama’s materialist explanation of the way to deal with Tibetan discontent is a close cousin to the casual predictions bandied about only a few years ago: As investment in Tibet rose and Chinese migrants generated greater and more diverse economic activity, trickle-down benefits would lead Tibetans to leave nationalism behind. This seemed a corollary to the 1990s dictum that economic development in China was effectively demolishing the possibilities of another Tiananmen Square showdown. China’s people, it was often said, had accepted a good life in exchange for the Communist Party’s right to rule by dictate.


Now, that thinking all seems wrong. Indeed, the demonstrators this time are not simply the “usual suspects.” They are monks and nuns who by definition are outside the demographic expected to respond to offers of the good material life. Large numbers of laymen are also engaged in protests in disparate parts of the Tibetan plateau. Tibetan nationalism is not dead. Nor was it dying when money and migrants were pouring into Tibet.

It was not so difficult to see, actually. Signs from Tibet may have seemed passive at times, but they were anything but unambiguous. Tibetans, for example, largely refused to display pictures of China’s choice for Panchen Lama (another of Tibet’s important lamas; this one selected in opposition to the Dalai Lama’s choice).

So what of those prognostications now? Undoubtedly there will be much backtracking from pundits, attempts to provide another theory of the ephemeral nature of Tibetan nationalism -- all while decrying cheap China bashing. But it’s too late. Tibetan nationalism simply won’t be theorized away. And China does have a very real black eye.