Dalai Lama and China keep a channel open

Times Staff Writer

Chinese officials use colorful language to describe the Dalai Lama, a “jackal clad in Buddhist monk’s robes and an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast,” as the Communist Party chief for Tibet put it.

But behind the rhetoric, there are more polite, and potentially fruitful, contacts between the Chinese government and the 72-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader.

As anti-Chinese demonstrations were breaking out in sympathy with protests in Tibet and fire-extinguisher-wielding activists were chasing the Olympic torch across the globe, a quiet back-channel dialogue was taking place.

“Even in the middle of this tragic crisis, we have kept open the channel of communications with the Chinese government,” the Dalai Lama’s chief negotiator, Lodi Gyari, said in a telephone interview Wednesday from Paris, where he was soliciting French support for talks. He said that so far, the contacts with the Chinese weren’t encouraging.


“To be candid, it is nothing but rhetoric, similar to what they [the Chinese government] say publicly,” Gyari said. “But we hope when the situation returns to normal, or as normal as it can be, they will realize that this was a wake-up call for a more sensible approach.”

The Dalai Lama himself alluded to contacts with the Chinese government at a news conference Sunday in Seattle, where he was attending a conference. “Just a few days these are going on,” he said without elaborating.

If there is unanimity in the international community on just one question, it is that China should negotiate with the Dalai Lama.

Direct talks between Beijing and the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader are a precondition set by some dignitaries, most notably French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for attending the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Many diplomats believe China’s only hope of quieting the furor and restoring glory to the Summer Games would be a grand gesture such as sitting down to talk.


In recent weeks, most of the living Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter, have called for China to negotiate with the Dalai Lama. Last week, President Bush joined other world leaders in the call for talks, saying, “If they ever were to reach out to the Dalai Lama, they’d find him to be a really fine man, a peaceful man, a man who is anti-violence.”

Hopes for a dialogue were buoyed recently by a speech given by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Laos. The premier said the Chinese government would negotiate with the Dalai Lama’s representatives under certain conditions, among them that the Dalai Lama use “his influence” to stop violent protests in Tibet such as those that broke out last month.

Although Chinese officials had made similar offers to negotiate before, the March 30 comment was the most explicit acknowledgment that the Dalai Lama can sway Tibetans. It is the party line in China that Tibetans love the Communist Party more than they do their spiritual leader.

“The party Central Committee is the real Buddha for Tibetans,” Zhang Qingli, Tibet’s Communist Party chief, said last month.


In a briefing for the foreign press Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu blamed the Dalai Lama for the failure to negotiate.

“The Dalai has never shown any sincere interest in dialogue. . . . We are ready to have dialogue and contact with him,” Jiang said.

At the moment, the voices for dialogue are being drowned out by the vitriol. Few observers expect talks to resume in today’s charged political climate. But there is faint optimism that things could turn around after the Olympic furor has died down.

Robbie Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University, says that the events of the last month have taught the Chinese several important lessons: that they do have a problem and that it will not disappear so quickly without the Dalai Lama’s help.


“When the Chinese are done with all the public displays of anger, they are likely to turn to political solutions,” Barnett said. “The reality is that this issue has been significantly elevated. The Tibetans on the ground have burned, marched, protested and pushed their way into significance. It could play out in a way that could get the two sides to talk to each other.”

Though they are the minority, some Chinese intellectuals have spoken out against Beijing’s hard line. Last month, 29 Chinese intellectuals signed a petition calling for dialogue, and the number has since grown to more than 100.

“If the Chinese government refuses to talk with the Dalai Lama, things will get worse and worse,” said Teng Biao, a Beijing lawyer who was one of the organizers of the petition drive.

The Dalai Lama long ago gave up demands for independence, espousing what he calls a “middle way” of autonomy in which the Tibetans would have more freedoms under Chinese rule. He has preached nonviolence to Tibetans and tried to calm the young hotheads who would prefer armed resistance. In his speech in Seattle, the Dalai Lama reiterated his support of the Summer Olympics and his opposition to a boycott.


Over the last two decades, representatives of the Dalai Lama have been invited periodically to China for talks with Beijing over Tibetan griev- ances. The most recent round ended inconclusively in July. The Dalai Lama has not been permitted back in Tibet or elsewhere in mainland China since he fled into exile in 1959.

The immediate issues for Tibetans have less to do with autonomy than with day-to-day life under Chinese rule. Tibetans complain that their jobs and culture are being wiped out by a massive influx of ethnic Chinese. They want the freedom to worship and to possess pictures of the Dalai Lama, whose image is banned in China. They want it made easier for Tibetans in China to visit with the tens of thousands of Tibetans who fled abroad after the communist takeover of their homeland in 1951.

Most immediately, Tibetans in exile want fair treatment for the thousands of Tibetans who they say have been arrested by Chinese authorities in the last month.