It is three quarters of a century since the Dalai Lama’s coronation as the temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet. He is now almost 80-years-old and still presents a dilemma for Western leaders, who routinely come under pressure from Beijing not to meet him whenever he visits their countries.
His appearance with Barack Obama at the US’s National Prayer Breakfast on February 5 2015 was a perfect example. The media coverage and scholarly exchanges that swirled around the event focused on whether the White House should receive the Dalai Lama at all – and what the costs of a presidential meeting with the Tibetan leader might ultimately be.
There was also naturally a reassessment of the Dalai Lama’s goals and achievements, and the same old criticisms of him surfaced once again.
The Dalai Lama’s critics principally point to his failure to change Chinese policies on Tibet. This is superficially accurate: even after two drawn-out dialogue processes (1979-1986 and 2002-2009) and an international campaign run by Tibetan exiles since 1987, Beijing has not let go of its demand that the Dalai Lama simply accept the status quo. The only flexibility was on whether he could live in Beijing or Lhasa, as opposed to his current exile in Dharamshala, in India.
But blaming him for the lack of a breakthrough is also intellectually lazy. If we were being honest, we would lay the blame primarily at China, with its the colonialist hardline stance, and hypocritical Western “champions” of freedom and human rights who do all too little to protect them.
And while a breakthrough with Beijing has eluded the Dalai Lama, he has done nothing to make some future reconciliation less likely. His positions have been anything but uncompromising: since discarding independence as a goal in the late 1970s, he has three times redefined his vision of autonomy for Tibet (a Hong Kong-style “One Country, Two System” status) in the early 1980s, 1988 and 2008. Each time, it was the Dalai Lama who climbed down on the scope of autonomy, and converged more and more with existing Chinese constitutional provisions.
He also has not alienated the Chinese mainstream by presiding over a bloody intifada against them, and has so forcefully counselled non-violence to the Tibetans that many inside Tibet now promote it as an essential norm of being Tibetan.
Ultimately, the Dalai Lama will leave the Tibetans as a nation in a far better place than they were when he took the helm. He has also behind a less poisoned politics for future generations, and the full impact of his legacy will be felt if ever a less conservative regime comes to power in Beijing – a big ask, obviously, but hardly inconceivable.
There are those who believe that the Dalai Lama’s meetings with foreign leaders encourage naive Tibetans to carry out self-defeating protests, provoking China into hardening its policies. But there is no hard causal evidence for this, outside of weak correlations and unconvincing anecdotes. And while these meetings do hold symbolic political value for the Tibetans, they are only a part of the Dalai Lama’s agenda.
He has all manner of cultural, economic, social, educational projects underway, including resettlement and scholarships for Tibetan refugees and financial assistance for their cultural, educational, health and social projects. These are all the more important since as things stand, any top-level political rapprochement is clearly a long way off.
The combination of economic troubles at home and China’s greater assertiveness, backed up by its fantastically deep pockets, has led a number of Western leaders, including even the Pope, to avoid contact with the Dalai Lama altogether.
But the evidence shows that their fears of Chinese retaliation are mostly unfounded. Recent academic studies of the “Dalai Lama effect” have found that the economic penalty for meeting the Dalai Lama is small and fleeting or non-existent – and that there is no dividend for compliance with Beijing either.
Given the costs are minimal, there is no real reason why Western leaders should defy China and meet with the Dalai Lama. And there are a number of pressing reasons why they should.
Stand up and be counted
Beijing’s realpolitik is based on a bet that whichever party buckles first will find itself under diplomatic pressure on a broader range of issues. This explains why weaker and divided European states have come under more pressure for hosting the Dalai Lama than the US and India have: China simply sees them as easier diplomatic marks.
But for the many European nations jealously guarding their sovereignty against what they see as the excesses of the EU, it makes no sense to let Beijing’s preferences dictate who they can or cannot meet.
These meetings and other types of support also give Western governments some leverage over the political goals and strategies of the Tibetans, which in turn provides another check against Chinese-Tibetan relations descending into open conflict. As the eruptions of 2008 showed, these third parties could find themselves on the horns of a far deadlier dilemma than the current one, forced to pick sides in a dispute marked by out-and-out violence.
But the biggest reason of all to keep engaging with the Dalai Lama is that the liberal values he defends are under attack almost everywhere.
Putin’s Russia is perverting democracy at home and rampaging across the former Soviet world, while China unabashedly boasts about the supposed superiority and dynamism of its authoritarian model. Much of Asia has spent two decades deploying different versions of the nebulous concept of “Asian values” to reject or deform liberal principles. The “Arab Spring” has turned into a nightmare.
Meanwhile, many Western leaders are using their own rights and freedoms to trample those of others, cheering on dictators elsewhere and restricting liberties at home.
Given this onslaught, Western leaders have to stand by the Dalai Lama. By unabashedly promoting the universal application of human rights and democracy, he is a rarity among not just Asian leaders but in the world at large. It is vital to support such rare people, even if only symbolically. And Western governments should either show some backbone when it matters or give up the entire charade of protecting fundamental rights altogether.