Full Of Sound & Fury

Don’t Get Your Hopes Up, Tibet: Why Obama's Meeting With The Dalai Lama Is An Empty Gesture

The Dalai Lama met publically with President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast, with predictable outcry from China. But nothing has really changed on either side—which is bad news for Tibet.

02.05.15 6:26 PM ET

Cham is a Tibetan ritual dance, a carefully choreographed ritual meant to bring blessings to the Buddhist community.

The American and Chinese governments have long been engaged in a similar Tibetan ritual dance, also carefully choreographed, but one that has brought no blessings to anyone, least of all Tibetan Buddhists.

Here’s how it works.  American politicians meet and say lovely things about the Dalai Lama, one of the top 10 admired people in the world, but carefully avoid saying anything too overtly political.  The Chinese government reacts with consternation.  Nothing changes.  A year or two later, the ritual is repeated.

U.S. President Barack Obama takes the stage to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, February 5, 2015. Flanking Obama are Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey (L) and Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker. 


Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President Barack Obama takes the stage to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, February 5, 2015. Flanking Obama are Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey (L) and Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker.

On February 5, the ritual dance took place at the National Prayer Breakfast, one of the few remaining occasions at which Republicans and Democrats still talk to one another.  President Obama mentioned the Dalai Lama, who was in attendance, right at the beginning of his speech—just after God, Senators Bob Casey and Roger Wicker, and his wife, Michelle (in that order).  Said the president:

I want to offer a special welcome to a good friend, His Holiness the Dalai Lama—who is a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion, who inspires us to speak up for the freedom and dignity of all human beings.  I’ve been pleased to welcome him to the White House on many occasions, and we’re grateful that he’s able to join us here today

China had already filed its objection, with its spokesman stating on February 2 that:

Tibet-related issues bear on the core interests and national feelings of China. We are against the interference in China’s domestic affairs by any country using Tibet related issues as an excuse, and are opposed to the meeting with the Dalai Lama in any form by any foreign leader. We hope that the U.S. side can act on its commitment on Tibet-related issues and properly deal with relevant issues in the larger interest of bilateral relations.

As at any ritual dance, all the details were noticed.  On the one hand, Tibet activists cheered that, unlike the president’s three private meetings with the Dalai Lama, this one was public—the first joint public event between the Dalai Lama and an American president since 2007.

On the other hand, Senator Casey went out of his way to note that the Dalai Lama did not have a speaking role at the event.  Indeed, the keynote was delivered by former NASCAR star Darrell Waltrip, presumably a religious figure of greater gravitas.

The president’s remarks, too, were carefully nuanced.  Note that he praised the Dalai Lama not as the leader of the world’s largest occupied nation, but rather as a powerful example of compassion.  The word “Tibet” was never mentioned. 

Then again, he did call the Dalai Lama “His Holiness,” and did mention “freedom and dignity,” code words for human rights.

China’s spokesman, too, used carefully measured words.  He reiterated that Tibet is a “domestic affair,” since the regime regards the country (independent for hundreds of years and possessing its own language, religious heritage, leadership, and culture) as part of China.  Yet he didn’t complain too much, and situated Tibet “in the larger interest of bilateral relations.”

Which, of course, is the whole reason for the ritual dance in the first place.  If China were anyone other than China, there would surely be international action to end the brutal occupation of a foreign country, and the genocide of almost a third of its inhabitants.  But China is China, and so the United States and Tibetan government in exile only support “autonomy” for Tibet, as well as the long, pointless negotiations that for 34 years have gone nowhere, while the Chinese regime waits for the Dalai Lama to die, at which point they will choose his successor.

There are, quite simply, bigger issues on the U.S.-China agenda, and with one-fifth of the world’s population, China isn’t about to be moved by Western hand-wringing—which, after all, didn’t work over Tienanmen Square, and isn’t working over Occupy Hong Kong. 

This is why many Tibetan activists have settled in for a long, bitter exile, and have set up institutions that can keep Tibetan culture alive outside of Tibet. Despite the presence of Western celebrity backers like Richard Gere, Paris Hilton, Russell Brand, and Sharon Stone (to name a few), Tibet’s prospects are bleak.  It’s no wonder that the Tibetan protest of choice is setting oneself on fire.

So, you could look at the Dalai Lama’s appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast in two different ways.  From one perspective, it’s yet another episode of political theater, which will ultimately accomplish nothing. 

But if it’s true that the long-term future of Tibet depends on building a culture in exile, then anything that raises the profile of that culture is important.  Although the Dalai Lama as politician has failed, maybe the Dalai Lama as Nobel laureate, bestselling author, and spiritual icon for millions can help build a durable lifeboat for Tibetan culture in exile.  And maybe showing up at a prayer breakfast, and getting name-checked by the president, is one more tool with which to do so.  God, or Buddha, only knows.