When President Obama delayed his meeting with the Dalai Lama last October, his opponents accused him of kowtowing to China. But that decision fell within the bounds of diplomatic rules: Obama was about to visit China and the meeting would certainly have ensured the failure of that visit. It was too close for Beijing to feel other than obliged to react negatively. In diplomacy, as in politics, timing matters.
Now the postponed visit is about to take place and China, right on cue, is making hostile noises again. The meeting, says Beijing, will seriously damage U.S.-China relations. Just as it was appropriate to postpone last time, this time President Obama is rightly treating the noise from Beijing for what it is: an automatic flag-waving exercise in symbolic politics. For China’s nationalists, the meeting represents a conspiracy of hostile interests: the U.S., dedicated to undermining China’s rise, and the Dalai Lama, devoted to splitting the motherland. Because for this group, all of China’s ills come from outside, and Beijing is obliged to protest.
Beijing will never cede its sovereignty over Tibet: There is too much at stake in water and resource security, as well as the integrity of the borders that Beijing, perhaps unwisely, claimed as its inheritance from the Manchu Qing Dynasty.
But for President Obama to back out of the limited moral support that his meeting affords Tibet’s exiled spiritual and political leader would be to allow China a degree of interference in U.S. domestic affairs that China would never tolerate, were the positions reversed. China’s bluster is unlikely to have real consequences.
But beyond offering the Dalai Lama tea and sympathy, the U.S. will do little to encroach on China’s sovereignty over Tibet. Equally, everybody knows, including Beijing, that the Dalai Lama has repeatedly and publicly renounced any claims of Tibetan independence. The issue for him is to try to secure a tolerably decent life for Tibetans and the survival of at least some of their culture before he himself is called upon to find a new incarnation.
Meeting President Obama will not significantly improve the currently bleak chances of the Dalai Lama achieving his aims, but it is not without significance, including for the United States. One consequence of China’s increasing economic power is that it offers China the opportunity to propagate values that the West finds uncongenial. Finding the means to live with China’s increasing influence while not compromising those values is fundamental and Tibet is one of a number of issues, including Internet censorship and Taiwan, on which the Obama administration has the opportunity to insist on upholding U.S. values.
For Tibet, though, this is cold comfort. The Tibetan project, to use an internationally recognized moral authority to leverage change for Tibetans in China, has been led for the last 50 years by the exiled Dalai Lama. Now it is facing a difficult future. The most recent round of talks between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese government ended in the now-familiar cacophony of positive messages from the Tibetan side and high volume unpleasantness from Beijing. If the public messaging truly reflects the spirit of the talks, little is advancing.
Beijing will never cede its sovereignty over Tibet: There is too much at stake in water and resource security, as well as the integrity of the borders that Beijing, perhaps unwisely, claimed as its inheritance from the Manchu Qing Dynasty. But the Chinese government’s decades of rule in Tibet, the first attempt in Chinese history by a majority Han government to run the place, have been expensive and counterproductive and China’s Tibetan mistakes continue to cost it dear.
Since the uprising in March 2008, Tibet and the Tibetan areas of several Chinese provinces have remained under an expensive security lockdown. In addition to the financial burden of this security, by its own admission, China has invested billions of dollars in Tibet over the last 50 years. According to one official Web site:
…in infrastructure alone, the central government's cumulative investment in Tibet exceeded 100 billion yuan for the period from 1951 to 2008. From 1959 to 2008, the central government's cumulative fiscal transfer payments to Tibet reached over 201.9 billion yuan, [nearly US $30 billion] with an average increase of nearly 12 percent a year. Since the "Eleventh Five-Year Plan" period, the central government's cumulative financial subsidies to Tibet by the end of 2008 had reached 62.501 billion yuan, 24.7 billion yuan greater than the 37.8 billion yuan of total financial subsidies that the central government allocated to Tibet during the "Tenth Five-Year Plan" period.
These impressive sums were invested, according to the government, in social and economic development. If that is the objective, Beijing should ask for its money back. Some of the infrastructure spending has included the cost of replacing most of the historic buildings of the city of Lhasa with Chinese designed “karaoke kitsch,” to the distress of many Tibetan residents. As for the “social and economic development,” there are perhaps two million Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region who, despite the central government’s claim to largesse, largely remain miserably poor. Social indicators such as health and education levels reveal that living standards in the TAR remain well below those in other parts of the People’s Republic.
Perhaps it is time for Beijing to inquire where its money has gone, and to ask whether its current policies, and the officials and institutions that dominate them, really have China’s greater good in mind. There is little sign that Beijing has the appetite to scrutinize its own policy errors, though some in China have pointed the way. In May last year, a group of Chinese lawyers based at Beijing University published their own report into the causes of the 2008 uprising. It was not, they concluded, the result of a Dalai Lama plot, as Beijing continues to insist, but of failed Chinese policy. The report met with official silence, and in July 2009 the organization, the Open Constitution Initiative, was investigated for alleged tax violations and closed down.
Other public intellectuals who have tried to bring some sense to China’s Tibet policy have met with similar hostility. Wang Lixiong, a longstanding advocate of genuine autonomy for Tibet, and his wife, the Tibetan intellectual Woeser, have both effectively been silenced in China, though their writings continue to be available outside.
Since the events of 2008, the public mood in China has turned against Tibetans. They were previously viewed, no doubt patronizingly, as “pure hearted,” if a little backward, docile subjects of the Han mission to bring them the benefits of civilization. Now, many Han Chinese view Tibetans as dangerous ingrates who have bitten the hand of their benevolent Chinese colonizers.
But turning Tibetans into the enemy within does not solve Beijing’s Tibet problem or prevent Chinese taxpayers’ money disappearing down the same rat hole. The Chinese government persists in its belief that once the Dalai Lama is off the scene its Tibet problem will disappear. In current form, this seems unlikely. If President Obama can help to persuade Beijing that a deal done with the Dalai Lama is their best chance of avoiding future trouble, he will be doing a favor not only to Tibetans but to China, too.
Isabel Hilton is the author of The Search for the Panchen Lama.