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Christian Ruch {*}

Stroking the Rock?

China, the Dalai Lama and the Tibet Issue


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 2/2009, P. 91-95
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In the West the Dalai Lama still enjoys high reputation as a religious model. Up to now his commitment to a greater autonomy for his homeland, however, has been unsuccessful. The attention that the Tibet issue got in the past year in connection with the unrests in Tibet and the Olympics has died down. Time is running out for the exile Tibetans.


A Buddhist legend tells that the Indian Saint Asanga once retreated into the solitude of the Himalayas in order to find enlightenment. For many years he meditated in a freezing cold cave without approaching his goal. So it happened that one day he disappointed broke off the meditation and decided to return to the valleys and people. On his way he passed a shabby hut which stood below a rock.

Asanga saw the occupant of the hut stroking the rock with a wet feather. "What are you doing?" Asanga asked astonished. "The rock hides the sun from me," said the man, "so I try to get rid of it." "Are you crazy?" Asanga shouted horrified. "This is completely pointless. You would have to become thousands of years old in order to reach your goal!" But he had hardly said this when he was overcome by great respect for the naive trust and the great stamina of the man. So it happened that Asanga, deeply ashamed about his own weakness, returned to the Himalayas in order to continue his meditation in the cave.

The Tibet policy of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile government seems to be similarly pointless as the stroking of the rock in the legend of Asanga.



On the path of dialogue and non-violence the exile Tibetan side has already for decades been trying to induce the People's Republic of China to change its Tibet policy towards greater autonomy and respect for human rights. In a speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 15 June 1988 the spiritual and secular leader of the Tibetans declared himself willing to relinquish the independence of Tibet and to pursue a so-called "Middle Way": In the context of belonging to the People's Republic of China Tibet should get a far-reaching autonomy, which was to benefit above all the cultural and religious self-determination. Background of this change of course was the apparent thaw after Mao's death. The Chinese head of state and party leader Deng Xiaoping had declared in the Tibet issue one could talk about everything but independence.


China was not Ready to Make Concessions

The period of relative relaxation ended in 1989 with the outbreak of serious unrest in Tibet leading to the imposition of martial law and the rewarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama, which was humiliating for the Chinese. In the following years China was not willing to make constructive and substantive concessions and insinuated that the Dalai Lama, despite the proclamation of the "Middle Way", was striving for Tibet's independence.

There is also the fact that between the Chinese and the Dalai Lama it is also controversial what "Tibet" actually means. Because from the perspective of the Dalai Lama and the exile government Tibet is much larger than the in 1965 created "Tibetan Autonomous Republic" and also includes those Tibetan areas that were allocated to other Chinese administrative units.

Against that background, it could not surprise anyone that the last few years were marked by a sobering failure of the "Middle Way". However, as an exception the year 2008 began promising for the exile Tibetan community and the Tibet groups supporting them: The violent confrontations shaking Tibet in March clearly showed the world once more that the Tibet issue is still unresolved and that Chinese rulers seems to know no other approach but merciless and uncompromising severity.

In the following weeks the exiled Tibetans and Western support groups succeeded in letting become the Olympic torch run through the various continents a torch for the freedom of Tibet resp. a loud accusation of China. And ad last also the politicians seemed to be ready to set an example, and even a boycott of the Summer Games in Beijing seemed for a while to come within the bounds of possibility and to be worth discussing. China seemed to yield to pressure and declared itself to be ready to a dialogue with the exile Tibetans - a dialogue which, please note, existed already since 2002, but which on the part of the Chinese was nothing else but the permanent reproduction of well-known positions and allegations.


The Dalai Lama had to Admit the Failure of His Efforts

The various Tibetan groups in the West did not allow themselves to be dazzled by this pseudo-dialogue and therefore continued to prepare themselves to use the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing as a forum for their concerns. But the Dalai Lama seemed to observe these activities with mixed feelings: On the one hand he was not able to do without the support the Tibet activists; on the other hand he was more positively disposed than his allies towards awarding the 2008 Summer Olympic Games to China. In an interview with "Bild" (15.6.2008) he said, "When it was about the awarding of the Olympics I have clearly expressed that China deserves these great games. China is the country with the largest population and one of the oldest nations - that's why it deserves the Olympics. My mind remains unchanged even in spite of this crisis and of the many sufferings in Tibet."

Besides, more than a billion Chinese brothers and sisters were proud of these games. "From the first second I have been supporting these games. But I also became aware of the doubts of some people who call the venue into question. They complain about human rights violations, lack of religious freedom and environmental pollution. I think that it is important for China to improve in these areas in order to be a good host ..."

But that hope should not come true. To make matters worse the attention to Tibet, which had been aroused by the March riots and the disruptive actions against the Olympic torch run, was rapidly dwindling after the severe earthquake on 12 May 2008 in the Chinese province of Sichuan. In the media the Chinese appeared now no longer as brutal oppressors of Tibet but as the pitiable victims of a natural disaster. And when the Olympics had begun the fate of the Tibetans was anyway no longer in the centre of attention but sports and the show. A few courageous activists in Beijing admittedly succeeded in drawing people's attention to the Tibet issue, but China's strict security precautions had the result that such actions remained short and isolated.

A few weeks after the Games China made a clean sweep: On 10 November one declared the talks with the Dalai Lama to be fruitless. For the Chinese claimed once more that his "Middle Way" was nothing else but the attempt to lead Tibet into independence.



Besides, the "socialist" system should be abolished and instead of this a theocratic feudal system established as it existed before the Chinese invasion. Once more it became clear that China had never seriously respected the exiled Tibetans as dialogue partners, but that the regime had simply been interested in keeping the Olympic Games free of unwanted concomitants.

Faced with this situation also the Dalai Lama, who is usually always an admirable example of patience and perseverance, had no choice but to admit the failure of his efforts. He declared that it was now the business of the Tibetan people and its democratically elected institutions (the exile parliament and government) to determine the future course. To this end a conference was called in the headquarters of the Tibetan exile institutions in the northern Indian Dharamsala for 17 November 2008, which in spite of all the pessimism of the Dalai Lama did not dare to deviate from the "Middle Way". The 581 delegates admittedly decided that one would think the strategy over in case China was not ready to a serious dialogue, but no deadline was set for it. However, it was also decided no longer to send envoys of the Dalai Lama to China since these discussions had proved to be fruitless.

The decisions taken in Dharamsala were a bitter defeat for the angry and impatient generation of young Tibetans who louder and louder criticize the "Middle Way" openly strive for the independence of Tibet and who may have regretted the kind words of the Dalai Lama for the Chinese hosts of the Olympics. But a policy emancipating itself from the thinking of the Dalai Lama is still simply unthinkable in the exile Tibetan community, for his moral weight is still too great, his sacrosanct position inviolable.

The young Tibetans, among them especially the well-educated citizens of Western countries, have an understanding of politics that is highly moulded by practical politics, whereas the political thought of the Dalai Lama and his exiled Prime Minister, the Gelug Lama Samdhong Rinpoche, is strongly religiously influenced. It takes the Buddhist commandment as its starting-point: You are not to harm other creatures - and the Chinese occupiers and their torturing security forces also belong to them, and you are as far as possible to act without violence. In Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism this ideal is called with the Sanskrit word "ahimsa" ("not to injure"). It was especially Mahatma Gandhi who practised "ahimsa" on the political level and who thus strongly influenced the Dalai Lama. Gandhi "is for me," he wrote in his autobiography, "a perfect politician and a man whose highest principle was charity. I am convinced that his devotion to the cause of non-violence is the only sensible way to make politics."

However, the Dalai Lama conceals that the "perfect politician" Gandhi was not uncontroversial, just because of his adherence to "ahimsa". His view that one could stand up even to Nazism with non-violent resistance was for example totally unacceptable for the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo, and it almost seems as if he had had only contempt and sarcasm for it.


Worry about the Welfare of the Tibetan Population

The young Tibetans basically reproach, even though not too loudly, the Dalai Lama with the same reproach that Sri Aurobindo addressed to Gandhi, namely, that the policy of "ahimsa" in view of a regime like that of Nazi Germany or the People's Republic China was absolutely senseless - perhaps as senseless as wanting to make a rock disappear with the help of a wet feather. It seems, at least from a Western perspective, as if the Dalai Lama was not able to notice and acknowledge that the People's Republic of China has admittedly gone far away from its founder Mao in matters of economic policy, but not in its general understanding of politics. Mao's maxim was, "Political power comes from the gun barrels", and this dictum is still valid for the leadership of the Chinese CP.

However, the policy of the Dalai Lama must not be judged only according to Western standards. In the Tibetan Tantric Buddhism with its strongly magical thinking not only visually perceptible (political) actions are of importance but also the attempt to influence the course of things through certain rituals and exercises of meditation and visualization. There is for example given the story of Padmasambhava, who in the 8th century brought Buddhism to Tibet. By means of a certain ritual he made it possible that the life of the Tibetan King Trisong Detsen was prolonged by 13 years. Even the belief that the circumstances would change if one just looked differently at the circumstances has its origin in the magical thinking of the Tibetan Buddhism.

However, the fact that the Dalai Lama wants to keep to the "Middle Way" has not only to do with the ideal of "ahimsa" or his belief in the magic power of the mind, but also arises from the concern for the welfare of the population in Tibet. The extreme brutality of the Chinese in the March-riots showed once again that the security forces know no mercy. He warned that in the first place the six million Tibetans in Tibet would have to suffer, if now the exiled Tibetan community and the Western support groups in turn would decide to take a harder course. "If we are not very careful in the next 20 years, our plans will fail, and the Tibetan people is threatened with great danger", the Dalai Lama said according to a report in the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung" (24.11.2008).



But also the Dalai Lama knows of course that time is slowly but surely getting short: on the one hand through the mass immigration of Han Chinese, which threatens to degrade the Tibetan people to a minority in its own country, on the other hand by the advanced age of the Dalai Lama. For it is to be feared that after the death of the current Dalai Lama the Chinese produce out of the hat and enthrone an own successor convenient to them, as it was already practised in the case of the Panchen Lama. To be on the safe side, the Dalai Lama has therefore already declared that his reincarnation will not be born in a territory controlled by the Chinese.

But this will hardly impress the rulers in Beijing, particularly since the CP has reserved itself the last word in matters of reincarnation. The "Berliner Zeitung" wrote about this (4.8.2007): "Following the introduction of birth control 28 years ago, there is now in China also a re-birth control. In future Tibetan monks are only with the approval of the Government allowed to look for reincarnations of living Buddhas."


The Tibet Policy of most Western Countries is a Tragedy

The Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan community are therefore faced with the dilemma that at present there seems to be no practicable alternative to the current, albeit unsuccessful policy. The situation may present itself in a somewhat different way, if the Tibetans found a more effective support in the West. But the Tibet policy of most Western countries is more or less a tragedy, because the great respect / fear [(Ehr-)Furcht] of the emerging economic giant China has so far regularly pushed Tibet and human rights into the background - in spite of all empty talk.

Last December the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung" spoke quite rightly of "servile considerate Europeans" and noted that Beijing "was up to now quite successful with its policy of intimidation and playing the EU countries off against each other". When the German Chancellor Angela Merkel received the Dalai Lama the Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the Foreign Office had "downright outdone each other by emphasizing in a submissive attitude the importance of the Sino-German relations, the German support for Beijing's One China policy and the rejection of all requests from Taiwan and Tibet inconvenient to Beijing" (3.12.2008). In this respect one has to be happy that EU Council President Nicolas Sarkozy met the Dalai Lama last December in Poland despite all Chinese scolding.

But on that occasion Sarkozy also made clear that Tibet is now as ever regarded as an integral part of China. This was not only meant as a sedative pill for the Chinese leadership but corresponds to the European Tibet policy, which is thus oriented towards the normative power of the facts and can thus also avoid the discussion of whether Tibet has ever been an independent state. And the Dalai Lama knows perfectly well that he would lose in Europe the already alarmingly low political support as it was, if he adopted the young Tibetans' demand for independence. For that reason alone there is no alternative to the "Middle Way" for him.

However, the fact that the EU member states do not more strongly stand up for Tibet has not only to do with economic interests in China but is also the result of missing pressure-groups that could make the European leaders get a move on. There are admittedly quite a number of Tibet groups, as e.g. the "Tibet Initiative Deutschland e.V.", but apart from the brief period of success in March-May 2008 when the "Tibet" issue anyway dominated the headlines, they all are more or less muddling along just as willingly and ready to work as unsuccessfully. Through the hopelessness of the situation in Tibet and their own lack of success secretly worn down, there is a somewhat touching naivety but also a slightly autistic trait in the activism of many Tibetan groups.

It can therefore not surprise that they, in spite of all differently running proclamations, are not particularly taken into account by the Tibetan exile institutions when political decisions are at stake. At the end of November in Dharamsala an international conference of Tibet activists took place, but like many other such meetings it was rather poor in results. The participants admittedly expressed their view that in case the "Middle Way" failed one must not close one's eyes to the option of independence, but basically everything remained as it was: Without discussion one follows the policy of the Tibetan exile institutions and does also not dare to criticize it.

There are quite critical voices among young Tibetan intellectuals, whereas the Western Tibet groups nicely follow the course set by Dharamsala. That is understandable in so far as the Tibetans are of course to decide their political objectives - but it prevents the Western Tibet groups from taking as their theme the political dilettantism sometimes characterizing the actions of the Dalai Lama and of the exile institutions.

Besides, many Western Tibet activists have the illusion that only the communist regime had to disappear so that Tibet got its freedom. But the belief that Tibet is and has always been part of China is no exclusive faith of the ruling regime but, as it were, "common sense" in Chinese society. This also explains why many Chinese reacted so angrily and indignantly to the protests accompanying the Olympic torch run.



There is fear that the momentum that the Tibetan organizations got in spring 2008 by the unrest in Tibet now quickly evaporates and that one falls back into the same old rut of activism: The Olympic Games are over, and so one will once again gather signatures for this or that political prisoner, remind of the fate of the Panchen Lama held captive by China, set up here and there a stand with hand-out material. As already in previous years one will achieve little, but on no account a greater commitment of Western politicians - despite the friendly reception of the Dalai Lama in the European Parliament.

The Tibet policy "business as usual" is likely to determine again the agenda. China with its vast security apparatus will ensure that civil unrest, as it erupted last March, can be nipped in the bud and also intensify Tibet's Sinization. The Chinese place their hopes in the time factor, whereas the Tibetans run out of time; there is certainly no time left for stroking the rock.


    {*} Christian Ruch (born in 1968), Dr. phil., Historian and sociologist, member of the Working Group "New Religious Movements" of the Swiss Bishops' Conference, lives in Chur.


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