Despite Chinese protests, President Bush presented the Dalai Lama with a Congressional Gold Medal on October 17. During the award ceremony, Bush praised the Dalai Lama as a “shepherd of the faithful and a keeper of the flame for his people.” Later, speaking to reporters at the White House, Bush declared: “I want to honor this man […] I have consistently told the Chinese that religious freedom is in their nation’s interest.”
The Chinese, however, felt quite differently about their nation’s interest. The New York Times, for example, quoted a Chinese official who referred to the Dalai Lama as “a person who basely splits his motherland and doesn’t even love his motherland.”
The official added: “We are furious. […] If the Dalai Lama can receive such an award, there must be no justice or good people in the world.”
American and Chinese views on the Dalai Lama’s visit seem irreconcilable. However, the nations’ disagreement on this issue rests largely on their differing perspectives—perspectives that must be analyzed, not ignored.
First, consider America’s perspective. Although China sees the Dalai Lama’s visit as a hostile act, President Bush probably didn’t intend it that way—most Americans see the issue as one of religious freedom. Most Americans see the Dalai Lama as a harmless, bespectacled religious guru who often writes self-help books with titles like How to Expand Love, The Art of Happiness, and The Art of Happiness at Work. To Americans, it seems illogical, almost laughable, that China should see the frail 72-year old monk as a threat to their country and civilization.
Moreover, Americans are often shocked by China’s stance on religion—they have persecuted “underground” Christians, banned the Falun Gong, and destroyed a number of Buddhist monasteries. In many ways, President Bush is right about religious freedom, and he is correct to say that embracing freedom of religion might make China a better place.
However, there is a catch: China already considers itself to have freedom of religion—it’s a constitutional right in China, where Article 36 states that “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization, or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion.” Most Chinese are Taoists or Buddhists, and there are also an estimated 50 million Christians, 20 million Muslims, and even a small Jewish community. Millions of Tibetan Buddhists practice their religion peacefully. Why, therefore, does the Chinese government dislike the Dalai Lama?
The answer: China views the Dalai Lama as a political threat. China’s problem isn’t with Tibetan Buddhism, but Tibetan separatism. While it is true that the Dalai Lama has officially abandoned the idea of Tibetan independence, many of his supporters have not. The International Tibet Independence Movement (ITIM) continues to thrive to this day. Moreover, the Dalai Lama himself has continued to campaign for greater Tibetan autonomy despite the fact that Tibet is already a designated autonomous region within China. In addition, Tibetan separatism receives a lot of good press in the American media and Hollywood, with anti-China flicks like Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun garnering millions of dollars.
But why is China so determined to maintain control over Tibet?
Consider America. Just as a hand has five fingers, our nation consists of five main parts—European, African, Latino, Asian, and Native American peoples. Despite their cultural differences, all these groups share a common allegiance to the American constitution and flag. For example, although Barack Obama is of African ancestry, he identifies himself not as an African, but as a proud citizen of the United States.
Similarly, like America, the Chinese nation also consists of several parts, including the Han, Manchu, Tibetan, Mongol, and Zhuang peoples. Despite the cultural differences between these groups, they form an integral part of the Chinese nation. Just as a thumb is an integral part of the hand although it looks different from the other four fingers, so Tibet can be said to be an integral part of China even though its culture is different from the majority Han culture. Moreover, ever since the 13th century, Tibet has been under Chinese suzerainty and sovereignty for hundreds of years—centuries longer than Alaska and Texas have ever been part of the United States.
As such, when President Bush unreservedly praises the Dalai Lama, whose very presence incites Tibetan separatists to rebellion, it comes across as incredibly offensive to ordinary Chinese citizens—regardless of whether their ancestry is Han, Manchu, Mongol, or Tibetan. How would patriotic Americans feel if the Chinese invited a separatist leader from the Alaskan Independence Party to their capital, publicly gave him a medal, and praised him as a “shepherd of the faithful and a keeper of the flame for his people?” Few of us, not even our Alaskan cousins, would be amused.
Looking at the Dalai Lama’s visit from both sides, it is evident that America and China view him from different perspectives. America sees the Dalai Lama as a bespectacled religious guru who preaches a philosophy of peace; China sees him as a malevolent politician whose veneer of weakness hides his separatist intentions. In theory, America’s concern for religious freedom can be reconciled with China’s concern for its political integrity because the two are not mutually exclusive. In practice, however, such a foreign policy breakthrough seems unlikely.