May 18

Dalai Lama: “I can’t wait to be a Chinese citizen”

Written by Buxi on Sunday, May 18th, 2008 at 7:52 am
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The Dalai Lama speaks with the Times (UK) as he begins his European tour. Very interestingly, he describes what might be a revolutionary change in position as far as a return to China.

In an unexpected shift of policy, he has four conditions which, if met, would permit him to return.

I analyze and discuss these four conditions below.

Previously, the Dalai Lama has spoken of two primary conditions: high degree of autonomy (similar to that of Hong Kong), and the creation of a “greater Tibet” for all ethnic Tibetans. Both of these are basically non-starters for most Chinese; I reject the idea that 1/4 of our country should be carved out for an ethnically pure “homeland”, and I reject a political solution that sets up the necessary conditions for the eventual transition to independence published by the Dalai Lama.

If these two primary conditions are now gone and replaced with these four conditions… it’s a huge step towards a potential compromise. Although I’ve just written a blog criticizing the Dalai Lama for having horrible advisers when it comes to Chinese issues, these conditions show a much better understanding of what we care about.

1. opening up Tibet to the foreign media – “The first sign that the [Chinese] government is taking the world’s concerns seriously would be the opening of Tibet to foreign media,” he said. “They should be given free rein to report all that they find, whether it is good or bad.

This is something that many Chinese would support. He’s right to criticize restrictions placed on foreign reporters in the aftermath of 3/14; many Chinese were also critical of the decision. Although the Western media hasn’t been proven especially fair when it comes to understanding Chinese issues, keeping them from the area hasn’t silenced their voices, only allowed them to become more extreme in manufacturing facts.

Other than the Tibet issue, the successful experiences in 2008 should be proving to the Chinese government that the foreign media should not be feared. All Chinese citizens, including “sensitive” dissidents, have been openly available to the Western media for interview. Those who read Chinese news reports on a regular basis will have heard many of their voices over the past 3-5 months. The recent experience with earthquake reporting should also be proof that transparency is a positive.

2. medical help from the outside “Secondly, it is important that the government accept medical aid from outside. “

This is a rather odd request… mostly because it doesn’t seem especially controversial.

3. release all non-violent political prisoners“Thirdly, the government must release all political prisoners. Not those who have perpetrated violence, but all who have protested peacefully. Then there should be fair and open trials for those who did engage in criminal activity.” [H]e is quite explicit: it is right that any Tibetans who have caused criminal damage or physical harm should be prosecuted.

The Tibet government-in-exile has previously demanded that “all political prisoners” must be released, without defining the term. There’s no possibility that the Chinese people could stomach the release of the criminals that we saw beating, assaulting innocent civilians on the streets of Lhasa.

It sounds like the Dalai Lama has been getting good advice, and he’s now clarified what the term means. And I applaud him for it. I don’t believe that there should be any “thought crimes” in modern China; those who did not participate in illegal criminal action should be released. Frankly, by all indications, this condition has already been met. New York Times’ Kristof interviews several Tibetan monks previously detained for political protests, who’ve since been released.

I also agree in the need for open/transparent/fair criminal trials, not just in Tibet, but throughout China.

4. basic human rights – “Finally, there need to be substantive discussions with a view to satisfying the Tibetan people’s aspiration to exercise their basic human rights.”

The Dalai Lama was anything but specific here, and that doesn’t leave us much room for discussion. I for one believe Tibetans (and all Chinese) should have the right to “exercise their basic human rights”, but it depends on how we exactly define these terms. If he means that the people should be allowed to worship the Dalai Lama as a religious/spiritual figure, I agree. If he means that the people should have the right to be taught in Tibetan or Mandarin, I also agree.

Bottom line, if this is really an accurate portrayal of what he is setting as basic conditions for a return to China, I’m very optimistic about a solution. There are many details here, but no major obstacles. This would set the scene for him returning to China as an average citizen, who happens to be a spiritual leader. He would continue to lecture to Tibetans (and all Chinese) as a religious leader, but he would have no political influence, and he would not be given the opportunity to again push for independence.

(Let me also reiterate an earlier point however: it’s a shame that the Dalai Lama makes these potentially very meaningful proposals in an English newspaper, but especially something like the Times. He could have instead chosen to share these via an interview with the NY Times, the Christian Science Monitor… or preferably Shijie Ribao, Phoenix TV, RTHK, or any number of other respected overseas independent Chinese news sources. This specific Times article, unfortunately, is filled with stomach-turning phrases that echo the worst of biased anti-China propaganda.)

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9 Responses to “Dalai Lama: “I can’t wait to be a Chinese citizen””

  1. caoshiren Says:

    The fact that DL only speaks to English media for these proposals implies that this is again part of his propaganda to build up his peaceful ready-to-talk image in the west. And it’s very likely that DL has no intention to really carry out these proposals.

  2. Buxi Says:


    Looking at the history of the Dalai Lama’s comments, it’s easy to become skeptical. He’s often made proposals that sound attractive at a superficial level (especially to those in the West), but have disturbing implications.

    For example, his previous demands that China “allow international observers in Tibet”, and that China “free all prisoners” are both examples. But I think we have to accept that the actual proposals he’s made this time at least sound practical, and that is already huge progress.

    But we do need to monitor what else he does and says going forth. Keep in mind that he really has no physical “force” beyond his words, his promises. We have nothing to lose from listening to these proposals with an open ear.

  3. Eugene Zhao Says:

    I found the attached posting at NY Times as a response to Nick Kristoff very informative. The Dalai Lama’s statue as ” a religious leader” is not set in stone. He is more of a political leader for Tibetans-in-exile. We must scrutinize his words, and compare his words to his deeds. His track record has been very poor in terms of personal integrity.

    “I am a historian of China and have been fortunate enough to attend one of your talks on human rights issues on a college campus. I applaud your informed and relatively even-handed treatment of the Tibetan issue. Along with you, I want to emphasize that Tibet was neither a “sovereign nation,” independent from China as Tibetans claim, nor was it exactly a part of China as the Chinese claim. It was a vessel state of the Chinese empire since the 18th century before the introduction of the Western concept of sovereign nation-state to Asia. Since the 20th century, with both the Han Chinese and Tibetans adopt the Western concept of nation and sovereignty, you start to see the clash of two nationalisms, Tibet vs. China and China vs. Imperialist West. In the current context of the fervent China-bashing in the West, and shall I add, especially in the Western media, and narrow nationalism in China, which are both dangerous, you represent a welcoming voice of moderation, of compromise, which is what we need in finding a sustainable solution to this issue.
    The following are three issues I’d like to discuss with you:
    1. The notion of the Dalai Lama as the Tibetan spiritual leader is misleading the Western audience about the nature of his position and his place in the Tibetan society. Dalai Lamas are reincarnation of previous Dalai Lamas, and they are living Buddha, or gods to Tibetans. More over, they are also Tibetan political ruler. They are theocrats. The Western silence on this issue is perhaps more out of political inconvenience than out of ignorance. Surely, we all know that Lamas are humans rather than gods. And surely they know it too not the least because they had accepted Beijing as the final arbiter of who the Dalai Lama should be for more than 200 years, which clearly shows that his Holiness’s reincarnation is political rather than religious or supernatural. However, to the Tibetan faithful, Dalai Lamas are gods. The Tibetans worship the 14 Dalai Lama not so much because of his teachings of wisdom and compassion and more because he is their god. Shall we support a theocracy which is intrinsically the opposite of democracy, or shall we expect to see a democratization of Tibet with the separation of the church/monastery and the state?
    2. The Chinese restriction of the numbers of Tibetan monks and prohibition of their support of the Dalai Lama is political control rather than religious suppression. Beijing fears or opposes Dalai Lama because of the political rather than religious threat he poses. As for the sizes of the monasteries, there are as many as 1,800 Buddhist monasteries and 46,000 monks in Tibet today. By my calculation considering the current Tibetan population, that means or every medium-sized village of 200-300 households has a monastery of average 25 monks. Surely the current monastic system is a shadow of its former glory since in pre-1959 Tibet, Buddhist monasteries dominated all aspect of Tibetan life, including the land and the population. Today’s monasteries are subsidize by the Chinese government since their land was since long redistributed to the general Tibetan population. If the Tibetans want to once again expand their monasteries to their former glory, who should be paying for it? Shall we allow the monasteries to be vast landholders and take land away from ordinary Tibetans? As for the Chinese ban on sending sons younger than 18 to monasteries for a life of being a monk, it is being quietly ignored by Tibetans who are sending in their sons as young as eight. Shall we question this practice? Should a young boy be given a chance to receive a basic education and allowed to be old enough to understand his options before being pressed into monastery life by his family? Why we in the West view with horror young boys spending long days reciting Koran in fundamental Islamic schools while acquiescing to the recruitment of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of young boys?
    3. Finally, what is Tibetan culture or Tibetan tradition? And what is “tradition?” To me, a cultural historian, we should not perceive culture or tradition as static totalities. From observing our own cultures/traditions, be it European or Chinese, they all change over time. Tibetan culture too. Changes in a culture due to its interaction with other cultures or due to its own internal dynamics indicate its vibrancy rather than its decay. I believe there is a true danger to speak about Tibetan tradition as if it should be locked in a safe. It would not be fair to Tibetans if we try to freeze Tibet in time, to keep the Tibetan people and their tradition as if they were museum pieces for us to admire. Currently, many Tibetans are struggling between tradition (i.e. Tibetan) and modern (i.e. China and the West). That is not a unique Tibetan problem. It is a problem faced by all non-Western peoples and cultures in the past and still today. I’m sure the struggle is painful and yet I am confident that the Tibetan people will find their best way to negotiate between Tibetan tradition and modernity.
    — Posted by Ling “

  4. Twofish Says:

    Don’t look for a solution, just look to manage the situation. There is this idea that sometime people will shake hands and then everything will be fine, but looking at situations in Israel and Ireland, having people shake hands is just the beginning of the process, not the end.

    My worry is that if the Dalai Lama returns to Tibet too early that this will increase expectations too much, and case much greater disappointment later. For now, I think that a realistic goal is 1) the “Catholic solution” in which the Chinese government tolerates an underground church in parallel with the official church and 2) some sort of agreement as the the mechanism by which the DL’s successor will be found.

    Having the Dalai Lama in China will require a huge amount of trust on both sides, and it will take time to develop this. Without this trust, you are just setting going to make the situation worse.

  5. Twofish Says:

    I should also point out that even if a solution is found to the question of religious freedom in Tibet that still doesn’t resolve the issues of economic development and immigration.

    The reason I think that religious freedom is the first thing to look at is that this is probably the easiest issue to address, partly because you have two sides instead of fifty, there are parallels to solutions in other situation (the role of the Catholic church in Italy or separation of church and state, for example).

    The other issue that this is important is that it brings up the question of the succession to the Dalai Lama which is a pressing issue.

  6. Buxi Says:


    Thanks for the article. There are have been numerous informative and well-argued comments from the Kristof blogs… I hope others will also paste them over, so we can discuss them in detail.


    I agree with you that the Catholic Church solution is appealing for China. This is true in two ways:

    1) Europe struggled with nearly 2000 years of a Catholic Church that owned lands and directly managed political affairs; its ability to ultimately separate religion and government is something we should learn from in Tibet.

    For example, I think the “Vatican City” model is something worth considering in Tibet.

    2) As you said, there’s also the compromise/accommodation model used by existing religions in China. The Catholic Church is one example; Islam is another example… in a part of the world where Islamic madrassas were traditionally used to educate the young (just as Tibetan temples served the same role), China has tried to find a balance.

    I don’t think there’s any real downside to the Dalai Lama returning to Tibet however, as long as he is personally supportive of whatever solution. If you look at what Tibetans in China are angry about (the educated Tibetans writing in Chinese), it usually comes down to two things:

    1) the Dalai Lama is being “prevented” from returning,
    2) preservation of language and culture.

    You don’t hear much about fears of immigration and imbalanced economic development, because the educated Tibetans in China fully understand both of these issues aren’t happening because of government policies.

    I think the Dalai Lama’s return on mutually-acceptable solutions will be helpful. I don’t think it’s critical to a long-term solution in Tibet, but I think it’s a helpful one.

  7. Allen Yu Says:

    Eugene – what do you mean when you refer to “narrow nationalism?”


  1. Questions for the Dalai Lama | Blogging for China
  2. Dalai Lama tries speaking to the Chinese | Blogging for China

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