Afraid of the Dalai Lama?

The Dalai Lama outside the Capitol yesterday.
The Dalai Lama outside the Capitol yesterday. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Bloomberg News)

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By Maura Moynihan
Thursday, October 18, 2007

Yesterday the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress's highest civilian honor, and China is throwing a fit. "We are furious," the Chinese Communist Party's secretary for Tibet, Zhang Qingli, declared this week. "If the Dalai Lama can receive such an award, there must be no justice or good people in the world." In recent days China has abruptly withdrawn from a summit on Iran and canceled a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who received the Dalai Lama in September. Beijing, which according to The Post "solemnly demanded" that the Bush administration cancel Washington events planned for the Dalai Lama, is determined to punish and intimidate anyone who might pay tribute to Tibet's Nobel laureate.

Why is the mighty People's Republic of China so petrified of this 72-year-old Buddhist monk? True, the Dalai Lama is no ordinary scholar and teacher; he is the living symbol of the Buddhist faith. It seems that Beijing's cadres fear his moral authority and do not want the international community to examine their record in Tibet, because they have a lot to hide.

It has been 48 years since the Dalai Lama eluded capture by the People's Liberation Army and escaped to India, whereupon Chairman Mao Zedong began to plunder Tibet's wealth and murdered more than 1 million of its people. In the mid-1990s, the Chinese politburo implemented the "Strike Hard Campaign" that declared Buddhism "a disease to be eradicated." News of major protests in Tibet has not been widely disseminated in recent years, and now the survival of Tibetan civilization has reached a tipping point. In 2000, China launched a vast infrastructure campaign called "Opening and Development of the Western Regions" and embarked on a new phase of subjugation and control. Construction of rail and road links to Tibet, such as the Qingzang railway that opened last year, has accelerated Beijing's surveillance of Tibetans and has advanced the Sinofication of the Himalayan and Turkic peoples who inhabit China's western territories.

Exploiting Tibet's resources for the mainland's industrial base is a strategic and economic priority for China's government, which suppresses manifestations of Tibetan identity or nationalism with blunt force. After a Tibetan exile from New York and a few Americans unfurled a "Free Tibet" flag on Mount Everest this spring, Beijing cracked down hard: Foreigners' work permits, visas and prepaid tours were abruptly canceled, and hundreds of Tibetan government officials were fired and replaced by politburo hard-liners. But even severe police-state tactics have failed to extinguish the people's devotion to the Dalai Lama. Demonstrations have erupted across the Tibetan plateau; last month, for instance, electric cattle prods were used on a gang of teenagers who had painted Dalai Lama slogans on a tavern wall. In July, a festival-goer in eastern Tibet who shouted "Long live the Dalai Lama" was dragged out by riot police. The International Campaign for Tibet reported this week that pilgrims to Buddhist shrines are being harassed by armed Chinese soldiers and that persecution of Buddhist monks, already frequently charged with "unpatriotic activities," has intensified.

China is accustomed to reacting with brutality when its supremacy is threatened, but now the state is imperiled by forces that neither Maoist thought nor martial law can control. Rapid growth has caused calamitous environmental damage that could lead to food shortages and unhygienic living and working conditions, which in turn could lead to epidemics and, eventually, chaos. China's 1.3 billion people need solutions, not ordinances dictated by the Communist Party's Central Committee. But Beijing, unwilling or unable to relinquish one-party rule, clings to an obsolete worldview that demonizes the Dalai Lama instead of engaging the statesman in a meaningful dialogue on Tibet and China's future.

The Dalai Lama has been a refugee since 1959. He is still reaching out to China's leaders in an effort to heal the wounds of the past and move forward peacefully. Yesterday at the Capitol, he said: "I have no hidden agenda; I am not trying to divide China. . . . I am sincere in my wish to work with them." Chinese President Hu Jintao would rightfully earn international acclaim if he abandoned Stalinist cant and listened to what the Tibetan leader has to say while there is still time to do so.

Maura Moynihan, an author, worked for Radio Free Asia from 1998 to 2000 and was previously a consultant with Refugees International.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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