The Dalai Lama's moment of truth

His Holiness struggles to defuse mounting violence between Tibet and China.

Published March 24, 2008 10:16AM (EDT)

At this summer's Olympic Games, Beijing's Communist Party wanted to present China as a gleaming new superpower. But its brutal suppression of Tibet has jeopardized this image -- and placed the Dalai Lama himself under pressure to keep angry Tibetans on a course of nonviolence.

He sits hunched over, as if the weight of the world rested on his shoulders, his famous and often so liberating smile frozen, his characteristic and consistently bubbling optimism dissipated. The 14th Dalai Lama seems depressed as he receives the world press in his Indian exile. He is a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who has apparently lost the support of all partners in peace, a god-king without a country.

He's at a loss over what to do about the bloody unrest in Tibet. He has called for an independent international investigation of the recent riots and military crackdown, knowing that Beijing will never agree. And he's urged the Chinese leadership to exercise restraint and respect human rights. But the Dalai Lama also preaches nonviolence to his fellow Tibetans. "I lack the means to defuse the conflict," says the world's most famous asylum seeker, a man revered by people around the world -- in Germany even more so than the pope.

"We would need a miracle for that," says the Dalai Lama, 72, whose real name is Tenzin Gyatso. (His title means "Ocean of Wisdom.") "But miracles are unrealistic." The Dalai Lama has even broached the idea of stepping down as the political leader of Tibetans and returning to private life. Over and over he says: "I don't understand the Chinese, I really don't understand them. This sort of escalation cannot be in their best interest."

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has called the Dalai Lama a "hypocrite" and holds him responsible for the recent violence in the streets of the Tibet's capital, Lhasa. Other leading Chinese Communists have heaped derision on the Tibetan leader in exile, calling him everything from a "divider of the nation" to a "wolf in monks' robes."

His native Tibet has again moved into the international spotlight, but not in a way the apostle of nonviolence welcomes. China, which occupies Tibet, has declared a "people's war" there and has largely cut off the region from the outside world. Tibetan Communist Party leader Zhang Qingli has called it a "fight for life and death." After a period of silence about the incident, the Communist Party in Beijing announced that there were 16 dead on the streets of the Lhasa. But Tibetan exiles believe the death toll is closer to 100.

Since last weekend, tanks have rolled through the city's streets, and soldiers have been stationed at all key points, sealing off the Jokhang Temple in downtown Lhasa and the nearby Sera, Drepung and Ganden monasteries. Distraught Tibetans who have managed to find a functioning telephone or Internet access report house-to-house searches, arrests, beatings and torture. The Chinese apparently set an ultimatum that expired on Monday evening. Those who were recognized as protesters by the government who failed to turn themselves in and denounce fellow protesters by the deadline -- thereby accepting a supposedly "mild punishment" -- faced "the full severity of the law," as the Communist Party called it.

Eyewitnesses say that more than 1,000 people were arrested, with dozens of them paraded through Lhasa in open trucks, their heads bowed and their hands handcuffed behind their backs. More than 100 women and men had turned themselves in voluntarily, reported the region's vice governor, who claimed: "Some were directly involved in looting and arson." Qiangba Puncog, the region's governor, offered an accountant's assessment of the "serious crimes of the Dalai Lama clique," saying that during the riots of the last few days 214 shops went up in flames, 56 cars were damaged, and 61 police officers were injured.

Nevertheless, the Chinese failed to quell the resistance. The clashes between rioters and security forces continued on the outskirts of Lhasa on Tuesday, and in the city residents placed toilet paper on the streets -- a message calling on the Chinese to finally withdraw from Tibet.

But by midweek official TV broadcasts showed images of Chinese merchants clearing debris from their ruined shops, while others covered burned-out window openings with plastic tarps. The Communist Party leadership wanted to demonstrate that calm had returned to Lhasa. A reporter stood in front of a burned middle school to suggest that rioters had not even drawn the line at schools. And rumors, probably started by Communist Party officials, spread among the Chinese in Lhasa that the drinking water was contaminated. The Dalai Lama had ordered the water supply poisoned, a merchant told Norwegian tourists who were the last to leave the city, on Air China Flight 4111 to Beijing.

If Lhasa had become deathly quiet by midweek, though -- because few residents dared leave their homes to challenge Chinese forces -- protests spread like wildfire to other parts of the People's Republic.

Demonstrators took to the streets in Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan and Qinghai provinces, where there are more Tibetans than in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, an arbitrary entity created by Beijing. According to Tibetans in exile, 39 people died during protests in these areas by Wednesday. Many of the demonstrators were monks and devout Buddhists openly celebrating the Dalai Lama, defying the ban on displaying his likeness, and swearing eternal obedience to their revered god-king. But students also joined the demonstrators in several cities.

In Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, roads leading to Tibet were closed, and the town of Xiahe in the Ganan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture was also sealed off. Xiahe is home to the Buddhist Labrang Monastery, where, according to eyewitness reports, 400 monks took to the streets and, joined by several thousand sympathizers, swung the Tibetan flag and sang songs praising the Dalai Lama.

In Aba, in Sichuan province, demonstrators set fire to a market with Molotov cocktails, and several of them were allegedly shot by police. ">

In Gansu province -- as photographs taken by two Canadian television reporters show -- demonstrators on horseback stormed down from the mountains and congregated in front of the Bora Monastery near the city of Hezuo. Together with monks and demonstrators on mopeds, the Tibetans surrounded a government building, took down the Chinese flag, and hoisted the Tibetan flag in its place before police and soldiers regained control over the area after hours of street skirmishes.

A few blocks away, monks from the Bora Monastery even broke into and ransacked Chinese shops. They deliberately spared the shopkeepers but didn't end their attacks until a lama interceded. Meanwhile, Communist Party leaders used government-controlled television to announce that they had the situation "everywhere completely under control."

The region, a popular tourist destination, is now deserted. Instead of the usual backpackers, hotels now house government security forces. Residents seeking to leave the Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in the direction of Chengdu must pass through road checkpoints, where Chinese soldiers wielding machine guns search cars and trunks with metal detectors. Meanwhile, military trucks filled with young soldiers -- reinforcements -- arrive from the opposite direction.

Even in Beijing, roughly 50 young academics from the Central University for Nationalities dared to challenge the authorities by staging a sit-in -- and risking their freedom, or at the very least jeopardizing their careers. According to the state news agency Xinhua, professors convinced the protesters to return to their dormitories.

But the Chinese public was kept almost completely in the dark about most of the protests, as if a news blackout -- including blockage of the domestic feeds for CNN and the BBC, a ban on international reporting, and the expulsion of Hong Kong journalists -- could make the events go away.

And yet the news quickly circled the globe, mainly thanks to media-savvy young Tibetan politicians in exile. They spread their message throughout a worldwide network and triggered a massive outcry against Beijing. From Athens to Amsterdam, from Washington to Wellington, and from The Hague to Tokyo, demonstrators took to the streets to show solidarity for the repressed Tibetan minority. In Berlin, hundreds demonstrated in front of the embassy of the People's Republic of China. The protests were especially strident in neighboring Nepal and India, where more than 80,000 Tibetan exiles live.

In Taiwan, where elections will be held on Sunday, events on the roof of the world have suddenly taken center stage. Beijing considers the island nation a renegade province and hopes that the Kuomintang Party (KMT), which is the Taiwanese party most closely aligned with the mainland Communist Party, will win the election -- which would bring Taiwan closer to "reunification." But now the widely favored presidential candidate, KMT's Ma Ying-jeou, finds himself on the defensive. He has condemned what he calls "repression in Tibet," and he's considering a boycott of the Olympics, echoing the sentiments of some European politicians.

The events in Tibet and elsewhere have turned into a major public-relations disaster for China's leaders. Suddenly the ugly face of Chinese communism is omnipresent again, as images of past injustices are conjured up. The 1989 massacre on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, when the party's tanks mowed down peaceful demonstrators and up to 3,000 people were killed, has been on people's minds; so has the violence in Lhasa in 1959, when more than 80,000 Tibetans died in the wake of a failed uprising that led to the Dalai Lama's forced exile. It's all happening as Beijing hoped to bask in the glow of the Olympics. This preeminent celebration of sports is more than just a prestigious event for China's leadership. Beijing associates the Olympics with its return to the stage as a world power.

The countdown to this new era has been running for seven years. The 1.3 billion citizens of the most populous nation on earth have been well primed. Beijing wants to suggest it has joined the United States as a superpower -- backed up by certain economic facts. China already has the largest foreign currency reserves of any nation, and it will likely be the world's leading exporter in 2008. The West looks up to us again, Beijing implies to its own people, with its imposing new towers and new Olympic sports facilities.

Last Tuesday, at his annual press conference to conclude the Beijing meeting of the National People's Congress, Premier Wen -- already playing jovial host -- insisted that the "smiles of 1.3 billion Chinese " will be returned by the smiles of all of the peoples of the world. But his performance also revealed that this time Beijing can no longer ignore global outrage over its repressive policies in Tibet. Speaking on live TV, the premier seemed genuinely anxious to respond to reporters' questions.

But then Wen proceeded to rattle off the party's hackneyed phrases, insisting that the Dalai Lama's claims that he seeks a peaceful dialogue, not independence for Tibet, are nothing but lies. On the other hand, he was also forced to address a French reporter's request to allow the foreign press to travel to Tibet, promising that Beijing would "look into" the matter.

But why is China jeopardizing its reputation in the world in such a dramatic way? What is it about Tibet and the Dalai Lama that has triggered the Communist Party leadership's extreme reaction? And how much of the escalation can be attributed to young, radical Tibetans who no longer support the Dalai Lama's peaceful "middle way," instead seeking confrontation with their Chinese occupiers?

Even more important, what exactly happened in Lhasa? And what is happening there now, while the global public is kept in the dark?

Beijing sees the unrest in Tibet as an attack on the country's territorial integrity and sovereignty, and a large majority of Chinese share its views. Ninety-two percent of Chinese belong to the Han ethnic group, and from their perspective Beijing is merely defending China's best interests in its dealings with Tibet.

If the People's Republic were made up entirely of Han Chinese, of course, the government could have saved itself the trouble of blocking reports about the Tibetan riots on the Internet. The popular Internet portal Sina listed up to 470 Web sites with tens of thousands of comments from enraged Chinese. One user wrote that the government should "not relent in the struggle against terrorists," while another insisted that Beijing should "protect the fatherland and fight the separatists."

This outpouring of anger cannot be dismissed as a consequence of nationalist indoctrination, a strategy China's communists hope will keep them in power in their new age of capitalism. The fight against rebellious minorities along the outer edges of the massive country, in strategically important regions blessed with mineral resources, also touches on a deeply rooted Chinese fear of national disintegration. They call it "iuan," or chaos.

This is why no Chinese government can afford to yield to Western pressure to make concessions to Tibet, even if the Olympics are jeopardized. The Chinese government finds itself in a Catch-22 situation. One goal was to use the games to plaster over a host of growing internal conflicts, including social tensions and ethnic uprisings. But now the Olympics themselves may have contributed to the widening of natural fissures in China's social fabric.

After it was awarded the games, Beijing proved receptive to criticism, but only of its foreign policy. It endured scathing condemnation by Hollywood stars like Mia Farrow of Beijing's backing of the Sudanese government and its role in the genocide in Darfur (in a 2007 Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, Farrow characterized the 2008 games as a "Genocide Olympics"). This outcry prompted the Communist Party rulers to consent to a U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur and even consider participating in it.

But all hopes for an improvement of human rights within China have been in vain. Despite protests by organizations like Human Rights Watch, dissidents like Yang Chulin ("We want human rights, not the Olympics") and AIDS activist Hu Jia have been put on trial for "subversion." Although Li Baodong, the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, is permitted to exercise self-criticism ("China still has a long way to go to promote and protect human rights"), the regime in Beijing already paints itself as a role model when it comes to human rights. Foreign Minister Yang Jieche insists: "The Chinese people enjoy the full extent of human rights and religious freedom."

The Chinese Communist Party's deep hatred of the Dalai Lama is rooted in his gentle but firm insistence, when speaking with politicians from around the world, that precisely the opposite is true. He accuses the Chinese government of waging "cultural genocide," in the form of the deliberate mass settlement of his native Tibet with Han Chinese, a process that destroys Tibetan traditions. One reason Beijing has responded so vehemently to the attacks is that they are so difficult to deny.

Lhasa is a predominantly Chinese city today. As a result of Han Chinese settlement, promoted by tax subsidies, Tibetans are now a minority in their own capital. They make up only about one-third of its 400,000 residents. Bars and brothels have dramatically altered the character of this holy place, as have the soldiers patrolling its streets. The city's tallest building, surrounded by colored plastic palm trees, houses the headquarters of the secret police. The most successful businesspeople are Chinese, who make no secret of their disdain for the "backward locals."

Tibetans benefit the least from a rising standard of living, even though, from a material standpoint, they are better off than ever before. But they are spiritually starved, and the majority of Tibetans still cling to their spiritual and political father figure, perhaps even more so today. They know the 14th Dalai Lama has long been a democratically oriented reformer, and most Tibetans have at least enough contact with the government in exile in Dharamsala to know it has a freely elected Parliament. The Chinese Communist Party and its "People's Liberation Army," which in 1950 invaded Tibet -- until then a de facto independent country -- have yet to acquire a comparable level of respect among Tibetans.

The Tibetan people don't enjoy true religious freedom. They are permitted to perform their Buddhist ceremonies in the private sphere, and a few monasteries have been restored to be inhabited by monks again. But the party has carefully severed Tibetans' spiritual bond with their god-king. Anyone caught with a picture of the Dalai Lama is arrested and often tortured.

The Potala Palace, the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama, is being preserved, but merely as a tourist attraction, part of Beijing's effort to reduce Tibet to a spiritual Disneyland. Late last week, when unarmed monks were intimidated during a peaceful demonstration and then arrested, the Tibetans finally vented their anger. It was this rage that probably contributed to violence against Chinese police officers and business owners -- violence that Beijing's governors met with even sharper repression. The official reaction, in turn, led to several monks attempting to commit suicide, setting off a spiral of unrest interrupted only by periods of calm that can be attributed, at best, to exhaustion.

The Dalai Lama opposes any form of violence. He reacted with extreme outrage, even bitterness, to Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's charge that he "and his clique" had instigated the bloody riots in Lhasa. Wen even claimed that he had "a lot of evidence" to support his accusations. "Hey, Mr. Prime Minister, come here and show them to me and the world," the Nobel laureate called out a press conference on Tuesday.

In truth, the world's most famous exile has always sought to accommodate the Chinese, beginning with Mao (he was long blinded by Mao's ideological powers of persuasion), followed by Deng Xiaoping and his successors at the head of the Communist Party.

The 14th Dalai Lama gave up his fight for a sovereign independent nation long ago, and now he calls "only" for true cultural autonomy for his Tibet. In several rounds of talks, most recently in 2006, his negotiators sought to shape compromises with Beijing's negotiating team, but failed completely.

The Dalai Lama pinned his hopes on the Communist Party's current harmonization campaign and its increasingly tolerant treatment of all religions. "I am the last Tibetan leader with whom there can be a peaceful transition," the god-king said last year. "And if I am to be an obstacle, I am prepared to withdraw from politics and continue my life as a simple monk."

He left many questions unanswered: whether he should have a successor, whether a woman could become a Dalai Lama, and whether the traditional search for a new reincarnation should be replaced with a sort of conclave in which the new Dalai Lama is elected by abbots. "Perhaps there will even be two Dalai Lamas after me," he said. "One serving at Beijing's pleasure, and one recognized by the Tibetans according to spiritual tradition."

The Communist Party, as an atheist force, has presumed to be responsible for reincarnations. In 1995 it appointed the Panchen Lama, the second-highest-ranking Tibetan religious leader, and abducted the boy designated by the Dalai Lama, along with his parents. The whereabouts of the family remain unknown to this day. Beijing's Panchen Lama has obediently condemned the "crimes of the Dalai clique."

The young Tibetan Buddhists of Dharamsala insist that the 14th Dalai Lama has put up with too much, far too much. Taking the nonviolent Mahatma Gandhi as his role model, as the Dalai Lama does, is all very well and good, they say, but the approach should also yield comparable results.

"Gandhi brought independence to India, and where are we today?" Kelsang Phuntsok, then-president of the Tibetan Youth Congress in Dharamsala asked provocatively in 2007. "The word 'violence' is not a taboo for me. At this point we are getting nowhere with the position taken by our revered leader. We are like the panda bears of international politics. Everyone cuddles us, but no one does anything serious on our behalf. We must take fate into our own hands."

When a member of the Youth Congress starved himself to death during a protest a few years ago, the Dalai Lama denounced his act. But young Tibetans celebrated him as a "martyr." It cannot be ruled out that some have thought of transforming their pacifist struggle into a resistance movement akin to the Palestinian struggle. But there is no concrete evidence whatsoever that last week's unrest in Lhasa was part of a deliberate military provocation.

In their campaign surrounding the Beijing Olympics, until now, young Tibetans have opted for creative rather than violent campaigns. They've unfurled "Free Tibet" banners at the Great Wall, used all legal means at their disposal and even presented the IOC with a list of athletes ready to compete as part of their own Tibetan "national team." They have launched rallies converging at the Chinese borders and staged PR-conscious demonstrations in front of embassies.

Now that the young Tibetans are trying to achieve a boycott of the Beijing games, they agree with the Dalai Lama's view that the event should be used to draw attention to the cause of their oppressed people.

Unlike the 14th Dalai Lama, however, the Tibetan Youth Congress will continue to fight for full independence. Young Tibetans think their god-king is simply not of this world when they hear him say: "In Buddhism, we are constantly concerned with how we handle our negative forces and emotions. I also pray for the Chinese. They, of all people, need our sympathy."

Dharamsala's wild young Tibetans have a sixth sense for understanding provocations by the Chinese -- when Tibet's Communist Party chairman Zhang says, for example, that the party is the "father and mother of the Tibetan people," and claims to know exactly "what is good for the children -- the Central Committee is the true Buddha of Tibetans." The Dalai Lama, when he hears this sort of rhetoric, says that he has "great understanding for the impatience of the young people," and that he must admit that his "middle way" has registered few victories so far.

Yet the Dalai Lama sees no alternative to his approach, no matter how fiercely Beijing's politicians demonize him. "As neighbors, we must live together," he says, "side by side."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online at or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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