The Chinese government is always accusing the Dalai Lama of courting media attention, but in London this morning he was avoiding the questions which would guarantee coverage.
The Chinese government is always accusing the Dalai Lama of courting media attention, but this morning he was avoiding the questions which would guarantee coverage.
When I asked him to endorse or condemn the wave of self-immolations which have swept across Tibetan areas in the last year he said his response was “zero.” It was “a very sensitive political issue”. He knows that if he encourages Tibetans to set fire to themselves, thousands more will lose their lives, but if he tells them to stop doing it, he may alienate more radical Tibetans who reject his strategy of non-violent protest.
He said that China was undergoing “an immense moral crisis” because of “corruption” and “no rule of law”. His hope came from the 300 million Chinese who have adopted Buddhism, many investigating Tibetan spiritual practice to find a meaning which materialism fails to bring.
But that, as he surely knows, is a mixed blessing. Lhasa has become a magnet for Chinese tourists, who fill the temples and squares, some in search of enlightenment, others just curious. In that sense, they are no different from any other kind of tourist, but not all Tibetans welcome them as happily as the Dalai Lama seems to do. It’s a bit like those tours of Soweto which white tourists do to see how black people live – mind-expanding for the visitors, but potentially uncomfortable for those whose lives are on display.
The Chinese government finds it increasingly hard to understand what Tibetans want. They pump in money and try to develop Tibet so that people there enjoy the material progress others parts of China have enjoyed. Few Tibetans would reject improvements in healthcare, or investment, which creates jobs and improves livelihoods.
But when the Dalai Lama talks of the limits to materialism, the Chinese Communist Party simply doesn’t get it. They think Tibetans should be grateful for the money the central government provides. But most Tibetans are more interested in their spiritual life, and their loyalty to the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama was in London to receive the Templeton Prize, for his work on linking spirituality to science. He’s giving the bulk of the US$1.5m to Save the Children Fund for its work in India and elsewhere. Last year, he surrendered his role as Tibetans’ political leader and says he is now just a spiritual figure, a “simple monk”.
Nonetheless, few Tibetans make much distinction between the two, and the Chinese authorities are ever more frustrated that their development policy has done so little to change Tibetans’ minds about the man they still look to for leadership.
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