The Magazine

The White House Chickens Out

No meeting with the Dalai Lama-China might object.

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By ELLEN BORK
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The Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet, was in Washington last week and President Obama did not meet him. "Big mistake," said my Eritrean taxi driver on the way over to hear the Dalai Lama speak at an awards ceremony at Sidney Harman Hall on Wednesday.

What seemed so obvious to my driver was the product of an elaborate rationalization by the Obama administration. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg outlined the new policy of "strategic reassurance" in a speech on September 24. The United States, he said, has struck a "core, if tacit, bargain" with China under which it will "welcome China's arrival as a prosperous and successful power" and China will "reassure" the world that its "development and growing global role will not come at the expense of the security and well-being of others." According to Steinberg, "bolstering that bargain"--which apparently includes snubbing the Dalai Lama--is a "priority."

Rarely does a presidential meeting--or the lack of one--carry so much significance. In his spiritual role, the Dalai Lama has provided solace to those living inside Tibet under conditions of growing repression, militarization, and environmental degradation. Under his leadership, Tibetans in exile have established democratic institutions, including a parliament elected by the Tibetan diaspora, and turned over political functions to a prime minister. "I believe that future generations will consider these changes among the most important achievements of our experience in exile," the Dalai Lama has said.

Chinese Communist authorities fear such developments and the impact they have on Chinese citizens. At Wednesday's event, the Chinese writer Wang Lixiong accepted an award from the International Campaign for Tibet on behalf of some 300 Chinese intellectuals and activists who signed "Twelve Suggestions for Dealing with the Tibetan Situation," in response to the demonstrations of 2008 in Tibet and the mass arrests and trials with which they were met. The mostly ethnic Chinese signers of the document criticized official vilification of the Dalai Lama ("an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast") as reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution and called for dialogue between the People's Republic of China and the Dalai Lama and reconciliation between Tibetans and Chinese.

"Our position," Wang said, "did not arise from choosing camps, it arose from a pursuit of the truth.  .  .  .  The fake propaganda and information blackout by the totalitarian power has made it difficult for the majority of the Chinese people to understand the truth about Tibet, and they have no way of knowing" that the Dalai Lama seeks rights and freedoms under Chinese rule, not independence. "Removing this obstacle [to solving the Tibet Question] should be the mission of China's intellectuals, for there is no greater knowledge than the truth."

The implications of this truth are enormous for China. "The racial hatred created by totalitarianism has perversely become a reason used by the totalitarians to reject democracy," Wang said. "This logic of kidnapper and hostage living or dying together is a difficult obstacle to remove along the path to democracy."

By effectively weakening the Dalai Lama, President Obama also weakens Wang and his colleagues and their mission. In the past, only pressure on China has brought results, such as renewed contacts between the Dalai Lama and representatives of the PRC in the late 1990s. President Obama's refusal to meet the Dalai Lama gives cover to other countries--most recently Australia--to succumb to pressure from China, increasing the isolation of the Tibetan leader. In the meantime, Chinese Communist rulers are making plans for the future, hoping to control the selection of the next Dalai Lama, drafting new "guidelines for reincarnation."

On Wednesday, the actor and Tibet supporter Richard Gere called on President Obama to exhibit the same "courage and wisdom" as the Chinese honored at the ceremony. The president can do so by scheduling a meeting with the Dalai Lama, as all his predecessors since George H.W. Bush did. On his upcoming trip to China in late November, the president should speak against Communist propaganda vilifying the Dalai Lama as an 'evil splitist.' Finally, the president should make it a condition of his visit that he be permitted to meet with Wang Lixiong, his wife Woeser--a persecuted Tibetan author--and other signers of the document, including the jailed Liu Xiaobo. This bolstering of individuals who risk so much for democracy and racial tolerance should be President Obama's priority.

Ellen Bork is director for democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.