Why Obama’s Meeting With the Dalai Lama Was So Controversial


Normally, a meeting between a sitting American president and a widely-respected Nobel Peace Laureate would be cause for celebration. But last week’s meeting between President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, resulted in angry recriminations from China. Here’s why the meeting was so controversial — and how it connects to China’s decades-long, growth-at-any-cost policy, which deteriorated Tibet’s culture, human rights and fragile environment.

China invaded and annexed Tibet in 1950. Increased militarization led to the Dalai Lama’s dramatic flight to India in 1959. It was expected to be a short stay, but, instead, he has been living in exile ever since, as China’s control of his country has only become more and more stringent. During that time, however, his dedication to world peace and compassion, and his infectious, joyful spirit, made him a globally-recognized hero. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Initially, his cause gained considerable world support. But things began to change as China’s growth into a major global economy made more and more countries wary of criticizing it for fear of losing out on potential trade deals. That means, today, fewer and fewer countries are willing to sit down with the Dalai Lama. British Prime Minister David Cameron refused to meet with the spiritual leader in 2013. The following year, South Africa refused the Dalai Lama a visa to attend a conference of Nobel Peace Laureates. Many fellow laureates refused to attend as a result, and the conference was ultimately canceled.

To its credit, the United States remains one of the few countries that not only opens its borders to the Dalai Lama, but also allows him to regularly meet with political figures from both parties. This was, in fact, President Obama’s third meeting with the exiled spiritual leader, though, notably, it took place mostly behind closed doors.

How did we get here?

The West opened up to China despite its troubling human-rights record based on the idea that liberalized economies created liberalized governments. For the most part, the theory made sense – as countries become more prosperous, they tend to become more democratic. This logic paved the way for China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. That same year, the United States granted China most favored nation trade status. More recently, Europe eased visa restrictions for Chinese travelers and their big wallets.

Though human-rights violations continued to take place throughout the country, the West was willing to turn a blind eye, with the idea that, with time, things would get better.

There is a business angle to this as well. China’s ascent into the WTO means a flood of foreign investment into the country. Soon Chinese factories were producing huge quantities of the world’s goods, from cheap plastic trinkets to the hugely popular Apple iPhone. Many of these products used materials sourced from Tibet, a region Chinese companies have devastated for raw minerals. Far too many companies, to this day, do not monitor their Chinese supply chains, nor ensure that they do not indirectly support the repression of Tibetan human rights.

Human-rights violations continue in Tibet

The cold, hard truth is, international investment did not make China more democratic. While the economists and academics waited for China’s booming economy to result in more political freedoms, those of us paying attention to Tibet, East Turkestan and Inner Mongolia saw things differently. We noticed increased migration of Han Chinese (now the majorities in all three regions), growing restrictions on local language and culture, and more surveillance in monasteries and local institutions. The Chinese government seemed less willing to engage with activists or leaders, including the Dalai Lama. Now, the country uses its new economic power to marginalize him even more.

In fact, today, the situation in Tibet today is getting worse. Tibetans are being thrown in jail for fighting for the right to learn their language, possessing a photo of the Dalai Lama, or criticizing Chinese rule in any way.

That is why Freedom House, in its most recent report, cited Tibet as the second least free country in the world, only behind Syria. The space for dissent is so small that Tibetans have begun to self-immolate to protest Chinese rule. An estimated 145 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009, often with messages calling for freedom or the return of the Dalai Lama.

It is time to put human rights above profits. It is time for companies, governments and foreign leaders to stand up not only for Tibetans, but also for the countless activists, minorities and dissidents who face repression across China today. Waiting patiently for change while a once rich, vibrant culture is gutted, and a fragile landscape is destroyed, is no longer an option.

Image credit: Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons

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Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

4 responses

  1. So many errors in this write up that I don’t know where to start

    1. Tibet has been part of China since the first king of Tibet married the niece of the emperor of China in the 7th century and declared it so. The Mongols then unified Tibet into the Chinese bureaucracy in the 12th century.

    2. Life in Tibet today is immensely better for the people of Tibet than under the pre-1950 theocratic serfdom when people were bought and sold by the 1% or ruling monks.

    3. Tibetan living standard is subsidized by China not the opposite. For instance electricity is much more costly to generate and transmit in Tibet but is cheaper than in the rest of China.

    4. Tibetans enjoy privileged in education, political power not afford to the rest of the Chinese majority. For instance, they have affirmative action in college admissions. Han Chinese residents of Tibet can never become the governor of Tibet etc.

    5. Tibet is not a significant source of China’s raw materials. Industrial developments are almost impossible at 15,000 ft.

    6. Tibetan language is extremely well preserved by the government at a great cost. The language is much more taught than say the many Native American Indian languages are in the United States. Less we forget, French was prohibited once in Louisiana.

    7. The Dalai Lama was ranked 7th in the Chinese Communist Party (Vice-premier). It was his taking CIA money to overthrow the Chinese government that caused his down fall. He also stole tons of Tibetan gold on his way out the door. Check the official U.S. State Department Archives to verify these facts.

    There are probably 10 more important errors but the space here is limited.

  2. One doesn’t need to answer each of the poster marouet’s absurd assertions, though to deny that the PRC has sent endless thousands of Han citizens to dilute the political power of Tibetans is to deny reality. The Tibetans were not part of the Chinese government in 1950.
    The Politburo running the atheist government shows how dishonest and vile they are by kidnapping what they said was the next reincarnation of the Lama while naming their own person as “the true” next reincarnation…truly comical if it wasn’t so reprehensible.

    All one has to do is look at the way the Chinese Politburo governs their citizens. to see the truth.
    There is a reason it is against the law in Beijing to publicly speak of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Because it shows the the Chinese Communist Party will kill or imprison as many of it’s own citizens as it takes to stay in power,their top priority, no matter how bad the economy, pollution or corruption get in China.

    Citizens of China are routinely sentenced to 4-14 years in prison for doing what many of us do here; criticize our governments or their representatives online or in public.
    Just ask Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, Pu Zhiqiang, Yang Mao dong Gao Zhisheng (if you can find him), Chen Guangchen, Xu Zhiyong, Cheng Jianping, Liao Yiwu, Bao Tong, and on and on and on and on.

    Ai Wei Wei went to the government to report that his research showed that the reason so many school children died in earthquakes in China was due to corruption in China’s construction trade.
    So he was promptly thrown in prison, of course!

    What kind of government requires their employees to post state propaganda online in order to get good job reviews to maintain their employment?
    Welcome to the Chinese Communist Party Universe

    What kind of government supports the worst of the worst dictators, Kim Jong Un and previously, Than Shwe (for Burma’s minerals) without regard to the inhumane treatment these dictators unleash on their own people for decades?
    The all-wise Politburo Standing Committee, the 7 men who rule 1.5 billion.
    Democracies leran and change.
    Totalitarian governments never do.

    One China = One Party, the PRC, who have been ruling the citizens of China with an iron fist for 65 years.
    But China is 5,000 years old. The PRC isn’t China.
    Change is imminent.

    “We don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone. Freedom is like that. It’s like air. When you have it, you don’t notice it”
    Boris Yeltsin

  3. I am with Nitin Coca and drcid 777 .
    The world needs to stand up to china now .
    Vietnam will be the second Tibet and then Asia and the the whole world because china Han is so greedy .

  4. People like marouet are wumao dang. Tens of thousands of them are hired by the Chinese government to make fake comments that promote Chinese propaganda and/or attack reports that expose China’s evils.

    Evil China has become exactly like the Nazis, and they’ve already waged war against us and our allies. China’s entire country is built on stolen technology, bypassing 50 years of R&D, and they’re using this advancement from cheating to threaten and undermine our country.

    Terrorist China won’t stop their belligerence until we finally put our foot down.

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