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

Words by Nithin Coca
Leadership & Transparency
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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

Nithin Coca

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

Read more stories by Nithin Coca