In recent years the Dalai Lama has made several political misjudgements. His handling of the selection of the new Panchen Rinpoche led to an alternative candidate being put up by Beijing, and to a religious crackdown in Tibet. His reaction to conciliatory overtures from the Chinese government during the early 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping invited Tibetan refugees to return from exile, was shortsighted. The Dalai Lama was offered a symbolic post in Beijing, the right to visit Tibet when he wanted, and freedom to speak to the press. By the standards of the time, this was a remarkable offer to come from Mao’s lineal successor. Instead of seizing it and entering into direct negotiations, the Dalai Lama sent numerous fact-finding missions to China and Tibet, and delegates who demanded trivial concessions, such as the right to meet with two ageing Tibetan quislings who had lost political influence many years before. The historian Tsering Shakya has written that the exiled government in Dharamsala “badly misjudged” the situation at this time: “Beijing’s commitment had underlined the involvement of Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader, and of Hu Yaobang, the most senior Party official. Once the Chinese leaders lost interest in the issue … any possibility of reaching a compromise was effectively ended.”
In 1989, the Dalai Lama refused an invitation to take part in the Panchen Rinpoche’s funerary ceremonies in Beijing, despite being told it would be an opportunity for high-level discussions. His advisers in Dharamsala, conscious of protocol and precedent (would the Dalai Lama still qualify as a refugee after being allowed back into China?) and mindful of the rapid growth in popular support for Tibet in the richer countries of the world, advised him to turn down the offer. The writer Tom Grunfeld has suggested that the Dalai Lama’s failure to go to Beijing in 1989 was “probably the gravest error of his political life.”
Since then, the prospects of accommodation have receded. As external support for the Tibetan cause has increased, and political ties between the exiled government and its foreign patrons have grown, China has hardened its position against the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government is unlikely to cut a deal with him, except on terms of total surrender, meaning abandonment of dreams of a greater Tibet, and of a democratic, demilitarised autonomous state within China. The Dalai Lama has come to represent too much; his return to Tibet, with the world’s media travelling in his wake, hoovering up the biggest story of its kind since Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, would be profoundly destabilising to Communist rule.
There were moments, seeing things from inside China, when it appeared that foreign lobbying had only appeared to tighten repression and promote false hopes among Tibetans. Around the mid 1980s, the Dalai Lama turned for guidance to a number of Western lobbyists, lawyers, levitators and Sinophobes, most of whom had minimal understanding of Chinese history or politics. A variation on the cho–yon or priest–patron relationship developed. The Dalai Lama became what Newsweek called “a lama to the globe,” and Tibetans gained apparent political backing, and ceaseless advice of varying utility. In the words of the essayist Jamyang Norbu, sympathetic foreign advisers were soon “battening themselves on the Dalai Lama’s court with the tact and sensitivity of lampreys.”
These well-wishers suggested that the Dalai Lama might raise his political profile in the West, and push hard for democratic self-government for Tibet within the People’s Republic of China. It was the sort of approach that might have worked well had China been a secure democracy, rather than a xenophobic dictatorship. In practice, it turned out to be a disaster, simultaneously aggravating Beijing and fracturing the exile community, which had built its identity around the optimistic notion of “Po Cholkha Sum,” a free homeland comprising the historic regions of ethnic Tibet.
The Dalai Lama presented a “Five Point Peace Proposal” to the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus in September 1987, and another version nine months later at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He spoke of zones of peace and of the protection of the environment, catching the mood of the time. The location of the speeches might as well have been calculated to outrage the Chinese government, playing on all its old, unreconstructed fears, stretching back to the nineteenth century, about foreign interference and designs on China’s national integrity. The Strasbourg proposal was followed by an ill-judged attempt by the exiles to bounce Beijing into negotiations. When they announced that they intended to include a Dutch lawyer on their team—an act of astonishing miscalculation, internationalising the issue still further—it was inevitable that China would refuse to cooperate.
Three days after the Dalai Lama’s speech on Capitol Hill, a pair of Tibetan prisoners were publicly executed in Lhasa. This was widely viewed by Tibetans inside Tibet as a political statement, and it exacerbated existing social and religious tension. Three days after the executions, demonstrations and riots broke out in Lhasa which lasted, on and off, until March 1989, when martial law was declared. The protests during these eighteen months were brutally suppressed by paramilitary police, with hundreds of Tibetans being killed and injured, and others being tortured, sometimes to death, in prison.
Yes. False hopes are the foremost export of the rich world’s Street Theatre/Media Circus Internationale, and missed opportunities are the hallmark of their most-favored clientele.