Roving thoughts and provocations

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Talking About Tibet: An Open Dialogue Between Chinese Citizens and the Dalai Lama

Jason DeCrow/AP Photo
The Dalai Lama at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York, May 23, 2010

Following is an English translation of an Internet dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Chinese citizens that took place on May 21. The exchange was organized by Wang Lixiong, a Chinese intellectual known for his writing on Tibet and for theorizing about how China might generate its own kind of democracy in the Internet age.

The idea of promoting “free dialogue” on the Web between the Dalai Lama and Chinese citizens is an extremely bold notion. To China’s rulers, nearly every word in the phrase “free dialogue with the Dalai Lama” is anathema. The Dalai Lama, in their language, is a traitor, a “splittist,” an “enemy of the people,” a “monster,” a “wolf in monk’s robes.” The word “dialogue” has not fared well in Chinese Communist history, either. It is what student protesters were asking for in spring 1989 just before tanks and machine guns settled the question by massacre.

So how did Wang Lixiong do it? First he asked representatives of the Dalai Lama, who is on a tour of the U.S., for an hour of time in which the Tibetan religious leader might answer questions from Chinese citizens. The Dalai Lama agreed to use the hour of 8 to 9 a.m. (EST) on May 21 for this purpose. Wang then arranged to open a Twitter page beginning on May 17 at 10:30 a.m. (Beijing time), onto which Chinese Web users could pose questions. In order to promote democracy in the questioning process, Wang decided to prioritize the questions using the program Google Moderator, which posts all questions on a Google Moderator page inside China. According to the program, any Web visitor can vote on which questions he or she prefers and only one vote from any one remote Web user is accepted (to prevent a cyber version of ballot-box stuffing); during the voting period, a running tally is published on which questions have received the most votes.

This process went well until 4:07 p.m. (Beijing time) on May 18. At that moment access to the Google Moderator page inside China was blocked. Apparently the authorities had discovered the project. Many questions and votes had already been collected, however, and questions continued to pour in even after the blocking because many Web users in China know how to use proxy servers to “jump the great firewall” electronically. By 10 p.m. on May 20 (EST), which was the deadline Wang set for submitting questions and voting on preferences, 282 questions had been submitted and 12,045 votes for questions had been cast. Wang said that he was “very pleased” with this response and that the questions that rose to the top of the pile were indeed, in his view, a good representation of the actual concerns on the minds of Chinese citizens.

The questions that had the most votes at the end were presented to the Dalai Lama Friday at 8:00 a.m. (EST). My English translations of the questions and answers, which follow below, are based on a Chinese-language transcript that has been approved by the Dalai Lama’s staff. More detail is available at Wang Lixiong’s Twitter account (twitter.com/wlixiong). The numbers attached to the questions refer to their rank order in number of votes received.


Question 1: Your Holiness Dalai Lama, how are you? I want to ask you about the religious leadership of Tibet in the future. Please forgive my audacity, but what is your view on the possibility of “two successors” for you, as happened in the case of the 11th Panchen Lama [when Tibetan Buddhists chose one successor and the Chinese government arrested him and named another]? And what, by the way, is your view of the Panchen Lama that the Chinese government has appointed?

Dalai Lama: In 1969 I issued a formal declaration that the question of whether the Dalai Lama system should continue is a question for the Tibetan people to decide. In 1992 I issued another declaration, making clear that as soon as Tibet might gain formal autonomy, I would hold no official position in a Tibetan government and that all Tibetan affairs would be continue to be handled by officials serving in their posts inside Tibet. Then, in 2001 the Tibetan government in exile adopted a system to elect leaders to five-year terms of office by popular vote of the Tibetan community in exile. In view of these developments, I have come to feel that the Dalai Lama system is no longer very important. I am going to continue to do my best in my role as long as my health holds up, but as for the Dalai Lama system, I have to say that the Chinese government cares more about this than I do (laughs). A problem like that of “the two Panchen Lamas” might indeed appear. But if such a thing happens, it will only cause confusion and not do any good.

[On the government-appointed Panchen Lama], I understand that he is very bright and works hard at Buddhist cultivation. Believers remain skeptical about him, waiting to see whether he can cultivate himself to a high level. In my view this will be very important, and will depend upon his own efforts.

Question 2: I would like to ask Your Holiness about the meetings between the Tibetan government in exile and the Chinese Communists. Why are these meetings always fruitless? What exactly are the questions that have been so intractable over the decades?

Dalai Lama: The main problem is that the Chinese government continually insists that there is no Tibet problem, only a Dalai Lama problem. I have made no demands of my own, but am primarily concerned with six million Tibetans and their culture, especially their religion and their natural environment. If a day comes when Chinese leaders acknowledge a “Tibet question” in the same sense in which they recognize a “Xinjiang question,” and if they are ready to face the Tibet question and work for its solution, I will lend my full support, because our goals—to build, develop and unify Tibet—will then be the same. At present the Communists are relying on forcible methods. They repeatedly stress “stability” in Tibet. My belief is that true stability comes from inner confidence and trust.

Question 3: Hello, Your Holiness. Regardless of what political path China takes in the future, the gap between ordinary Tibetans and ordinary Han Chinese is getting bigger all the time. Many Tibetan people are too simplistic when they say the problem is just that Hans rule Tibet. In fact we Han people are also victims of the same dictatorial rule. How do you view this problem? Do you have any way of maintaining good relations between Hans and Tibetans?

Dalai Lama: Relations between the Han and Tibetan people did not begin in 1949 or 1950; they arose more than a thousand years ago. There have been times of harmony and times of conflict. We are now in a time of conflict, but the cause of the conflict has been the government, not the people. This why our people-to-people relations are so important. It is why we have set up “Tibetan-Han Friendship Associations” in many of the free countries of the world. These associations have seen some success.

In my view the main difficulty [on the Chinese government’s side] has been the failure to carry out Deng Xiaoping’s “seek truth from facts.” Hu Yaobang also had the right idea when he stressed “understanding actual conditions.” Recently Wen Jiabao has praised the spirit of Hu Yaobang’s approach of relying not just on official documents but doing on-the-scene investigation.

In China generally [not just Tibet], the pattern of ignoring actual conditions and living in non-transparent social structures causes many major problems. If there could be transparency and attention to actual conditions, much progress could be made, for example, in handling and reducing corruption and graft.

As for how to maintain good relations between Hans and Tibetans, my experience, wherever I go, has been that I get a lot of respect and sympathy from people if I just approach them as one human being to another. If Hans and Tibetans approach one another in this way, on a basis of equality, many problems might be solved. When I meet people from mainland China, I always find them extremely sincere and find no barriers to communicating with them.

The problems of doubt and suspicion between people are hardly limited to Tibetans and Hans. These problems exist everywhere in the world. This is why we need contact. We need it in order to get rid of suspicion and doubt. Whenever I meet someone, no matter where in the world it is, I emphasize harmony in person-to-person relations. There are two levels in any such meeting. The first is that we are all human beings. Only when that point is clear do I address differences of religion, culture, or language.

When I was in Beijing in 1954 and 1955, I learned that Marxist theory emphasizes “internationalism,” which is a doctrine that people everywhere are the same. I entirely agree with this.

Question 4: I would like to ask your Holiness about your “Memorandum on Achieving True Autonomy for All Tibetans,” in which you do not mention how to protect the rights of Han people living in Tibet. Would you, after autonomy, recognize the right of Han people who currently reside in Tibetan areas to continue living there? Can you publish a Memorandum describing how you would guarantee equal rights of life and livelihood to Han people in Tibetan areas? Many Han people believe that your “autonomy” is another word for independence and that an autonomous government would discriminate against Hans and drive them out.

Dalai Lama: Han people were living in Tibet before [the CCP takeover in] 1950. There were Hans and Muslims living near the place where I was born. In the future, too, Hans will no doubt live in Tibet. The crucial question is whether Tibet will become like Inner Mongolia, where Mongols have now become a minority. When this happens the significance of self-rule is lost. In some Tibetan districts, where the Han population has grown large, the language and culture of Tibet are in great peril.

Question 5: I would like to ask the Great Teacher why your description of earlier Tibet—as a harmonious Buddhist society—differs so radically from the Chinese government’s description of an evil slave society. There are many drawings and other visual materials that document a cruel and dark slave society. Can you explain why this discrepancy is so big?

Dalai Lama: Tibet before 1950 was a “backward society” and its institutions were imperfect. We acknowledge this. No one ever said Tibet before 1950 was a paradise. I don’t think any Tibetan, inside Tibet or outside, even in their dreams, would want to restore the old system intact.

On the other hand, the Chinese government’s widespread claims that old Tibet was a kind of hell are also very wide of the mark. For example the film called “People Denied the Right of Birth,” which was sponsored by the Chinese government, is pure propaganda and utterly unacceptable to most Tibetans because it departs so far from the truth. This is like the propaganda of the Cultural Revolution, with all its claims about “great victories”—which, once the true situation could no longer be covered up, melted into nothing. It is also reminds us of the Tiananmen events of June Fourth [1989], which the whole world knows about, but the Communists’ propaganda pretends not to have happened.

The most important point is that every one of you [Han Chinese friends] should make fair, objective, and scientific investigation of questions. I often say the same to Tibetans. I tell them not to take what I say as automatically true and accept it uncritically; I say make your own observations and reach your own conclusions. As a Buddhist, I approach even the words of the Buddha in this spirit of analyzing thoroughly and reaching one’s own understanding.

Question 6: If the regime were to allow you to return to Tibet, and were to grant self-rule to Tibet, what kind of political system would you like to see in Tibet?

Dalai Lama: This question will be for Tibetans inside Tibet, especially intellectuals, in a spirit of “seeking truth from facts,” to decide for themselves. Our Tibetan society in exile, for the past 50 years, has already achieved democratization in its social system.

Question 7: I would like to ask the Dalai Lama a sharp question. The fiercest criticism that Chinese government officials level against you is that you demand there be no troops in Tibet. This, they say, is evidence that you are asking for independence in disguise. Do you stick with your demand of “no troops in Tibet”? The right to station troops is a fundamental part of national sovereignty, and I am afraid that most Han people will not be able to agree to a “no troops” condition. Is there any possibility you will drop this condition?

Dalai Lama: We do ask for “autonomy,” but we have repeatedly been very clear that foreign relations and military affairs would remain the responsibility of the central government. Many years ago I expressed an idea that when relations of friendship and mutual trust had grown among India, Nepal, and Tibet, we might form a sort of “peaceful region,” but this was little more than a distant ideal. The whole world, actually, holds this kind of ideal. So there truly is nothing to worry about.

Question 8: In view of how things stand at present, the chances of a peaceful resolution of the problem of Tibet seem almost zero. May I ask how Your Holiness views the current prospects for Tibet?

Dalai Lama: During 60 years of Chinese Communist rule, the eras of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao have all been different. In fact there have been some very major changes. I feel confident that changes in [China’s] nationalities policy will come, and in particular that the Tibet problem can be solved on the basis of mutual interest. Some retired officials and Party members who used to work on Tibetan affairs—as well as some Chinese intellectuals—have begun to point out irrationalities in minority policy and the need for a re-thinking of nationalities policy. This is why I feel there will be changes in the not-so-distant future, and that problems can be solved.

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