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An exercise in futility to denounce Dalai Lama

By Frank Ching, The New Straits Times, April 10, 2008

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- DESPITE the seeming sophistication of the present generation of the country's leaders, China's heavy-handed denunciation of the Dalai Lama since the Lhasa riots of mid-March, blaming everything on him and his "clique", shows that the Communist Party has not changed some of its basic characteristics, such as seeking to depict its opponents as evil beyond compare.

Official organs of the Chinese government have called the Tibetan spiritual leader not only a "separatist" -- someone who wants to split Tibet from China -- but a swindler, a liar, a slave owner and the "scum of Buddhism". One official newspaper said the Dalai Lama has "never done anything good".

Such characterisations are reminiscent of the choice epithets bestowed on Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, who was dubbed a prostitute, a serpent, a sinner of a thousand years, and a tango dancer.

More to the point, they recall the venom heaped on the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni during the Cultural Revolution after he made a documentary on China -- a film banned in the country but widely denounced nonetheless as "anti-Chinese" by those not permitted to watch it.

While such tactics may have worked in the 1970s, they are highly unlikely to be successful today.

For one thing, Beijing is trying to convince not a captive audience without access to information but the international community.

The Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, has urged Americans to see the "true nature" of the Dalai Lama. The Chinese embassy in Washington has reportedly sent emails to members of Congress containing "material aiding in understanding the true face of the Dalai Lama", which, among other things, likened him to the Nazis.

Since the Dalai Lama only last October received the Congressional Gold Medal, it is unlikely that American lawmakers are going to believe such propaganda. The result, to use a Chinese expression, is that Beijing will lift a rock only to drop it on its own feet.

As for Tibetans, despite 50 years of communist propaganda against him, the Dalai Lama is still seen as a god-like figure. Addition vituperation is not going to alter Tibetan feelings.

The only people likely to be affected are the Han Chinese, and among them it has already had an effect, with postings on the Internet showing highly nationalistic sentiments directed against Tibetans.

So the upshot of this propaganda exercise is likely to be increased ethnic tensions between Han Chinese and Tibetans -- something Beijing surely does not want to see since its stated goal is social harmony for the country. And yet that is what will happen unless Beijing changes its policy.

To make matters worse, the Communist Party chief in Tibet, Zhang Qingli, has said that the "Central Party Committee is the real Buddha for Tibetans" because the Communist Party is like a parent taking care of the children.

To religious Tibetans, calling the atheistic Communist Party "the real Buddha" is not only the height of arrogance but deeply insulting. That a communist official should say such a thing betrays a lack of sensitivity, to say the least.

Instead of putting increased pressure on Tibetans to denounce the Dalai Lama and making it a crime even to possess his photograph, the Communist Party should try to make use of their devotion to the spiritual leader by according him respect rather than heaping insults on him.

Beijing should accept the Dalai Lama at his word -- that he does not seek independence for Tibet -- and use this as the basis for a dialogue aimed at bringing him home as the spiritual leader of Tibetans.

On his part, the Dalai Lama should forgo any dreams of a "Greater Tibet", equivalent to a quarter of China's territory, governed from Lhasa.

Currently, China's policy seems to be to wait for the demise of the 72-year-old Tibetan leader in the hope that the situation will improve after his death. But Beijing should understand that a younger generation of more radical Tibetans will be even harder to deal with without the moderating influence of the Dalai Lama. While he is still alive, there is a window of opportunity that China should grasp.

The alternative is to follow the failed policy of the past. But a failed policy is unlikely to work any better in the future. More to the point, forcing Tibetans to denounce the Dalai Lama is akin to King Canute telling the tide not to come in. It is an exercise in futility.

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