Investing the Dalai Lama with unearthly powers

In one of their first interviews with a Westerner since the 2008 unrest, Tibetan officials wildly claim that the ‘Dalai clique’ is behind everything.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

This week, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill is reporting from Tibet.

It’s not often I feel the urge to defend the Dalai Lama, having never been a fan of his vogue spiritualism or a supporter of the idea that he’s the man to bring liberty to Tibet. But things change when I find myself in conversation with Tibet’s officials. Their belief that the ‘Dalai clique’, as they call it, is behind every problem in Tibet is so wrongheaded that it’s enough to make even a Dalai doubter like me rush to the giggling monk’s defence.

Whenever there’s trouble in Tibet, it will have been ‘premeditated, organised and instigated by the Dalai clique’, says Suo Lin, director-general of the Information Office of the Tibet Autonomous Region. We’re in his imposing office building in Lhasa, at a huge table laden with fruit and mugs of steaming green tea, with me on one side and Suo Lin on the other, flanked by the equally stern-looking deputy director-generals of Tibet’s departments of education, development, language and religious affairs. One of me, five of them. I’m supposed to be interviewing Suo Lin – one of the first Western journalists to have this kind of access since the Tibetan unrest of 2008 – but it’s me who feels under interrogation. Halfway through my questioning, an Information Office assistant takes one of the bananas from the table, peels it, and hands it to me. ‘Eat. Enjoy.’ A ploy to make me feel even more uncomfortable? Probably not, though it’s hard to be politically probing and serious while wielding a banana (just ask David Miliband).

Think Alastair Campbell meets Norman Tebbit and you’ll have an idea of the kind of role Suo Lin plays in Tibet, where he’s responsible for presenting a positive image of Tibet to the outside world and swatting aside those who ask pesky questions about the state of politics and liberty here. And he’s in no doubt about who threatens the stability of what he describes as an otherwise happy part of China: those plotters in Dharamsala in northern India, where the Dalai Lama’s self-styled government-in-exile has been based since 1959.

In Suo Lin’s view, if it wasn’t for the ‘Dalai clique’, things would be fine. He waxes lyrical about how life has improved since the ‘Peaceful Liberation’ of 1951 (the name given by Beijiing to its takeover of Tibet from the Buddhists) and the fleeing of the Dalai Lama in 1959. ‘Before 1959, Tibet was a theocracy’, he says. ‘Less than five per cent of the people controlled Tibet and the other 95 per cent were serfs and slaves.’

Chinese tourists dressed as Tibetans

He has no time for Westerners who romanticise Old Tibet. ‘Do they expect us to keep riding our yaks while they drive cars and fly in planes? We’re not animals in a zoo for visitors to come and look at.’ The idea that Tibet is a cut-off, mystical place not fit for development is based on a ‘lack of understanding’, he says. ‘Tibet isn’t located in another world. It has a population which has needs.’ And he claims China is meeting those needs. His office gives me facts. Towards the end of Buddhist rule, only 880 children in Tibet were in professional schools; by 2007 it was 73,668. The mortality rate was 10.2 per cent in 1970; today it’s around four per cent. And the Tibetan population has grown steadily: in 1951 there were 1.1409million people in Tibet; in 2008 there were 2.8708million. (The one-child policy doesn’t apply here: urban Tibetans can have two children and there are no restrictions on how many children rural Tibetans can have.)

As it happens, I share his disdain for the idea that Tibet should remain in a medieval timewarp for the benefit of others. Tibetans might not ride yaks any more, but some still live inside them. The day before visiting Suo Lin’s crisply air-conditioned offices I saw some weird black tents in the countryside outside Lhasa and was told that they were homes made from yak fur for Tibet’s fairly substantial nomadic population. Elsewhere, children chasing pigs or sheep is a common sight – only they’re not chasing them but herding them, helping out with the family ‘business’. It doesn’t take long to notice that Tibetans who live outside of Lhasa have darker, more withered skin, a result of working unforgiving hours outdoors in that traditional fashion so beloved of Western Tibetheads. As Jamyang Norpu of the Tibetan Youth Congress has put it, ‘The Shangri La fantasy has primarily to do with the psychological needs of certain people in the West’, where Tibet is reduced to a ‘mise-en-scène for the personal drama of white people’ (1). It’s psycho-imperialism, where the aim is to keep Tibet primitive to sooth the consciences of well-off but modernity-allergic people over here.

Yet Suo Lin cannot be serious when he says Tibetans are finally ‘the masters of their destinies’. What about the riots of March 2008? Without flinching or even blinking (this is one professional politician) he plays the ‘Dalai clique’ card again, accusing the Dalai Lama’s people of orchestrating that violent outburst. He says the Dalai Lama has ‘duped the world’. Another top official, based in Beijing, told me over duck that the Dalai Lama is a ‘master liar’ and ‘a brilliant expert at deceit’ who has ‘conned the West’. And how exactly did the ‘Dalai clique’ instigate the 2008 riots? It used mobile-phone text-messaging and secret envoys, officials tell me, instructing Tibetans to go mad in what Beijing now officially calls ‘The March 14th Incident’.

It starts to sound like a mad conspiracy theory. As for labelling those events an ‘incident’… that’s a pretty insulting term for a major outbreak of social unrest. It started on 10 March 2008 when small numbers of monks and nuns marched in Lhasa to commemorate a failed Tibetan uprising of 1959. They were met with heavy-handed policing and soon thousands of Tibetans were protesting in Lhasa, using stones to hold back police and soldiers armed with cattle prods, tear gas and live ammunition. At one point during the four-day collapse of authority, the protesters controlled parts of Lhasa. They attacked and burned down Chinese Han shops and businesses, viewing the Han as a privileged minority in Tibet. Most worryingly of all for Beijing, the protests spread to other parts of Tibet and even to Tibetan-inhabited areas of China: Tibetans were shot and killed in the towns of Luhuo and Aba in the Sichuan province of China, while in the town of Hezuo in Gansu province there was major unrest led by Tibetan nomads on horseback. This was no mere ‘incident’.

Tibetan children in traditional
clothing near LinZhi

The one thing that should be clear about the unrest is that it was not organised by anyone – least of all a dithering monk in northern India who these days is most famous for being mates with Sharon Stone, doing adverts for Apple and once guest-editing French Vogue. Rather, in the words of James Miles of The Economist, one of the few Western journalists who was in Tibet at the time of the violence, it was an explosion of ‘festering grievances on the ground in Lhasa’ (2). In pinning the blame for the unrest – and every other problem – on the ‘Dalai clique’, Tibetan officials ironically play the same game as the Dalai Lama’s fans in the West, investing him with superpowers and a special command over the Tibetan people. They vastly overestimate the coherence and influence of the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile – while underestimating the various international agendas attached to the ‘Tibet issue’ which did play some role in stoking the violence of 2008.

The Chinese are treating Dharamsala as a kind of festering boil which every now and then makes China ill. This is far easier than getting to grips with the two big issues that could cause something like the 2008 unrest: internal social problems here in Tibet, where despite modernisation there’s still much underdevelopment and inequality, and external exploitation of the Tibet issue by Western governments, activists and opinion-formers keen to attack what many see as the beast of contemporary international affairs: modern, industrialising, eco-unfriendly, overpopulated China.

Alongside James Miles’ observations of an instinctive anger amongst Tibetans, the other striking thing about the violence was the influence of international factors. The riots took place in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, at a time when, as one report put it, many in the West were seeking to ‘use the Olympics to humiliate China’ (3). For Western officials and human rights campaigners, the Olympics presented an opportunity to attack Beijing over its environmental and human rights record – and this process of international demonisation in turn provided a green light to China’s dissatisfied populations to have a pop at the regime that rules over them.

Tibetan men play pool outside in the rain

Indeed, much of the 2008 protesting seemed to have been aimed at a Western audience. In the days before the massive Lhasa unrest, Tibetan monks in northern India protested with English-language placards saying ‘Tibet Needs You’, ‘Free Tibet’ and the Amnesty-inspired ‘Beijing 2008: A Celebration of Human Rights Violations’ (4). Partly inspired by these acts of disobedience, when people in Lhasa started to riot they speedily disseminated mobile-phone footage of their predicament to the Western media, leading one British newspaper to congratulate them for using ‘the most dangerous weapon in the world: the cameras on their mobile phones’ (5). It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unrest was partly performed for an external audience of China-bashers as well as revealing high levels of anger amongst Tibetans. Indeed, Miles described the ‘general desire of Tibetans… to take advantage of this Olympic year’ (6). The tragedy is that as a result of being sparked by a cocktail of global PR stunts and incoherent Tibetan frustration, rather than any political strategy for change, the protests achieved little more than some fierce violence and a bit of international sympathy for Tibetans. Things soon returned to normal, and in Lhasa and the towns and villages around it you can still see the kind of men who probably rioted back then: in their twenties, with not much to do, wearing Sports Direct-style tracksuits, they play cards on the kerb or pool outdoors in the pouring rain (seriously – see photo). They don’t look particularly happy with the traditional lifestyle celebrated by outsiders, or much like the ‘masters of their destinies’, as claimed by China’s officials.

One of the lessons of the Lhasa violence is that the Western elite attacks on China helped to create a volatile atmosphere in the more restive parts of this vast country. This was no conspiracy, least of all one executed by the Dalai Lama – rather it revealed the destabilising dynamic that can be unleashed by various political actors’ thoughtless, self-serving politicisation of already tense territories in China. Yet China simplistically pins the blame for all problems Tibetan on the ‘Dalai clique’, in the process indulging in similar fantasies to the Dalai Lama’s supporters in the West – only where the Lama’s backers see him as a force for good who will Save Tibet, China sees him as a force for super-evil that will Destroy It. Both sides treat Tibetans as a childish people easily duped/in need of rescue by their demi-god, and ignore the far deeper social and international factors at play in relation to this region. The 2008 unrest showed that the Dalai Lama does not control this place – and that, unfortunately, neither do the people who live here, yet.

This week, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill will be reporting from Tibet. Read all of Brendan’s reports here.

(1) ‘Behind the Lost Horizon: Demystifying Tibet’, Jamyang Norbu, in Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies, Wisdom Books, 2001

(2) See James Miles Interview On Tibet, CNN, 20 March 2008

(3) China feels heat of Olympic flame, Los Angeles Times, 13 February 2008

(4) See Using Tibet to settle scores with China, by Brendan O’Neill

(5) Dalai Lama attacks ‘cultural genocide’, Indpendent, 17 March 2008

(6) See James Miles Interview On Tibet, CNN, 20 March 2008

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