This is the second in a series of five columns written by Matteo Pistono for the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington this week. Pistono, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, is the author of “In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet,” an account of a human rights monitor operating covertly in China and Tibet.
By Matteo Pistono
In spite of China’s global rise, President Hu Jintao, its “paramount leader” for much of the last decade, risks obscurity as an undistinguished helmsman. Regrettably, when crises of global proportions require bold solutions, this week’s superpower summit promises to be a mismatch of one can-do American leader against one won’t-budge Chinese bureaucrat. The future of Tibet is a case in point.
It is in Tibet where the rights and freedoms set forth by the community of nations as “universal” are deemed by China to be “arbitrary” and an aggressive assimilation agenda forged by the Chinese Communist Party threatens the survival of a unique wisdom culture that holds the development of compassion as its spiritual goal. I have seen personally, after more than a fifteen trips to all corners of the Tibetan plateau, how China’s policies have degraded and destroyed sacred religious sites, prohibited the use of Tibetan language, and attempted to assimilate Tibetans through a wide range of flawed development policies that are not improving the livelihoods of Tibetans but economically marginalizing them.
What has failed to develop in Tibet – the genuine autonomy promised by the new People’s Republic of China to the Dalai Lama and the Tibet government in 1951 – could be a matter lost to history if it were not for the leadership of the Dalai Lama and heads of state like President Obama who understand the Tibet problem as a trespass against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a challenge to China’s emerging superpower role. But whether the problem of Tibet is settled at last or lingers into the future is largely up to the Chinese leader, Mr. Hu.
Hu Jintao is no rookie on Tibet. In 1988, he assumed the career-boosting duties of Party Chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The following year when demonstrations against Chinese rule flared up in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, Hu invoked martial law deploying some 1,700 People’s Armed Police in a political crackdown against the Tibetans. Three months later, in June 1989, Hu was reportedly among the first regional leaders to declare his support for the brutal force used against students in Tiananmen Square. Hu Jintao was proven to be a skilled team player. Now, he is the decider on Tibet, as evidenced in leaked cables from the US Embassy in Beijing that maintained Hu Jintao “remains firmly in charge of China’s policy on Tibet, with the leadership unified over Beijing’s current hard-line stance and buoyed by rising PRC nationalist sentiments.”
President’s Hu ascendancy to leadership in 2002 coincided roughly with the reestablishment of direct contact between representatives of the Dalai Lama and Chinese officials, a process that began in 1979 when Deng Xiaoping sent a message to the Dalai Lama that except for Tibet’s independence, all other issues could be discussed and resolved. Through fits and starts, engagement between the two sides had been too formless and infrequent to yield results. So, there was some expectation that Hu Jintao, familiar with the underlying problems in Tibet and the significance the Dalai Lama held there, would finally push this process towards a resolution.
Since 2002, there have been nine rounds of talks, the most recent a year ago, in January 2010. Both sides have made known their positions to one another and to the international community: the Tibetans are seeking the genuine autonomy they were promised long ago; the Chinese want the Dalai Lama to say that Tibet has always been a part of China and retire from his role as international champion for the rights of Tibetans.
Yet even should this dialogue reach a legitimate political solution that would make it possible to proclaim it a success — say, Chinese guarantees of Tibetan self-determination on economic and cultural issues, on the one hand, and the Dalai Lama announcing his retirement from the political arena, on the other (Tibet has not always been a part of China) – the underlying consequences of a half century of misrule and gross human rights abuses in Tibet would be left unmediated, leaving the possibility of further unrest across the plateau. A peaceful way forward in Tibet additionally requires the restoration of the natural leader to the people, as was the case in South Africa. This is where the superpower summit and Hu Jintao’s legacy so obviously comes into play.
The urgency of statesmanship on Tibet comes in part because of hints from the 75-year-olf Dalai Lama that he may be ready to step away from his political duties and focus on his spiritual life. As significant is the increasing politicization of Tibetans both in and out of Tibet who have identified their rights and the promises of democracy as a parallel path with spirituality to the full enjoyment of human development, Tibetans are taking great risks to express their religious beliefs and political opinions in Tibet, and swift action against them by the Chinese authorities is causing heightened tension and instability.
How does Barrack Obama convince Hu Jintao to help create the conditions that will allow the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet? He does so by pointing out the global consequences.
As we saw with Beijing’s infantile response to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiabao, a China that acts with impunity in the face of international opprobrium cannot inspire confidence in its contacts or contracts with the outside world, and a China that cannot resolve peacefully and equitably its most challenging problems at home cannot lead globally. Yes, the U.S.-Chinese relationship is critical and it must be solid. It must also be strong enough to withstand a test of U.S. resolve on Tibet, and President Obama should expect to pay some price to own something as valuable as the moniker “leader of the free world.” Likewise, the moniker of “paramount leader” will fit legitimately on President Hu only when he historically brings the Dalai Lama home to Tibet.
Matteo Pistono is a writer, practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and author of “In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet.” Pistono’s images and writings about Tibetan and Himalayan cultural, political and spiritual landscapes have appeared in BBC’s In-Pictures, Men’s Journal, Kyoto Journal, and HIMAL South Asia. Pistono was born and raised in Wyoming where he completed his undergraduate degree in anthropology from the University of Wyoming, and in 1997 he obtained his master of arts degree in Indian philosophy from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. After working with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. on Tibetan cultural programs, Pistono lived and traveled throughout the Himalayas for a decade, bringing to the West graphic accounts and photos of China’s human rights abuses in Tibet. He is the founder of Nekorpa, a foundation working to protect sacred pilgrimage sites around the world, and he sits on the executive council of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, Rigpa Fellowship, and the Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture.
Pistono and his wife, Monica, divide their time between Colorado, Washington D.C., and Asia.
In the Shadow of the Buddha is Pistono’s account of a human rights monitor operating covertly in China and Tibet.