President Hu Jintao, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama

This is the second in a series of five columns written by Matteo Pistono for the visit of Chinese President … Continued

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.

  • weaverlaw1

    I wonder what our Chinese overlords will require of us when they successfully overcome our economy, and become the paramount creditors and the de facto rulers of a country run amuck in overspending. Will we be required to read Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book” or swear allegiance to the Party?

  • Anniesue1

    Weaverlaw is right. All this talk of politics and diplomacy seems specious when the US economy is already totally dependent upon China for loans and the manufacture of nearly everything we buy here. China can crush Tibet tomorrow and there is nothing we can do about it because we have absolutely no bargaining power. American leaders long ago recognized that a physical war with China was unwinable. The idea then was to bring China into the US economy by “buying” Chinese products. Remember Wal-Mart 20 years ago? Well, we have succeeded and now China owns us. They don’t need us; we need them. How’s that for karma?

  • thmak

    You may have seen personally, after more than a fifteen trips to all corners of the Tibetan plateau, but you have heinously misinterpreted the positve changes and development in Tibet as Chinese policies to degrade and destroy the sacred religious sites, prohibit the use of Tibetan language, and attempt to assimilate Tibetans through a wide range of flawed development policies that are not improving the livelihoods of Tibetans but economically marginalizing them. The opposite is true. There are Tibetan signs in Tibetan language all over Tibet. Tibetans freely speak their native language. The Potala, other Tibetan monasteries and other cultural relics are lavishly remodelled and renovated or in process. There are now full service Hospitals and the Tibetan university in Lhaza whereas none existed when Dalai Lama was in charge. Tibetan Unversity teaches Tibetan language, Tibetan arts, Tibetan music and even English. People from all over the world can now go to Lhaza to be educated in the Tibetan culture, whereas there is nowhere in Native America land where one can find one Native American university to learn about native American culture, not even in Wyoming or

  • Wildthing1

    The US treatment of American Indian invalidates our moral standing but even worse3 is the western world’s penetration of Tibet with CIA and other agents of influence on the backdoor of China to precipitate Chinese reactions… in spite of that they could set an example to the world for the future of respect for indigenous cultural integrity rather than the US example of melting into the stew of oblivion…and monoculturalism…

  • Wildthing1

    The US treatment of American Indian invalidates our moral standing but even worse3 is the western world’s penetration and trespass of Tibet with CIA and other agents of influence on the backdoor of China to precipitate Chinese reactions… in spite of that they could set an example to the world for the future of respect for indigenous cultural integrity rather than the US example of melting into the tew of oblivion…and monoculturalism…

  • Wildthing1

    Does anyone else suspect destabilizing foreign agency in Tianamin Square hot on the heels of the dissolution of the Soviet Union perhaps??Having an autonomous buffer between India and China would be very helpful too particularly as Tibet is the spiritual link between both countries…

  • dunnhaupt

    Whether we like it or not, Tibet is part of China, and its internal problems are none of our business. We would not like it if the Chinese interfered in Hawaii or Alaska.

  • dcani1

    Thank you, Matteo, for your lucid and thoughtful commentary. The many Tibetans I’ve met who recently left Tibet, or are in contact with those still there, attest to the truth in your description. Technological progress has come, as thmak points out, but the freedom to live as Tibetans wish to live has not. The danger to those who attempt to live and speak and practice their faith in ways not approved by the Chinese governors is real and brutal.As the Dalai Lama freely notes, Tibetan culture was earlier marked by imbalances and injustices, which his predecessor began reforms to correct, and which the Dalai Lama has continued, encouraging democratization of their system of government, even though in exile.May all those who value freedom of speech and freedom of lifestyle, learn that our country and its current

  • in_starbucks

    We all wish freedom grows on trees. But it’s not. I would argue that the development in China over the past few decades have given people, including the Tibetan, even unevenly, the degree of freedom people can only imagine one generation back. The Tibet issue has more to do Tibetan nationalism vs. the Chinese nationalism than freedom that Dalai Lama wants to frame it.If our American experience holds the truth, the Tibetan Buddhism or DL prestige will fear more of secularism of among average young Tibetan than the autthor’s complain about Hu and CCP.

  • Rangzen

    I agree w/ Wildthing1 that China is trying to wipe out Tibetans the way US tried to wipe out American Indians. In Tibet, China is trying to wipe out Tibetan culture & religion, forced Tibetans to learn Chinese, destroyed Tibetan monasteries, and trying to turn Tibetans into a minority on the Tibetan Plateau. The difference of course is China is doing it now in the 20th & 21st centuries, while US did in the 18th-19th centuries.

  • Rangzen

    Thmak is well known 50 Cent Party propaganda commentator for CCP. But if you compare stats for Tibetans inside Tibet under CCP rule to Tibetans in exile under leadership of the Dalai Lama, Tibetans in exile have higher literacy rates, higher education rates, and far more Tibetan professionals, per capita, in exile than in Tibet. Illiteracy in Tibet is more than 50%. Less than 15% of Tibetans inside Tibet have secondary education & less than 1% have college education. Tibetans in exile can vote for their political representatives while all political leaders in occupied Tibet are appointed by Beijing. In Eastern Tibet (Ch:Qinghai), govt is forcing Tibetans to give up their language in Tibetan schools. Since 1950, China has destroyed thousands of Tibetan monasteries & killed thousands of Tibetans. Tibet has its first nationwide famine under CCP rule. Seems if Dalai Lama had stayed in Tibet & China had never invaded, then Tibetans would’ve been better off. And in 2008, thousands of Tibetans protested against Chinese rule & called for return of the Dalai Lama. Seems Tibetans would rather not live under Chinese colonialism.Freedom for us Tibetans is more precious than Chinese money. You can’t buy or force loyalty & CCP can’t win hearts & minds of Tibetan people. Why doesn’t China want Tibetans to choose their own political future? Why does China ban independent journalists from Tibet? Let Tibetan people exercise their legal right of self-determination & exercise their civil rights!

  • thmak

    To Rangzen: The fact that there are no Tibetan trade schools and Tibetan University despite your claim of higher literacy rates, higher education rates, and far more Tibetan professionals, per capita, in exile than in Tibet. That is, your claim is just fraudently false. What so sacred about voting? The vote for a change in America has not changed America a bit. Obama is no different from Bush: the war will go on with no end in sight, the national debt is worse than Bush. So what good is the vote? It is a disgrace that you fraudently say ” Since 1950, China has destroyed thousands of Tibetan monasteries & killed thousands of Tibetans. Tibet has its first nationwide famine under CCP rule.” just to get attention in Western media and financial support from the West.. Seems if Dalai Lama had left Tibet earlier & China had entered earlier, then Tibetans would’ve been better off earlier. And in 2008, thousands of Tibetans rampaged Lhaza and other Tibertan cities under the instigation and funding of foreign terrorists, insurgents, militants and radicals. Seems those trouble-making Tibetans would rather not want progress made in Tibet. Freedom for Tibetans is more precious than being serfs for Dalai Lama and his serf masters. You can’t buy or force loyalty but CCP can win hearts & minds of Tibetan people. Tibetans had already chosen to set themselves free from the bondage to Dalai lama and other serf masters and their theocracy political system. China ban so-called independent but actually prejudicial journalists from Tibet. Tibetan people already exercise their legal right of self-determination & exercise their civil rights, but not the way that foreign trouble makers want!

  • YJSUN

    狗屎.为什么不敢把我的评论发出来? 虚伪的民主与自由.

  • YJSUN

    Western people pay much attention on Xizang (Tibet) because they failed to invade and occupy Xizang in 18th century. They succeded in North America, in South American, in Africa, in Mid East, almost everywhere in the world. They invaded China, but couldn’t occupy China. And they failed to occupy Xizang (Tibet). They (mostly British and French white people) wanted to occupy Tibet (Xizang) after they controlled India. So they felt unhappy.You have been feeling unhappy for sevearl hundred years, not for Tibetan people, but for your failure to occupy China.I am happy. We are happy. Chinese people finally have gotten Western Empires out of China.Let me tell you. Forget Dala Lama. Forget the idea to control or occupy China. Forget to destroy China. Just do business. You can be trader with China. Not Friend. Not Partner. But not enemy. That’s better.

  • FredNatural

    @YJSUN: You demonstrate a sad ignorance of “Western” people. We don’t give a rats ass about what happened 300 years ago. We view China’s treatment of Tibet the same way we would view someone pushing our little sister down in the street. Tibet is not a threat to you. All they want is to be left alone to accrue merit on behalf of all sentient beings. We trade with friends, not with the paranoid, not with those that harm the compassionate. We no more want to invade your country then we want to invade the planet Jupiter. Your ignorance of Western motives and our good wishes for all people in the world (yourself included) makes your fear and consequent blustering an embarrassment to us all. Wise up and stop pushing little sister around and we might be inclined to forgive your lack of understanding and compassion long enough to consider fair trade.

  • YJSUN

    FredNatural: We don’t ignore you western white people. we just don’t care what you want. why should we care? do you care what chinese people are thinking?you are not the owner of the whold world. don’t pretend to be GOD. We chinese believe don’t believe your GOD.Good wishes? it’s funny. Your wishes are to get more from other people, not only Chinese, but also Indian and Black people.Go to hell. Qu Si Ba.

  • pstruck

    I am not an expert on Tibet by any means, but I read something several years ago that summarizes the heavy hand of the Chinese. It was reported that, in an apparent attempt to obliterate Tibetan culture/religion, the Chinese have destroyed between 20,000 to 30,000 local sites of religious worship in Tibet. This is an incredible policy of cultural annihilation that smacks of the criminals that ran World War II. Also, you must appreciate U.S history. This country was founded on human rights, freedom and self expression. Our record on defending Tibet from oppression is dismal, but do not underestimate America’s interest in defending countries like Iraq & Afghanistan from tyrants, warlords and bullies. We are in a position to change the playing field because several wars forced the U.S. to develop a military capability to deal with those who will not allow democracy to flourish. We are not perfect, but our heart is in the right place.

  • louis17

    support Mr. Matteo. You have told the truth.

  • orensloft

    I wonder why the free? press of the USA does not refer to Tibet as Occupied Tibet for all these years. The truth is China has tried to destroy the culture and religion of the peaceful people of the area. At the same time, there was never a Palestinian Nation. Jewish people lived in Israel for all recorded time. The bible of the Jews and Christians both record the history of Jews in Israel. The Palestinians started a war to remove them from the area. Yet Israel is listed as the Occupiers. Israel has tried to live in peace with its neighbors.

  • NeIlachapman

    THMAKWhat you fail to mention is that Monistary restorations are being performed wit money, training (of local artisans) and restoration expertise from the West. China is doing nothing. Your post is completely misleading.

  • thmak

    To NeIlachapman: Whether the monasteries are renovated by Chinese funding or by the West, the fact that they are renovated or being renovated indicates that the Chinese government are preserving and not destroying the Tibetan culture and relics as reported in some of the posts here.

  • logan_wu

    As cityzen of USA may could only got informations about China and Tibet from local newspapers and local websites. so we suggest more and more American friends to visit China to see and feel. it might not so good as described in some Chinese news paper,website, but also not so bad so described in some American’s news paper and websites. news are writtened by different persons, they may with different politcal poit of view. most is served for their own polical party. we could not expect that all countries in the world copy the political style of USA. For the human rights problem, we are honest enough that the human rights in our country need to improved and USA is better than us in this field, but could not expect China to get equal level in one day. you are the world’s biggest economy and only 10 per sent of population of Chinese. some of the “professor write about the human rights of China here and support Dalia Lama only want to gain political suppor and acctract more eyes. it is the culture of USA. if you want to know the truth, I would suggest you to ask some Americans that have been stayed or worked in China(except politician). or if possible, you could take a visit to Tibet to see how our country protect the Tibet cultures, and how to support the development of Tibet (not Tibet but also West China),we called West China Development. because Tibet’s geogrophical status, its development may lower than that of cities in east and sout coastal. but wait to see a prosperous Tibet and China in a couple of years. we should develope step by step.

  • logan_wu

    As cityzen of USA may could only got informations about China and Tibet from local newspapers and local websites. so we suggest more and more American friends to visit China to see and feel. it might not so good as described in some Chinese news paper,website, but also not so bad so described in some American’s news paper and websites. news are writtened by different persons, they may with different politcal poit of view. most is served for their own polical party. we could not expect that all countries in the world copy the political style of USA. For the human rights problem, we are honest enough that the human rights in our country need to improved and USA is better than us in this field, but could not expect China to get equal level in one day. you are the world’s biggest economy and only 10 per sent of population of Chinese. some of the “professor write about the human rights of China here and support Dalia Lama only want to gain political suppor and acctract more eyes. it is the culture of USA. if you want to know the truth, I would suggest you to ask some Americans that have been stayed or worked in China(except politician). or if possible, you could take a visit to Tibet to see how our country protect the Tibet cultures, and how to support the development of Tibet (not Tibet but also West China),we called West China Development. because Tibet’s geogrophical status, its development may lower than that of cities in east and sout coastal. but wait to see a prosperous Tibet and China in a couple of years. we should develope step by step.

  • eastman1

    When WEAVERLAW wrote “Will we be required to read Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book”, he only proved he belong to the past who only know first 30 years of CCP rule instead of last 30 years. He doesnt know either even Tibeten monks get medical covered by hardworking Chinese taxpayers.Human right is simply an upgrade of Bible which was used in the past – the coloured man got Christianity, the white man gets the land. Nothing wrong with Christianity in itself, but it was used as a cover to advance imperialist interests.Now if the West really was concerned about human rights, it should assure developing nations that they really meant no harm.The first thing to do would be to apologise for the crimes of colonialism which killed over 50 million Africans and Asians in the 20th Century alone. European colonialism killed far more than the Nazis in Europe. West should thoroughly goes through a period of pennance similar to that which Germany was forced to go through – a thorough denazification. Compensation should be paid out to countries which were victims of imperialist aggression (China should consider its legal options in demanding reparations from Britain for the Opium War). Once the West has done all of the above, its message on ‘human rights’, if they are still so shameless as to want to peddle this stuff after all they have done, will resonate far better than it currently does and cause far less offence. At the moment the West lecturing the developing world on ‘human rights’, is as absurd as a non-denazified Germany lecturing the United States on its incarceration rate.

  • eastman1

    NEILACHAPMAN wrote “Monistary restorations are being performed wit money, training (of local artisans) and restoration expertise from the West. China is doing nothing.”All the works are done by Chinese taxpayers and even monks salaries and medical insurence, which you even dont know to exist. You know absolutely nothing at all, you totally ignorant …!

  • risrepkel

    As a current US citizen (formerly of China), I can tell you that Logan_Wu is correct: China is not an oppressive hell-country as the Western propaganda makes it out to be, yet it is also far from a paradise the Chinese propaganda claims. Tibet is especially a two sided situation, and unfortunately Western media only report one side of it.Inside Tibet, the government is building lots of infrastructure and necessities such as schools and hospitals. However, they take care to preserve religious monuments and relics. The poor serfs in Tibet were given an education as well as land of their own to farm. The only ones who really benefited from old Tibet were the monks and landlords. They had their abusive powers and lands taken away. Those are the same people who show up to “Free Tibet” rallies and speak out against Chinese occupation. (If you want to know more, do a search for “Michael Parenti” and his political lecture on Tibet)Yet all that was under the previous Dalai Lama. The current one was forced into exile almost as soon as he came into his position. Whatever changes he may have brought, if any, left with him. However, as history shows, he most likely would have just accepted the doctrines and lived his life of good fortune just as the many others before him. In this fashion, the Chinese government actually did him a favor. Now the Dalai Lama has seen the world and in turn has rejected the old system that plagued pre-China Tibet. I think President Hu should let the Dalai Lama back into Tibet. That is the one thing I agree with the author on. Should they have their autonomy? Sort of. The Dalai Lama should function in the same way as the British royal family (or the Pope in a lesser sense) such that he stands as a symbol of Tibet, but the actual governing body is made up of a parliament of sorts.In conclusion, don’t believe the media. Do your own research.On a side note, since many people around the world attribute Buddhism to Asians in general, it would be great if Buddhist monks stopped showing up in news clips of protests. It seems like every time I look at a news clip of a protest in Asia, I see a Buddhist monk throwing rocks or bricks. What happened to non-violence? Seriously guys, cut it out.

  • risrepkel

    @RANGZENOn literacy, the reason the exile community has a higher literacy rating is because they were all monks and landlords, wealthy people who were taught to read and write from childhood. Under the new Dalai Lama, even the women were allowed to study. A large portion of them were already literate when they left, and the number continues to rise now.On the other hand, literacy is low in Tibet because all the serfs remained. Virtually no serf was literate. The government built many schools and slow progress is being made. Maybe the government could do better, but they have certainly tried.In medieval European terms, it’s like comparing the literacy rate of the aristocrats and priests to the farmers and laborers. The results are fairly obvious.

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