Dalai Lama's U.S. Honor Sparks Controversy
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
On today's program, we're going to talk about gestures, how a couple of seemingly small gestures here in Washington are sending some very loud signals to two different foreign governments: China and Turkey. We'll try to explain what all the emotion is about.
And later, we'll have a visit with "The Women of Brewster Place." The award-winning novel has now been adapted into a musical, and we have a sneak peak.
But first, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is in Washington. Pictures of His Holiness wearing his distinctive saffron robes, arm-in-arm with President Bush, are splashed across a number of front pages today after the president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi handed him the Congressional Gold Medal. It's the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow. China protested the award, and the president responded.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Americans cannot look to the plight of the religiously oppressed and close your eyes or turn away. And that is why we'll continue to urge the leaders of China to welcome the Dalai Lama to China.
MARTIN: With us to talk about the Dalai Lama's visit is Thomas Laird. He spent more than 30 years covering Asia for various news outlets. His new book, "The History of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama," is just that. Laird interviewed His Holiness for some 60 hours over a three-year span.
We also have University of Michigan professor and China expert Kenneth Lieberthal to talk about China's views on the Dalai Lama and on Tibet, which China claims is a province.
Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. THOMAS LAIRD (Author, "The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama"): Thanks for having me.
Professor KENNETH LIEBERTHAL (Political Science, University of Michigan): Pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: Mr. Laird, if I could start with you. The Dalai Lama's been exile for years, pressing for autonomy and religious freedom for years. He's been to Washington many, many times, but why this honor now?
Mr. LAIRD: He's 72, and it is unusual, I think, to give - as President Bush said yesterday - to give the gold medal at a time when someone is still involved in their work. Normally, it comes after they've already achieved everything, and the Dalai Lama is still very much at work. Why it came now - I think there's been - there've been a lot of people working for this for a long time, and it - remember, it's only in the 1970s that any government officials in the United States ever began meeting with the Dalai Lama. So it's a matter of timing, and also, that from the past. But also, looking forward, I think many people are aware today that we're entering a very special window with China between now and the time of the Olympics.
There - as you know, there have been presidential candidates who've already called for boycott of the Olympics. And while, I think, that is probably unlikely, I think many people are aware that between now and the Olympics is a special time. China is going to have to be on its best behavior. There can't be massive outbreaks of human rights violations in China between now and the Olympics if China wants to have the honor of hosting that peacefully with all its grandeur for the world.
MARTIN: So I guess, Thomas, I wanted to ask, is this really more about the Dalai Lama, or is it more about U.S. relations with China, or more about China - pressuring China?
Mr. LAIRD: You can't talk about Tibet without talking about China. It is, after all, today - whether we like it or not - part of China. And the Chinese government is very concerned about anything by the Americans that might interfere - that they perceive as interfering with that. So when we want to talk - as a historian, if we want to talk about the truth of Tibetan history with China, immediately if you talk about the invasion of Tibet, the Chinese are angry with you because they want to discuss the peaceful liberation of Tibet.
So any discussion of Tibet, you come up against the great wall of the Chinese government's intention of - for controlling how Americans see Tibet and discuss Tibet, so anything we do on this subject is very serious for the Chinese government.
MARTIN: Professor Lieberthal, if you'd pick the story there, why are Chinese leaders so angry about this, to the point of demanding that the event actually be cancelled?
Prof. LIEBERTHAL: Well, I think Mr. Laird's explanation is right. The Chinese are very, very concerned with protecting what they consider to be their sovereignty, with the notion of Tibet as a part of China, therefore, our giving this type of honor to the Dalai Lama they see as interference in their internal affairs. And so they react very strongly to it.
I think every time that we have dealt with the Dalai Lama, when former presidents such as President Clinton met the Dalai Lama - also in the residence, not in the Oval Office - again the Chinese always raised a protest. This is just one of those subjects on which they've got a hair trigger.
MARTIN: The Dalai Lama said yesterday that despite calls for independence from some of his supporters in the U.S., like actor Richard Gere, he is not making the same call. Let me play a short clip.
DALAI LAMA (14th Dalai Lama; Religious Leader, Tibet): Let me take this opportunity to restate categorically that I'm not seeking independence. I'm seeking a meaningful autonomy for the Tibetan people within the People's Republic of China.
MARTIN: Professor Lieberthal, do the Chinese not believe him, or do they see that as the same thing?
Prof. LIEBERTHAL: I think the Chinese face three dilemmas when they confront the Dalai Lama's position. One is, what is Tibet? When the Chinese say Tibet, they mean an area they designated as the Tibetan Autonomous Region. When the Dalai Lama says Tibet, he means a much larger area that laps over into three other Chinese provinces. So there's disagreement about what we're talking about.
Secondly, the Dalai Lama says he wants to return and just seek autonomy within China. The Chinese concern is the Dalai Lama is sincere but would be unable to control the people of Tibet, who would be so emotional over his return that it might precipitate an array of very unfortunate events.
And thirdly and finally, the Chinese are concerned about whether they should, at the end of the day, nevertheless deal with the Dalai Lama because the next generation of Tibetans after this Dalai Lama passes away is by all accounts far more radical and pro-independence than the Dalai Lama's own thinking. So they aren't sure quite how to play this.
MARTIN: Is a gesture like this perceived in China as personally insulting to China's leadership, or is it perceived as just sort of a tactical pressure or overall a sort of a challenge to their regime?
Prof. LIEBERTHAL: I think that the Chinese are well aware of President Bush's enormous commitment to the cause of religious freedom everywhere. I think they're well aware that the Democratic Congress looks for every opportunity to highlight human rights abuses in China. So they consider it an embarrassment and inappropriate. But it's hardly something new to them, and they do not consider it to be a personal insult, rather an expression of just the way America is, which in their mind is not as polite as America ought to be.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I'm speaking with China expert Kenneth Lieberthal of the University of Michigan, and Thomas Laird, who wrote "The History of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama."
So, Mr. Laird, I understand that you and the Dalai Lama actually argued a bit in some of your interviews. I think that a lot of people are fascinated by him as a character. He just seems - I mean, on the one hand, he is a celebrity in this country, and, on the other hand, a great spiritual leader to some. So, just, I'd love to hear more about how you actually argue with His Holiness.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: How do you argue with the Dalai Lama?
Mr. LAIRD: Well, if you'd start to talk about Tibetan history, he has his own interpretations of that. And sometimes those interpretations are clearly at odds with those of the Chinese government and clearly at odds with those by American academic historians. And so when you go over certain points, I would go into the room armed with five or six books, and he would say this and this and this, and I would say, excuse me, this book says that and that and that. And so we would go back and forth over these things and try and come to an understanding of where his particular background was. He's always approaching…
MARTIN: But he engages you in an…
Mr. LAIRD: Very actively. Yes.
MARTIN: …equal. He engages the question substantively…
Mr. LAIRD: If you come out in that way…
MARTIN: He doesn't pull ranks, spiritually and…
Mr. LAIRD: No.
MARTIN: …hey, I'm the…
Mr. LAIRD: No.
MARTIN: …the reincarnation of, you know?
Mr. LAIRD: No.
Mr. LAIRD: If you come into the room bowing down, there's nothing he can do about it. But if you come in his room to talk to him, he's going to talk to you.
MARTIN: Why does he - you described in the book the effect that he has on people. In fact, yesterday at the event, there were people in tears.
Mr. LAIRD: Absolutely.
MARTIN: Just - why do you think he has that effect on people?
Mr. LAIRD: He does have real charisma, there's no doubt about it. I mean, any man who can get to the heartstrings of Nancy Pelosi and George Bush at the same time clearly has got something going. He has an amazing personal sense. It's - and it's basically, we have to face to the fact that it comes from 50 years of meditation, five hours a day. He's transformed himself. And so like Mahatma Gandhi, like Martin Luther King, he - his spiritual background comes into the political discussion.
It comes in to every discussion he has with everyone, because he has this overwhelming sense of warmness and compassion and kindness. He's trying to transform greed, anger, ignorance, lust and pride into their opposites, into the transforming emotions at the heart of human experience. And people, no matter how bright or intelligent or not so intelligent they may be, they're aware of that when they're with him. It comes across.
MARTIN: To what do you attribute the success of the efforts to raise Tibet as an issue over the years? Do you think it is in part due to his personal charisma - sort of his personal diplomatic skills, or is there something else at work here?
Mr. LAIRD: I think in great part, it has to do with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, but also anyone who studies the subject is terrified by what China has done in Tibet. I mean, if you look at the death of, I don't know, 500,000 to a million people depending on which figures you want to believe - over the course of 50 years, if you look at an invasion, what's the worse thing about the Chinese invasion is that they deny an invasion took place. I mean, there's this real disconnect when you want to talk with, not just the Chinese government, with Chinese people. Chinese people have been educated since 1912 to believe that Tibet is part of China, has been part of China since the great Chinese Emperor Genghis Khan invaded and conquered the two countries.
MARTIN: Well, that's not unusual, though. I mean, citizens of many countries have senses of the, sort of, the national boundaries which other countries may not share. That's not unique to China.
Mr. LAIRD: But there's a deep sense of national agreement in the modern Chinese nation that comes from having been conquered by the Manchus and the Mongols, and then the Europeans over the last thousand years. China's only really had self-government during the last thousand years, about three or four hundred years. That leaves a mark on Chinese people, very strongly.
MARTIN: Prof. Lieberthal, final question to you, and the same question, do you - to what do you attribute the success of the effort to raise Tibet, Tibetan autonomy as an issue over the years? Do you think it's due to the Dalai Lama's kind of personal charisma, diplomatic skills, et cetera?
Prof. LIEBERTHAL: I think the Dalai Lama is truly one of the most charismatic figures in the world. I've had the privilege of meeting him, and he does transform the room whenever he is in a room. And let me just point to an irony of the events of this past week. President Hu Jintao of China gave a major speech to the 17th Party Congress, their big political conclave, in which one of the things he raised for the first time in such a speech was China's desire to develop its soft power.
And it is during this week that they're denouncing the visit of the Dalai Lama to Washington. The Dalai Lama has more soft power, is the embodiment of soft power to an extent that is unmatched by anyone else in the world, I think. And so, in a sense, the Chinese would do better to study a little bit more of what soft power really consists of if that's what they want to develop.
MARTIN: Kenneth Lieberthal focuses on China's political economy at the University of Michigan. Thomas Laird wrote the book, "The History of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama." He was kind enough to join me here in the studio.
Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us today.
Mr. LAIRD: Thank you.
Prof. LIEBERTHAL: Thank you.
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