We are fast approaching the 55th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile in India in April, 1959. During the five and half decades since the People’s Liberation Army walked into Tibet and annexed it without much resistance, the world has undergone unthinkable transformation, not the least of it being China’s extraordinary rise as an economic superpower.
Beijing has pulled out all stops to complete Tibet’s territorial integration into China in the past decades even while it has struggled desperately to achieve any measure of cultural and demographic assimilation of the Tibetan people. One would think that five and half a decades are a long enough time for a country as ideologically determined in 1959 and economically and militarily successful in 2013 to erase all the influence and appeal of a single, stateless, Buddhist monk on generations of Tibetans who have grown up without any immediate reference to the Dalai Lama. It seems one would be wrong to think that.
I have been pointing out for the past 15 years or so how one of the world history’s great and most intractable standoffs is “essentially between a single individual and one of the world’s mightiest nations.” In fact, this simple reality was the primary motivating factor for me to write a whole biography of the Dalai Lama (Man Monk Mystic), so far published in 23 languages worldwide.
It is from this perspective that I take note with some amusement of a Reuters story by Ben Blanchard from Beijing about how China wants to “stamp out the Dalai Lama’s voice in Tibet.” The story quotes Tibet’s Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo’s comments in the party’s influential journal Qiushi.
"Strike hard against the reactionary propaganda of the splittists from entering Tibet," Chen has been quoted as saying.
"Work hard to ensure that the voice and image of the party is heard and seen over the vast expanses (of Tibet) … and that the voice and image of the enemy forces and the Dalai clique are neither seen nor heard," he writes.
The way this objective is to be achieved is, reports Reuters, by “confiscating illegal satellite dishes, increasing monitoring of online content and making sure all telephone and internet users are registered using their real names.”
As far as I can tell there is no parallel in recent world history of a single individual without state power, military might and economic muscle continuing to shake a de facto second superpower purely by the force of his presence and his philosophy of compassion and non-violence. (Gandhi may come to many minds but it was a different case altogether. That argument some other time). If some six million Tibetans continue to look to the Dalai Lama, who has been out of their immediate physical, cultural and geographical context for close to 55 years, it says as much about him as an individual as it does about China’s inability to complete a “harmonious” integration of the Tibetan people.
Even if I choose not to subscribe to the view that the Dalai Lama continues to powerfully capture and inspire the Tibetan people’s imaginations, I still have to go by the assertions of Tibet’s Communist Party chief who is saying that the Dalai Lama’s “voice and image” endure and must be erased. If both have sustained and continued to inspire ordinary Tibetans, I am fairly certain that it cannot be attributed entirely to the “reactionary propaganda of the splittists.”
Have the Chinese officials such as Chen tried to reason within their own minds that perhaps it is not just the person of the Dalai Lama but the justness of the cause he embodies that might be compelling the Tibetan people to remain steadfast in their convictions?
Unless there is some crafty Chinese strategy behind continuing to prop up the Dalai Lama as the bogeyman at play here that I am missing, it is strange that the passage of five and half decades does not seem to have brought Beijing any closer to ending his draw on the Tibetan people. When he was forced into exile, he was barely 24 years old who was at best an exotic curiosity for most of the world. At 78, he is one of the most compelling and fascinating examples of the power of a single individual, one who has officially given up all formal political powers.