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Michelle Obama's Tibetan Dinner Theater

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MICHELLE OBAMA DNC
The Washington Post via Getty Images

Although Chinese commentators claimed a pre-emptive victory in the battle of the first ladies, Michelle Obama's parting salvo seemed to resonate when she capped off her visit to China last week with a meal in a Tibetan Restaurant. The meal has been interpreted and reinterpreted as a political comment. Given that she appears to enjoy spicy food, perhaps the press recognized the inherent sacrifice of opting for Tibetan rather than the brilliant local cuisine while in Sichuan. As political theater goes, this is pretty low-grade stuff, "Sasha please pass me a Yak Meat Pie" does not exactly compare with "Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall." Nevertheless, this is probably the appropriate tone given the role of the first lady and the touchiness of the issue.

What really bothers this blogger is that so many of the comments on the meal felt the need to reference the Dalai Lama and the President's meeting with him in February. As overlooked as ever was Lobsang Sangay, the current Sikyong (equivalent to Prime Minister) of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile.

When Mr. Sangay was first elected it was understandable that he did not immediately eclipse the Dalai Lama, who has been in the spotlight for decades. Three years later, however, even those concerned about the issue continue to ignore the only person inside or outside Tibet with anything like a democratic mandate to speak for the Tibetan people. If the President of the United States is going to meet with the Dalai Lama that is fine, but it should be for what he is, the head of a relatively small religion.

High profile visits and constant mentions of the Dalai Lama in the foreign press may actually play into the hands of nationalist Chinese. After all, they have spent years vilifying him and the "Dalai Lama Clique." Some of their talking points seem to be pure fiction, the Dalai Lama has never advocated violence against others and there is no reason to believe he planned the "Lhasa riot that killed 18 innocent people." Nevertheless, his biography gives Communist propagandists plenty to work. After all, when he fled Tibet in 1959 it really was an extremely underdeveloped country where a tiny religious and aristocratic elite ruled over a mass of poor peasants embedded in "a caste-like social hierarchy." Laying this completely at the feet of the Dalai Lama is unfair, he was 15 when he came to power and ruled only nine years, all under Chinese control. Yet, leaving Tibet and a lifestyle of private jets and photo opps with Hollywood stars only provides ammunition for criticism. And the gift that keeps on giving to PRC propagandists: For years, his administration really does appear to have received an annual subsidy from the CIA.

None of this excuses the human rights abuses that have been and continue to be perpetrated by the PRC in Tibet. Nevertheless, it would be much harder to vilify the relatively unassuming and democratically elected Harvard Law scholar Lobsang Sangay. Especially given his humble origins. Indeed, official Chinese sources seem to have realized this because he ranked only 14 total mentions in the Chinese and English online versions of the People's Daily combined, none within the last year. Compare this to hundreds of mentions of the Dalai Lama on the People's Daily English site alone.

It seems unlikely that Michelle Obama had any of this in mind when she was making dinner plans. But, this blogger hopes that next time the foreign press and anyone interested in the Tibetan will look to the more democratic and less problematic figure of Mr. Sangay the next time a first lady reaches for yak butter tea.