Obama and the Dalai Lama: Image vs. Reality

After snubbing him during his Washington DC visit last October, President Obama finally met with the Dalai Lama on February 18th this year. Predictably, China's leaders warned of damage to Sino-US relations if the administration went ahead with the meeting (while making the rather bizarre claim that by doing so the U.S. side would be violating international rules).

But even though the meeting was held in the face of China's objections, the details were a delicately choreographed display of tiptoe diplomacy--no public appearance with the president, the ultra low-key backdrop of the White House map room, and only one official photographer allowed.

The photograph that was released to the press, with the President appearing as if he's lecturing the spiritual leader sets a very different tone to the photo of the two men in smiling camaraderie taken when Obama was a mere Senator. Clearly, everything was being done not to press the buttons of China's leadership any harder than necessary. After the meeting, the Dalai Lama was repeatedly asked by one persistent reporter what practical assistance he had been offered. All he could answer was that the president had been "sympathetic" and "supportive."

Obama encouraged the Dalai Lama to continue his efforts to find a resolution through negotiations. His words came only weeks after the Dalai Lama's envoys and China's Communist leaders, in the 9th round of talks between the two parties, failed yet again to find any common ground on which to even begin a meaningful dialogue. Beijing, as usual, used the occasion to reinforce to its citizens a negative view of the Dalai Lama and his proposal of "genuine autonomy" for Tibet as independence in disguise. From the perspective of its international image, the talks also offer China proof that it is engaging with the Tibet issue. By contrast, the Tibetan envoys, unversed in international diplomacy and completely outmatched by the sophistication of China's politicians, came away with nothing to show for their conciliatory stand. Zhu Weiqun, the executive vice minister of the United Front Work Department, the sector of the Communist Party that oversees these talks, even refused to accept that the Dalai Lama had any right to negotiate on behalf of the Tibetan people.

"The Chinese government and the government of Tibet Autonomous Region under its leadership are the only representatives of Tibetans," he said in a statement to media at a press conference after the talks. The private representatives "have no legal status to discuss with us the affairs about Tibet Autonomous Region".

In such an environment, it's hard to imagine how any real progress could be made.

The White House statement gave a nod to human rights while reassuring the PRC that the United States views Tibet as an integral part of its territory. Said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, "The president stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People's Republic of China."

In standing firm on his meeting with the Dalai Lama, President Obama may appear to be standing for human rights. But the absence of any plan or action that could in any way contribute to their improvement suggests that when it comes to Sino-US relations the US administration is as mired in gestures of form without substance as their Beijing counterparts.

If the Obama administration is serious about wanting the dialogue between the Tibetans and Chinese to achieve any degree of success, then offering to provide an experienced third party mediator to monitor the talks would be a practical gesture of sincerity.

With the Chinese government holding nearly $800 billion of federal U.S. debt, and being a key player in sensitive negotiations with Iran and North Korea, the United States is naturally reluctant, in the words of Elie Wiesel, to 'speak truth to power'. But the citizens of totalitarian regimes continue to look to America to do just that. During Obama's first official visit to China in November 2009, one Chinese blogger asked the president's media staff the following question, comparing China's Draconian control of the internet to the Berlin Wall: "Will President Obama together with us demolish the firewall that Chinese citizens are suffering under right now? We do hope that when President Obama meets with President Hu Jintao, he will ask, would you please close down the firewall, please."

While even the most idealistic observer would have to concede that Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama was more symbolic of the US's belief in the idea of freedom rather than a commitment to its realization, for Tibetans inside Tibet it was an altogether different story. In one of the world's most information-deprived societies, people there received the news stripped of all political nuance.

The meeting between their beloved leader and the leader of the free world was a cause for celebration and a collective expression of hope that this time some change might come. Under the threatening gaze of a fresh influx of armed personnel, Tibetans turned out in their thousands to mark the occasion with prayers, flowers, incense and fireworks.

Their world sits in poignant contrast with the pragmatic and far more cynical world of Realpolitik. The meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama was not a game-changing event and it was never intended to be.

But perhaps false hope is better than no hope at all.