by Malcolm Fox
The phenomenon of Donald Trump unites us all. In many ways, he is a universal language. Not in the ways that dancing and music are universal languages – more that everyone seems to have an opinion about him, his policies, or his controversies. Recently, this collective obsession over Trump manifested itself in an unexpected way, completely separate from the tapes of him bragging about his serial sexual assault. A few weeks prior to the “Trump Tapes” being released, headlines appeared surrounding an impression of Donald Trump done by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama during a now viral interview on Good Morning Britain. This interview caught the attention of the mainstream news media, appearing on networks like CNN and shows like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. However, in typical Trump-related fashion, it obscured the significance of the broader event – the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Europe. Underlying the Tibetan spiritual leader’s historic visit lies a decades-old struggle between the Chinese Communist Party and the people and government of Tibet. Unfortunately, due to the media’s obsession with viral content, this event was reduced to no more than a comedic gif of him mocking the Republican presidential nominee’s demeanor.
The “Tibet Question” – Then and Now
In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is seen as the incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalotikesvara. A bodhisattva is an individual who dedicates their enlightenment to the benefit of all conscious beings, and from the year 1642 until 1950, Tibet was ruled by a continuous line of Lamas under a theocratic monarchy. In 1950, however, when the People’s Republic of China “peacefully liberated” the region, the dynasty of Lamas came to an end as the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled to India as a refugee along with the Tibetan government. Since then, Greater Tibet (divided into the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces) and its people have been governed by China, while the exiled Tibetan government alleges that it is the true governing body. This regency of refugees cites China’s unlawful takeover of the region and consistent human rights abuses since annexation as integral to the claim over their homeland.
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The Dalai Lama is recognized across the world as an agent of peace and change, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and regularly lecturing across the globe on human rights, Tibet, Buddhism, science, and interfaith dialogue. His visit to Europe last month continued his efforts to work for peace through discourse. At the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization, the monk called for the EU to criticize China’s controversial occupation of Tibet and its regular human rights abuses including alleged violations of religious freedom, torture of political prisoners, and extreme censorship. The context of China’s control over Tibet has changed markedly in recent years as more people throughout the world have become aware of the extent of the issue. The Dalai Lama also urged criticism of the Chinese state “at a time when Chinese leaders, even hardline partisans, are facing a kind of dilemma over how to deal with this problem.”
It is still in Beijing’s interests to maintain control over Tibet. The Tibetan Autonomous Region alone is the second-largest Chinese province, spanning some 460,000 square miles. The country also gains huge financial benefits from Chinese tourism, from mining operations in Tibet that source uranium, zinc, chromium, lithium, copper and gold (the latter two worth nearly a trillion dollars alone), and from damming and regulating Tibet’s massive water and ice stores (the third largest in the world). This is all without even mentioning Tibet’s strategic location bordering India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar. In many ways Tibet is to China what the South China Sea is to… China. Despite Beijing’s tight grip on the Tibetan plateau, the Tibetan people are still very much passionate about gaining sovereign control of their homeland. Although many countries with a vested interest in maintaining human rights would agree with the exiled Tibetan government, China is a clearly dangerous country to have as an enemy.
Consequences of Discourse
The Chinese Communist Party has always been vocal about their distrust of the Dalai Lama and their desire for him and his message to be discredited as much as possible. According to China’s government, the Lama is a “wolf in monk’s robes” who lobbies for Tibetan independence through “spiritual terrorism.” After His Holiness’ visit to Europe, for example, the regime quickly released a statement of its displeasure. In a routine press conference, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang told reporters “this time the leaders of the European Parliament insist obstinately on having their own way and adhering to the wrong position, undermining China’s core interests and also seriously damaging the political basis for bilateral parliamentary exchanges.”
As the country with the second largest GDP in the world, China wields tremendous international clout. If a foreign country takes a position contrary to that of Beijing, the possible trade and security consequences often outweigh the consequences of critiquing the country’s human rights record. This is why the Dalai Lama’s visit to Europe was significant; the European Parliament saw whatever anger Beijing levied at them in backlash as a necessary risk in order to address a critical human rights issue. Although the price of retaliation is much less of a burden on Europe than it would be on an individual country with more necessary economic ties to China, European countries and their leaders have been historically ignorant of the Tibet Question. In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Europe to meet with EU and international officials. He was greeted with open arms and no mention of Tibet or its people. Perhaps this bolder stance on Tibetan rights symbolizes a turning point in EU-Chinese attitudes towards human rights issues.
The great tragedy of this entire story, however, is the unbalanced coverage that it has received. The Dalai Lama’s impression of Donald Trump received attention from the mainstream media, but the underlying significance of the Lama’s visit was largely covered by small independent sources – those too globally insignificant to fear criticism from the Chinese government, save for the UK’s Guardian. Ultimately, the media’s fascination with viral content and shareable moments contributed to the obscuring of this important occasion for the advancement of human rights. Although Donald Trump is a universal phenomenon uniting us in confusion, it is all too easy to let one’s attention remain on the surface of an issue. The Dalai Lama should be commended for his mockery of Trump, but he and his hosts should also be recognized for their bravery in taking on the great red bully in addition to the great orange one.
Malcolm Fox is a first year at Trinity University from Everett, Washington. He’s pursuing a Religion major at Trinity and is interested in a career involving the protection of human rights. He’s passionate about human rights, civil liberties, cultural heritage and political discourse. In his spare time he enjoys working out, listening to extreme metal, and spending time with friends in and around South Central Texas.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
The photo above is in the public domain and can be found here.