Although it has been a long time since any event on campus has garnered as much excitement as the visit of the Dalai Lama, his visit Friday, April 24, was noticeably absent of any sort of political controversy.
Few points of contention between China and the West cause more angst than the ongoing activities of the Dalai Lama. Although the Dalai Lama fled Tibet 50 years ago, and no government in the world recognizes the current Tibetan government-in-exile as a legitimate entity, the international recognition and respect that the Dalai Lama commands, exemplified by his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, serves as a permanent reminder to the government of the People’s Republic of China that opposition to its ongoing rule in Tibet is still strong throughout the world.
In spite of the increase in trade between China and the West over the past several decades, which has helped lift millions of Chinese out of poverty and permitted equal numbers of consumers in the West access to cheap Chinese-made goods, China’s ghastly human rights record has continued to cause considerable friction between the Chinese government and various Western governments. The brunt of the criticism that China receives over its human rights record concerns its 50-year occupation of Tibet, as well as the various injustices that Tibetans have been submitted to there.
As the Dalai Lama is such a widely recognized symbol of the ongoing struggle in Tibet, reception of him by Western governments has often led to formal government protests by the Chinese government, as well as informal protests by Chinese nationals residing in countries that choose to have him as a guest. This is a lesson that French President Nicolas Sarkozy learned the hard way when he chose to meet with the Dalai Lama last December, when France still held the rotating chair of the European Union presidency. When Chinese premier Wen Jiabao visited Europe the following month, he refused to visit France despite visiting the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland. As President Sarkozy has gone to great lengths to play a leading role in global politics, such a snub was a clear indication of Chinese displeasure with his audience with the Dalai Lama.
In March of 2008, major protests erupted against Chinese rule in Tibet, obviously intended to coincide with the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing. The games themselves proceeded almost without incident, although Western press reported considerable demonstrations and counter demonstrations in Beijing while the games were in progress, in no small part concerning the ongoing Tibetan issue.
It is therefore almost surprising that the Dalai Lama’s visit to UCSB provoked so little controversy. Although there was certainly a beefy security presence at both events over the course of the day, including bomb-sniffing dogs and private security personnel, there were almost no political demonstrations either in favor of the Dalai Lama or in opposition to him, this is in spite of the overtly political nature of the UCSB student body (particularly in regard to issues of social and environmental justice) and the presence of numerous Chinese students both at UCSB and Santa Barbara City College who might have taken the opportunity to protest his visit.
Even the Dalai Lama himself refrained from mentioning politics. Although he briefly discussed a visit he made to China’s capital, Beijing, after the Chinese occupation of Tibet, his only other mention of the Chinese throughout the entire afternoon talk was in telling a joke whose punchline was at his own expense.
Richard Blum, who is Chair of the Regents of the University of California and a personal friend of the Dalai Lama, spoke briefly at the beginning of the event, and lightly touched on the political status of Tibet. “We continue to speak with the Chinese [about Tibet], and really what the Tibetans are asking for is not much,” said Blum, who nonetheless implied that the issue will not be resolved anytime soon. Blum is also Chairman of the American Himalaya Foundation, a non-profit group that attempts to improve living conditions across the Himalayas, including Tibet.
In addition to his visit at UCSB, the Dalai Lama visited several other college campuses during his two-week stay in the U.S., including the University of Washington, UC Berkeley, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although there were minor protests at several campuses concerning his visit, including the State University of New York at Albany, in general his trip was fairly smooth, and his overall message rather apolitical.
The Dalai Lama did not meet with President Barack Obama while he was here, the president himself having given a strong hint to the Chinese government back in February that the U.S. was willing to overlook human rights issues at the moment in favor of more pressing concerns, including the global economy and climate change. However, the Dalai Lama will return to the U.S. in October, and his visit will include a trip to Washington. Although Obama will be under considerable pressure from various human rights and religious groups to meet with him then, the Chinese government has stated its intense disapproval of any audience between the two leaders, particularly in regards to matters of Tibetan separatism.
The Dalai Lama received personal audiences with former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush during their respective offices.