Heart of the matter

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2008, 12:00am


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In Chinese, the word 'crisis', weiji, is made up of two characters: wei (meaning 'danger') and ji (meaning 'opportunity'). So, in each crisis, one simultaneously faces both danger and opportunity. China faces a crisis over Tibet ; its fundamental policies towards this region and its people are being called into question. This has also accentuated the sharp juxtaposition between Chinese pragmatic, dialectic materialism and Tibetan idealistic, abstract spirituality. While these two opposite world views may clash, there is no reason for them to be in conflict. Actually, both are needed.

The Tibetan crisis has brought both danger and opportunity. As with all things in China, one extreme must give way to another before a 'middle' way can be reached. For all its hypergrowth, China now faces its worst crises since the commencement of its reforms: open and violent ethnic conflict; deadly children's epidemics; Olympic protests; and the worst earthquake in a generation. What may be next?

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama is sitting in Dharamsala waiting for China to signal a breakthrough. That is precisely what China needs at this time - the world's most prominent morally persuasive leader, the Dalai Lama, to give it a spiritual lift in this sensitive and difficult Olympic year.

Breaking the ice, Beijing did invite the Dalai Lama to send a personal envoy for talks and, on May 4, his envoys, Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, met two Chinese vice-ministers in Shenzhen. Both sides agreed to disagree on many circumstances and events. But it is better to disagree than not talk at all. Then, on May 9, Lodi Gyari gave a press conference in Dharamsala, outlining some ideas: open Tibet to journalists and tourists to restore economic normality, and stop criticising, moreover demonising, the Dalai Lama. From this we can see an emerging road map of what needs to be done by both sides. If Beijing can loosen its tight security grip over the Tibetan regions, people will feel more relaxed, tourism will revive business fortunes, and income will return.

Moreover, if it can stop criticising the Dalai Lama as part of its 'patriotic education', China can begin winning the hearts and minds of Tibetans. In turn, if the Dalai Lama can use his influence to tone down global protests before the Beijing Olympics, he will be giving the Chinese government the support it so badly craves.

Surprisingly, on May 22, foreign journalists reiterated the Dalai Lama's recent statement in London that he would be willing to attend the Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing if China issued an invitation.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman responded: 'If the Dalai Lama wants to do something meaningful for the motherland and the Olympics, then he must take practical action.' That was followed by a list of rhetorical, separatist accusations. Regardless, this was still quite a new tone.

The Sichuan earthquake struck a region that is home to many ethnic groups, notably Han and Tibetans. It is a propitious time for the Dalai Lama to once again publicly offer prayers to all.

While he has already prayed for those killed and left devastated by the quake, his message of compassion was not heard by Beijing. If the meaning of his sincerity was understood in Beijing, that might change the atmosphere.

If China can respond with even a cordial meeting between President Hu Jintao and the Dalai Lama, this would give China more face than any gold medals its athletes could win, while giving hope to Tibetans and the world. It would change history.

The entire environment would improve, paving the way for a more grounded policy rethink. Yes, Tibet needs the economic means that China can provide - specifically education, medical facilities and equal opportunities.

China, in turn, needs what its own policies of material hypergrowth have failed to deliver - spirituality and a new-age national ideology. The Olympics can stir nationalism, but it cannot deliver either of those.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala