As news spread of massive Chinese troop movements into Tibet, and of hundreds of arrests, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told British Prime Minister Gordon Brown he was willing to talk with the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama if he renounced violence and gave up the idea of an independent Tibet—conditions the Dalai Lama has met with past statements. During an exclusive, wide-ranging 45-minute interview with NEWSWEEK's Melinda Liu and Sudip Mazumdar at the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama talked about his willingness to negotiate with Beijing, his fears for the future, and how some government officials in China have sent him private messages of sympathy. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Do you think Chinese officials still hope their problems in Tibet will disappear after you pass away?
The Dalai Lama: I don't know. I totally disagree with the view that the Tibet struggle will die, and there will be no hope for Tibet, after the Dalai Lama passes away. Both inside and outside [Tibet], the older generation may go away, but the newer generations carry the same spirit. Sometimes it's even stronger. So after my death a younger generation will come up.
If Wen Jiabao or [China's President] Hu Jintao were sitting in this room in front of you, what would say to them?
I always like to quote Deng Xiaoping and say, Please seek truth from facts. It is very important. I would urge them to find out what is really going on in Tibetan minds and what is happening on the ground. This I want to tell the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, if he were to come here. Of course, I have great respect for both, particularly Wen Jiabao. He seems very gentle. I would also ask him, "Please prove your recent accusations [that the Dalai Lama instigated the unrest in Tibet.]" [Laughs]
Do you have back channels of communication to the Chinese leadership?
Not serious [ones]. The usual channels are still there.
Do new technologies—cell phones, digital photography, e-mail and so on—make it harder for authorities to control the unrest?
Do they make it impossible?
Now authorities are trying to control [things] by shutting down these services. But it is very difficult to control everything.
What's the difference between what's happening now and the turmoil of the late '80s in Lhasa?
At that time it was mainly in Lhasa areas. And, yes, it is a factor that images can be seen elsewhere. But it is mainly the [extent of Tibetan] grievances. Today even Tibetan monks in Chinese areas carry Tibetan flags. I am quite surprised [by the prevalence of Tibetan dissatisfaction in areas far from Lhasa]. Now the entire Tibetan people have strong feelings. If [Chinese authorities] truly treated the Tibetans as brothers and sisters and as equals, giving them trust, then this would not happen.
Even privileged Tibetans who are in elite minority universities in Chinese cities such as Beijing and Lanzhou have organized vigils and peaceful protests. Why?
Yes, yes—if they're not satisfied you can imagine how nomads feel. I occasionally meet affluent Tibetans who are economically sound, who have good housing. I met one such person who first told me he had no worries. Then he confessed [he felt] mental anguish, and then he began to cry. As Tibetans they feel some kind of subtle discrimination by the Chinese.
Are you worried about the possibility of greater violence after you pass away?
Yes, I worry about that. As long as I am alive, I am fully committed to amity between Tibetans and Chinese. Otherwise there's no use. More importantly, the Tibetan Buddhist cultural heritage can eventually help bring some deeper values to the millions of Chinese youth who are lost in a [moral] vacuum. After all, China is traditionally a Buddhist country.
What more do you think the Chinese leadership wants you to do to prove your sincerity? Wen Jiabao wants you to accept two conditions—that you renounce Tibet's independence and renounce violence—before dialogue can take place.
Last year in Washington we had a meeting with some Chinese scholars, including some from mainland China, who asked me, "What guarantee is there that Tibet will not be separate from China ever [in the future]?" I told them that my statements won't help, my signature won't help. The real guarantee is that the Tibetan people should be satisfied. Eventually they should feel they would get greater benefit if they remain with China. Once that feeling develops, that will be the real guarantee that Tibet will forever remain part of the People's Republic of China.
The Chinese government wants me to say that for many centuries Tibet has been part of China. Even if I make that statement, many people would just laugh. And my statement will not change past history. History is history.
So my approach is, don't talk about the past. The past is past, irrespective of whether Tibet was a part of China or not. We are looking to the future. I truly believe that a new reality has emerged. The times are different. Today different ethnic groups and different nations come together due to common sense. Look at the European Union … really great. What is the use of small, small nations fighting each other? Today it's much better for Tibetans to join [China]. That is my firm belief.
You've said that two government officials sent private messages of support to you. Is there a significant number of officials in Tibet or other areas of mainland China who have shown sympathy to you in private?
I am not sure, but many ordinary Chinese, thousands, have come here. And several senior officials have sent messages. I feel very strongly that there will be a change [in the attitude of the Chinese leadership]. Now the important thing is the Chinese public should get to know the reality. They should have more information about Tibet.
Will that be difficult? The Internet is heavily censored inside China. As a result, people tend to develop very polarized, often very nationalistic views.
Yes, yes. You know, till 1959 the Tibetan attitude toward the Han Chinese was affectionate, very close, something normal. Chinese traders in Lhasa used to be referred to with affectionate respect. But, of course, the name of communism is feared in Tibet because of what happened in Mongolia, and to part of the Buddhist community in the Soviet Union. Then the Chinese communists entrenched themselves; more soldiers came and their attitude became more aggressive, more harsh. Even at that time we complained about these "bad communists," but we never said "bad Chinese." Never.
During the last 20 years I have met a lot of Tibetans from Tibet—students, government officials and businessmen. They express great dissatisfaction. Now some of them refer to Chinese people in a derogatory manner. Even in prison there is a division between Chinese and Tibetan inmates. This I think is very bad. This must change. Not through harsh [measures]—that would just harden the stands—but by developing trust. I think real autonomy can restore that trust. As far I am concerned, I'm totally dedicated toward this goal. It is not just politics. My aim is to create a happy society with genuine friendship. Friendship between Tibetan and Chinese peoples is very essential.
Some images of the recent casualties have been graphic and disturbing. Have you seen them? What was your reaction? We heard you wept.
Yes, I cried once. One advantage of belonging to the Tibetan Buddhist culture is that at the intellectual level there is a lot of turmoil, a lot of anxiety and worries, but at the deeper, emotional level there is calm. Every night in my Buddhist practice I give and take. I take in Chinese suspicion. I give back trust and compassion. I take their negative feeling and give them positive feeling. I do that every day. This practice helps tremendously in keeping the emotional level stable and steady. So during the last few days, despite a lot of worries and anxiety, there is no disturbance in my sleep. [Laughs]