As a young delegate to communist China’s People’s Assembly, Tenzin Gyatso was struck by the sleepy ambience of the place and by the prevalence of communist party officials in place of genuine people’s representatives.
Observing India’s unruly parliament some years later, he began to appreciate the difference between the suffocating orthodoxy of authoritarian systems and the noisy pluralism of open societies.
This realization eventually prompted a series of democratic reforms within the Tibetan community in exile that allow Gyatso – better known today as the Dalai Lama – to make the characteristically humble claim that he “is not the best but certainly not the worst” of a long line of his country’s spiritual and temporal leaders.
Speaking on Capitol Hill this morning after receiving the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Service Medal, he advised China’s communist party leaders to “retire with grace” and allow a democratic nation to emerge.
Democracy is the only political system which respects the autonomy and integrity of the individual, that sphere of liberty at the core of the fundamental human rights to which all people aspire.
Lacking legitimacy and popular support, the ruling communist party is more concerned about making money, developing authoritarian capitalism rather than socialism.
Highlighting the spiritual bankruptcy and endemic corruption of contemporary China, he said that he sometimes almost felt more communist than those PRC leaders whose obsession with making money betrays an earlier generation’s “beautiful vision of a classless society” which had nevertheless generated so much oppression.
Following the Tibetan leader’s meeting with President Barack Obama, Beijing today summoned the US ambassador to object to what it called US conniving with separatist forces.
The Dala Lama “will taste the bitter fruits of his plots in the long run,” state media warned.
(The communist authorities were reportedly so angry that they have threatened to stop exporting toxic toys and poisoned pet food to the US.)
President Obama expressed his support for “Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China” and encouraged continued dialogue between the two sides.
The Dalai Lama expressed his admiration for the United States as a “champion of democracy, freedom, human values” and creativity.
But Beijing’s response appeared more ritualistic than riled. “Compared to the arms sales to Taiwan, which is regarded as a real action against China’s core interests, meeting with the Dalai Lama can be just regarded as a small episode,” said one observer.
“Change comes through individual creativity,” he said, and human rights activists fought to create and preserve the rights and autonomy of individual citizens routinely denied by totalitarian systems.
Presenting the award, NED president Carl Gershman relayed how the Dalai Lama’s commitment to developing a democratic polity for Tibet emerged from his realization, enunciated in a 1998 NED lecture, that the old system “was outdated and ill-equipped to face the challenges of the contemporary world.”
The Tibetan community in exile is governed by an elected National Assembly overseen by an independent judiciary, he noted, while the Dalai Lama has ceded to the assembly the power to elect the cabinet and prime minister. Modeled on the constitutions of established democracies, the charter nevertheless reflects Tibetan culture’s distinctive stress on freedom of religion, nonviolence, and the moral and material welfare of the Tibetan people.
Describing himself as “the unluckiest Dalai Lama” for spending more time as an exiled refugee than living in Tibet, he says his exile at least gave him the opportunity to live in India’s democracy, enhancing his capacity to one day bring democracy to his homeland.
“Whether he will have that chance depends in no small measure on the fate of Chinese democrats like the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo, “ said Gershman, “who have supported the Dalai Lama’s call for dialogue as well as his belief that a negotiated settlement granting full autonomy to the Tibetan people will enhance China’s stability, unity, and standing in the world.”