The Dalai Lama is a connoisseur of absurdity. When we met in London on Monday I reminded him that two years ago, desperate to resume relations with China, No. 10 said it had ‘turned the page on that issue,’ by which he meant the Dalai Lama. He responded with his celebrated chuckle but it became clear that he’s far from sanguine about being snubbed by Britain.
He agreed with me that not even Beijing could have thought up a phrase like ‘turn the page’. And in case Beijing didn’t get that craven message, Mr Cameron’s team spelt it out: the Prime Minister has ‘no plans’ to see the Dalai Lama again. In return, Beijing may agree to make London the offshore centre of choice for trading in its currency, the renminbi, and invest in our nuclear energy — a bad idea considering China’s dismal record in everything from high-speed trains to school buildings.
So on his nine-day tour to Britain, the 80-year-old Dalai Lama could not expect any hospitality from government ministers. Having become a political untouchable in Britain, as well as in China, what would he say to David Cameron if he were allowed anywhere near him? His answer was clear and simple: ‘Money, money, money. That’s what this is about. Where is morality?’
But he was quick to distinguish the approach of Mr Cameron’s government from the warm reception he has encountered in Britain (he has been to Oxford and Cambridge, and gave an address at the O2 Arena last weekend). ‘The British,’ he said, ‘are a moral people, greater than the Americans. But what I would say to Mr Cameron and to President Xi is that the Chinese are a great people, they have been so for thousands of years. But they could learn something from the Tibetans, who know there is more to life than material things.’
Xi Jinping, the president of China, is in America this week and will visit Britain next. There was a time when a British prime minister would raise the topic of human rights in Tibet — there is, after all, much to discuss. Just two years ago, Chinese troops opened fire on crowds celebrating the Dalai Lama’s 78th birthday. But with the page ‘turned’, any serious diplomatic challenge to Beijing is now highly unlikely.
The Dalai Lama described President Xi as a ‘serious, realistic man’ despite his ‘oppression of Tibetans and his own people’. ‘Mr Cameron should tell him, and I hope President Obama will too,’ he said. ‘Then there will be even wider material happiness in China.’
But such hard truths are unlikely to be on the agenda with Mr Xi. Britain, like most other countries, bends the knee and tugs the forelock to China’s diktats — and does so on Tibet, too. George Osborne, the Chancellor, wrote during his trip to Beijing this week: ‘We want a golden relationship with China that will help foster a golden decade for this country. Simply put, we want to make the UK China’s best partner in the West.’
Partner in what? With whom? China’s only Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, is serving an 11-year sentence for advocating free speech and democracy. This year alone, at least 250 lawyers and human rights activists have been targeted by police, with 20 still under detention. In Tibet, some 140 Buddhists have burnt themselves alive in protest against human rights abuses.
Once, Britain shone the spotlight on such issues. Now, in return for Chinese money, we keep quiet about what happens to Peace Prize winners, dissidents, lawyers, women seeking their rights, Buddhists and other minorities. What is astounding about the Dalai Lama is that, even while discussing the repression of the country from which he has been in exile since 1959, he remains cheerful. As he put it, ‘There are seven billion people in the world. There is much suffering. But there is happiness, too. That must be extended.’ To extend it requires not just money, but political will. To have turned the page on this realistic man is worse than immoral. It is stupid.