Forty-nine days of Tibetan Buddhist rites for Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari ended this past Monday, December 17 in a monastery in Dehradun, India. Lodi, who died on October 29, was a public servant of Tibet, a country denied its sovereignty, and an envoy of the Dalai Lama, regarded by Tibetans as the 14th reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Lodi’s unique and daunting mandate was to build support for Tibet in the United States and to represent the Dalai Lama in nine rounds of “dialogue” with Chinese officials about Tibet’s predicament.
The first task was easier than the second, but despite the level of prominence Lodi achieved for Tibet in the United States, American policy made his second mission inestimably more difficult.
After contacts between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese leadership in the early 1980s failed to progress, the Tibetan leader turned to building international support.
It’s hard to imagine now how little-known Tibet was at the time. It had always been isolated and remote, but since the 1950s, it has been under occupation, and is frequently off limits to travelers and journalists. Nonetheless, efforts by Lodi, and other Tibetan officials, including Tenzin Tethong, helped Tibet gain bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. It took a little longer for Tibet to gain sympathy in the Executive Branch. As an Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights in the early 1980s, Elliott Abrams met Lodi and Tenzin Tethong in the Watergate Hotel coffee shop because the East Asia Bureau objected to their entering the State Department building. Lodi “came in many ways to personify rather than simply to represent the cause of Tibet,” according to Abrams. “The power of the argument he was making was immensely magnified by his dignity and depth as an individual. He was patient, upright, soft-spoken, but never even slightly apologetic in stating the case for Tibet. He knew the relative political, economic, and of course military strength of the two sides, but he also knew that his side—the cause of Tibet, and of religious freedom—had much greater moral strength.”
Eventually, George H.W. Bush, became the first American President to meet the Dalai Lama, which, along with humanitarian aid, scholarships, and other support, boosted Tibetans’ morale and became almost routine, even as European leaders began succumbing to Chinese pressure not to meet the Dalai Lama. In 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright created a senior State Department post dedicated to Tibetan affairs, which was later codified in law.
Lodi’s other mission may have been impossible: to make concrete the empty provisions for Tibetan autonomy under the PRC’s laws and constitution and thus achieve “genuine autonomy.” That position, of course, already represented a huge concession. Tibet had asserted its independence in 1912—and had been de facto independent throughout much of a long relationship with imperial China that both parties often left ambiguous.
Despite their disadvantage, the Tibetans had leverage. The Party seeks legitimacy of its rule in Tibet less from world opinion, which already accepts China’s control, than from Tibetans themselves. The Dalai Lama, Lodi said, had always been “ready to lend his moral authority to endow an autonomy agreement, once reached, with the legitimacy it will need to gain the support of the Tibetan people and be properly implemented.” This might calm the instability Beijing’s own policies have created and avoid, particularly at the time of the Dalai Lama’s death, unrest like that which spread across the Tibetan Plateau in 2008.
Nevertheless, the Party’s insincerity was reflected in the designation of officials from the United Front Work Department as the Tibetans’ counterpart in the dialogue. The United Front bureaucracy, which has recently received long-overdue attention for its role as an instrument of China’s “sharp power,” is assigned to enlist the aid of minorities and religious and non-communist groups in achieving the Party’s agenda. The UFWD carries out China’s efforts to control Buddhism internally and exploit it internationally for the Party’s own purposes. Under Xi Jinping it has become more powerful.
Chinese tactics included insulting the Dalai Lama and denying his repeatedly stated willingness to accept Chinese rule. As time passed, the Party’s objective became unmistakable: wait for the Dalai Lama, now 83, to pass away and install an imposter, as they have with other Tibetan Buddhist incarnations. At the same time, Beijing has become aggressive toward India, claiming a large swath of northeast India as “South Tibet.” PLA incursions across the long and disputed border between Chinese-occupied Tibet and India have increased, possibly presaging military force timed to interfere with the selection of the Dalai Lama’s successor (which he has said will take place outside of Chinese-held territory) or India’s longstanding and admirable hospitality to Tibetans.
The Party has demanded yet another concession—that the Dalai Lama agree that Tibet has been a part of China, “since antiquity.” This, Lodi explained, the Tibetan leader could do, saying, “History is a past event, and it cannot be altered.”
It can, however, be elided. The U.S. government considers Tibet a part of China and insists that it has never held otherwise—a statement which is true as far as it goes. Washington had scant relationship to Tibet until World War II, when America was allied with Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader struggling, unsuccessfully, to recover a disintegrated empire. Chiang’s government never asserted control over Tibet, yet Washington largely deferred to its claims, albeit cagily. “China claims sovereignty over Tibet, and the Government has never questioned that claim,” read a State Department dispatch in 1947.” For 30 years after the communists took power, Washington held off from recognizing Chinese sovereignty by any Chinese government, Nationalist or communist, over Tibet, supporting Tibetan rebels and even advancing the idea of self-determination during the 1960s. Stapleton Roy, a distinguished diplomat who participated in the normalization of U.S.-PRC ties and later served as Ambassador to Beijing told me he believes that, but for relations with Chiang, the United States would have recognized Tibet’s independence.
When Washington at last formalized its ties with Beijing and broke with Taipei, the U.S. government effectively transferred its deference over Tibet from the cultish KMT authoritarian regime that had never exerted authority there to the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship that had invaded it. This was a shift made quietly, unilaterally, and without consulting Congress. At the time, the Carter Administration was hurriedly completing the normalization of U.S.-China ties and breaking abruptly with Taiwan at the end of 1978. As soon as the United States set its sights on relations with the PRC, writes Melvyn Goldstein, Tibet became, in the view of American policymakers, “an embarrassment. . . . no longer relevant to the U.S. national interests—in fact, it was potentially harmful. By the 1970s, therefore, shifting world alignments placed the Tibetan exiles in a much-weakened position.”
Lodi studied as a monk, having been recognized as the reincarnation of a Tibetan master, before leaving Tibet at the age of ten. Those who knew of his religious background and his quiet navigation of Washington’s corridors of power might be amused by his reputation as a firebrand during his younger days in exile in India. John Avedon’s book, In Exile from the Land of Snows, recounts Lodi and other young colleagues outflanking more conservative Tibetan officials to lobby Indian politicians for stronger support of Tibet. Like the Dalai Lama, he drew lessons from India’s democracy, which he brought to his service in the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala as the speaker of its parliament and as a cabinet minister.
Despite his democratic principles, Lodi retained respect, and even nostalgia, for Chinese officials from an earlier generation, like Hu Yaobang, who was shocked by devastation he saw on a tour of Tibet after the Cultural Revolution, and Xi Zhongxun, the father of current General Secretary Xi Jinping. The elder Xi was friendly with the Dalai Lama during the 1950s while the Tibetan leader was trying to reach accommodation with the communists. When the younger Xi ascended to Party leadership, some, including Lodi, hoped that Xi’s family’s association with the Dalai Lama might lead him to moderate the Party’s policies in Tibet. Lodi lived to see that it didn’t, as well as the transfer of tactics and personnel from Tibet to Xinjiang. But he also lived—just—to see the emerging backlash to its challenge to democratic norms
Testifying before a Congressional committee in 2008, Lodi sought to explain the Tibetan commitment to non-violence. “You just can’t say that, oh, I have become nonviolent, as if it is kind of declaration, and from that day on you are nonviolent. No. Every moment it is a new dedication that we have to make to remain nonviolent.” He illustrated his point by recounting, with restrained emotion, a visit he made to his birthplace in eastern Tibet, in 2004, accompanied by his Chinese dialogue counterparts.
If you see some of the footages of my visit, you see me . . . with a smile, trying to be nice, but I will tell you today that the pain that I was going through—I was visiting a monastery that I grew up [in] . . . 70 percent of it in total ruins now.
I also visited the site where I know my grandmother was tortured to death. I also visited the site—(pauses)—where my elder brother—(pauses)—was starved to death. . . .
I’m sharing this with you because you understand and appreciate more the path of struggle that His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] has led us. So please help us stay on this course, because this is not only important for us; this is also important for China.
Indeed, there are signs of a departure in popular and intellectual Chinese attitudes from those of the Party. Many Chinese follow Tibetan Buddhism and are concerned about the degradation of Tibet’s environment. They admire the Dalai Lama not only as a religious leader, but as someone who has democratized the formerly theocratic government-in-exile. Increasingly, Chinese dissidents like Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died in jail in 2017, see China’s rule in Tibet as a problem of democratic legitimacy rather than ethnicity and territory. International kowtowing to the Party’s isolation of the Dalai Lama and officials of the Tibet government-in-exile undermines the Chinese people most vital to a change in Tibet’s condition.
Lodi was cremated on November 18, a clear and sunny day at Mindrolling Monastery in Dehradun, a town in India’s Himalayan foothills. The ceremony included prayers and offerings by monks from Tibetan Buddhism’s different traditions, including Lodi’s son, Tulku Penam, reflecting, it was explained to me, an unusual lack of hierarchy and sectarianism that was in keeping with Lodi’s convictions. Others attending included representatives of the Tibetan government-in-exile, officials from India, Nepal, and Bhutan, and friends and colleagues from Europe and the United States. Looking on were his wife, Dawa Chokyi, his daughters Tenzing Dechen, Tenzing Choyang, Norbu Wangmo, and Tashi Chodon, who are raising families in the free Tibetan Buddhist communities of the Himalayas, and his youngest daughter, Tenzing Tsering, who helped her father complete before his death a forthcoming memoir about his extraordinary and worthy life.