Pope Francis has been something of a renegade and unafraid of conflict, so it came as a disappointment to many that he refused to give the Dalai Lama an audience when the Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate was in Rome this week. China never reacts well when dignitaries and heads of state receive the Dalai Lama, so many surmised that the Pope’s refusal is indicative of a successful step for China in isolating the exiled leader. The rationale may be quite a bit more complicated than that.
China invaded and conquered Tibet in 1949/1950. The Dalai Lama, traditionally the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, was pushed into full political powers at the age of 15. He spent many years attempting to construct a peace deal between the communist Chinese government and the people of Tibet.
After the Tibetan uprising of 1959 was brutally quashed by China’s People’s Liberation Army, and martial law was enacted, the Dalai Lama and thousands of others fled into exile in India. Ever since, the Dalai Lama has been working tirelessly to restore certain freedoms to the people of Tibet. Many of his proposals include terms such as “freedom” and “democratic,” terms that run very counter to the Chinese form of government and way of life. The Chinese government feels that the Dalai Lama has usurped political powers that he has no right to when he visits with world and religious leaders, and that the Dalai Lama is treated as a head of state. Gao Yi, a history professor at Peking University, explains that the Chinese government views any discussions with the Dalai Lama as a challenge to the Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.
“Anything that could damage national unity is dangerous, that’s why it’s intolerable. The advocacy and activities of the Dalai Lama and his followers are actually dangerous, especially because they use words like ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ to gain sympathy overseas.”
The tight hold the Chinese have on the remote Tibet is comparable to hold the government has established over its mainland nationals. One large area of control is religion. While the Chinese constitution actually guarantees freedom of religious beliefs, the actual practice is tightly regulated. The Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist, and only recognizes five branches of religion: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. These must be registered with and overseen by the State Administration of Religious Affairs. Any group not registered is considered illegal. There is a lot of fine print- and some of those details are large points of contention.
The State does not allow the people of China to submit to any foreign power, including the Pope. While Pope Benedict XVI had hoped to bridge the gap that’s been present since 1951, China’s government would not allow the Church to appoint Bishops and proved to be a sticking point. With Pope Francis’s unconventional approach to things, he may be just the man to find the path to an agreement and bring millions of Chinese people into the fold of the Catholic Church.
China has nearly universally reacted in a very negative fashion to any leader who received the Dalai Lama. The sole exception being British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, but he did so in a purely religious and private setting. Any leader, including powerhouses like U.S. president Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were threatened with “repercussions” and given what amounted to a cold shoulder by the Chinese after meeting with the Dalai Lama.
The setting in Rome this week would have precluded an exclusively religious meeting between the Pope and the Dalai Lama, as the focus and the reason he was in the country was to celebrate Nobel Peace Prize recipients just a few days after the Prizes were awarded for this year. Rather than slighting the Dalai Lama, it appears the Pope is strategically playing his cards in an attempt to heal the divide between the Chinese Communist Party and the Catholic Church.