The Red Lama

When the government of South Africa denied the Dalai Lama an entry visa last week, it was not the first time it had snubbed him. In 1999, then-President Mbeki canceled a meeting with the Tibetan leader after the Chinese vehemently protested. Whatever backbone Mbeki may have at one time had when working against apartheid seems to have turned to jello on that occasion.

The South African government claimed that last week’s episode was not a snub, but merely an attempt to keep any ensuing diplomatic incident from deflecting attention from next year’s World Cup. But it’s hard to see the move as anything but a genuflection towards South Africa’s Chinese benefactors. Last month, Beijing opened the first office of the China Africa Development Fund, a $5-billion slush fund for a variety of unspecified projects on the continent. Even the least cynical of observers might see a connection between the two events.

If fear of losing their cash-cow was motivating the South Africans, then fear of getting raked over the coals of bad publicity once again was in all likelihood motivating the Chinese. In a fascinating account in this week’s New York Review of Books, Pico Iyer describes a Dalai Lama who has become uncharacteristically energized about speaking truth to Chinese power. Iyer suggests that the Tibetan leader may be realizing that his conciliatory approach to China, where Tibet recognized Chinese sovereignty in exchange for some political and cultural autonomy, is simply not working.

Instead, the Dalai Lama is offering up tales of Chinese beatings of Tibetan detainees and trucks “packed with dead bodies being taken away to be buried.” Hardly the words of a man seeking conciliation.

What was most interesting about the article, though, was the the Dalai Lama’s revelation that he had at one time spent time with Mao Tse Tung — who treated him like a son — and that His Holiness had considered joining the Communist Party:

“Maybe in some ways I’m more ‘red’ inside than the Chinese leadership!”

Read the whole article. It’s extraordinary.