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The Huntsman/Dalai Lama Photo

posted Jun 23, 2011, 7:21 AM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Jun 23, 2011, 8:59 AM ]

By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review

While Tibetans have just wrapped up the historic 2011 election for Kalon Tripa and parliament, Americans are just entering into the 2012 presidential election season.  And as Republicans begin to select their candidate against President Obama, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has already been brought into the American campaign.  On the eve of declaring his candidacy, Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and American ambassador to China, chose to publicize a photo taken with His Holiness in 2001.

This photo has already received coverage by the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, and Agence France Presse.  Clearly, the media consider it noteworthy as compared to the dozens of other photos that Huntsman’s campaign posted that same day.  But what might it mean for Tibet?  Probably less than Tibetans might wish.

His Holiness is an immensely popular figure in the U.S. (and in much of the rest of the world).  Clearly, politicians want the perceived domestic electoral benefit of associating with His Holiness and the values he symbolizes.   As Todd Stein of the International Campaign for Tibet notes, President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain all figuratively brought His Holiness into their presidential campaigns, with the Obama team even posting a photo of then-Senator Obama with His Holiness on the Obama campaign website.

Huntsman may have an even greater reason to want a symbolic association with His Holiness, because many Republicans are skeptical of Huntsman because he served as President Obama’s ambassador to China, speaks fluent Mandarin, and has significant financial interests in China through his family company.  In other words, the photo with His Holiness is intended to inoculate Huntsman against being labeled a “panda hugger,” as the conservative Wall Street Journal put it.  (This is ironic because His Holiness has constantly reached out to China.)

Note that this is a domestic political calculation to use His Holiness as a symbol to help win an election, not a calculation to express support for Tibet.

This is not to say that Huntsman or other politicians do not care about Tibet; Huntsman visited Tibet while he was ambassador in Beijing, and he has been relatively outspoken on human rights issues.  In 2007, George W. Bush presented His Holiness with the Congressional Gold Medal and did so in a very public and official ceremony, angering the Chinese government tremendously, who had lobbied vigorously against the award.  In 2008,
then-Senator Obama spoke out strongly for Tibetan autonomy.  Hillary Clinton is also considered a long-time Tibet supporter. 

Yet “caring” about Tibet only goes so far.  President Obama’s policy on Tibet has been hapless, and Secretary Clinton is still undoing the damage she caused when she declared on her first trip to Beijing as Secretary of State that human rights shouldn’t get in the way of other issues.

In our opinion, there are two take-away points here.

First, Tibetans should avoid the mentality of only being supplicants asking for help.  In the person of His Holiness -- Tibetans' Yeshe Norbu -- the Tibetan people have an asset that many world leaders want to use to further their own electoral purposes.  Realizing that this is the way the game is played puts Tibetans in a stronger position to promote the cause of Tibet, while holding their heads higher too.

Second, political candidates have shown themselves willing to use His Holiness to boost their image.  Tibetans should not expect that this necessarily means that the candidate is willing to invest political capital in substantive support for Tibet once they are elected.  To the degree that politicians actively support Tibet beyond mere symbolism, it will largely be because of domestic political pressure (including pressure by Tibetans with citizenship in that country) or national security concerns.  “Caring” about His Holiness or Tibet will only matter on the margins -- as might be expected, since politicians' first duty is to their country's national interest, even if one considers values to be part of the national interest.  For this reason, Tibetans should look primarily to themselves as the only people who will ever hope to solve the issue of Tibet.

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