In his column for The Times of London last October, the writer Edward Lucas invited his readers to consider whether or not they lived in a free country. For Lucas, the answer to this multifaceted question came in the form of one simple test: do your politicians feel free to meet the Dalai Lama?
“If the answer is no, then you are part of the Chinese empire – you just haven’t realised it yet”, he said.
British Prime Minister (PM) Theresa May, who departed for the backbenches on Wednesday to be replaced by Boris Johnson, has unquestionably failed the “Tibet Test.” The fact many of her predecessors have barely passed, with a couple of C’s in the New Labour years and a derisory D-minus for David “Golden-Era” Cameron, is of no comfort. The outgoing occupant of No.10 Downing Street sets a new low as she becomes the first Prime Minister since John Major not to have met the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Resulting in a big fat F for her.
Meetings between the Dalai Lama and heads of government are not only an important act of solidarity with the Tibetan people who live under the Chinese Communist Party’s totalitarian rule but a reminder to Beijing that the status of Tibet remains as unresolved today as it was back in the 1950s after Chinese military forces invaded.
No doubt Mrs May can concoct a number of excuses for her shameful shortcomings. Some may even be quite convincing. You only have to stick with the letter “B” to see two huge problems which have mired and now ended her premiership.
Yet you do not have to go too far back in British political history to find a short-lived, and crisis-ridden, administration whose leader still managed to find the time to host His Holiness. Nor should the ex-PM console herself with the fact that the Dalai Lama has had to cut back on diary commitments in recent years due to a series of health spats. Chest infection or not, this octogenarian refugee has managed to travel to Europe repeatedly, including Northern Ireland, during May’s premiership.
No, this was not a problem of timings nor logistics. We all know the reason why Theresa May and her counterparts across the democratic world have avoided seeing the Dalai Lama. It is fear, fear of Beijing’s economic might which is the cause of this capitulation.
And it’s been a long time coming. Ever since John Major’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1991, British Prime Ministers have become increasingly cowardly when it comes to Tibet. While Mr Major fudged the protocol to give the proceedings a less political feel, by inviting senior figures from the Church of England, he still had substantive talks with the exiled Tibetan leader about human rights and saw fit to mention so at the dispatch box in the House of Commons. By the end of the decade, however, Tony Blair’s appointment was officially in a strictly religious capacity (whatever happened to “We Don’t Do God”?).
The pretence that the Dalai Lama is purely a man of faith, and not also a figurehead for a captive nation and an oppressed people, was further reinforced by Gordon Brown, who moved his meeting from Downing Street to the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Palace. These desperate attempts to downgrade reached a new low with the grovelling which followed David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in St Pauls Cathedral. In 2013, his administration had “turned a page on that issue” a close source to the Prime Minister reassured Beijing told the media.
Britain is not alone in abandoning its values to avoid Beijing’s diplomatic freeze and Mrs May is not the only world leader to have failed to meet the Dalai Lama. It also so happens that in 1991 that the Dalai Lama met, for the first time, a sitting American President. Ever since then, all of Bush senior’s successors have greeted the Dalai Lama on multiple occasions while in office – all except Donald Trump.
Precedents are important. Especially Presidential and Prime Ministerial ones. Future governments will now feel less obliged to meet the Dalai Lama as a result of Mrs May’s spinelessness. The outgoing PM’s failure to pass the Tibet Test gives her successor a convenient excuse to ignore the calls from Dharamshala. In the future, do not be surprised to hear that such meetings are simply not protocol.
This could not come at a worse time as Beijing ramps up its bullying across the world to ensure that other countries, and companies, sign up to their farcical notion of “One China with Tibet” as an unquestionable part of it. The question for Mrs May’s successor, is whether or not he wants Britain to be free or be part of the Chinese Empire? If he wants his country to be free he should act like a free leader by meeting the Dalai Lama.