Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Expert: Obama-Dalai Lama Meeting Shows U.S. ‘Jealous’

Mainland media says it's about pique, not human rights.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

On Feb. 21, in a meeting closed to reporters, U.S. President Barack Obama hosted the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader that China considers a "wolf in sheep’s clothing." Predictably, Chinese authorities objected in the run up to the meeting, with a foreign ministry representative warning on Feb. 21 that it would "seriously damage Sino – U.S. relations," according to Reuters. Such statements of outrage are almost de rigueur whenever the United States hosts or otherwise praises the Dalai Lama, whom China considers a force for Tibetan independence from China. Internally, Chinese media is also blaring its displeasure, with several major portals reporting a foreign ministry claim that the talk constitutes "wanton interference" with China’s internal governance. But state-controlled media is also offering a curious explanation for the cause of that interference: Faced with a rising China ringing up a string of diplomatic successes, the U.S. is just plain jealous.

Hours before Obama and the Dalai Lama sat down in the White House map room, an article appeared in Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily featuring an interview with Jin Canrong, professor and vice dean of the School of International Studies at prestigious Renmin University in Beijing. Jin, who focuses on the United States and U.S.-Sino relations, told the paper he saw three motivations for the confab. Among them: China’s diplomatic performance has been "outstanding," which has "turned up the pressure" on the United States. Although styled as an interview, the article itself argues that in 2013, China "raised its international stature" by "initiating a new status quo in neighboring diplomacy," which has led to "a number of achievements." Jin was scarcely more specific, saying China had racked up victories "dwarfing" U.S. diplomatic accomplishments during the same period. Meeting the Dalai Lama is a way, Jin continued, for the U.S. to "hold China back by the elbow."

Jin does not resist the impulse, common among Chinese authorities, to levy an ad hominem attack against the spiritual leader. Obama hosted the meeting, Jin maintained, in part to buck up "the Dalai clique," which has suffered from "decreased morale" after the Dalai Lama’s March 2011 retirement from the presidency of the Tibetan government in exile. (Harvard-trained Lobsang Sangay won an April 2011 election to replace the Dalai Lama among Tibetan exiles in more than 30 countries.) That clique, a term favored by Chinese state media to depict the Dalai Lama’s influence as limited to a small and rambunctious minority of Tibetans, needs Obama’s help to "preserve momentum for the Tibetan ‘independence movement.’"

The piece, which also quotes Jin as saying Obama is "playing the human rights" card in advance of midterm elections, at least concludes on a mildly hopeful note. Jin describes what he sees as the "dual nature" of U.S.-Sino relations, whereby the United States "is sometimes determined to cooperate, but also wants to restrict you." That’s just how the rapport is, Jin seems to say. The "basic principle" of the relationship is for the two to "struggle without breaking." Such is life, Jin concludes, for China as an emerging power.

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.

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