The Cable

Dalai Lama Interview Fuels New Fire in China-Tibet Spat

Tibet’s spiritual figurehead ridicules Chinese officials on HBO show.


The Chinese Foreign Ministry traded a new round of barbs with the Dalai Lama over the Tibetan spiritual leader’s interview with U.S.-based comedian John Oliver.

The Dalai Lama said hard-line Chinese officials have parts of their brains missing in an interview with Oliver for his HBO show, Last Week Tonight. The Dalai Lama also reiterated he could be the last Dalai Lama in line, ending the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual succession process that the Chinese government worked to supplant.

In his interview with Oliver, the Dalai Lama said in broken English that China’s plan is a “foolish act — shortsighted, without using human brain properly.” He added common sense was missing from the brains of Chinese officials. “The Chinese hard-liners, in their brain, that part of [the brain] is missing,” he told Oliver.

You can watch the full segment of Oliver’s interview with the Dalai Lama, which aired Sunday, here:

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government wasn’t too thrilled with his remarks. So on Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry fired back. “The Dalai Lama’s comments in the interview perhaps appeared humorous and funny, but these words are all lies that do not accord with the facts,” said foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.

“We often say that the 14th Dalai Lama is a political exile who wears religious clothing to engage in anti-China separatist activities,” Geng added. “Now it seems he is an actor, who is very good at performing, and very deceptively.”

By tradition, the Dalai Lama chooses another religious figure, the Panchen Lama, to select his spiritual successor. Tibetan Buddhists believe the Dalai Lama’s soul is reincarnated in the body of a young boy upon his death.

In 1995, the Dalai Lama selected a six-year-old boy to be his Panchen Lama. Three days later, the boy and his family were kidnapped by the Chinese government. The Chinese government then chose another six-year-old as their own replacement, supplanting the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. The boy the Dalai Lama chose hasn’t been seen or heard from in the 22 years since his kidnapping.

In 2014, the Dalai Lama suggested he could be the last one, prompting outrage from China, which said ending the reincarnation line betrayed and disrespected Tibetan Buddhism. One Chinese government official said the Dalai Lama was a “wolf wrapped in monk’s robes.”

The Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, fled to India in 1959 after a failed Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule. He pushed for full Tibetan independence from China for decades amid harsh crackdowns from Beijing, but has since walked back his stance to autonomy under Chinese rule. Nearly 150 Tibetans have self-immolated to protest heavy-handed Chinese government oppression in the past eight years, according to the International Campaign for Tibet.

The spat comes amid an annual meeting of China’s political elite to hash out new policies and pass legislation. Tibet’s delegation to the annual meeting is expected to hold a news conference on the Tibet-China dispute this week.

Photo credit: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola