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The Dalai Lama, Rupert Murdoch and the forces of evil

He is venerated as the incarnation of the Buddha and the secular leader of the Tibetan people. He has the kind of press that Mother Teresa could only pray for. Last month 90,000 people made a pilgrimage to Central Park in New York to hear his teachings. So why are the knives now out for the most famous monk in the world?

AFTER TWO hours, it looked as though the whole thing could degenerate into a shoving match. More than a hundred photographers and press had been queuing in the hot sun outside the Mark Hotel in Manhattan. They appeared to be no closer to getting in. Inside the hotel, the NYPD and the FBI were conducting a meticulous sweep of the room in which the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere were to give a press conference, as well as the lifts, lobbies and kitchen. The appointed hour had long passed by the time the FBI was satisfied that, for that morning at least, the life of the 14th incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion was under no imminent threat.

The Dalai Lama's press entourage was embarrassed, but helpless in the face of security's determination to do its duty down to the last bottle of olive oil in the hotel cupboards.

"He's been upgraded to a Category One," they explained apologetically. Did Category One mean that he was suddenly more important, or that more people wanted to kill him, an exasperated journalist asked. "They tend to go together, sir," came the snorted reply. It was the right question, even if the answer could be debated at length.

The press conference over, the Dalai Lama left for his next appointment - to lead a sell-out crowd in meditation. A few days later he was in Central Park, giving a long session of religious teaching to an audience of 90,000. Despite the crowds and the heat, you could have heard a pin drop. In New York, the Dalai Lama is a hot ticket.

Evidence of his Category One celebrity status is not hard to find. This amalgam of political refugee, religious teacher and moral exemplar - the whole wrapped in the garb of a Central Asian monk - has never, it seems, been more appealing to Westerners trapped in a culture that regards their primary role as that of consumer.

But, as his popularity has grown, another, competing trend is shown in a series of savage media attacks, of a kind previously confined to the Chinese Communist Party propaganda machine. Is the monk who held the crowd spellbound in Central Park the same man who has been the subject of alarming reports on Swiss television, the same man whom a British newspaper accused, earlier this year, of having "links" to "religious repression, despotism and murder"?

The Dalai Lama has not always been a Category One VIP - except, of course, in Tibet where, until the uprising in 1959, he was venerated as both the incarnation of the Buddha and the secular ruler of his people. In exile, though, there were long years in which neither he nor the 100,000 or so who had followed him to India scored high in terms of Western attention. The plight of the Tibetans, like that of other displaced peoples whose territory had been occupied, was something for which international diplomacy could supply no easy solution, and which it preferred to ignore.

So it might have been still - with the Tibetans in India suffering a slow assimilation and loss of culture, while the Tibetans in Tibet endured the direct assault of Chinese colonisation. Given time, Tibet might have been merely a colourful trace on a historical map. That that fate has at least been postponed is thanks almost entirely to the Dalai Lama's success in translating a precarious and impoverished exile into a global media commodity. More remarkably still, he has done it without losing his most valuable capital - his moral authority.

The difficulty is that the more success the Dalai Lama has, the more threatening he is to the image of China that Peking wishes to propagate. In that fantasy People's Republic, "national minorities" such as the Tibetans and the Xinjiang Uighurs live in harmony in the "motherland", and religious freedom prevails. So the more attention the Dalai Lama's message receives, the more imperative it becomes for China to undermine his reputation.

In just over a week's time, the People's Republic will celebrate its 50th anniversary. For months now, the military hardware has been polished and the dancers have been rehearsed for the big parade. The real challenge that the event presents, however, is in what message the leadership can offer its people five decades after the revolution.

Even the Party no longer believes in the infallibility of Marxism-Leninism- Mao-Tse-tung thought. But the substitute - "It's OK to get rich" - poses the question: if capitalism was where China was headed, why did the men who are now growing rich send so many millions to labour camps for supposed deviations from revolutionary puritanism? The message that the government in Peking would like to find - but cannot - would have moral uplift and ethical force. It would be a message that inspired faith in a population weary of lies.

It is not hard to find evidence of hunger for such a message. The severity with which Peking has tried to repress religious movements in China this year speaks of a nervousness beyond the average. Such leaders of the Falun Gong sect as were within reach when the authorities cracked down in the summer are under arrest, other similar movements have been brought under surveillance, and Christian meetings have been broken up. Despite the severity of these measures, the two long-simmering nationalist religious rebellions - in Xinjiang and Tibet - show no signs of abating. In both places resentment of the Chinese occupation is rooted as much in religious as in ethnic identity. The more morally bankrupt Peking appears, the more vulnerable it is to the assault of a religious movement.

For Peking, then, the threat of the Dalai Lama is not that he commands divisions, but that he commands respect. Without him, the 100,000-strong Tibetan exile community would be as vulnerable as any other displaced group to the pressures of fragmentation and disintegration. Because of his religious and ethical stature, the Dalai Lama has the unique and dangerous quality of focusing the hopes of exiled Tibetans, as well as those living in Tibet. Small wonder, then, that Peking would like to see his moral authority destroyed.

Until recently, the Chinese had had little success in persuading journalists outside the controlled media of the People's Republic of China that the Dalai Lama merited assault. In the West, the Dalai Lama enjoyed the kind of press that Mother Teresa could only have dreamed of.

But now things have begun to change. Rupert Murdoch's remarks in a recent issue of Tatler are only the latest in a series of attacks that try to suggest that the Dalai Lama's Western supporters have been duped and that there is, as The Scotsman headlined it earlier this year, a "dark side" to the Dalai Lama.

Rupert Murdoch's motive, at least, is obvious: he wants to expand his business in China and hopes, no doubt, that Peking will be pleased with him. There is, though, a more insidious vein of propaganda that springs from an internal row in the Dalai Lama's own Gelugpa sect, a row that Peking has been happy to exploit and that has begun to show up in the Western press. The dispute is a long-running quarrel that centres on the worship of the deity Dorje Shugden, a practice that the Dalai Lama has concluded is harmful to him and has banned for those who have a connection to him personally. Others are free to continue it if they wish.

Stated simply, all this seems innocuous enough - even arcane. But the row over Dorje Shugden masks a sectarian dispute that runs deep and continues to generate passions on both sides. For Gelugpa fundamentalists, the Dalai Lama is to be discredited because of his openness to the other sects of Tibetan Buddhism, sects that the Gelugpa fundamentalists regard as rivals. It is, at the root, an internal Tibetan argument between fundamentalism and ecumenicism, in which the Dalai Lama has inclined to the liberal side.

But the Shugdenites are well organised and have bases in several Western countries, including Britain. They stage demonstrations, wage Internet campaigns and, occasionally, succeed in placing an article in a serious newspaper, accusing the Dalai Lama of unproven "links" with dark deeds.

Their claims that they have suffered religious persecution have not been upheld by Amnesty International, but the dispute shows no sign of resolution. For an exiled leader whose only weapon against the world's most populous country is his moral authority, this is clearly a problem.

The Chinese, of course, have every reason to be delighted with the Dorje Shugden affair and have publicised it widely in China and Tibet. They have also apparently been successful in recruiting disaffected Shugden worshippers as propagandists in the far more important matter of the Panchen Lama dispute, an argument that directly threatens the future of the institution of the Dalai Lama.

The 10th incarnation of the Panchen Lama, second only to the Dalai Lama in the old Tibetan hierarchy, died in Tibet in 1989, and the Dalai Lama identified his reincarnation in 1995 in a six-year-old Tibetan boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. The boy was immediately taken into custody by Chinese security forces and has not been seen since, while a child approved by the Chinese government was instead forced on the protesting Tibetan religious community.

The Chinese candidate has proved to be so unpopular that he is allowed to make only rare visits to Tibet from Peking, and his public appearances demand heavy security.

The implications of the Panchen Lama affair are far-reaching: when the Dalai Lama dies, the Panchen Lama would normally play a key role in the identification of the Dalai Lama's reincarnation. Now, with the Dalai Lama's boy in Chinese custody and the official candidate rejected, the implications for a successful outcome to the search for the next Dalai Lama are grim.

Earlier this month, the new US ambassador at large on religious freedom, Robert Seiple, reported that Tibetan Buddhism in China had come under "increasing attack". China's campaigns, his report said, were aimed at restricting religious freedom and undermining the Dalai Lama and leaders in Tibet who are seen to be sympathetic to him. Despite Jiang Zemin's public promise to President Clinton to negotiate with the Dalai Lama, the Chinese have failed to respond to Tibetan requests to begin conversations.

In the nearly 50 years since China occupied Tibet, the prestige of the Dalai Lama has steadily risen while the reputation of the Chinese Communist Party has equally steadily declined. After decades of trying to change minds in Tibet by force, Peking appears to have learnt a more subtle lesson: that undermining the Dalai Lama's celebrity in the West could be as useful as torturing monks in Tibet.

The author's book, `The Search for the Panchen Lama', is published by Viking, price pounds 20