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Interviewed May 2011

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and, for a time, led the government of Tibet in exile.

His Holiness was born July 6, 1935, to a farming family in northeastern Tibet. He was identified as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, when he was three years old and was raised in Lhasa, Tibet, where he was educated in topics such as Buddhist philosophy, logic, Tibetan art and culture, and medicine in preparation for his responsibilities as the Dalai Lama.

In 1949, at age 15, His Holiness assumed responsibility as the political leader of Tibet. Later that year, the People's Republic of China invaded Tibet. In 1959, as Chinese troops suppressed a Tibetan uprising in Lhasa, His Holiness was forced into exile and has since lived in Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan political administration in exile.

His Holiness has worked to establish a democratic government in exile. The Charter of Tibetans in Exile grants freedom of speech, belief, and assembly. In 2001, His Holiness ceded his absolute power over the government to an elected parliament. He has recently ceded any role in the government because of his view that spiritual and political authorities should be divided.

In 1989 His Holiness was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In announcing the award, the Nobel Committee recognized that “the Dalai Lama . . . consistently has opposed the use of violence. He has instead advocated peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people.” 

Briefly, I should explain about the whole background. When I was young, I think age 13, 14, but not yet taken responsibility or political responsibility, there was a regent – infant regent was my own sort of teacher. In spite of deep respect as a teacher, but I heard a lot of criticisms about this regent. And then I already noticed the system itself, you see, there are some sort of drawbacks.

Then age 16, I took the – I had the responsibility for the political aspect. Then, of course, in spite – beside difficulties dealing with Chinese, I already start some reform. So I set up one reform committee and started some reform. But not very successful because the Chinese side, you see, they want reform according to their own sort of style. So if Tibetan reform was to carry, then that might become a hindrance in their own introduced reform like that.

So then, after then, 1954, I went to China. I participated at the People’s Congress there. In fact, I am one of the member of the Tibetan delegation. Then 1956, I came to India on one Buddhist celebration. I invited by Indian government, so I went there. Then, I also, you see, was to observe Indian Parliament. I found big contrast. The Chinese Parliament, very much disciplined. The Indian Parliament looks as no discipline, too much noisy. And the members very proudly criticized about their leaders, their government. So I was very much impressed. Very much impressed.

So then 1959, after we came to India – of course, it’s traditionally the venerable Dalai Lama and the Dalai Lama’s cabinet there, the Tibetan government there, like that. This is not a newly established, but simply myself and a few cabinet ministers with me when we escape from Tibet.

But then 1959 April, we reach India. We already – then, at once, we start some change. Not like previous sort of system, but more divisions among the cabinet ministers. So then, 1960, we start work for democratization.

The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, after a decades-long civil war between communist and nationalist forces. The communist victory drove the nationalist government to the island of Taiwan. While tensions have eased in recent years, both the nationalist and communist forces still claim to rule all of China. China ranks as the world’s third largest country by area, and the largest by population, with over 1.3 billion people.

Since 1949, China has been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. Revolutionary leader Mao Zedong led the country until his death in 1976. Mao’s era was marked by dramatic swings in policy, massive crackdowns on perceived opponents of the regime, and harsh repression. Since 1976, the Chinese government has broken with Marxist economic orthodoxy by instituting limited market-based reforms, but the party has retained its monopoly on political power.

Freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion are severely restricted, and the people of China are denied the right to change their government. The courts are controlled by the Communist Party and do not provide due process of law. Government control extends into every aspect of people’s lives, most notably in the one-child policy in which unauthorized pregnancies often result in forced abortion and sterilization. While technology has spread quickly in recent years, Freedom House ranks China as one of the three most repressive governments in the world in terms of Internet freedom.

While the rapid expansion of the private sector has dramatically changed the Chinese economy, fundamental principles of free market systems are lacking, including property rights and independent labor unions. Official corruption remains a major obstacle to developing a fully free economy.

In 1989, 100,000 people gathered in a peaceful demonstration in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to protest human rights violations and demand democratic reforms. The protest lasted several weeks and inspired similar nonviolent demonstrations in other cities throughout China. On June 4, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army converged on the area with troops, tanks, and other advanced military weapons. Estimates of the death toll ranged from several hundred to several thousand. The army used similar tactics to suppress demonstrations in other cities and subsequently rounded up and imprisoned many thousands of protestors. The government vigorously defended these actions and instituted a campaign to purge those who had sympathized with protestors from the party and the government.

Although the Tiananmen Square massacre put an end to hopes for a speedy transition to democracy, courageous Chinese citizens have continued to risk imprisonment and worse to demand freedom. These human rights activists have included students, workers, lawyers, artists, and writers; Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims who demand respect for their cultures, traditions, and religious practices; members of the spiritual discipline known as Falun Gong; Catholics who insist that their church is headed by the Pope rather than by government-appointed religious officials; and members of the “house church” movement, representing millions of Protestant Christians who are forced to worship in secret because their churches are not authorized by the government. China’s many prisoners of conscience include members of each of these groups.

In 2010, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo. His wife was arrested in order to prevent her from attending the award ceremony, and the government employed a range of coercive techniques to prevent other human rights activists from attending. China’s leading human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, disappeared in early 2009 and is presumed to be in government custody.

The most recent Freedom in the World report from Freedom House gave China scores of 6 for civil liberties and 7 for political rights, where 1 is the highest and 7 the lowest possible score. Freedom House categorizes China as a “Not Free” country.

More on this theme from Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama: Background on Tibet's Oppression Describing the development of his support for a democratic system for Tibet. Dalai Lama: Repression On repression in Tibet.

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Dalai Lama: Nonviolence On the benefits of nonviolence. More +