Fang Zheng was 22 years old when a Chinese tank ran over his legs. It was 1989, and he was one of tens of thousands of protesters in Tiananmen Square rallying against the government’s repressive policies.
On Thursday afternoon, in a quiet, shady courtyard of the Stanford Park Hotel in Menlo Park, Zheng rolled his wheelchair up to a microphone to ask Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, what the prospects of democracy are in the country where Zheng lived for four decades. Leaning forward in a red and gold chair, the Dalai Lama listened closely, furrowed his brow and then replied: “I myself hope to return to Beijing. But right now I cannot.”
In a rare private event during his four days in the Bay Area, the 75-year-old leader of Tibet met with Chinese and Tibetan students and scholars after giving two public lectures at Stanford the same day. For 70 minutes he spoke on the current state of China, Tibet and India, intertwining the lessons of human compassion and religious harmony that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and made him one of the most recognizable figures in the world.
Greeting a group of Chinese college students from Stanford and UC-Berkeley in the front row with a traditional Chinese “ni hao” greeting, the Dalai Lama immediately launched into an assessment of China’s current political and social state.
“After 60 years, there is no civil war or external threat to China,” he said. “But they have kept certain habits from the time when there was threat: suppression, censorship and too much control.”
Chinese censorship, particularly on the Web, has clouded the country’s reputation this year, especially after Internet giant Google temporarily yanked its search engine from China-based servers in March, when it was found that Chinese hackers had attacked Google and other U.S. technology companies. The Chinese media is also heavily censored by the government.
“One point three billion people have the right to know the reality and to judge for themselves what’s right and what’s wrong,” the Dalai Lama said. “Therefore the censorship is immoral. It’s self-destructive.”
Censorship is just one part of the trust deficit that China has created, the Dalai Lama said. He compared China to India, saying both suffer from heavy corruption but India is trusted by the international community because its democratic values highlight individual freedom while China’s domestic policies encourage suppression.
“Individual creativity of diverse people is very necessary,” he said. “Look at India. For the last 60 years, there has been accountability because of democracy, rule of law and freedom of information. And there is secularism in the government—which does not mean rejection of religion, but means respect for all religions.”
China’s trust deficit is a hindrance to talks between Tibet and the Chinese government over Tibet’s autonomy. The Dalai Lama called the tension “man-made” and said it can “easily be solved” if the Chinese government understands that Tibet is not seeking separation or independence, but instead “meaningful autonomy” of governance.
“Sooner or later we have to talk to the Chinese government,” the Dalai Lama said. “It has to be understood that we are not seeking separation. We are not seeking independence. We are seeking meaningful autonomy.”
Independence would refer to a Tibet that governs itself at every level without China’s hand, while autonomy would refer to a Tibet that governs its internal affairs but gives international and military decision-making power to China.
Speaking to the group of Chinese students in attendance, the Dalai Lama said, “You are the people who will create this century. Please think more wisely.” He described groups of Chinese students who protest his visits to the U.S. with “too much emotion, too much anger.”
“They never listen to my explanation,” he said. “Good thing I sit at a big table, otherwise they would reach over and…” He made swinging motions with his fists.
At 75 years old, the Dalai Lama said he is looking toward “complete retirement.” He now devotes himself to two main commitments: promoting human values through secular paths and promoting religious harmony.
“The future belongs to people, not necessarily governments,” he said. “Basically all people want a happy life. Everyone must have a right to pursue that goal.”
The private meeting was organized by Tenzin Seldon ’12, who made news earlier this year when it was found that her private Google e-mail account was hacked by someone with a Chinese IP address. Seldon, whose parents were born and raised in Tibet but later fled to India, is a former regional coordinator of the New York-based nonprofit Students for a Free Tibet. She worked for one of the Dalai Lama’s nonprofit organizations in Dharamsala, India, over the summer, where she had the opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama and ask him to speak with Chinese and Tibetan students on his visit to the Bay Area.
“What struck me the most was how knowledgeable His Holiness was about the intricacies of China,” Seldon said after Thursday’s event. “It’s quite an undertaking for a spiritual person to be on the level where he can talk about political and economic implications. This relates directly to what I went through.”
Correction: In a previous version of this article, it was stated that Tenzin Seldon was born and raised in Tibet. In fact, her parents were born and raised in Tibet before fleeing to India, where Seldon was born and raised.