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How the Chinese Communist Party ran a global propaganda campaign against the Dalai Lama

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

Professor Magnus Fiskesjö Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University wrote in The Diplomat to argue in great detail how a large part of the world had, in fact, fallen prey to the Communist Chinese Communist Party propaganda against the Dalai Lama. What incident are we talking about? Well, of course, a recent infamous incident of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, petting a little boy, and where he sticks out his tongue, and seems to be saying " suck my tongue", which was instantly interpreted as something sexually predatory. The Dalai Lama was accused of predatory behaviour around the world, in the West, in Asia, and other parts of the world. However, as Professor Magnus Francisco shows in his article, this was a case of propaganda, but not just propaganda. This was also a case of great cultural misunderstanding. Professor Fiskesjö speaks to Hindol Sengupta.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Hindol Sengupta (HS): Professor, thanks very much for joining me in this interview.

Magnus Fiskesjö (MF): Thank you so much for having me.

HS: I want to begin by asking you, take us through what really happened and how it happened -an innocuous video, there are countless videos of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama with various people who come to see him. There was one such video, there are again, countless videos of him with children. Once again, one such video came out from his office. And that video seemed to show him playing with a little boy who had come to meet him there, while playing with that little boy and petting him. His Holiness seems to be saying, 'suck my tongue'. This immediately went like wildfire around the world, and all kinds of instantaneous insinuations were made about this connections were drawn to pedophilia and the church and all kinds of things. What really actually happened?

MF: Well, I think the first thing everyone should know is that this event was in late February, February 28, in Dharamsala, in India. As you say, there were a lot of people there, and a lot of people who were filming. As I understand it, various versions of the filming have been put up online by people who were there. So there was actually lots of video from there. Then on the eighth of April a short version appeared, a short version, which showed only this moment when the Dalai Lama says, 'suck my tongue' to that little boy, and, and sticks out his tongue. Based on that, this global round of misunderstanding and accusations got started. So my understanding is that the Chinese propaganda authorities are presently conducting a lot of oppression in Tibet. They're collecting children actually in the thousands to indoctrinate them to force them to stop speaking Tibetan and instead become Chinese and speak only Chinese. It's similar to what the Chinese government has been doing in Xinjiang to the Uighur children that they're also collecting in the same way from parents who are detained in camps. So while this is going on, well, I believe what happened was that the Chinese propaganda department were looking for distractions, potential distractions, and in this month that passed after the event in Dharamsala, which everyone was happy with at the time, they found this and they realised that if we cut out this little piece, and present that to the world, it might convince people that the Dalai Lama is a paedophile because people will not be able to understand why he would stick out his tongue towards the little boy and the way he did and why he would say such a thing. So it was, you could say it was a convenient, or potentially explosive clip that they created and then started circulating with this framing. I believe the first circulation was done by a Twitter account that was started only in February and which says that it's owned by a Chinese person who worked in finance in Paris, and who circulated this, on the eighth of April. I think that was planted and then engineered to be spread by various bots and other trusted followers that the regime has around the world. So it gained a very large spread very quickly, based on how it resonated with people's prejudice. Everyone, like you also hinted earlier, is always up in arms over the abuse of children, it is not something we want to see. So that made it possible for the Chinese authorities to have this resonate with those feelings. People jumped to the conclusions that here's proof that The Dalai Lama is a paedophile. Of course, had they watched the longer videos, they would have seen that this was only one part of the event and there were many other things that went on. The boy asked for hugs. His mother was there with him and his grandfather was there with him. At first, the Dalai Lama didn't understand what a hug was and it was explained to him and he said, of course, and he gave him both a hug and a handshake, which are usually not Tibetan ways of greeting. The proper greeting in Tibet for an elderly person meeting a small child is to kiss him on the cheek, and on the lips. Then there is this custom that I have learned about and we have learned about from Tibetans explaining it because traditionally, people would feed their babies and toddlers by mouth. There wasn't baby food in the past, you couldn't go to the grocery and buy ready made baby foods. So people would chew the food, and then pass it to the children by mouth and because of this custom, they developed this joke in Tibetan. Especially in the Dalai Lama's own home area of Amdo, that you would then say to the kids visiting you or to your grandkids, you would say that now the food is finished, eat my tongue and that's the expression of a joking way of saying that the food is finished. Now there is no more. So when the Dalai Lama said that to the little boy what he really meant is that "our session is finished, I have no more for you, we have, we have hugged, we have shaken hands, I've kissed you in the various ways that is proper, according to Tibetan custom on the cheek and on the lips, and also bumped or we have bumped off foreheads or pressed our foreheads together" the way that the Tibetans do as another greeting instead of shaking hands, and it came out as , "suck my tongue" and I speculate that in my article that he said "suck" instead of eat, which is the normal tradition of the Tibetan expression. He said suck because he probably had in mind candy, which you suck on instead of food which you eat and so it came out as “suck my tongue”. Of course, there wasn't any intention of having the boy suck his tongue, that was not the idea. The idea was to make this old joke that is familiar in the Dalai Lama's home area. So there was no, there was nothing sexual in this, but it was cut out of the context and presented to the world with the framing. I believe the first tweet said "Paedo Dalai Lama," accusing him of being a paedophile, and it's quite astonishing how it then caught fire, how people around him world, including a lot of celebrities and people who should know to stop for a moment and think and ask someone, is there something going on here that we don't understand? What is it that we're missing? If they'd asked that, if they're asked, somebody Tibetan, they would have had this explanation that I just tried to provide for everyone. So when I understood this, I decided I had to write this article, because I think it's a shocking example of propaganda catching fire. I think the key to understanding it is how it was set up to resonate with the pre existing prejudice, that people jumped to this conclusion that anything with your tongue, your lips, it has to be sexual. People simply did not know that that's not the case. That doesn't have to be, it was not meant to be. They instead chose to jump to conclusions and decide that this was an indication that the Dalai Lama was doing something inappropriate, which was not the case.

HS: It's fascinating, and really, really cruel for an elderly man to have gone through this and that too, for a man who is revered by so many people, as we saw after that, as you also must have seen tens of thousands of Tibetans came out protesting what was going on around the world and saying that this was being misunderstood. The kind of terminology, including you mentioned one of them, "paedo" Dalai Lama that was being used for their most revered spiritual leader was absolutely unacceptable. They certainly as a community, as a people, would not accept it. You're a professor of anthropology. You're at Cornell, you're you've written books on China, I want to you to help us understand something. It seems to me that there are two or three facets to this professor. One is, of course, the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and Holiness the Dalai Lama has always been precarious but today, it's perhaps more precarious than ever before. The Chinese Communist Party's almost desperate to get the Dalai Lama out of the way and there's been a lot of skirmishes about this. You know, there's a lot of conversation about how the Chinese Communist Party wants to control the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Recently when the Dalai Lama went to Mongolia and in a sense, discovered the reincarnation of another Lama. It caused a lot of controversy among China and the Chinese Communist Party. So there's a desperation to control that part of the narrative, because they haven't been all these years. That's one part of it and perhaps you could tell us a little bit about that, what's going on there? And then we'll come to the other question.

MF: Yes, it's curious. We should emphasise that this is about the Chinese Communist Party. It's about the ruling party in China. There are actually many Chinese people who are very sympathetic towards Tibetans, towards Tibetan Buddhism. There are lots of Chinese who seek out Tibetan Buddhists to learn from them, and travel to Tibet because they're interested, or even to India, I believe, because they're interested and want to find out more. However, from the point of view of the Chinese, the ruling Communist Party, it's all negative. It's all a zero sum game. They have great difficulty tolerating a different opinion or a different perspective. So it's very difficult for them to tolerate the presence of the Dalai Lama that so many people revere, as you were pointing out. It's always astonishing to find how the Tibetan people revere him and how profound this feeling is. I've been noticing this in recent days, you see news from China about how after this incident, for the first time in many years, the Chinese authorities circulated these images of the Dalai Lama sticking out his tongue. They selectively picked that shot and circulated it, thinking that they would enlarge this campaign, which worked so well internationally because of the ignorance of people internationally. to China and in Tibet, and it misfired because people were overjoyed to see an image of the Dalai Lama, which usually is forbidden, you can't have a photo of him. It's outrageous. It shows you the depth of the intolerance of the Chinese government that they can't even allow people to have a photograph of him. It's very unfortunate, we have seen cracks historically, in the monoliths of the Chinese Communist Party, the party leader for a while up until 1989, he went to Tibet, and burst out that we've been treating Tibet like a colony and we can't do this anymore. Of course that aroused the ire of his competitors within the Communist Party, because in the game that they're playing, the power struggle with within the Communist Party is often won by those who present themselves as the hardest, most hardline, the most unforgiving, and that, unfortunately includes Tibet, if you're soft on Tibet, the competition might win out. So you get these Communist Party hardliners, both at the central level and and locally in Tibet, who ruled Tibet very very harshly, and they are increasing their oppression. They are picking up this formula from the Uighur genocide that's ongoing, of preventing the next generation of young people from knowing about their own culture, and from speaking their own language. So they're actually taking it out of them. We have evidence from Xinjiang that children that were locked away in these so-called boarding schools where they get beaten if they speak their native language. After less than two years, one and a half years. They've suppressed it and forgotten it and it takes a long time to recover. There was this example of children that were rescued, because they were found out to be Turkish citizens and Turkey helped the family get them back to Istanbul. It took a long time for them to recover, to even be able to say hello in their own native language to speak with their father, who had rescued them. So this is what the Chinese government is now doing in Tibet, they're collecting Tibetan children and attempting to force the Tibetan identity out of them. It's sort of the hardline policies that were there before. They were unforgiving before, but now they're trying to make sure that there will be no Tibetans in the future. This is horrible. I think the world should be outraged, and we should be protesting because the Tibetans have a right to exist, they have a right to self determination and we should support them in that.

HS: I heard a video of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, when he said that the Chinese Communist Party spent years and decades trying to oppress people and remove every sign of him and every image of him. When you were telling the story, you take that one photograph and spread it, but people are overjoyed. He says that look, they tried so hard to keep me away but what's happening today in China, I am in every home, every other Chinese person wants to know about me wants to know the word of the Buddha and so on and so forth. It's very interesting how this works. I want to come to another point. You know, the Chinese have always referred to the Dalai Lama, as 'the wolf in sheep's clothing.' and they believe that you know, he's a separatist and he's trying to break their country. When such an incident happens, what does this show us about the propaganda capability of the Chinese Communist Party?

MF: Well, that is the thing and this is why I wrote this piece in the Diplomat. I think that they have clearly been improving and it's not just like in the past where they'll put out the hardline position of the government like they do at home, because at home they can enforce it, there is no way of opposing or protesting what the government says, people are left to just obey but that is not the case abroad and so in the past, the Chinese government propaganda often has fallen flat. It has even seemed laughable at times because it's so stilted and dogmatic and rigid the way it is at home but they are discovering, they are improving, and they are discovering that you have to play on the prejudices that already exist, on the ignorance that's already out there. So this is the trick they have made use of in this new campaign. They found a new way of discrediting the Dalai Lama, by having people themselves jump to these conclusions based on this incomplete hint or suggestion that was in that prepared video which they circulated from the event. As I say in my article, on one level, you have to acknowledge that it's a skillful manipulation. It is an improvement on what they have been doing before. I think that it spells worries for the future because they're going to try this again, they're going to try to find flaws in people that they can amplify, to discredit them. They have been doing this on a smaller scale, for example, to those people who have been able to flee from Xinjiang. People who have spent time in those camps there and who have told the world about what goes on there. They have been discredited from home in a similar way. Their government has sought out their family members and siblings and forced them to go on video to denounce them, "my sister is a liar", "my brother is a fraud" "they should come back and face justice". This is what their siblings and family are forced to say on camera and this is then disseminated. Most of the time, we can see that the Chinese government never talked about this person before it was never a person of interest, until they are found to be revealing the truth about those camps in Xinjiang. Then suddenly, it becomes a goal of the Chinese government to discredit them. In the case of the Dalai Lama the target is formidable because he's beloved not only in Tibet, but around the world. He's an elderly monk that spent his life in the service of his people and his religion. So it's difficult to find fault with him but here they really did take this to a new level by tricking people. I've seen lots of people say, "but I saw it, I saw it in the video. There's no question, how can you deny it? " And it's not always easy to explain to those people who've become convinced because they feel that it is their own judgement. They don't feel that they have been tricked and deceived by the Chinese Communist Party, they feel that what I saw on TV was in the video clip. So that's actually quite an achievement, to be able to make people feel that this is the truth that they have themselves arrived at, even though it is fake news.

HS: I want to ask you, this, of course, is amplified by the power of technology and social media. At an earlier date, the Chinese Communist Party couldn't have taken a video clip and spread it literally within minutes within seconds around the world to tens of millions of people. That was not possible earlier because this technology did not exist. It's possible today. But there's another aspect to this, of course, which is that even if it was spread, if people had been more aware, like you're saying many celebrities who should know better, educated people who should know better, should at least stop and ask, this is not just another ordinary person. This is the Dalai Lama. We have never heard something like this about him ever. What's really going on, but they didn't, they immediately jumped to condemn him. In India, people who claim to be devoted, some of them jumped to condemn him, which was really shocking to me also. I want to ask you, this obviously shows us the sort of cultural gap that exists, isn't it? This is something that many in the East complain about readings, especially spiritual readings, in the West have certain texts, texts, which have a local context, taken and analysed, say, from a Freudian lens, completely different. They are entirely different representations and meanings, which people will always live with that text for hundreds and thousands of years, perhaps, cannot identify or cannot recognize at all because in their cultural context, this has never been redlined. This problem today exists even more, because we live in a world which is so eager to condemn. On one side, you know, there's the very strong ultra conservative, so to speak, who want to ban this and ban that. The so-called extreme right. On the other side, the woke movement also is very quick to judge, quick to cancel, quick to label. As an anthropologist, how do you see this "landmine filled arena" in which we live in, Professor?

MF: Yes. Well, I see it as a struggle between certainty and doubt. I think certainty is often dangerous. There's an old joke I can't remember. Someone says that if you see someone that claims to be right all the time, you should be worried if they claim to be 100% correct always and forever, you should run the other way because this is a dangerous person that makes such a claim. We should always introduce an element of doubt, the world is complicated. People have different perspectives and this is something that we take into account in anthropology. Even on a philosophical level, we don't live in reality directly. We take in the reality around us through our senses then we have to interpret what our eyes told us, what our ears told us that we heard, what our eyes told us that we saw. As in this case, I see on Twitter, these people saying 'but I saw it in the video' and I tried to explain to them that you can go out on the ocean and you will see like an island, the ships will look like islands floating. That's an illusion. They're not floating in the air but you wouldn't claim that they were really floating in the air. You would take into account that you've heard that sometimes your eyes will trick you and fool you and you have to stop and think how could this be possible? So I think scepticism and doubt about what we hear is a fundamental thing. Even personally, I think this is a distinction between totalitarianism, Chinese style, which claims to be certain about everything. Everything is 100% right. The Communist Party General Secretary is 100% right. On the other side, you have democracies, what we do is we acknowledge that we're not going to be 100% unified in opinion, there will be differences of opinion. So how do we handle that? Well, we allow people to express themselves. We discuss them. We have a debate, a civil debate, we take a vote. That's the civil way, the democratic way of doing things and it includes a certain acknowledgment that there will be some doubt. As you say, people will have different interpretations also based on where they come from. My favourite example is Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who died a couple of years ago. He has a book called "Hallucinations' '. It talks about elderly patients who see things and these things are very real for them. He makes the observation that the elderly folks who live their lives as Christians, will hallucinate that there's an angel sitting on their bed. Then when you have a patient who lives their lives as a Buddhist, there is a Buddha sitting on their bed at night. That's not there's not a Christian Angel, it's the Buddha. You can see that even when our brain is misfiring, it's actually misfiring culturally and culture is there to influence us even when we seem to have lost our consciousness and our self awareness. So we are hallucinating about things. So I think especially in this day and age, when the new media and AI are making it possible to fake things, it places a new demand on us to be aware and to try to spot these things and ask questions and never do like people did, in this case- jump to conclusions. I'm very worried about how this fight will play out. When we hear about how now you can deep fake things. You can take a film clip of the Dalai Lama, or of the Chinese Communist Party secretary or somebody like that, and make them sing a song or say something that they never said and never did. How are we going to make sure that people can pick up on how that's fake and not believable and it will have to involve a certain preparedness, a certain procedure for vetting things. To try and build trust by vetting what these various media are disseminating and saying. It places a burden on the current Western social media companies like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. They have been insisting that they own the platforms, they only serve up whatever their users put in there as content but that's not valuable. They are, in effect, the news media today and that places that responsibility on them for the content that's being put up. I even saw Twitter in this case, with the Dalai Lama. They added something they called "readers' comments" and those readers' comments were actually amplifying the Chinese propaganda take, they were not providing a factual response. So that illustrates the difficulty of this, you're going to have thousands of people who have fallen for this and who are deeply convinced that this is the truth and nobody is going to alter that perception that they have built for themselves. So I just think this is a huge challenge for us going forward.

HS: The other point I want to come to is the fact that this is about religion and religious figures. It is particularly potent because that's a landscape already fraught with misunderstanding, fraught with violence, fraught with accusations which actually involve every religion, not just Buddhism. We are talking about Buddhism here but every religion has this kind of misunderstanding and accusations. When you bring such technology together and such propaganda together in a world where already such misunderstanding exists, and if somebody as revered as the Dalai Lama, with the resources his office must command globally, cannot effectively counter it. What chance do normal people really have?

MF: It's a very difficult question. Like I was trying to say, I think our hope lies in building news media that can enjoy the trust of people because they are vetting their stories, they are not serving as a conduit for fakery and they're open to doubt and criticism. The best news media we have, I think, are also indeed characterised by having a column or a space where they acknowledge the mistakes that they have made. That is, again, something you will not find in the People's Daily from Beijing, because they never make a mistake and if they make a mistake, they make sure that everybody forgets it as possible, they hide it and bury it. However, our best media or democratic countries, I think, should be trying their best to acknowledge their mistakes and this incident with the Dalai Lama is a good occassion for this. Some of these newspapers and other media that have sort of gone along with the interpretation, accusing the Dalai Lama, should reinvestigate and admit their fault. That would be the best medicine, I think, and something that I think is kind of route is the only way of building trust in people because otherwise, you'll end up with a situation where people think that nothing can be trusted, nobody can be trusted. Then all bets are off, then we'll just sink into a world of people who are experts in fooling people to follow them to build cults and followings based on falsehood, the end of the field is open for them. We wouldn't want to live in such a world, I think. Dalai Lama's Buddhism does have this point that it is open also to mistakes. The apology that the Dalai Lama's office put out, has also been the source of quite a lot of misunderstanding. On the one hand, there were many Tibetans who were frustrated about it. We should ask the world to apologise to us. We did ask those Western news media to apologise to the Tibetan people and I sympathise with that. I think there was another sense to that policy, it was not apologizing for pedophilia, because there was no pedophilia, there was nothing inappropriate. So there was nothing inappropriate to apologise for but they did say we apologise for the hurt that this may have caused among people, I got the impression that they were admitting that whoever's fought this has generated negative feelings and that's sad. So we're sad about that. We started this play out in this way and it certainly doesn't mean like many people understood it to be.

HS: I know what you mean, and correct me if I'm wrong. To me, it seems that it is such an incredibly genuine, sincere thing. I mean, it's almost like the Dalai Lama constantly talks about. It seems to me that even when we spent his entire lifetime in service, in a sense, as we would just have been discussing in this conversation has every right to feel really indignant to feel angry that for nothing I have been targeted, so brutally, yet, in a sense, manages somehow the humility, to see the pictures from all sides and to feel the sadness, as you mentioned, perhaps there's a lesson in the brutal world that we're talking about, perhaps, that apology if I could get to the real substance of the apology, as you just pointed out, there could be hope for all of us there, isn't it?

MF: Yes, yes. There was a Tibetan writer, I forget his name, who was trying to explain that it is about taking on those negative feelings on behalf of others. I agree there is something profoundly admirable about that it involves not excusing those maligning you, but to have compassion towards them. It is indeed a very admirable thing to be able to do. Yes, absolutely and, of course, religions have often been misused. I'm from Sweden, and today, people may know Sweden as a peaceful country. We had peace for a long time and we are free and democratic country but this was not always the case. We had horrible, horrible religious persecution, and then the tyranny of absolute kings and horrible things. After we imposed Protestantism, if anybody tried to be Catholic, they will be hunted down and expelled from the country. That used to be the reality in my own country and we better remember this, there's not one of us in the world that was sort of clean and without guilt or responsibility in this regard. I think that's also something that seems to be shining through in the Dalai Lama's act of compassion, in sending out this apology for the hurt and misunderstanding, I forget the exact wording, but hurt that this incident may have cost, so he chose to not even address you know, why was I sticking out my tongue? He's going to talk about that, because I think they may have judged that that's a lost battle. You know, if millions of people are convinced that was a bad thing, that's not going to be something that you can fix in an instant. Having said that, I am also very gratified to see online that they're often people that make a comment, they will say that they felt something was amiss. They felt there was something wrong, they did have this doubt. This can't be and then when they read my article, they said yes, now I get it.

HS: I have read Buddhism and I knew this couldn't be right. I didn't understand what was going on. I thought this would be something. But I was 100% sure that this can't be true. This just makes no sense but this is a very important point that you mentioned. Not only did they think perhaps it was a lost cause to address why he was taking the understanding in the first place but he did not even choose to vocalise the anger that maybe he himself may have felt at being so brutally misunderstood. There was no there was no reflection. There was no vocalisation of that hurt at all. There's something hugely redemptive and hopeful about that, isn't it?

MF: Yes, he certainly is a very deserving recipient of the Peace Prize, the Nobel Peace Prize, because he's been consistently advocating peaceful resistance and I noticed something that the Tibetan Prime Minister said on BBC HardTalk. The other day, he was saying, "you know, it's not that we Tibetans are not capable of violence but the Dalai Lama has told us peace, peaceful resistance, not violence, and that is why you don't see violent resistance." You know, of course Tibet used to have an army but I don't think armed resistance would work against China. They have so many guns and so many soldiers that, in a sense, I believe it would almost be like a godsend to them if there could be some violence because then they could crack down upon it. That's exactly what they did in Xinjiang, there were several terrorist incidents, and then they punished 15 million people, instead of the extremists that actually committed the terrorist acts.

HS: Well, at least in the message of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, there is as you and I have been discussing reason to hope and we can therefore, end our conversation on that note of hope. Professor, thank you for joining me, from your office at Cornell, where of course you are a professor of anthropology. I really appreciate your time today. in talking to be taking me through this entire very unfortunate incident and the propaganda that played out to target His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, the Supreme Leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Thank you very much. I really appreciate your time professor. Thank you.


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