The Dalai Lama and the Nobel Prize: Correcting a Misunderstanding

By A. Tom Grunfeld

As many readers of this blog doubtless realize, everything having to do with Tibet is subject to mythologizing. That the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on behalf of Tibetan independence is one of these myths. This notion gets mentioned in the Western press routinely, and it sometimes even shows up in comments by academic specialists. In fact, the prize was awarded to him more because of the events in Tiananmen Square that had happened just a few months before the award than for anything related to the Tibet struggle per se.

Indeed, it appears that if there had been no confrontations at Tiananmen in 1989, the Dalia Lama would not have received the prize. To be sure, the European community began to embrace the Dalai Lama and his cause after his speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 1988 when he announced a major concession to Beijing giving up the demand for independence for autonomy. Moreover, the demonstrations and the subsequent bloody suppression in Lhasa in spring 1989 generated additional support and sympathy for the Tibetans. But it appears unlikely that those events alone got him the prize. The situation is described fully in an October 13, 1989, New York Times article "How, and Why, the Dalai Lama Won the Peace Prize." (To read it in full, follow the link.) To give a sense of its take on the situation, which was based on interviews with informants close to the prize selection process, here are some excerpts from it:

People close to the Nobel Peace Prize selection process say that the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, gained the advantage over other candidates, including President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, largely because of the brutal suppression of the democracy movement in China and the international outrage that followed.

As China called the Dalai Lama's honor ''preposterous,'' people in Oslo who are close to the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in telephone interviews that the choice of the Dalai Lama was an attempt both to influence events in China and to recognize the efforts of student leaders of the democracy movement, which was crushed by Chinese troops in June.

The Dalai Lama, as religious and political leader of Tibet, has been waging a nonviolent struggle for nearly 40 years to end Chinese domination of his homeland.

He was named the 1989 recipient of the prize last week and was ''among the favorites from the beginning,'' said Jakob Sverdrup, secretary to the Nobel Committee and director of the Nobel Institute...

Mr. Sverdrup said that the award often swung back and forth between winners who represented humanitarian ideals and those in the trenches of international power politics. The choice of the Dalai Lama was in some ways a combination of both, he said...

In addition to Mr. Gorbachev, front-runners included Vaclav Havel and Jiri Hajek, prominent Czechoslovak dissidents.The committee settled on the Dalai Lama in mid-September... informants said, three months after hundreds of people were killed in Beijing when the Chinese authorities cracked down on the democracy movement. In the aftermath of the crackdown, there was pressure from Norwegians to have the movement's student leaders named as recipients of this year's award, despite the fact that the Feb. 1 deadline for nominations had long passed...
A. Tom Grunfeld is a Professor of History at Empire State College and is the author of many works, including The Making of Modern Tibet.


Unknown said...

Will this prevent the Western Media(tm) from starting grandstanding lines with "Dalai Lama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner..."?

ac said...

I find it difficult to believe that the Peace Prize committee recognized the Dalai Lama partly to recognize the Tienanmen protests, since they were completely different issues. I doubt Tibetan independence was uppermost in many students' minds.

Mark Anthony Jones said...

Dear Professor Grunfeld,

I appreciate the link you provide here to the New York Times article. I have little doubt that awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama was politically motivated by a desire to chastise China for its suppression of the Beijing rioters on the streets of Beijing in June, 1989.

Your book, "The Making of Modern Tibet", incidentally, along with Melvyn Goldstein's "The Snow Lion and the Dragon" and Barry Sautman and June Teufel Dreyer's(eds.)"Contemporary Tibet" (which you are also a contributor to) has had a great impact on the development of my understanding of the Tibetan Issue.

As Suzanne Ogden, who is a China specialist who teaches at Northeastern University in Boston, once said to me in response to a comment I left on another site back, "Tibet has become such a political issue that most commentators, not excluding academicians and journalists, lead with their emotional ideological commitments rather than with the facts and reality."

Bill said...

Without the brutal suppression of students in 1989, Dalai would not have gotten his prize. So the brutal CCP is the one that awarded the prize to Dalai Lama!!

Unknown said...

There is a disconnect in your logic, Professor Grunfeld. Though the repression of protesters in Beijing in 1989 may well have motivated the Nobel committee to choose the Dalai Lama as recipient that year, the Dalai Lama did indeed receive the award on behalf of his efforts representing Tibet and the Tibetan people, as well as his international status as a speaker for peace. Directly from the NYT article you quote:

"The Dalai Lama, as religious and political leader of Tibet, has been waging a nonviolent struggle for nearly 40 years to end Chinese domination of his homeland."

I understand the many perspectives on the China-Tibet situation, but to undermine the Dalai Lama's status as a recipient of the Nobel Peace prize -- and his continued recognition for such in the Western media -- appears a bit disingenuous. I have no doubt that international politics and situations often motivate the Nobel committee, but that does not minimize and/or discredit the reasons for which an individual receives this award.

master_of_americans said...

I was going to say something, but PorticoBanner has basically said everything I wanted to say. I'm not sure if this post is disingenuous, but it seems completely pointless. That the Nobel Peace Prize has a political side is hardly news. The Dalai Lama sure deserves one more so than some of cold-hearted killers who have been awarded in the past.