The Dalai Lama’s Visits to Taiwan Intertwined with Cross-Strait Relations

Since the Dalai Lama’s last visit to Taiwan in 2009, pressure from China has not dampened the Taiwanese public’s ongoing calls for his return. What are the motives behind the Taiwanese invitations and why is China so intent on impeding such a visit?


The Dalai Lama has visited Taiwan three times – in 1997, 2001, and 2009 – and there are calls for his return. Since his first visit, Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan has grown significantly. The total number of Tibetan Buddhist centers has increased from 82 in 1996 to 473 in 2018, while the community of Tibetan Buddhists soared to approximately half a million. From this perspective, the Dalai Lama’s visits to Taiwan have achieved their goal of disseminating Tibetan Buddhism, making his potential return to Taiwan of paramount religious significance. But there is also a political significance to his visits.


The Dalai Lama’s Visits to Taiwan and their Implications for Cross-strait Relations


During each of his visits beyond addressing Buddhist congregations, the Dalai Lama delivered talks on secular matters and held an interfaith forum. These events were attended by tens of thousands of people, with many more tuning in to live broadcasts. In addition, during his first two visits, in 1997 and 2001, the Dalai Lama held meetings with the Taiwanese presidents of the time – Lee Teng-hui of the Kuomintang (KMT) and Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) respectively. As a result, the impact of his visits left an indelible mark on cross-strait relations, and China has issued repeated warnings against extending invitations to him in Taiwan.

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is not only a spiritual leader but also the former head of state of Tibet. While Tibet is today officially part of China, its historical leader and many of his followers fled in 1959 and sought refuge in neighboring India. In India, the Tibetan exile community, now numbering about 100,000 people, has attempted to perpetuate the original governance structure, with the Dalai Lama as both the head of state and the government. Over time, the government-in-exile modernized, and in 2011 the Dalai Lama relinquished secular power, retaining only his role as the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader.

From the Chinese government’s point of view, the Dalai Lama is not a simple monk, but a political exile with a long history of “anti-China separatist activities” and attempts to split Tibet from China. For his non-violent opposition to the Chinese government, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, which only added to his popularity worldwide – but certainly not in official Chinese circles.

When any country in the world invites the Dalai Lama to visit, it is met with staunch opposition from China, which has been known to impose punitive measures on countries that receive the spiritual leader. Despite China’s threats, many countries have nevertheless chosen to extend invitations to the Dalai Lama.


China’s Relationship with Buddhism


Despite China’s opposition to the 14th Dalai Lama, the country has shown increasing interest in Buddhism, even going so far as to label it an “ancient Chinese religion.” This shift serves several purposes. First, it serves as a strategy to quell unrest in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas within China. Second, it serves as a form of cultural diplomacy and a means of expanding influence in neighboring regions by engaging with influential Buddhist organizations. Third, at the international level, it functions as a tool to support the advancement of the Belt and Road Initiative projects, aiming to minimize criticism of the initiative, and ultimately, it also plays into the broader Sino-Indian geopolitical rivalry.

To demonstrate official support for Buddhism to Buddhist communities both within China and in neighboring countries, China has been organizing World Buddhist Forums in various locations across the country (including Fujian Province in 2006, Wuxi in 2009 and 2015, Hong Kong in 2012, and Putian in 2018.)

China asserts its authority over the selection process of the next Dalai Lama, a stance that has been enshrined in Chinese law. In 2007, China further solidified its control over spiritual matters by stipulating that the tulku system, responsible for designating reincarnate lamas, must operate under state approval. Presently, China oversees the selection of the Panchen Lama, the second most prominent figure in Tibetan Buddhism, as well as 870 rinpoches, also known as tulkus or living Buddhas. According to Chinese law, all reincarnated lamas must be registered with the government, turning a sacred religious practice into a bureaucratic process ripe for corruption.

Over the past decade, efforts have been made to sway individual lamas within Tibet by offering incentives such as free trips to China and assurances of protection from persecution if they align with Beijing’s interests. In the 1990s, the 11th Panchen Lama, endorsed by the 14th Dalai Lama at the age of five as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama, was forcibly taken away. Authorities then installed their own chosen boy as the 11th Panchen Lama. The original boy remains missing to this day. Such practices showcase efforts to consolidate political control over Tibet and its religious hierarchy.


China Hampering Visits by the Dalai Lama to Taiwan


The desire for the Dalai Lama’s presence in Taiwan is evident in the consistent invitations extended by various Buddhist groups. In 2015, when the Taiwan International Tibetan Dharma Association, which represents 53 groups encompassing Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, invited the Dalai Lama and called on the Taiwanese government to allow this visit, the KMT government, influenced by China, did not allow the Dalai Lama to celebrate his 80th birthday in Taiwan. Despite these challenges, the “Blessing Concert for His Holiness the Dalai Lama” takes place every July 6th via live video broadcasts, commemorating the Dalai Lama’s birthday with a longevity prayer ceremony.

The persistent question of whether the Dalai Lama will visit Taiwan has evolved beyond religious considerations into a significant political issue intertwined with cross-strait relations. Underpinning this dynamic is an implicit opposition to the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party. This sentiment was evident for example after 10 March 2019, the 16th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising Day, when various Taiwanese NGOs jointly initiated a petition titled “Invite His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Taiwan.”

There are two groups of people in Taiwanese society who consistently advocate for the Dalai Lama to visit Taiwan – one driven by religious considerations and the other more by political inclinations.

The Dalai Lama himself initially expressed his eagerness to visit Taiwan again, but later in 2021, he acknowledged the “delicate” nature of Taiwan-China relations and expressed his preference to remain in India.


Taiwanese perceptions on the matter of inviting the Dalai Lama


Should the Dalai Lama be invited to Taiwan? (source: Sinophone Borderlands Indo-Pacific Survey, 2022)

According to the latest Sinophone Borderlands Indo-Pacific Survey, when asked whether the Dalai Lama should be invited to Taiwan, 58 percent of Taiwanese respondents expressed a positive inclination toward extending such an invitation (see Figure 1). This prevailing sentiment among the Taiwanese populace about welcoming the Dalai Lama is very similar to attitudes observed in surveys conducted in 2009, which coincided with the Dalai Lama’s last visit to Taiwan.

Upon closer examination, among other factors, religious belief emerges as a unifying element capable of transcending diverse political affiliations. This broad support extends beyond Buddhism to include adherents of Taoism and Catholicism, indicating a broad societal consensus in favor of a potential visit by the Dalai Lama. Even within the pan-blue camp (led by the KMT), typically associated with friendly attitudes toward China, the appeal of the Dalai Lama’s visit persists, driven by religious motives. Similarly, among supporters of the pan-green camp (led by the DPP), religious considerations play a role, reinforced by their political stance advocating for Taiwanese autonomy, human rights, refugee protection, global justice, and more, demonstrating a dual motivation.

While the Dalai Lama has not been able to visit Taiwan in recent years, most of the population continues to express support for a possible visit. The prevention of his visits remains a source of disappointment for his followers and underscores Taiwan’s continuing challenges in cross-strait relations, even in seemingly non-political areas, such as religion.




Cover photo: Protestors carry a sketch portrait of the Dalai Lama as they march down a street outside the presidential palace in Taipei on March 18, 2008, on a candlelight vigil to protest the Chinese crackdown in Tibet (Photo by GOH CHAI HIN / AFP.)

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