On April 8, 2023, a new global smear campaign against the Dalai Lama was unleashed on social media.
This, in itself, wasn’t news. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, has lived in exile in India since 1959, when he was forced to flee his homeland, occupied by Mao’s China. He remains deeply loved in Tibet, but the Chinese regime has made it a criminal offense even to have a photo of him. And ever since 1959, Chinese officials have been vilifying him in every medium possible.
But while this latest round is almost certainly also disinformation “Made in China,” it represents a new approach: Attempting to paint the Dalai Lama as a pedophile. The trick succeeded beyond belief, with millions of people in the United States, Europe, and beyond – due to prior prejudice coupled with the self-righteous tendency to jump to conclusions, combined with widespread ignorance about Tibet.
As the Tibetan exile activist Lhadon Tethong pointed out in a recent public conversation, the goal was very likely also to distract the world from the new dramatic oppression inside Chinese-occupied Tibet. U.N. human rights experts just issued a warning that Chinese authorities are detaining large numbers of both children and adults in Tibet, to erase their culture and turn them into Chinese-speaking laborers – modeled after the massive parallel genocide against the Uyghurs.
Others suggest that the smear campaign had an element of revenge, for the recent successful inauguration of a ethnic Mongol boy born in the United States, to the third highest reincarnated post in Tibetan Buddhism – in the presence of 600 Mongol VIP guests in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama’s home in exile. This shows the global vitality of Tibetan Buddhism, which China has struggled for decades to stamp out, and strengthens the Tibetan community’s hand for the eventual designation of a successor to the Dalai Lama himself.
But how did the April campaign begin? The raw material came from a rather ordinary occasion in Dharamsala. An Indian mother working with Tibetan refugee charities had managed to book her young son (about 8 years old) to meet the Dalai Lama. This took place on February 28, without much notice. Film clips were posted online, commemorating the happy occasion.
A month passed. The Chinese propaganda offices were probably brainstorming how to counter the expected renewed criticism of China. They have, in recent years, put new resources into manipulating social media abroad, not just at home; using global platforms, not Chinese ones.
The propaganda officers must have felt like they struck gold when they found the video from February. They cut out a section to make it look like the Dalai Lama wanted to kiss the 8-year-old boy. (He does stick his tongue out, and even says, in halting English, “Suck my tongue!”)
Using a Twitter account started up in February, the clip was sent out with the slur “Pedo-Dalai Lama.” It spread through linked bot accounts and networks of trusted pro-regime people around the world. Within days, it had millions of hits. And so it continued, with lots of memes piling on. Suddenly, many people with only the vaguest notion of the Dalai Lama could be heard condemning him.
I first heard about the clip from an otherwise well-informed academic colleague, who condemned the Dalai Lama, saying “He’s gone too far! He should have understood that this ruins his reputation.”
But what actually happened? It turns out that in Tibet, it is customary to feed one’s children by mouth – a custom that apparently survives, not least in the Dalai Lama’s old home district, Amdo. From this background comes the standing joke that elderly Tibetans resort to, when they have run out of treats or sweets to give their grandchild: They’ll stick out their tongue, and say to the child, “You may eat my tongue, for I have nothing else left.” That the Dalai Lama said “suck” instead of “eat” was perhaps because he was thinking of candy, not food – the original Tibetan wording is che le sa, literally “eat my tongue.”
There’s nothing “sexual” in the full video. The Dalai Lama talks with the boy about how as a child, he often quarreled with his older brother, jokingly pushing his head onto the boy’s shoulder, to show how. He then places his forehead against the boy’s forehead – another traditional gesture of respect, called oothuk (like formally shaking hands, in the West).
The boy himself was interviewed afterwards, as was his mother (who sat a few meters away during the whole interaction). Both were overjoyed to have had this moment. Nothing inappropriate happened – note that the boy was actually kissed both on the cheek and on the mouth (a kiss called po, which children also traditionally receive from elders), just before the Dalai Lama stuck out his tongue – which in turn signaled that they were done.
Originally the Indian boy asked if he could “hug” the Dalai Lama. At first the Dalai Lama did not understand the English word. In Tibet people usually don’t hug, nor do they shake hands. But he got the best of both worlds: oothuk, po, and the “che le sa” joke; plus a hug, a handshake and a chat, as we see in the full video.
For me as an anthropologist, the whole incident illustrated not just the “dirty minds” of Western viewers (which many in India complain about), but how cultural differences and bodily practices can be mis-translated.
We have to admire the “anthropological” skills of the Chinese propaganda department: They knew their audience and immediately saw an opening. Most people in the West have no clue about Tibetan cultural practices, let alone about “eat my tongue” as a non-sexual concept. Plus, many Westerners know of Catholic priests convicted of pedophilia. Combining the two, Chinese propagandists saw an opening for suggesting that the Dalai Lama too, as a male “priest” of sorts, is a pedophile.
The trick succeeded, beyond expectations: Damage was inflicted globally, to the reputation of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people. Few Western media made any space for talking about China’s new large-scale atrocities in Tibet.
Curiously, the Dalai Lama’s office itself issued an apology for “the hurt his words may have caused.” This frustrated many Tibetans. Most don’t think there is reason to apologize to the world, not even tactically — actually, the apology for “any hurt caused” may have to do with the propensity of Tibetan Buddhists to take on negative feelings (regardless of guilt). There were spontaneous demonstrations in Dharamsala and in Ladakh in support of the Dalai Lama; journalist Tenzin Pema wanted the world to apologize to Tibet.
While pondering all this, an old memory emerged in my mind. During my own anthropological fieldwork with the Wa people in the border areas between China and Myanmar, I saw a young woman sitting a short distance away, with her baby son. The woman suddenly began to feed the baby by mouth! I had never seen that before, and turned away as if in shame. It seemed so incredibly private … and sexual. But the sexualization, of course, was only in my own mind. No Wa people would find this feeding the least bit sexual. To feed babies with the mouth is what Wa people do every day – probably in many places around the world not yet conquered by plastics.
My own momentary confusion is comparable to the Western herd-mentality reaction against the Dalai Lama. Most who encountered the planted materials on social media reached instantly for the globalized Hollywood morality they have been inculcated with, and did not seek even a minimal contextualization. It was enough for the propaganda just to supply a hint of pedophilia: People quickly filled in the “obvious” interpretation, and the indignation that the Dalai Lama is a such a child abuser.
Interestingly, this is the same phenomenon we’ve seen in the oratory of former U.S. President Donald Trump. As George Lakoff, Janet McIntosh, and others have observed, when he wants to say something really awful, he speaks in unfinished sentences. The crowds fill in the rest, and they love it; it gives them a sense of righteousness. In the case of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese propaganda dangled the bait in a very similar fashion. The difference was that this was mostly not about right-wing nationalists, but leftist virtue signaling. Yet the clinically fact-free implication worked in exactly the same way.
Many people do know about the tongue being used as greetings among Tibetan adults – like they’ve seen the tongues of New Zealand Maori warriors. Even so, very few people who saw the video clip stopped to think: “Is there something we’re missing about how this is framed – by who, and why?”
Even Slavoj Zizek – one of the few Western commentators who picked up on the Tibetan meaning of “Eat my tongue!” – failed to ask why so few people gave pause, instead quickly defaulting to Western morality.
The Chinese regime’s social media influencer experts must have known this – that’s why they were so successful, globally. I had a look at my own country, Sweden. The biggest daily paper, Aftonbladet, told readers without context that the Dalai Lama was “under fire” for asking a boy to “suck his tongue.” In a second article the paper quoted Cardi B, the American rapper celebrity, launching a general attack on those who abuse children – such as the Dalai Lama! Other media similarly played up the “scandal” while saying nothing at all about the Tibetan culture, or about the new concentration camps in Tibet.
In the United States, the venerated Associated Press was much the same. Self-righteous defenders of children were falling over each other in what might best be described as a herd stampede. Media figures swallowed the planted allegations whole, condemning the Dalai Lama and demanding investigations. Cardi B’s instant intervention can be seen on the equally arrogant Jason Lee Podcast, on YouTube. Another example was the “Megyn Kelly Show,” on the day after the incident trigger; note how Kelly starts off by assuming it all took place in Tibet, as if the Dalai Lama was not forced into exile 65 years ago.
All of this compounds the injury and insult already inflicted on the Tibetan people, whose suffering under Chinese occupation now also includes watching how they are maligned through China’s successful smear campaign, which people around the world swallow indiscriminately, as if the case was closed even before it opened.
Several better-informed writers in India (such as Kaveri Gill, Dilshad Noor, Utpal Kumar, and others) chose instead to reflect on the lessons we learn from this horror story about our social media afflictions. As they suggest, there are major new issues here for us non-Tibetans.
It is clear that democracies must better supervise YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc., or these powerful platforms will be hijacked and used as tools in the hands of authoritarians, at home or abroad. It all begins with the media industry’s hunger for algorithmic scandal profits: Trust in our democracies is undermined as online audiences are attracted with ever more outrageous fake “clickbait” to make them stay on the site and be re-packaged as ad targets.
Enter the Chinese Communist Party: Its gigantic, high-tech, AI-driven influence machine is clearly increasingly well-honed and more efficient, worldwide. It is getting dramatically better at playing on our prejudices and ignorance, as in this case. Defending against it is an ever greater challenge than guarding against Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The whole affair also points to the decline of trust in scholars. Media everywhere simply relayed the clickbait propaganda, without looking anything up; much less consulting with anthropologists or others knowledgeable of Tibetan culture. In some ways, it’s anthropology that has absented itself from the stage: In our public “woke” posture, we have abdicated our original job of explaining cultural difference. That leaves the stage even more open to malicious actors.
We can be sure that China’s propaganda machine is constantly looking for new “gold” – for example, to attack the world’s sympathy for Taiwan.