Berlin Divided over Tibet German Minister Criticized for Planned Meeting with Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama is currently visiting Germany. Only one member of the government is prepared to meet with him -- sparking a storm of unrest within the government. "These days, being courageous means not meeting the Dalai Lama," commented Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
The German government is divided over how to deal with the issue of Tibet.
However Wieczorek-Zeul's plans have triggered considerable strife within Germany's grand coalition government -- which consists of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) to which Wieczorek-Zeul belongs and Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- and have led to the development minister being indirectly criticized by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Wieczorek-Zeul, who is nicknamed "Red Heidi" for her role as a prominent member of the SPD's left wing, decided to meet the Dalai Lama when she heard that no member of the government was due to meet with him during his visit to Germany. Merkel, who caused a diplomatic spat with China when she received the Dalai Lama at the Chancellery in Berlin last year, was unable to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader because of scheduling difficulties -- she is currently on a state visit to South America.
Merkel recently said that she was prepared to meet the Dalai Lama again, even though this would be bound to create tension with China, which considers the Tibetan spiritual leader to be a dangerous separatist. Observers believe that Wieczorek-Zeul's decision to meet the Dalai Lama was actually very convenient for Merkel, as she is reported to have felt that it would have sent the wrong signal if no representative of the German government had met the Dalai Lama during his visit to Germany.
Steinmeier, on the other hand, clearly did not want to meet the Dalai Lama. The foreign minister, who is a member of the SPD, takes a very different stance on the issue of Tibet from Merkel. He wants to avoid antagonizing the Chinese leadership at all costs, preferring to exert influence on China through skillful diplomacy. It was Steinmeier who managed to patch things up with China after Merkel's meeting with the Dalai Lama last year through a painstaking diplomatic effort.
Officially, Steinmeier is keeping quiet about his reasons for not wanting to meet the Dalai Lama during his current visit to Germany. However, SPIEGEL has obtained an internal government document in which Steinmeier sets out his position on Tibet and which he has circulated within his SPD party.
The document states that Steinmeier spoke with the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi by telephone last Monday. Yang apparently assured Steinmeier that "the Chinese side plans a genuine fresh start in the talks with the Dalai Lama." A high-ranking official from the German Foreign Ministry had at the same time been negotiating with a representative of the Dalai Lama, according to the document. "These concrete achievements should now be cautiously expanded and not jeopardized through reckless actions," Steinmeier wrote.
During his recent visit to Moscow, Steinmeier expressed criticism of Wieczorek-Zeul's plans to meet with the Dalai Lama. "These days, being courageous means not meeting the Dalai Lama," he is reported to have told close associates. Steinmeier's decision not to meet with the exiled spiritual leader was recently criticized by the Dalai Lama's representative in Europe, Tseten Chhoekyapa, who commented: "We think he was badly advised."
For her part, Wieczorek-Zeul claims the criticism is unfounded. She defended herself in an interview with SPIEGEL. "I cannot understand why there is all this fuss about my meeting with the Dalai Lama," she told the magazine. "I speak regularly with religious leaders. Why not with the Dalai Lama? It is the job of the Development Ministry to promote dialogue between cultures and strengthen civil society in countries around the world."
It became clear on Friday just how much unease Wieczorek-Zeul's plans have caused in Berlin. Deputy government spokesman Thomas Steg felt obliged to expressly deny speculation that Merkel had stage-managed Wieczorek-Zeul's meeting with the Dalai Lama, deliberately ignoring Steinmeier's wishes. This was all nonsense, Steg insisted, although he did admit that Merkel knew about Wieczorek-Zeul's plans early on.
In the interview, Wieczorek-Zeul, displaying the punchy assertiveness that she is known for, insisted that she was nobody's puppet. "I decide myself with whom I meet," she told SPIEGEL. "I do not need to get permission from anybody, neither from the chancellor nor from anyone in the SPD. I have never done that in the past, and I do not intend to do so in the future. Nevertheless, I am meeting the Dalai Lama as a representative of the German government."
Predictably, representatives of the Chinese government have criticized Wieczorek-Zeul's plans. Junhui Zhang, a representative of the Chinese Embassy in Berlin, told public broadcaster ARD that the government in Beijing is opposed to any meetings between the Dalai Lama and German politicians: "We are absolutely against it."