In 1959, after China invaded Tibet, the Dalai Lama was forced to seek refuge in India along with thousands of Tibetans. The Tibetan community, now settled in various parts of the world, continues to struggle for their independence. Several large-scale, not-for-profit organizations, most notably The Gaden Phodrang Foundation of the Dalai Lama and The Tibet Fund have kept this endeavour alive, reputable, and most importantly, well-funded.
How did a group of displaced migrants manage to achieve reputation and funds of this scale, otherwise difficult for similar refugee communities across the world? The answer lies with the patron and face of this struggle – HH the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama’s personal brand is a legend in the West, and he knows how to leverage it. This is especially important since his adversary is probably the largest political conglomerate the world has ever seen – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Today on 6th July 2021, as the Dalai Lama turns 86 years old on the heels of the CCP’s 100th anniversary, I am tempted to do a classic comparison of these two vastly different brands – the CCP and HH the Dalai Lama.
Let’s begin with the similarities.
Both the CCP and the Dalai Lama evoke tremendous emotional response in their followers. On 1st July 2021, President Xi Jinping addressed a 70,000 strong crowd at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The response, allegedly choreographed, was palpably intense. Similarly, across the globe, the Dalai Lama always receives huge crowds. Since joining Twitter in 2010, the number of his followers has exceeded 19 million. For an outsider, the degree of pride and loyalty both these brands evoke in their followers is incomprehensible.
Another similarity between these two competing brands is their unchallenged position. Once elected by a Panchen Lama, the Dalai Lama enjoys the supreme spiritual position within his community. In China, there is no mechanism to enable competition against the CCP. Any Chinese citizen who wishes to be a part of China’s political structure has to climb through the ranks of the CCP.
Both brands have a strong impact on the Western hemisphere. The West looks at the Dalai Lama as a wise, mystical messiah. The West initially celebrated the CCP’s capitalist moves, mistakenly assuming that democracy and liberalism would follow. Already disillusioned and uncomfortable with China’s global aggression, in the post-Covid world, the West is now apprehensive of China and the CCP.
The differences however out-number the similarities.
Most strikingly, how these two brands choose to wield their influence is very different. The repercussions of not following the Dalai Lama’s lead can never be compared to the repercussions faced by Chinese opponents to the CCP. The Tiananmen square from where Xi Jinping delivered his chest thumping speech last week is witness to the CCP’s brutal oppression of its own young people.
Brand Dalai Lama represents compassion, mindfulness, secularism and spiritual growth. The CCP meanwhile is increasingly seen as an aggressive, expansionist, ideologically promiscuous and political juggernaut.
With 30 years of double-digit growth and questionable labour laws, the amount of investment China has managed to pull is staggering. In 2020, China overthrew the US to occupy the top spot in the list of countries with maximum FDI – a whopping USD 163 billion.
For a refugee community, the Tibetans have been able to attract substantial resources, especially from the US, thanks to their global brand ambassador. While there are definitely geopolitical intentions behind the funding, the Dalai Lama’s charisma and actions play a role too. He has travelled extensively across the world and met several heads of state, roping in significant funding. For example, in 2019, the US government sanctioned USD 17 million to support Tibetans in exile, while the Tibet Fund alone managed to register net assets worth USD 7.8 million.
A brand is not just names, taglines, colours, and fonts; it is the feeling you experience when you come in contact with it. The Dalai Lama, through his innate qualities and cleverly forged alliances, has been able to create positivity and goodwill (and convert them into actual financial and welfare support) for the Tibetan people. CCP on the other hand has been brash and hostile in its approach. This was manifested when they referred to Dalai Lama as ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing and a ‘Devil’, thereby attracting more criticism. How does His Holiness respond to it? He just puts his hands over his head mimicking the devil’s horns, laughs and requests CCP to use common sense.
Unlike many other religious leaders, the Dalai Lama interacts with the media widely. He speaks, tweets, and appears in popular TV shows too. The Dalai Lama has the knack of stating serious points in a light, pleasant manner. This has contributed to his enormous popularity outside his community. His interview with British comedian John Oliver has gathered more than 13 million views on YouTube.
Many of the Dalai Lama’s media appearances have great geopolitical timing. In 2011, President Obama’s visit to Australia signalled renewed US interests in the Indo-pacific, and caused friction in China-Australia relations. In the same year, MasterChef Australia, one of the most popular shows in the country, produced a mega-episode with the Dalai Lama as the Chief Guest. The entire episode had the pomp and circumstance of a Head-of-the-State visit.
The Dalai Lama believes in collaboration. He is happy to connect with almost anyone, and, true to current times, post about his meetings with global dignitaries on his website.
The CCP’s preference for hard power over soft power has gathered little global support for China’s leadership.
China shares a border with 14 countries but has territorial disputes with 18 countries and has opened up economic friction with several others, who have fallen into the debt trap of its Belt and Road Initiative. Collaboration for mutual benefit is clearly not the CCP’s cup of tea.
The Future of Brand Dalai Lama vs Brand CCP
With its 100th anniversary celebrations and the tremendous growth in ‘red tourism’, the CCP has amply demonstrated the strong support it enjoys among its people. China does have a large young population who has enjoyed the fruits of economic growth ushered by the CCP. Even after President Xi Jinping, the CCP shows no sign of weakness, with a formidable next generation of leaders being developed in Communist Party-run schools.
In the case of the Dalai Lama though, the future is uncertain. As per the Tibetan tradition, every Dalai Lama appoints a Panchen Lama who in turn chooses the next Dalai Lama. The Panchen Lama appointed by the current Dalai Lama is believed to be missing, presumably abducted by China in 1995. About his succession, the Dalai Lama says that it is ‘up to the people of Tibet to decide.’ Even if the 15th Dalai Lama arrives, we cannot be sure that he would carry forward the popularity and charisma of the current Dalai Lama with equal finesse and gusto.
As Covid-19 wreaks havoc, the world is getting wary of China’s expansionist policies. The recent G7 and the QUAD summits show that global powers are no longer in the mood to accommodate China’s hegemony. In this scenario, the Tibetan community will look upon its spiritual leader and at least for now, Brand Dalai Lama is shining strong.
Amogh Oak is a marketing and brand management specialist and an entrepreneur.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.
Very good article.