The enduring popularity of the Dalai Lama in the West as well as in his native Tibet lies primarily in displays of wisdom and tranquility in representing an inherently peaceful nation living under brutal Chinese occupation. The history of China’s relationship to Tibet goes back many centuries, but, for purposes of discussion, the Chinese military invasion of its neighbor in 1950 ended Tibetan independence that began in 1912. As the living embodiment of Tibetan spirituality, culture and independence, the Dalai Lama represents a potent symbol of Tibetan nationalism that the Chinese Government has long sought to marginalize. Since its 1950 invasion, China has gradually but consistently sought to incorporate Tibet into a broader China through the mass resettlement of ethnic Chinese in Tibet, through the repressive military and police presence it maintains there, and through diplomatic measures that incentivize other countries to ignore the situation there.
The popularity of the Dalia Lama in Tibet emanates from his official status as the 14th Dalai Lama, the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, Chenrezig. In this deeply spiritual Buddhist nation, there is no higher status. The 1995 kidnapping by Chinese authorities of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, believed by Tibetans to be the Panchen Lama and, hence, the co-spiritual leader of Tibet’s Buddhists, when he was only six-years-old further enhanced the Dalai Lama’s prestige both at home and abroad. Certainly, the Dalai Lama’s gracious, peaceful temperament and his perennially upbeat demeanor help ingratiate himself to Western audiences, but the legitimacy of his cause imbues him with a moral authority that many other leaders around the world lack.
In short, the Dalai Lama is popular in Tibet because he is that nation’s spiritual leader and its emissary to the world. The West applauds his humility, graciousness, and wisdom in advancing the cause of Tibetan independence.