Tibet – avoiding the tie-break

EU governments should put concrete demands to the Chinese government, including a comprehensive review of its Tibet policy

It is time to pause and reflect on the issue of China and Tibet. The past month has made two things clear: China cannot hope to see its case understood with the rigid stance it has taken on the Dalai Lama. Its current strategy of expressing only grudging willingness to “continue” talks with him (while direct talks have not taken place since 1959), yet blaming him for the protests in Tibet has been pointless. China’s standing has suffered a great loss in the West.

But the current excesses in demonstrations and calls for an Olympic boycott in the West might actually make life easier for hardliners inside China. They can now argue that there is an international conspiracy to damage China. On the ground, China is strong. The fact is that Tibet and the Tibetans will remain in China. From the Chinese point of view, the notion of a “free Tibet” is a hollow call for independence – an unrealistic expectation of domestic freedom so long as China itself  is not fully liberalized.

Developments have now reached a precarious stage. Given the large military reinforcements sent into the area, and the black-out on travel and foreign presence, the government has put in place all means of a repression. After a confused response to  the race riot of March 14 in Lhasa, it has not activated these, apart from a few reported cases. Would we know it if the situation were to change? Given the presence of cell phones and digital cameras, the news would eventually travel, albeit with some delay.

At the same time, it is also clear that the political will to protest has not abated, particularly among the monastic communities. The result is a tie. Beijing cannot pretend that Tibetans are indifferent to the Dalai Lama and his spiritual rule. But Tibetans cannot even begin to think about a violent strategy, that would only seal their fate with the Chine public. In the absence of free speech and open debate, much of that Chinese public is moved by instinctive values and reactions: these include a wounded sense of national pride, but also fear and rejection of violence.

Democratic forces and Western governments should not further rub China’s pride, which could result in negative political developments inside China. True, the system blew the Beijing Olympics to hysterical proportions: the balloon has now been pricked. A calm Western presence in Beijing during the Olympics, provided it is firm on values and not insulting to hosts, is now a better solution than the smug satisfaction of a stay away. We can now safely bet that not only the vast majority of Chinese, but also most of the present leaders, who suffered deeply under the Cultural Revolution, will reject further violence.

This presents the European Union with a chance to focus its requests on international access to the Tibetan area, and achieving dialogue with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan clerics. The status of Tibetan religion is one of those questions whose resolution had long been left unresolved by China’s authoritarian reformers. Using violence against the protesters has been tantamount to reopening a wound. After Mao and the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese know that no issue is settled “once and for all” through violence. And the best sign of a more secure China is its ability to engage in domestic dialogue with such figures as the Dalai Lama.

European and American public opinions, at a distance, have been adamant in expressing their loathing of the bogeyman in the Forbidden City. It is sometimes good political mileage for political opponents, when incumbent politicians are stuck with a lose-lose proposition: stay away from at least part of the Olympics and perhaps generate a Chinese national backlash, or attend 100% and face popular protest at home. This is an unfair choice. Now that opinion polls and demonstrations have made their point, engaging Beijing and standing our ground, as Australia’s Kevin Rudd just did, may actually be more productive.

European governments should put concrete demands to China, and occasionally to the Dalai Lama, too. First, they should insist on the withdrawal of the ban on travel for journalists and diplomats inside the wider Tibetan area. Second, they should convince the Chinese government to put in motion a comprehensive review of its policy on Tibet. Third, insist on engaging in real dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

At the same time, the EU should ask the Dalai Lama to be more specific in his own proposals. Because Tibet was once theocratic, the issue of church and state was meaningless. Today, the Tibetan clergy cannot dodge issues of designation and supervision for the future. Mutual recognition, here as elsewhere, is the only realist path.

After China’s public relations disaster, progress must be made on both sides, lest the Olympic turmoil will go down in history as a lost match for China and a last stand for the Dalai Lama. Let’s ask both sides to consider the positive implications of a tie.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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