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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Free countries must defy Chinese blackmail and greet the Dalai Lama

March 22, 2008

There is not much that we can do for suffering Tibet, but this we can
and must. It's far more than mere tokenism

Timothy Garton Ash
The Guardian,
Thursday March 20 2008

This article appeared in the Guardian on Thursday March 20 2008 on p39
of the Comment & debate section. It was last updated at 00:15 on March
20 2008.

Gordon Brown yesterday promised to meet the Dalai Lama when he comes to
Britain in May. So should all other leaders of free countries, whenever
the opportunity arises. Anything less would shame us all. And it
wouldn't help China either.

We face at least three difficulties in reacting to the unfolding tragedy
of the Tibetans. We don't know enough about what's really going on,
because the Chinese authorities are determined to prevent us finding out
by expelling journalists, ratcheting up their customary censorship of
the internet (including, and telling lies. We feel
impotent to prevent the horror unfolding. And we have to balance our
deep sympathy with the Tibetans against our interest in a benign
evolution of China. Appeasement of Beijing for short-term political and
commercial gains is contemptible; trying to ensure that anything we do
to help the Tibetans won't hinder the evolution of China is not. It's
statecraft - and moral, too.

Here's the good reason for not reacting to the repression of Buddhist
monks in Tibet as we did to the repression of Buddhist monks in Burma.
No, we shouldn't impose economic sanctions on the whole of China, as we
do on Burma. Nor should we boycott the Beijing Olympics. There is too
much at stake. The French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner has
suggested that if the repression in China worsens - not only in Tibet,
but also with the persecution of Chinese dissidents such as Hu Jia -
European leaders might not participate in the opening ceremony of the
Olympics. A threat worth making, perhaps, though it won't get far with
his fellow EU foreign ministers when they meet next week.

It may be worth calling for United Nations observers to be sent in to
Tibet, though China will doubtless veto that. As important is to insist
that the Chinese authorities keep the promise they have made - and are
now breaking - to allow foreign journalists free movement around the
whole of China in the runup to the Olympics. (If they don't let
reporters go to Tibet, this can only mean that Tibet is not part of China.)

Yet we know, in our hearts, that none of this will prevent them clamping
down, with armed force - the knock on the door at 4am, and all the
familiar apparatus of a police state. As it is, Tibetans are arrested
simply for possessing an image of the Dalai Lama. And there's the rub:
the exiled 72-year-old spiritual and political leader of the Tibetans
remains the only visible key to a peaceful solution. On all the
anecdotal evidence from travellers in these parts, he still holds the
love and loyalty of the majority of his people. At the same time, he
offers to China's leaders a negotiated path to Hong Kong-style autonomy
for Tibet, short of full independence. If they made a rational
calculation of their own long-term interest, down this path they would

But they don't. With the doublethink characteristic of repressive
regimes, China's communist leaders say he is an irrelevance, a feudal
relic; and yet they talk about him obsessively. They routinely denounce
him as a "splittist", that is, one who wishes to split Tibet from the
motherland by pursuing independence. This week we had the otherwise
sober Chinese premier Wen Jiabao ranting about the "incident" in Tibet
being "organised, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai
clique". This, he said, proved that "the claims made by the Dalai clique
that they pursue not independence but peaceful dialogue are nothing but

A throwback to the worst Stalinist demagogy, this statement is not
merely at odds with, but the diametric opposite of, the truth, making
black out of white. The Dalai Lama keeps repeating that he does not seek
full independence. There is no human being in the world today who is
more publicly, consistently and unequivocally committed to the path of
non-violence. In accepting the Nobel peace prize in 1989, he mentioned
"the man who founded the modern tradition of nonviolent action for
change, Mahatma Gandhi" even before his own long-suffering Tibetan
people. This week, he threatened to resign as political leader of the
Tibetan government in exile if his followers resorted to violence. There
is not a shred of evidence that he instigated the rising in Tibet. On
the contrary, the fact that popular anger has boiled over into street
protest - including, it seems, some violence against innocent Han
Chinese and local Muslims - suggests that at least some Tibetans are
becoming fed up with the course of non-violence on which he has kept
them for so long.

So China's leaders misread, or at least misrepresent, the Dalai Lama's
intentions. (How much is genuine incomprehension and how much deliberate
lying is an interesting question.) Probably they also underestimate his
power. As Stalin asked, "How many divisions has the Pope?", so they may
ask, "How many divisions has the Dalai Lama?" If so, they are being just
as shortsighted as Stalin was. Like Pope John Paul II, the 14th Dalai
Lama possesses, in the affection not just of his own people but of
millions across the world, one of the purest forms of soft power.

We, for our part, tend to underestimate the political importance of
symbolic acts, such as meeting an exiled or dissident leader.
Self-styled realists deride this as tokenism, thereby demonstrating
their own lack of realism. For anyone who has experienced a repressive
regime - be it South Africa under apartheid, Czechoslovakia under
Soviet-type communism, or Burma under the generals today - knows just
how important to the oppressed people are those acts of symbolic
recognition, whether of a Nelson Mandela, a Vaclav Havel or an Aung San
Suu Kyi. It's no accident that the website of the Tibetan government in
exile lovingly lists all the "World Leaders His Holiness the Dalai Lama
has met", including in recent years the prime ministers of Canada,
Australia, Hungary and Belgium, the president of the United States, and
the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

The Chinese authorities know these meetings matter too; otherwise they
wouldn't expend so much effort trying to prevent them. Yesterday they
declared themselves "seriously concerned" by Brown's decision. They are
the real "splittists" here, trying to divide and rule between free
countries competing for their economic favours. I have no doubt that
this - not any broader moral or strategic concern - was the reason the
British prime minister hesitated before committing, under pressure, to
meet the Tibetan leader. So one thing EU foreign ministers definitely
should agree in their informal meeting next week is that all European
heads of government will receive the Dalai Lama, as a matter of course,
whenever he comes calling. And the same should go for every other free

In establishing this principle, we would send three messages to Beijing:
that democracies are not so easily divided; that the Dalai Lama truly
represents - dare I say, incarnates - the path of non-violence and
negotiation; and that we do wish to engage fully with a modernising
China and celebrate a wonderful Olympics this summer, but not over the
dead bodies of Buddhist monks.
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