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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."

Trudy Rubin: Olympic nightmare looms over Tibet policy

March 28, 2008

Pasadena Star-News, CA

IN 1996 I asked a senior Chinese foreign ministry official in Beijing
about human rights for Tibet.

That question sparked a tirade against Tibet's Dalai Lama that was too
vituperative to forget. "Some politicians and journalists claim the
Dalai Lama is a fighter for freedom and human rights," the official
railed, "but have you any idea of how, before 1958, he used human skulls
to hold wine?" (The Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India in 1959.)

The official fulminated further: "We all know that some servants of
Washington (presumably the Dalai Lama) played trumpets made of human bones."

I've recalled these quotes while reading about China's bloody crackdown
on protesters in Tibet.

Chinese officials have become far more polished in their presentations
over the past 12 years. Their country has continued to boom, while
developing world-class cities and a large middle class with increasing
exposure to the world.

In January, at the Davos World Economic Forum, I watched scores of
talented, English-speaking Chinese entrepreneurs, journalists and
officials mingle with the global business elite with an ease
unimaginable a decade ago. Wu Jianmin, president of China's Foreign
Affairs University, told a panel on geopolitics that China represented
the global trend toward cooperation, not confrontation.

Of course, this ignored the question of Chinese warmth toward Sudan,
whose government has tolerated genocide, or toward the repressive
government of Myanmar. It also begged the question of Chinese
human-rights violations at home.

Wu, however, was promoting China as a future global leader. The Beijing
Olympics in August were supposed to be China's coming-out party on the
world stage.

Events in Tibet reveal a dark side that undercuts China's carefully
cultivated image. The violence reminds the world that China is still an
authoritarian country whose future behavior is unclear.

The Tibet events are already dogging the Olympics. As the Olympic torch
was lit in Greece on Monday, demonstrators unfurled a banner protesting
Chinese restrictions on coverage of the Tibet story. On April 9, the
torch will reach San Francisco - its only stop in North America - where
demonstrators are organizing on Tibet and other issues.

Unless China quickly applies some of its new global sophistication to
its Tibet policy, the Olympics could turn into a nightmare rather than a
celebration. Contrary to Chinese government charges, the fault will lie
with its policies, not the bias of the world media.

The Tibet eruption was an explosion waiting to happen. Most Chinese
believe they brought civilization to Tibet when they invaded in 1950. In
reality, they brought a colonial mentality that rewarded Han Chinese
migrants to the region, and repressed the culture and economic prospects
of Tibetans.

"In other parts of China, economic development has benefitted the
population, and you have the development of a real middle class, which
tamps down grievances," says China expert Josh Kurlantzick, a visiting
scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But "Tibet hasn't had the same kinds of opportunities," Kurlantzick
says. "State subsidies favor ethnic Chinese migrants, and most of the
boom there has benefitted a tiny minority."

Repression of Tibetan culture and religion is intense, including
imprisonment and torture of monks; the Dalai Lama has accused China of
"cultural genocide." Yet Chinese government hostility toward the Dalai
Lama is intense.

The Dalai Lama, however, has repeatedly said he wants only greater
autonomy for his people, and preservation of their culture - not
independence. "One hundred times, thousand times, I have repeated this,"
he said.

Beijing has failed to take advantage of his moderation. Talks with
members of his government-in-exile have gone nowhere. This stalemate
drives the younger generation of Tibetans to reject the nonviolent approach.

The current crisis, however, offers Chinese leaders the chance to show
the world that they are ready for prime time. Now is the moment for
China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to talk directly with the Dalai Lama
about peacefully resolving Tibet's problems.

The Olympics have put China's leaders in the global spotlight. They can
act with the vision befitting their new global role. Or they can cling
to xenophobia toward Tibet that will inflame protesters before and
during the Olympics.

The choice lies with Beijing.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the
Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101.
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