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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Going gaga over Tibet

September 11, 2010

The perils of letting China dictate the terms of the debate
The Economist (UK)
September 9, 2010

AS IS well known, some people in the West go soft
in the head over Tibet. One tinkle of the temple
bell, one whiff of incense, or one sip of rancid
yak-butter tea, and they lose their critical
faculties. They fawn over the Dalai Lama, who
cloaks his sinister splittist ends in monks’
robes and jovial common-sense. They blind
themselves to the misery of past mass monasticism
and feudal serfdom. They willfully overlook the
wonders of the economic development China has brought to the lofty plateau.

Fortunately for the Chinese government, these
inane sentimentalists neither make policy, nor,
beyond the occasional tiresome protest, have much
to do with China. Luckier still, those in the
West who do deal with China often suffer even
more acute mental squishiness over Tibet, with
the opposite effect. So anxious are they not to
“hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” in this
especially tender sore spot, that they fall over
backwards to make concessions that are neither
necessary, nor, in many cases, even demanded.

Consider the celebration of September 8th, the
day bestowed on Britain by the organisers of the
Shanghai World Expo as “UK National Day”. The
festivities were to have included a short new
ballet, “The Far Shore”, based loosely on the
folk tale that inspired “Swan Lake”. Then it
emerged that the composer, Pete Wyer, had
dedicated his score to “the people of Tibet for
speaking the truth, [and] protecting their
cultural identity, despite the dangers they
face.” In response, the English National Ballet,
who were to dance with the Shanghai Ballet, and
the British Council, the arm of cultural
diplomacy that had organised the gala, cancelled
the performance. They expressed regret that it
had become “a political vehicle” and hence “not appropriate”.

This takes the famed British posture towards
China of the "pre-emptive cringe," long noted in
its dealings over Hong Kong, to bizarre extremes.
Neither Mr Wyer nor the score was in Shanghai—the
dancers were to perform to a recording of his
work. The score had not been published and would
have been seen only by a few musicians. The
performance was cancelled before China had a
chance to protest. If it had, there were plenty
of good ripostes: none of this had anything to do
with official British policy; in Britain an
artist’s work is not judged by his personal
views; and what is wrong with the dedication by
the inanely sentimental composer anyway? It does
not champion the taboo of Tibetan independence,
but “cultural identity”, which nobody opposes.
Another celebration in Shanghai this week was the
culmination on September 5th of the Expo’s “Tibet week”.

Those who took the decision to pull the ballet
were following their government’s accommodating
precedents. A more drastic sop to Chinese
sensitivities over Tibet came in a statement on
the British Foreign Office’s website in October
2008. This junked the country’s longstanding
position on Tibet, which, uniquely, had fallen
short of an explicit recognition of full Chinese
sovereignty. It was a position that mattered far
more to China than to Britain. The concession was
presented as an exercise in diplomatic
house-tidying. If China reciprocated, it did so imperceptibly.

Britain may be unique in its readiness to
anticipate Chinese demands and grievances. But it
is far from alone in yielding over Tibet once
China starts its thunderous blustering. Those
tirades have taken on a new vigour in the past
two years, since China’s Olympic torch-relay was
greeted with pro-Tibetan protests around the
world. Robert Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia
University in New York, points out that a number
of European governments—including Denmark’s,
France’s and Germany’s—have responded to China’s
scolding (usually over their leaders’ meeting the
Dalai Lama) with conciliatory statements that
have gone further than China can have hoped.
Besides reaffirming that “Tibet is part of
China”, they have, oddly, promised not to
encourage Tibet’s independence. China’s policy,
in Mr Barnett’s phrase, is to “shake the tree”. It yields a bumper crop.

China knows the Dalai Lama’s meetings with other
world leaders are symbolic rituals that do not
affect policy. It also shows a growing
understanding that they may reflect domestic
political compulsions—or even (whisper it)
principle—rather than the national interest
narrowly defined. Yet it has worked hard to curb the Dalai Lama’s access.

It has had more success in Europe than America.
But even Barack Obama delayed a meeting in the
White House until February, to avoid spoiling the
mood for his trip to China last year. This seemed
to concede China’s point, that the meeting was
not a matter of principle, but just one
diplomatic bargaining chip among many. But at
least the meeting itself was non-negotiable. It
seems to have done little lasting damage to Chinese-American relations.

Prison song

By casting every discussion of Tibet as a "core"
interest of national sovereignty, China does at
least manage to deflect attention from other
issues, such as the continuing repression there.
Since riots and protests in March 2008, hundreds
of Tibetans, including prominent intellectuals,
have been detained. Another generation seems to
be growing up in Tibet chafing at Chinese rule
and looking to the Dalai Lama for salvation.
Despite the apparent hopelessness of their cause,
Tibetans seem not to have given up; and nor have their foreign sympathisers.

Mr Wyer is developing an idea for an opera based
on the life of Ngawang Sangdrol, a former nun,
jailed for 11 years in Tibet, and now an activist
in America. She became famous for a tape of
Tibetan songs she and other inmates smuggled out
of Drapchi prison in Lhasa. She is now married to
a former monk who was a contemporary in Drapchi.
So, rare for an opera, and rarer still for Tibet, it would have a happy ending.
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