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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

America’s Moral Laryngitis

January 16, 2012

Tom Watkins

January 13, 2012

A moral voice is a terrible thing to lose. And yet, America’s national debt is producing collateral damage. As the U.S. debt rises, our strong and forceful global voice goes soft and our outrage diminishes.

If you think the problems in America are heating up, you only have to look to China and see things truly in flames.

In 2011 and the first days of the new year, there have been 15 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns who set themselves on fire in protest of government policies. Among the latest suicides was Sonam Wangyal, a living Buddha — meaning a senior spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism. He is the first ranking clergy to have self-immolated to draw attention to the actions of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Party, in an apparent attempt to discredit Mr. Sonam, claimed he killed himself because of a secret love affair discovered by the woman’s husband. But most believe he died, like the others, in protest of the heavy hand of the Chinese government and what the Dalai Lama calls “cultural genocide” being carried out against the Tibetan people.

There has been tension between the Chinese Han majority and the Tibetan minority for centuries. It resulted in deadly riots in Lhasa, Tibet, in 2008.

The Tibetan people feel the situation is repressive and suffocating, and that they lack other means to demonstrate their anger and hopelessness.

The Chinese government blames Tibetans outside China, particularly the Dalai Lama, for stirring up trouble. The Dalai Lama disputes these claims and states clearly that he advocates a “middle way” with Beijing, seeking autonomy but not independence or a separate country for his people.

The Chinese Communist Party, always mindful, as Mao said, that “The smallest spark can start a raging forest fire,” has maintained an intense security clampdown in Tibetan areas of Northwest China.

The tension is literally ablaze today. The Tibetan self-immolations are a desperate act of defiance against what is seen as unbearable Chinese Communist control.

Tibetans are one of 55 minority groups in China, and by far the best known. Tujia, Mongols, Miao, Qiang, Lisu, Hui, Yao and Uyghurs are Chinese minority groups that few in the West have heard of.

The Uyghurs are Muslim people living in Xinjiang Autonomous Region in far northwest China and are also viewed by the communist leaders as another “splitist” ethnic group. Like Tibetans, Uyghurs believe the Chinese are undertaking a cultural genocide against them.

Economic problems in America are eclipsing our historic focus on human rights issues. The self-immolation of the Tibetan Buddhist nuns and monks are slipping quietly under the radar screen.

It is the classic Maslow’s hierarchy of needs playing out. It is difficult for the American people to worry about problems thousands of miles from their doorsteps when their basic safety and economic security are being eroded at home.

During tough economic times, issues that would resonate with the American people take a back seat to simple economic survival. Occupy Wall Street and Tea Parties have replaced protests to “Free Tibet.”

In late 2011, the Associated Press reported that hundreds of Tibetans recently marched in India’s capital, New Delhi, to protest Chinese rule over their homeland in China. One Tibetan demonstrator sliced his finger and wrote with his blood “Free Tibet” on a banner. One poster begged, “People of the world, support us.”

To many, the U.S.-China economic seesaw has the Asian giant in the ascending position. It is argued that China will pass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy as early as midway through this decade.

Our government is in debt to the tune of nearly $15 trillion, with more than $1 trillion borrowed from China to keep our economy going. It appears that it has become increasingly more difficult to bite the hand that feeds us. It is said, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

This past November, the United States’ top diplomat, Hillary Clinton, heading into the summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Hawaii, said: “We are alarmed by recent incidents in Tibet of young people lighting themselves on fire in desperate acts of protest, as well as the continued house arrest of the Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng.”

Chen is blind and fell afoul of the government after highlighting official abuses and helping farmers whose land had been taken and women who were forced to have abortions and sterilizations.

Secretary of State Clinton added, “We continue to call on China to embrace a different path.”

While her attention to the issue is noteworthy, her words hardly amount to calling China out.

America needs China’s help to address multiple world issues, including the global economic crisis and the changing of the guard in North Korea and Iran, to name a few. That need has muted, at both the citizen and official government levels, America’s historical vocal opposition to international human rights violations. Our increasing financial debt, along with China’s rising economic strength, have compromised our moral standing.

This moral laryngitis serves China’s interests well, as the Chinese government regards Tibetans and Uyghurs as troublemakers attempting to disrupt China’s harmonious rise. The thinking of the ruling Communist party is, the less noise made by America and other Western countries regarding these issues the better.

Further, given the historical interference by foreigners in China’s affairs, the Chinese leaders have little patience for Western lectures on what they consider their internal affairs.

So, while religious protesters turn to setting themselves on fire in order to draw the world’s attention to their plight, America finds itself biting its lip.

If we wish to uphold our ideals we must do so from a position of strength. And our strength has always come from both our ideals and our economy. Unless we get our fiscal house in order we will continue to lose our standing on many issues that we hold dear.

What happens in China impacts us all. The world is a hotter place when the American moral voice goes silent.

Tom Watkins, was state superintendent of schools in 2001-05. He helped establish the first charter schools in Michigan and Florida and is a strong advocate of e-learning and other sensible quality school reforms. He currently is a US/China business and educational consultant. He can be reached
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