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THE DRAGON'S BLUNDER Tibet Has Caught China by Surprise

April 11, 2008

By Erich Follath
Spiegel (Germany)
April 9, 2008

China has burned its fingers on the Olympic flame as the international
spotlight is shone on its human rights record in Tibet. Still, German
politicians should refrain from overwrought gestures such as an Olympic
boycott and instead continue to engage both Beijing and the Dalai Lama
in dialogue.

This is China's year, the year of the rat, which symbolizes strength and
endurance in the Chinese lunar calendar. 2008 is a very special year in
China. It is a watershed year, a landmark year and a year the Chinese
have been looking forward to for a long time. It is the year that China,
as planned by its political leaders, has moved to the center of global
interest.

But in the past few, dramatic weeks, the People's Republic has entered
the international spotlight under completely different circumstances
than the Communist Party strategists in Beijing had planned. China is
undoubtedly at the center of world interest, but mostly because it has
become the target of severe international criticism. Should the Olympic
Games, or at least the opening ceremony, be boycotted? What do the
bloody events in Tibet say about the People's Republic of China as a
"partner" and about the chances of integrating it into the international
community of democracies? And is there a suitable response for German
politicians to take, a middle road between a counterproductive display
of strength ("Impose an economic boycott") and moral cowardice ("Spare
Beijing's feelings")?

The Chinese Communist Party had carefully organized the sequence of
events down to the very last detail: a jubilant People's Congress in
March, the triumphant arrival of the Olympic flame and, on Aug. 8, the
gala opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics, with the key Western
politicians in attendance. China's aim was to play the glamorous host,
and it was intent on all of its guests marveling at the impressive
Olympic facilities and admiring Beijing as a new international
metropolis. Its plan was to present a manifestation of political power,
reinforced, to the greatest extent possible, by athletic triumphs and a
strong showing in the gold medal count. Look at us, China hoped to say,
"we are back in the fold of the world's most important and modern
nations, and we have moved up alongside the United States as a new world
power. We are even the world's leader in some areas."

The Central Committee planners had thought of so many things in their
campaigns to promote civility ("wenming"), even instructing Beijing
residents to give up their habit of spitting in public and police
officers to wave more pleasantly. But there was one thing the political
calligraphers, in their obsession with detail, had ignored: the big
picture. They had apparently believed it impossible that their own
people, or rather, one of the "national minorities," would rise up
against them. The regime has forcefully subjugated its minorities over
the course of history and believed them, by virtue of material
concessions, to have been pacified long ago. But they failed to realize
that the vast majority of Tibetans are more interested in religious
freedom than improving their standard of living; that they feel
increasingly like strangers in their own homeland, robbed of their
cultural identity; and that they are prepared to risk their livelihoods
for their spiritual and political leader, who has been living in exile
for the past 49 years.

The current situation also brings to light a misunderstanding to which
many in the West succumbed, especially those who did business with
Beijing's pragmatic and economically cosmopolitan rulers in recent
years. But during the days of the crisis, China's leadership
demonstrated that it is everything but an enlightened power that brings
order to the region, rules with political means and cares about world
opinion. Instead, the Communist Party bosses crushed the peaceful
demonstrations of monks -- and later the violent demonstrations of angry
youth -- with yesterday's tools of power. Their implements of choice
included tanks and handcuffs, a news blackout and a slanderous campaign
against the Dalai Lama reminiscent of the worst days of the Cultural
Revolution. In the words of the head of the Communist Party in the
so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, the Tibetan leader and winner of the
Nobel Peace Prize, along with his "clique," is a "wolf in monk's robes,
a devil with a human face" and was responsible for everything that
happened in Tibet.

China has suffered a "relapse" many had believed was no longer possible,
a relapse that is perhaps more normal than not for a leadership that is
obsessed with a fear of national disintegration and has now destroyed
any illusions. On its face, China has changed dramatically. Its cities
seem more modern even than some cities in the West. But in its interior
and at the core of its being, the People's Republic -- whenever it feels
existentially threatened by chaos -- is still a police state. The
Communist Party does not see its citizens as politically mature equals,
but only as subjects. A straight and, unfortunately, unbroken line leads
from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre to today's reality.

One of Beijing's current, and preposterous, pronouncements is that China
is proud of the way it "dealt with" the problem of rebellious Tibetans.
But if there is one thing that the People's Republic can be proud of it
is this: In no other country on earth have so many people risen out of
extreme poverty in such a relatively short time -- close to 250 million
people in about 30 years. Despite China's growing problems, economic
growth, which has averaged about 10 percent a year since the early
1980s, is still breathtaking, and the world benefits from the
entrepreneurial spirit and investment activity of the Chinese. Those who
do not "interfere" in politics enjoy relatively generous opportunities
to acquire wealth.

A PR Disaster for Beijing

Nothing makes the Chinese as self-confident -- and rightly so -- as the
fact that they have shaken off the yoke of foreign domination and,
thanks to their own efforts, have become a major power once again. But
it is an irony that apparently escapes party leaders that they
themselves are now in the process of becoming an international pariah
because of China's role as a colonial power in Tibet. Meanwhile, the
Communist Party continues to entangle itself in further, outlandish
contradictions. On the one hand, it claims that the Tibetans have
forgotten the 14th Dalai Lama and that he is an irrelevant factor in the
power structure. On the other hand, it paints a greatly exaggerated
picture of him as an important enemy, as a "divider of the nation" and
as the inciter of the unrest in Tibet. The Communist Party calls
traditional Tibetan culture backward, and yet it insists that Tibet has
always been an integral part of the Han Chinese empire.

Beijing's leadership either fails to recognize or chooses to ignore the
dangers of its policy. The Communist Party leaders foment hatred, not
just within the "minority" on the rooftop of the world, with their
one-sided accusations against the Tibetans and against the Western media
as their supposedly malicious collaborators. They unleash almost
unbridled chauvinism among the Han Chinese, who make up about 92 percent
of China's population of 1.3 billion. Party leaders have already played
with fire twice: during the Kosovo war in 1999, when American NATO
troops bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, they unleashed angry
nationalists; a similar situation developed in 2005, when Japan sought
to downplay its wartime massacres of the Chinese in new schoolbooks. In
both cases, the police tried to keep the protests under control, but
failed. The numbers of demonstrators grew quickly, and the whipped-up
crowds smashed windows and upended cars. The authorities managed to
restore order, but with difficulty. Does Beijing's leadership want to
risk similar riots leading up to the Olympics? And how does it expect to
put the nationalistic genie back in the bottle once it has been released?

Beijing is already in the midst of a PR disaster. Perhaps the Communist
Party leaders could not have anticipated the vehemence of the Tibetan
protests, but they must have known that the international community
would focus on the human rights situation in China ahead of the games.
This is why it is so incomprehensible that the Chinese leadership, which
had expressly promised the International Olympic Committee the
"improvement of the human rights situation" when Beijing submitted its
bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics, reacted to the protests with such
brutality and obvious lack of preparation.

The party is now paying for the fact that it is hardly ever confronted
with a critical public -- and one that could have warned it of risks. It
apparently failed to understand that today's world -- in contrast to the
world in 1936, when Nazi Germany hosted the games in Berlin, and even
the world of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre -- is shaped by the
media. Beijing has already lost the fight for the images that determine
whether hearts and minds will be won. The PR professionals working for
Tibetan aid societies and international human rights groups have
literally put China's leadership on display. They have skillfully pulled
out all the stops when it comes to nonviolent resistance,
demonstratively unfurling their banners on the Great Wall of China and
even applying for IOC approval of a Tibetan Olympic team. Thanks to
their protests, the torch relay around the world will likely become more
like the running of the gauntlet for China.

Should we gloat over the humiliation of the People's Republic, as it
burns its fingers on the Olympic flame? Should we secretly rejoice over
the fact that Beijing's leaders have only themselves to blame for
returning China to the group of pariah nations, or even antagonize them
with an Olympic boycott, possibly even tied to economic sanctions?

This would be entirely the wrong approach. German politicians ought to
do everything in their power to strengthen the voices of reason in China
and support the faction in the Politburo -- apparently still a minority
-- intent on de-escalation. This cannot be achieved through
chest-beating and crowing. Anyone considering an economic boycott
against China is naïve. Beijing's ability to use its billions in
investments in German corporations and US treasury bonds as a
retaliatory tool and destroy Western economies with irrational reactions
is more potent than any actions the West could take.

Anyone who wishes to boycott Chinese toys should know that in addition
to making his own children unhappy (80 percent of high-tech toys, for
example, are made in the People's Republic), he would be depriving
millions of workers of their jobs -- with unforeseeable consequences.

Instead, what is needed is the lever that allows Beijing to abandon its
repressive policies and its demonization of minorities, and to enter
into negotiations with the Dalai Lama. In light of the most recent
violence in his native Tibet, the spiritual and political leader of the
Tibetans has also advised against an Olympic boycott. Everything should
be done to strengthen his position against his detractors in the
People's Republic and with the radicalizing youth within his own ranks.
The Dalai Lama is not only the Tibetans' best hope, but also that of the
Chinese. Instead of a divider of the nation, as the Communist Party
insinuates, he is a peacemaker willing to approach the limits of compromise.

The End of Sycophancy

In an interview with SPIEGEL, the Dalai Lama has already outlined his
view of a possible solution to the conflict. "Give us true autonomy!
Defense, foreign policy and economic strategy can remain the
responsibility of the central government," His Holiness said. If this
happens, he said, there would "no further conflicts" surrounding him. He
would transfer his "historic authority" to the local government in Lhasa
and restrict himself to spiritual duties as a "simple monk." China's
leaders will never get a better deal, especially not if the 14th Dalai
Lama, who is now 72, dies and, possibly, decrees that there is to be no
rebirth or that it should only occur in exile. For Beijing, the
alternative is a policy of repression leading to recurring unrest, which
could inflame other dissatisfied ethnic groups.

The German government and the public could help bring this vision closer
to reality -- not with overwrought opposition, but with small,
deliberate steps. For more than eight years now, the German government
has conducted a "Constitutional State Dialogue" with the Chinese.
Beijing is very interested in this program, because it includes seminars
on matters of judicial administration, patent and labor law. During
upcoming negotiations in Munich in late April, German Justice Minister
Brigitte Zypries should make a continuation of the dialogue dependent on
human rights and minority issues becoming a focus of the talks, and on
German members of parliament and journalists being allowed to travel
freely in Tibet to gain an unbiased impression of the situation. The
Dalai Lama is coming to Germany in mid-May for a private lecture series,
but an appointment in Berlin is not on the agenda. The German president
should change this and invite the Dalai Lama to a meeting at his
official residence -- a gesture of solidarity and sovereignty.

As far as the games in Beijing are concerned: Please, no German
politicians, not anywhere. And the athletes should be assured that civil
courage and political expressions of opinion are more important than the
muzzle demanded by IOC officials and defined in the organization's
statutes a few days ago -- even if it costs them their medals. The time
of sycophancy must come to an end if the Olympic idea is to be saved.

Erich Follath is a SPIEGEL editor and the author of the current
biography of the Dalai Lama, "The Legacy of the Dalai Lama."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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