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Commentary: China a great power? Then make a deal with the Dalai Lama

August 8, 2008

By Edward Friedman
The Daily Star (Lebanon)
August 6, 2008

On the eve of the Beijing Olympic Games, many human rights activists
and observers continue to hope that the Chinese Communist Party's
embrace of odious regimes such as Burma's and Sudan's, and its
oppression of Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong
spiritualists, will lead democratic heads of state to boycott the
Olympics, or athletes and spectators to demonstrate on behalf of the
victims. I doubt it. The only demonstrations are likely to be those
celebrating China's massive gold medal count.

No one should underestimate China's will and capacities, especially
when it sets its collective mind on a goal. China is a budding
superpower that has amassed the largest foreign exchange reserves in
the world. No major government will risk retaliation by insulting the
Chinese regime with a boycott or public protest. Indeed, France has
already dispatched representatives to Beijing to apologize for
supporting the Dalai Lama, and for the protests that took place
during the Olympic torch relay in Paris.

 From Seoul to Sydney to San Francisco, citizens in democracies were
angered at how Chinese visitors bullied into silence powerless
Tibetans demanding minimal rights on behalf of their brethren in
authoritarian China. But the reality is that the Chinese regime has
largely neutralized the international human rights movement. In the
wake of the Sichuan earthquake, criticism of China will be even more muted.

In 1997, Denmark, a nation whose people are demonstrably committed to
human rights, asked the United Nations Human Rights Commission in
Geneva to look into the long track record of abuse by the Chinese
Communist Party (CCP). China responded by canceling a Danish trade
mission. France got the message, and the French soon stopped
promoting human rights resolutions directed at China. The French were
then rewarded with a string of lucrative contracts in China.

The United States, however, persisted, and China prevailed upon its
allies to vote the US off the UN Human Rights Commission. Although
China is the world leader in capital punishment and imprisoned
activists, its human rights record is no longer a matter for
significant international scrutiny.

Although China touts its aid and investment in Africa as being given
without strings, governments that accept it repay China in natural
resources and political capital. They eschew official relations with
Taiwan. They vote to protect China from human rights investigations.
They agree not to stand up for the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism, or
Tibetan victims in China. Many African nations ship a large
percentage of their GDP to China every year.

Europeans see Chinese money in Africa as undermining international
efforts to promote good governance, and they worry that Chinese funds
are used to shore up corrupt authoritarian regimes. Certainly, China
has plenty of cash, states its demands clearly, and asks few
questions, and the combination of such policies and economic clout
has won it followers.

But a few bold voices have made themselves heard. South Africa's
Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu has spoken out forthrightly on
behalf of Tibetan rights, and South African trade unionists recently
refused to unload Chinese weapons headed to Robert Mugabe's regime in
Zimbabwe. South Korea's government expressed its distaste for how
Chinese visitors assaulted peaceful human rights demonstrators as the
Olympic torch passed through that country.

Of course, in response to the global outcry China has yielded a bit
on Tibet, with Chinese officials meeting with representatives of the
Dalai Lama. But, as with the March 2008 Tibetan demonstrators, anyone
at the Olympics who tries to call attention to the regime's record of
abusing human rights will be dealt with firmly. The government has
reinforced its security system and has put in place a ubiquitous
system of surveillance cameras. Visas are being denied to anyone
active on behalf of human rights, with the unintended side effect of
hurting international business in China.

But China's priority is not just to perpetuate economic growth.
Rather, it is to encourage growth while protecting its power the
monopoly. The regime is set on proving to the world that China, once
again a world power, can stage a spectacular performance, and that
its voice will be heeded.

The message of the Beijing Olympics, then, is that China's political
system not only manages international affairs adroitly, but that the
"Chinese way" should be seen as superior even to democratic systems.
The CCP's relentless efforts will no doubt lead to continued economic
growth, ensure political stability, and generate significant worldwide support.

But the regime has missed one key point in its relentless march to a
"successful" Olympics. It is actually in China's interest to make a
deal with the Dalai Lama and begin to heal the rift between Han
Chinese and Tibetans. This would not only help defuse the
disaffection in Tibet, but would lend real luster to China's world
leadership, and indicate the kind of mature decision-making that
marks a true "great power."

Edward Friedman is a professor of political science at the University
of Wisconsin, Madison, and the author of numerous books, most
recently "What If China Doesn't Democratize? Implications for War and
Peace." THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration
with Project Syndicate (c) (
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