Politicians should be clear with China: Human rights matter

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

BY THUBTEN SAMDUP (Montreal) - Reports this weekend that the Government of China has invited Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau to China, raise the specter of yet another love-fest between Chinese President Xi Jinping and a Western leader. The invitation comes on the heels of last month’s much-publicised UK visit by the Chinese president and last week’s pilgrimage to Beijing by Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande. Even Montreal’s Mayor Denis Coderre is currently leading a 70-person delegation of business people in China.

Once a regular component of Western delegations to China, human rights are not on anyone’s agenda in 2015.

In September, the Chinese government abruptly cancelled two shows by singer Bon Jovi that were set for Shanghai and Beijing. The performances had been eagerly anticipated by both the band and the Chinese public. In August, the group promoted their tour with a recorded video of a popular ballad sung in Mandarin.

Bon Jovi is only the latest casualty of Beijing’s unwelcome infringement on the rights of non-Chinese citizens to freely express their points of view. It represents China’s ongoing and successful tactic of intimidation and bullying of anyone who criticises its policies or supports those who speak up for tolerance and human rights – even if those people are not Chinese.

According to a report in The Guardian newspaper, it is believed that Bon Jovi’s concerts were cancelled because the band once projected an image of Tibet's spiritual leader The Dalai Lama during a 2010 concert in Taiwan.

Chinese officials have long waged a campaign of denigration against the Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 after the occupation of Tibet. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his lifelong efforts to promote peace and compassion. In 2006, he was named one of only six honorary Canadian citizens. But the Chinese continue to accuse him of fomenting separatism and take every opportunity to punish those who have any contact with him.

Bon Jovi is not the first celebrity to suffer the consequences of supporting the Dalai Lama in public. In July the band Maroon 5 had their Shanghai shows cancelled after one band member tweeted a happy birthday message to the Tibetan spiritual leader. In 2009, music group Oasis was forced to cancel shows because one member had taken part in a Free Tibet concert in New York years before.

Taking histrionic offence at anyone who would support the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan cause, China continues to flex its economic muscle and threaten retribution. Not content with intimidation of popular musicians, China also exerts pressure and censorial demands on democratically elected political leaders. The recent kowtow of David Cameron during President Xi Jinping’s UK is just the most recent example.

Today, China flaunts a daunting level of censorship at home and threatens economic reprisals to Western politicians, artists, and human rights advocates who dare speak their minds about justice and freedom. In a clear illustration, Beijing is quick to strike at and penalize public figures who opt to support or meet with the Dalai Lama.

An even greater concern is the persistent public silence surrounding China’s bullying.

The issue is not simply the ongoing repression in Tibet, or the escalating violations of human rights that take place across China. The Bon Jovi case, and the other examples it symbolizes, speak to a broader issue: the apparent willingness of Western democracies to sacrifice their values and principles in exchange for access to China’s vast markets. Meeting China's repressive moves with silence conveys the illusion of consent.

The solution is to speak clearly. China’s leaders must understand that respect within the global community depends on improving its human rights record. If politicians are not up to the task, perhaps this is the time to rally members of the artistic community to make a collective public statement. Be it in the form of a massive concert that replaces those cancelled, or a new millennia protest song that inspires change, musical artists can lead the way.

As we have seen with well-known Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s recent push back against Lego, artistic communities have significant public influence. They can send a clear message not only to China’s leaders but to the leaders of Western democracies – human rights matter.

If, in this globalized world, lack of vigilance contributes to the erosion of human rights in any country, who will be left to uphold human freedom and speak for the voiceless in Tibet and elsewhere?

Thubten Samdup is the former Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the UK, and the founding President of the Canada Tibet Committee.

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