Right now the rest of the world has a chance to influence a communist regime which is normally almost impossible to reach: China’s leaders are willing to do almost anything to make the Olympic Games next summer in Beijing a shining success. They regard the Olympics as much more than a major sporting event—they look at it as a kind of redemption from national trauma. After a century of international humiliation and decades of Maoist failures, China wants to present itself as a great nation with a bright future, the next world superpower. President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao seem to be prepared to make painful political compromises to achieve this goal, presenting a golden opportunity for politicians and human right activists in the West, as well as NGOs and opposition figures inside China.
But how to use this new clout wisely? Confront Beijing openly, or press the leadership behind closed doors? Western politicians have often chosen the latter when discussing sensitive issues like human rights violations, labor unrest or the military build-up in China, because they are loath to “offend” the country’s leaders. Now is the time to rethink such closed-door policies: what the leaders in Beijing really fear these days is being confronted directly in the international media with facts and figures they consider harmful to their prestige. Their foremost concern is China’s image, and that image has so far remained unthreatened by Western leaders who are soft on controversial issues or mention them only in back rooms.
Perhaps they can learn from the Tibetan community, where this issue has been debated more fiercely than anywhere else. His Holiness Dalai Lama XIV has been widely expected to comment, but until now the Godking in his Indian exile has avoided stating his point of view in the open, to say nothing of a boycott of the games. Much more vocal are the people around him: the fiery Tibetan Youth Congress, for example, has organized hunger strikes in India (considered a form of “violence” by the Dalai Lama and not accepted). There seems to be a broad consensus inside the elected Tibetan exile parliament that other forms of protests should be encouraged—and the campaign is obviously orchestrated quite professionally.
Tibetans in India and other parts of the world have organized dozens of demonstrations condemning the human rights violations in the People’s Republic of China and demanding more freedom for the Tibetan people. Since the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959, Communist China has had complete control of the Tibetan settlement areas in PRC provinces Sichuan and Yunnan, as well as the so-called “Autonomous Region of Tibet” including the old and holy capital Lhasa. Beijing used to value the region as more of a geopolitical and security asset. Now an economically vibrant China considers Tibet as the best source for coastal China’s galloping demand for energy, fuel and water. Tibetans, unable to compete with more skilled Chinese settlers, are becoming increasingly marginalized by this infiltration, their religion reduced to a controlled “game park” with a few monks in a few restored monasteries. The Dalai Lama is fears a “cultural genocide.”
Tibetans in exile are trying to put the utmost pressure on the Chinese government—and on their own international sympathizers. They have been using protest letters and e-mails to urge an international campaign, demanding for example that Steven Spielberg resign from his post as art director of the Olympic Games because of China’s involvement in human rights abuses in Sudan and Tibet. Many prominent actors in Hollywood joined this request. And it showed results: Spielberg promised to reconsider his engagement, and the Chinese authorities, for a long time reluctant to anger their oil-rich friends in Sudan, surprisingly agreed to the deployment of a UN contingent in the Darfur region.
Other Tibetan activities were more symbolic but nevertheless successful, at least from a public relations point of view. A “Tibetan national sports team” applied for participation in the Beijing Olympics—the IOC is not likely to approve. Some activists unrolled a poster (“Free Tibet”) on the Great Wall of China and filmed their action—long enough to get some spectacular pictures which were shown all over the world. Others took even greater risks: the activist Runggye Adak urged the Chinese government during a sports event in the presence of high-ranking party officials to allow the Dalai Lama “to return to Tibet”. He was cheered enthusiastically by the crowd in the small town of Lithang (province Sichuan) and then arrested by the police. His present whereabouts are unknown.
Erich Follath of German magazine Der Spiegel is the author of the new and much-acclaimed biography explaining the legacy of His Holyness. Das Vermächtnis des Dalai Lama. Ein Gott zum Anfassen. Collection Rolf Heyne, München, 320 Seiten, 19,90 Euro.
Is this really a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the world’s leaders to get tough on China? And even if it is, should they follow the Tibetan community’s example? How can the West make the most of this last year before the Beijing Olympic Games? Leave your suggestions below.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community
- Edward Cody asks Are They For Real? - Chinese Troop Deployment to Darfur
- Sushant K. Singh on Asian Competition For Energy Reserves in West Africa
- US Pentagon: Europe Should Stand Firm on China Weapons Embargo
- Sonja Bonin Europe and America Too Divided Over China Policy