July 22, 2008
There is a lull in the media battle over Tibet, as result of the tragic earthquake nearby in Sichuan province. It has taken a natural disaster to remove from Chinese and European front pages the man-made mess of the Olympic torch relay and ongoing demonstrations in support of Tibet. It is therefore a useful moment to review the events of the past few weeks in relation to Tibet and to attempt to answer a few of the questions that need to be addressed:
- Why was not the political exploitation of the Olympic Games, and in particular, the torch relay anticipated?
- Why did the PRC Tibetan authorities do nothing to stem the March rioting for some 24 hours?
- Why is much of the European media’s reporting of what happened in Tibet so inaccurate and misleading?
- Why does Beijing demonise the Dalai Lama?
- Why was the Olympic torch parade a security fiasco in Paris?
- Why did not European leaders speak out strongly against the violent disruptions of the torch journey and the unacceptable standard of media reporting?
- Why did the Chinese government use old-fashioned Communist-style communication?
- Why do the Chinese react so strongly and emotionally over Tibet?
- Who has financed the Dalai Lama and his large government in exile for 49 years?
- Were the riots and demonstrations orchestrated?
- Will the fall-out have a lasting effect on China’s relations with the West?
During my recent visit to Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou I found that my previous concerns over the wider ramifications of the Tibet issue were magnified . The gulf of misunderstanding between China and the West is huge and misperceptions: over Tibet, the perceptions are diametrically opposed.
The biggest single problem, whether historical or contemporary, is to separate fact from distortion. As foreign journalists are not usually allowed into Tibet, the only two news sources available are both unreliable – the official PRC itself and the Tibetans in exile. The extensive academic research is inconclusive.
The lack of proportionality is striking. Even were all the allegations against China true, Tibet hardly ranks on the list of humanitarian concerns in today’s troubled world. The Chinese have difficulty in understanding why westerners care so much about Tibet.
With the likely onset of economic depression, the vulnerability of the world’s financial system, climate change, energy security, terrorism etc we need a confident China with whom to work; and we need at least a minimum of mutual trust. The human rights allegations in Tibet have to be balanced against the interests of the hundreds of millions who might be affected by a serious deterioration in relations between China and the West. We must also remember that the first human right is to have sufficient food and water. Finally, when preaching to others, we would do well to ensure that our own protection of human rights is commensurate with our stage of economic, political and social development.
We will not persuade China – or indeed any other powerful country – to do what we want them to do unless it is in their own interests. Violent demonstrations and megaphone diplomacy are usually counter-productive – just satisfying to their participants. The deliberate political exploitation of the Olympic Games is unacceptable and likely to exacerbate the underlying problems, given the history of the western humiliation of China during the two last centuries.
Conversely, Chinese rage has been out of all proportion to western behaviour and reflects a misperception of the fear of a resentful, threatened West, determined to thwart China’s rise. The Olympics are seen by the Chinese as a symbol of their country’s right to the respect to which it is due. The protests and boycott threats are seen as part of a broader refusal to accept China’s role in today’s world.
The person who made the greatest impact on me during my visit was Yang Rui, the intelligent and eloquent, presenter of CCTV 9’s flagship political programme, ‘Dialogue’. After dinner and as we were about to enter his car, he suddenly came out with a long personal peroration which was delivered with intellectual clarity but driven by emotion. About the European media reporting, he said: “I am angry, upset, disillusioned, hurt, shocked and feel badly let down. Like many others of my generation, we love Europe and many of your values, certainly greater freedom, but European hostility and animosity towards China horrifies me. My view of Europe has collapsed. I feel humiliated.” Yang Rui, in a few words, summed up the reactions of many young Chinese I met. He added, “My son Martin, who is currently studying in Minnisota, said in utter disbelief that the China-bashing campaign is really beyond him.”
A Central Party sage put it this way: “Chinese youth have been indifferent to their destiny, focussing on the pursuit of economic benefits; but on Tibet, they have shown deep concern. Their emotions in the recall of Chinese humiliation must be put to positive use and the gap between ethnic groups must not be allowed to widen.”
Many Chinese also refer to European hypocrisy over human rights. Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International, told the European Policy Centre on 15 April, “There should have been uproar about European governments sending people to be tortured. Instead, the Council, the Commission and the Parliament had been muted about the possibility of torture in Italy and Germany, but loudly voiced criticisms of torture in Turkey and China.”
Two factors must remain uppermost in mind. First, Tibet to the Chinese is not a question of religion or human rights, but territorial integrity. Tibetans are the biggest regional, ethnic grouping – believed to be around five million. Half live within Tibet itself, and most of the remainder in minority communities in the four neighbouring provinces of Gansu, Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan. Tibet itself occupies one eighth of Chinese territory, more than twice the size of France, but there are 55 ethnic minorities in China, and several regions whose separatist feelings might be roused by what happens in Tibet.
Second, the Chinese have not forgotten the Eight Power Allied Forces formed by Britain, US, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Austria and Italy which invaded in 1901, and see a new western conspiracy to humiliate them over Tibet and the Olympics.
There is a Beijing view and a Tibetan exile view as to who started the recent troubles. The Beijing view is that this was a planned uprising, organised by the “Dalai Lama clique”. The Tibetan view is that this was a spontaneous uprising provoked by the beating of Buddhist monks by the police. According to James Miles of “The Economist” who was in Tibet at the time, there was no sign of the riots being organised by Tibetan exiles. The Chinese plain clothes police presence in Lhasa is huge and he finds it hard to imagine non-detection. He characterised the rioting as essentially economic but with festering ethnic grievances, although this judgment is questioned. He has no doubt that non-Tibetan shops and property were smashed and burned. Much of the burning and looting was methodical.
It is clear that on 14-15 March, Tibetans burned and looted Han Chinese and Uighur Muslim shops. The government says that 20 or so Han Chinese were killed in the fires, but the exact number cannot be verified.
There was considerable surprise that the Chinese governmental authorities and security forces were apparently caught unawares and serious criticism by Han Chinese residents of Lhasa of this slow reaction. Prompt action may well have reduced supporting protests across the plateau and as far afield as Rongwo, which is 1 200 kms from Lhasa. The riots were put down by paramilitary police. The extent of army involvement is unclear. Tear gas and warning shots were used but there is no indication of serious killing. However, there is no reliable evidence and no photographs have emerged, despite the widespread use of mobile telephones with cameras.
Martial law was not declared. However, there is an assumption in Europe that the Chinese “crackdown” was heavy-handed, and with the exclusion of journalists from Tibet, it is assumed in Europe that the suppression of the riots was brutal.
European reactions and views
Contrary to what many Chinese believe, there is no single European view. There exist active pro-Tibetan groups supporting independence. Tibet conjures up in Europeans feelings of romanticism and mystery and the Dalai Lama is seen as a peaceful, sympathetic, mystical, religious leader who seeks nothing but the right of his people to practise their religion and culture without interference. The fact that he claims still to be head of state and that he is a political figure and not just a monk is not widely understood.
European experts on Tibet conclude that it is not possible to determine whether or not Tibet has been a continuous part of China as there are at least two ambiguous periods, and in any case China was not a nation state as we know it today.
The general European ‘understanding’ is probably that the PRC invaded Tibet in 1959 (unsurprising having regard to the state of China-Europe relations at that time). At best it is of a Tibetan uprising violently suppressed. The 1989 troubles in Tibet do not figure strongly in European memories. However, there is no need to dwell on history as the EU and its 27 Member States recognise that Tibet is part of the PRC.
The Tibetan groups claim that they seek to liberate Tibet from the “oppressive Chinese”. To them, Tibet was a Shangri La until the Chinese came. The fact that pre-1951 Tibet was ruled by an elite and brutal feudal class is overlooked.
When the present Dalai Lama left in 1959 at the age of 24, Tibet was a theocratic, feudal serfdom. Of the population of 980 000, the nobles and high Buddhist lamas made up 5% but owned all the property and ruled Tibet. 60-70% of the serfs were thralpas, who were unpaid serfs. 30-40% were dudchong, who were still poorer. 5% were nangzhan or house slaves. Serfs were bought and sold.
The “Tibetan cause” is promoted by others diverse groups in the West – human rights activists, the Taiwan lobby, the protectionists, and those who are simply anti-Chinese. Thus there is a commonality of interests, motivated by fear of and/or hostility towards China. A ‘free’ Tibet is seen as a first step to a ‘free’ China.
Their solution is apparently an independent, democratic (western style) Tibet. Pro-Tibet campaigners protest against China’s incessant modernisation of Tibet and the destruction of its religion and culture, and its refusal to allow the Dalai Lama to return and assume his ‘rightful’ position as Tibet’s leader.
The European Parliament’s attitude is of deep concern. Parliament held an extensive debate on Tibet during an extraordinary session on 26 March 2008, which was attended by Tibetans in exile, who were warmly welcomed. A letter from the Dalai Lama was read out by President Poettering thanking him for Parliament’s support. He stated that the Dalai Lama would be addressing Parliament in December 2008 during the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, but he was welcome whenever he would like to come. The debate was unbalanced and prejudiced but there was an overall consensus.
While all violence was condemned, no speaker referred to Tibetans rioting, burning, pillaging and murdering Han Chinese (and Uighur Muslims). There were two contradictory assertions repeated several times. First, that journalists were banned and thus there was no reliable information; but, second, information on Tibetans killed supplied by exiles were stated as facts supporting the condemnation of PRC conduct. There was no recognition of the right of the authorities to use force to stop the rioting and an assumption that excessive force was used.
Here are some of the unsubstantiated allegations and critical comments:
- There was a disproportionate use of military force.
- Hundreds of Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese.
- In Beijing we don’t want athletes with blood on their feet
- Can we shake hands with officials with murder on their hands?
- The Olympic Games under a dictatorship are a political event. Remember 1936.
- The EU must refuse to attend the opening ceremony while hundreds are being arrested every day.
- Everyday, more and more magazines are being closed.
- China is a brutal communist dictatorship.
- We must defeat the China hegemony or see the end of the free world.
- The Olympic spirit died in the Tibetan genocide.
Some balanced views were expressed, but the overall tenour of the debate was influenced by a relatively small number of ‘activist’ members.
The European Parliament voted at its April plenary session an unbalanced and, indeed, irresponsible resolution.
Council and Commission
The Council secretariat and Commission representatives adopted a different tone from the parliamentarians. They stressed that there were ongoing EU-China discussions in relation to Tibet. The Council representative called on both sides to show restraint. Peaceful protests should be permitted. There should be a constructive dialogue between the two sides in order to find a sustainable solution. There should be access for the media.
External Relations Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner pointed out that human rights was no longer a purely internal affair as China has entered into international commitments. The Commission is proposing that the next EU-China Human Rights Dialogue visit Tibet. The Olympic Games is not a political event but the environment must be peaceful with media freedom.
The Council’s careful statements are to be contrasted with the inconsistent behaviour of some Member State leaders. It is sad that the EU 27 have not agreed a common position on Tibet or even the Olympics, but little attempt seems to have been made to achieve this. (This does not augur well for a European common foreign policy).
The prize for the biggest mishandling of the issues goes to Paris (see below)
Official (ie governmental, which does not include parliamentary) European reactions have, on the whole, been measured.
However, there is a black-out of information on what is happening in Tibet and in Tibetan areas in the rest of China, and a feeling has developed – without proof and with encouragement – that the Chinese security authorities took drastic steps to restore and maintain order. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that, “China hurts itself if it hinders foreign observers from getting their own picture of the situation.”
No EU government leader has called for a boycott of the Games, but few will attend the opening ceremony. The EU, through its Presidency, Slovenia, said on 20 March that a “boycott could signify actually losing an opportunity to promote human rights and could, at the same time, cause considerable harm to the population of China as a whole.” Commission President Barroso stated on 25 March and subsequently that he was opposed to a boycott and called upon the 27 Member States to adopt a common position.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner backtracked on his proposal that the EU boycott the opening ceremony, but President Nicolas Sarkozy subsequently suggested that France had not ruled out a possible boycott. Later he said that his attendance would depend on progress in the talks between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese government. Despite there being no progress he has confirmed that he will attend. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will attend the closing ceremony (the next Games being held in London) but will not attend the opening ceremony: his original intention remains unclear. Which other European leaders will be attending is not yet clear.
The official statement of the EU foreign ministers, meeting informally in Brdo, Slovenia on 28-29 March, made no reference to the Olympic Games, but “reiterated their strong concern over the events in the autonomous Chinese region of Tibet. The EU condemns all violence and pays its respect to the victims. It calls for an end to the violence and asks that arrested persons be treated in conformity with international standards. It wishes to uphold the transparency of information and hence free access by the press to Tibet. The EU notes the Dalai Lama’s recent public commitment to non-violence and to the autonomy, not independence of Tibet. It calls for substantive and constructive dialogue which addresses core issues like preservation of the Tibetan language, culture, religion and traditions. The European Union will continue to pay close attention to the human rights situation in China.”
China, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded that the question of Tibet is an internal question and no foreign country nor international organisation has the right to “interfere”. While understanding the principle being asserted, there was disappointment, certainly in Brussels, that Beijing does not appear to appreciate the parliamentary, civil society, media and public opinion pressures the Member State governments face. As stated elsewhere, no EU government questions that Tibet is part of China. However, as seen from Europe, friends ought to be able to advise each other (as China does, with the governments of N Korea, Myanmar and Sudan). the advice can be rejected but should not be labelled interference. The Olympic Games internationalises the problem to some extent. Finally, China has entered into international commitments to respect human rights, which therefore gives the right to other signatories and relevant international bodies to comment.
There is doubt as to the commitment of the Parisian police to control the protesters. The Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, bears responsibility. He subsequently embarrassed President Sarkozy by saying that he would give the Dalai Lama the freedom of the city of Paris. Jin Ling, the Chinese torch-bearing athlete was disgracefully assaulted in her wheelchair, for which the President eventually got round to apologising for.
The European leaders, to the disappointment of the Chinese, failed to criticise the biased, and indeed false, media reporting. They vacillated and did not come out clearly as to their reactions and intentions, and effectively abdicated responsibility in favour of the media and streets. The potential long term effects of the confrontation were ignored. Beijing does not seem to appreciate the influence of the western media and why European leaders could not be expected strongly to criticise the media, particularly when they are reporting on a popular cause.
At least the Commission took a clear position from the outset and stayed faithfully to it. Barroso on 25 April: “I stated explicitly our commitment in Europe to territorial integrity and unity of China and our support for dialogue and at the same time the need for full respect of human rights.”
The European cognoscenti question whether Beijing has honoured in practice the terms of the 1961 Agreement on regional autonomy and freedom of religious belief. The European public believe that Tibetans do not have freedom of religion and that their culture is being systematically destroyed and that Tibet has effectively been taken over by the Han Chinese who now dominate the region. Religious restrictions appear to have been tightened in recent years.
It is acknowledged that economic conditions have substantially improved (the region enjoying a growth rate higher than the national average), but it is believed that the main beneficiaries have been the Han Chinese in Tibet and the Tibetans only really benefit from the ‘trickle-down’ effect. They see that, despite economic progress, the Tibetans are not at all content, resenting the government and the Han Chinese migration. Clearly, economic growth, efforts to integrate the region more within the PRC and the building of the railway have not won Tibetan loyalty.
Reconciling the preservation of traditional cultures with modern health, education and economic standards is always difficult; but it becomes virtually impossible in the absence of mutual trust. The human rights problem in Tibet may well be mainly a problem of governance, rather than of ethnicity or culture.
Chinese reactions and views
There appears to be a broad consensus in Chinese society, at all levels, in all groups and of all ages, although there is some criticism of specific aspects of government policy.
Tibet is seen, in China, as a long-standing intrinsic part of China and the Dalai Lama a political leader fighting for Tibetan independence from his headquarters in Dharamsala where he heads a ‘government in exile’. The PRC has poured huge sums of money into Tibet to help its economy, but the Chinese feel that the Tibetans show no appreciation. Many Chinese believe that the west supports the Dalai Lama’s quest for independence and that there is a strong movement, backed directly or indirectly by western governments. They see the Dalai Lama as the leader of the coordinated violence inside and outside the PRC
Because of Beijing’s control of press reporting, most Chinese are not aware of the deep resentment of Tibetans over what they regard as heavy-handed governance. The Tibetans are just seen as the ungrateful recipients of large economic aid. They are also given to understand that the March riots in Tibet were a criminal rampage incited by the Dalai Lama and supported by the CIA.
The early statements of Chinese national and regional leaders, following the March riots, gave a very negative impression in Europe. There is no effective external communications mechanism in China. Thus many statements, both in substance and tone, are in Europe reminiscent of old-fashioned Communist language, eg that the unrest was “meticulously planned by reactionary separatist forces” with the goal of making Tibet independent; calls for “a people’s war” to oppose separatism and expose “the hideous face of the Dalai clique”; the claim that only “a handful of people” were involved; that “49 years ago, Tibet adopted democratic reforms and millions of surfs were liberated; that “freedom of religious belief…and cultural rights of the Tibetan people have been fully ensured”; and that “The Dalai group’s attempt to undermine stability and harmony in Tibet won’t get any support from the people and is doomed to failure.”
More worrying though, are the ‘considered’ statements which subsequently emerged from the provincial government and Beijing. “China must resolutely crush the conspiracy of sabotage and smash ‘Tibet independence forces’,” the People’s Daily said in an editorial on 22 March.
Wen Jiabao stated: “There is ample fact – and we also have plenty of evidence – proving that this incident was organised, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique.” “This has all the more revealed that the consistent claims made by the Dalai clique that they pursue not independence but peaceful dialogue are nothing but lies.” He reiterated that China will consider talks with the Dalai Lama only if he is “willing to give up his proposition for so-called Tibetan independence.”
Most Europeans see the Dalai Lama as a religious and spiritual leader and are not aware of his political role. He is seen as a man of peace (a Nobel prize-winner) who is revered by his people after nearly 50 years of exile. As Europeans believe what he says, he is seen as seeking greater autonomy for Tibet (as promised in 1951) and religious freedom but not independence. They do not believe that he instigated the riots and, in fact, has been urging an end to the violence, threatening to resign if it continues. He also opposes a boycott of the Olympic Games.
Europeans believe that the Dalai Lama’s treatment by Beijing is both reprehensible and counter-productive. Anti-Dalai Lama rhetoric has further alienated the Tibetans and hardened European opinion.
While European leaders have every right to meet the Dalai Lama, Chinese sensitivity should at least be recognised. Although he is regarded as a religious leader, it is hard to imagine that the politics and future of Tibet are not discussed at such meetings.
The British and US roles
In the early 19th century, the British Empire was encroaching from northern India into the Himalayas and Afghanistan and the Russian Empire of the tsars was expanding south into Central Asia; each power became suspicious of the other’s intent in Tibet. By the 1850s Tibet had banned all foreigners from Tibet and shut its borders to all outsiders. Then came “The Great Game“, a period of rivalry between the British and Russian Empires, including a brutal British invasion in 1904.
The US interest in Tibet dates back to early last century. It stopped Britain promoting independence for Tibet in 1940 (as a buffer between Russia and India) but changed its position when Mao Zedung came to power. Its current role is unclear.
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and highly influential, is strongly pro-Tibetan and recently visited the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. Her public statements have been unequivocally hostile to China, calling China’s crackdown “a challenge to the conscience of the world.”
“If freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out against China’s oppression in China and Tibet, we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world,” she said. She called for an international investigation into the violence in Tibet and dismissed China’s claim that the Dalai Lama was behind the fighting as making “no sense.”
The part the US played in the Dalai Lama’s decision not to return to Tibet in 1959 is disputed but there seems to be general acceptance that he was originally supported financially by the CIA, the Indian Government and Chiang Kai Shek. As its web-site reveals (www.tibet.net), the Tibetan government-in-exile is substantial and has been financed for 49 years. Its present funding sources are unknown.
The American media have not focussed on Tibet to the same extent as the European media. One can only speculate as to who the current funders are, although it is alleged that the CIA indirectly channels funds through a number of American NGOs. This seems credible, bearing in mind the history of extensive support since the early days of the Chinese Republic, the close relationship with the Indian intelligence services after the Indo-China War of 1962, and covert actions from the mid-sixties.
There is an obvious desire in China and in Europe that the Olympic Games
not be marred by political problems. Tibet is the first test and a very sensitive and emotive one. It is important that Beijing does not believe that the EU or any Member State government is encouraging agitation over Tibet. There are, of course, a number of Tibetan protest groups operating in Europe, supported by some European NGOs. Parliamentarians express strong views which do not necessarily represent their government’s views. Beijing must understand the European perceptions of the Dalai Lama and Tibet, as indicated above. No-one who matters in Europe wishes to re-open the past, but everyone is anxious that peace return to Tibet as soon as possible and that the Chinese authorities exercise great caution.
What, as seen from Europe, is the best policy to be followed by Beijing? It is appreciated that Beijing has to balance security (and creating precedents for other groups) against public relations. Clearly, further rioting must be prevented, wherever possible, and if it does occur, ended with the minimum of force.
The first test in European eyes is the official conduct towards the Tibetan rioters who have given themselves up and those who have not, but have been arrested. The unofficial feeling in Brussels is that all monks should be released, and that non-monks should be dealt with as leniently as is possible in the circumstances. It is unclear what happened and what is happening.
Statements in the Chinese media calling for efforts to “resolutely crush” pro-independence agitators linked to the Dalai Lama worry Europeans. It is, however realised that China is nervous of relaxing its security measures given the risk that Tibetans will continue to try to take advantage of global attention focused on the Olympics to draw attention to their grievances.
The demonstrations and violence at the torch-lighting ceremony in Olympia on 24 March and subsequently during the torch’s relay has been deplorable, particularly in Paris (see above).
There is natural Chinese resentment over what they believe to be interference in their domestic affairs. However, Beijing chose to stage the Games and to stage an extensive torch parade, and need to bear this in mind when reacting. Europe and other countries are in a way customers of the Olympics and customer views are normally taken into account.
Tibet will continue to be a running sore poisoning the PRC’s relations with the West unless a solution can be found. The European view is that this can only be found by direct negotiation with the Dalai Lama and waiting for his death is not an advisable strategy. Europeans fear that there are younger and more militant exiles who are difficult to restrain and the best hope of compromise is with the Dalai Lama, who also has the authority to convince the Tibetans to agree.
No senior western politician actively supports Tibetan independence. Since the current demonstrations in Tibet, the reactions of European leaders have been measured, confining themselves to urging Beijing to act with moderation. China needs to ensure that the approach of the EU and its Member States remains measured, as this will help stem more extreme conduct by the US Congress and pro-Tibetan and anti-Chinese groups in Europe and elsewhere. Beijing should, however, be aware that European officials and experts remain concerned about what they see as the structural repression of cultural expression.
The Dalai Lama’s affirmation that he does not seek Tibetan independence is widely known, and believed. What he means by “meaningful autonomy” for the Tibetan people living in Tibet and the adjoining provinces is unclear. At the same time, some clarification of what Beijing means by an “autonomous region” is desirable. Does the region in practice enjoy any more autonomy than a ‘province’?
‘Paris Match’ on 27 March probably spoke for much of Europe when it stated that Tibetans claiming independence made no sense. They should obtain international support for a dialogue with the PRC involving the Dalai Lama, with a view to respecting Tibet’s cultural identity and religion, helping the people out of poverty and integrated them in a modern Tibet which participates in the diversity of China.
Beijing has been angered by western calls, at least public ones, for dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama. China has not held any direct discussions with him since 1959. It has held several fruitless rounds of talks with his representatives in recent years. China presumably fears that if allowed to return, the Dalai Lama could exert enormous pressure on the Party because of his devoted following in Tibet. Greater autonomy could lead to a less-than-peaceful drive for independence.
It is difficult to understand the extraordinary hostility that Beijing shows towards the Dalai Lama and the extent of his demonisation. The extent to which the rhetoric expresses genuine feeling, and how much is deliberate propaganda, cannot be judged. It should not be overlooked that Hu Jintao was party secretary of the TAR from 1988 to 1992.
There are around 100 000 Tibetans living in exile in neighbouring India, Bhutan and Nepal, and probably 10-15 000 living outside Asia. A high proportion of the exiles have never been to Tibet.
Patriotism or nationalism?
Western behaviour over Tibet has unleashed an unexpected degree of indignation among ordinary Chinese people, because of what they perceive as grossly unfair criticism by foreign governments and others, biased media reporting. The Chinese reactions began with internet posting, blogging and dedicated web-sites (eg www.anti-cnn.com). The mobilisation of younger Chinese on internet was unprecedented in both speed and scale. Subsequently, there were physical demonstrations. CNN were signalled out because of its overall coverage and because of the remarks made by in-house commentator Jack Cafferty, who called Chinese products “junk” and said that, although America’s relationship with China has changed a great deal, “they’re basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years.”
The dividing line between patriotism and nationalism is a fine one. Experience has made Europeans extremely wary of patriotism, let alone nationalism. Americans can perhaps better understand this surge of Chinese patriotism. No-one, including the PRC government, doubts the risk of this patriotism turning to nationalism. Carrefour is a case in point. Millions of text messages were circulating, urging a boycott of Carrefour’s chain of over 100 outlets in China, because of false allegations that the company has financially supported the Dalai Lama, and because of the Paris torch incident and other hostile French statements.
The PRC government stepped in to prevent a boycott, which would be just as damaging to China as to Carrefour, virtually all its goods being made in China, and it would be likely to provoke a boycott of Chinese goods in Europe. The government is also, no doubt, concerned that the current activity shows how major protests can be easily organised, including anti-government ones. The potential power of text messaging is being realised.
Beijing and representatives of the Dalai Lama, have resumed talks. In fact, informal contacts have never ceased, but there have been no ‘official’ talks for over a year. Six rounds of talks over the past five years between Beijing and Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lamas’s envoy, have made negligible progress. The PRC government presumably concluded that a gesture had to be made. Two meetings have taken place but no progress appears to have been in the talks, which are supposed to continue in October.
Europeans believe that the decision was influenced by foreign pressure and its effect on China’s external relations: Beijing denies this. Perhaps the timing – on the day of the Commission meetings – was a gesture to President Barroso. The outcry over Tibet has produced an anti-western backlash in China with calls to boycott European goods. The government must be worried that the protests could spin out of control and turn against it. It is hard to see what early progress is possible, but the mere agreement to discuss represents progress and hope. At least, the world might understand the settlement terms being proposed by the two sides.
The announcement of the decision to resume talks was followed the next day by denunciations of the Dalai Lama in both the People’s Daily and the Tibet Daily. A leader in the former attacked “the Dalai clique” for seeking support from western countries and ignoring “the efforts and achievements made by China after shaking off serfdom and poverty in Tibet.” The latter reported that “the Lhasa March 14 incident is another ugly performance meticulously plotted by the Dalai clique to seek Tibet independence.” Does this mean that there has been no real change in policy, just a method of deflecting criticism ahead of the Games, lack of coordination or an announcement made sooner than previously attended?
Winners and losers
The Dalai Lama and his supporters have successfully drawn international attention to the Tibet issue. Whether this will help find a solution is questionable, particularly when the West again forgets about Tibet after the Olympics and the media find another story to run. The March riots will not have helped the cause of peaceful co-existence between the Tibetan on the one hand and Han and Muslim Chinese on the other nor endeared the Tibetans to Chinese public opinion. Indeed, whether the Dalai Lama’s international profile is a help or hindrance to a solution is also unclear.
It is not impossible to imagine young Tibetan exiles resorting to violence. It is unclear whether the Tibetan Chinese living in Tibet would support a fight for independence.
The western lobbies (Tibet, Taiwan, human rights and anti-China) in Chinese eyes have humiliated their country and offended the average Chinese. It’s hard to see any lasting benefit achieved by them.
The European media, with very few exceptions, reached a level of reporting that hardly validates our demands for China to grant press freedom to its journalists.
The European Parliament once again showed its irresponsible tendencies when not acting as a legislator.
Member State leaders have failed to show leadership.
Barroso and the Commission have gained in stature, taking a clear position and remaining consistent.
The Chinese government showed its weakness in crisis management and its failure to communicate effectively.
The image of its peaceful development and the building of a harmonious society took a beating.
A sorry story all round.
Conclusions & recommendations
What went wrong?
The interference with the Olympic torch processions was surprisingly not anticipated. Western governments do not appear to have taken adequate action to control the demonstrations. Although statements by western leaders were not inflammatory, the media hyped up the tensions and others joined in. Inept Chinese statements also fuelled the tensions.
Both sides then committed fundamental errors of judgement which transformed a relatively minor difference into a bruising confrontation.
The Chinese response to reasonable requests for clarification of the riots was simply that Tibet is part of China and, as such, a purely domestic issue. Beijing should have stated that there was a riot by Tibetan Chinese which was put down with the minimum necessary force.
What actually happened this year was only the manifestation of serious underlying problems, at the root of which is not the question of Chinese sovereignty, but rather the oppressive manner in which that sovereignty appears to have been exercised and Tibet governed.
The realistic view in Europe among the informed is that independence is wishful thinking, but this does not prevent criticism of the nature of the Chinese presence in Tibet, even if it hurts the feelings of the Chinese people.
This position recognises the moderation and relative willingness to compromise demonstrated by the Dalai Lama, and is frustrated by the apparent lack of moderation in the Chinese approach.
It is critically important, both China and Europe, but culturally very difficult, that Beijing adopts an external communications policy commensurate with China’s stage of development and international role. This is made even more difficult because our histories, philosophies, laws and social thinking are so different, and our languages cannot easily be translated to the other because of fundamental differences in their construction.
Mutual trust follows from mutual understanding. Working together promotes both. Westerners cannot be expected to understand without explanation. This is especially true in relation to Tibet and Taiwan. Information so often appears to be old-fashioned Communist propaganda and does a disservice to the Chinese people and the Foreign Ministry usually sidelined until after the diplomatic damage has occurred.
Calling the Dalai Lama “a jackal and wolf clothed in a monk’s robes, and a vicious devil who is a beast in human form”, was a public relations disaster. This kind of language lacks credibility in Europe. Europeans see the Dalai Lama – rightly or wrongly – as a saintly man of peace, incapable of plotting violence.
Beijing doubts that China will receive fair media coverage in the west but the present situation is not in China’s interests as it leads to very unfair reporting. European political leaders are influenced by media and public pressures. However, the effective implementation of any communications policy must be delegated to Chinese third country missions, who have to act on their own responsibility without clearing everything with Beijing.
The substance and form of both written and oral communications should be directed at the recipients with a view to influencing them. It is not what you say that matters, but what you are heard to say. The content and style of most official statements from China on Tibet are counter-productive. It must also be remembered that perception is usually more important than reality.
The following brief conclusions are drawn from above:
- Chinese and European perceptions of Tibet and the Dalai Lama are totally different. There is no trust between the Tibetans and the Han Chinese.
- There is no trust between China and the West over Tibet, the Chinese believing there to be a highly organised conspiracy.
- The EU and 27 Member State governments are all anxious that the Olympic Games be successful and there not be political and social unrest.
- They are equally anxious that the Chinese authorities act with restraint in their maintaining order in Tibet and in Tibetan areas outside the region.
- EU leaders urge Beijing to dialogue with the Dalai Lama, because they believe him to be a restraining influence on younger and militant exiles. He also has the authority to ensure acceptance of any agreement he reaches.
- Clarification is needed as to what the Dalai Lama means by “autonomy” and what the PRC means by “autonomous region.
- China should wish to ensure, in its own interest, that the approach of the EU and its Member States remains broadly favourable.
- Tibet may be an internal issue but the Olympic Games are not
The following recommendations are offered:
To European leaders:
- Try to ensure that when issues such as Tibet arise, the Chinese perception is understood.
- Ensure that the risks of longer term fall-out are understood.
- Seek an agreed EU position.
- Denounce grossly unfair behaviour of the media.
To Chinese leaders
- Try to ensure that when issues such as Tibet arise, the western perception is understood.
- Put in place an effective crisis management system.
- Reorganise the information and communication service.
- Introduce a communications strategy whose objective is to influence European thinking.
- Distinguish between interference in domestic affairs and advice from friends.
- Learn to accept criticism and accept that mistakes have been made in governing Tibet.
To both European & Chinese leaders
- Establish a mechanism which allows reactions to issues such as Tibet to be managed by both sides.
- Put resource into developing mutual understanding and removing misperceptions.
To the Dalai Lama
- Consider whether the ongoing visits to European leaders help or hinder the search for a solution.
Whatever one’s views might be of the underlying issues, one thing is clear. It is in everyone’s interests that peace be restored and in no-one’s long term interests that the Olympic Games be seriously disrupted or boycotted. The world financial, economic and political situation is precarious enough without being exacerbated by destabilisation in China.
On 24 August the Olympic flame will be extinguished and, in all probability, so will the prominence of Tibet in western news reporting. But the fall-out in international relations risks living on. Short memories of history are dangerous, but so are long ones. It is essential that the Chinese do not see recent events as a continuation of their humiliation by the West. As Confucius said, “Forget injuries, never forget kindnesses”.Author : Stanley Crossick