An international statesman was received at the White House on the 21st February to meet and discuss the issues of the day with President Obama.  While this alone would not be cause for consternation, the identity of said statesman is a volatile one to say the least, a reputation he would abhor: it was His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.  As usual, any state visit by the Dalai Lama produced mewling from the Chinese, who claimed that the visit would “…inflict grave damages upon the China-US relationship”.[1] Similar statements were issued when His Holiness met the President in 2010 and 2011, but no concrete measures against ties were introduced.  What makes this visit more interesting though is a series of developments on both sides of the Pacific, within the Tibetan- Government-in-Exile in Dharamshala, India and within Tibet itself.  China is having problems with its minority groups, as the attack in Kunming on the 1st March, which left 29 dead, has shown.  There is however much they can do to alleviate the problem.

Image courtesy of langkawi © 2009, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of langkawi © 2009, some rights reserved

The outcome of the low-level talks was the appointment of Under-Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewell, as special co-ordinator on Tibetan issues.  While this appointment was not unexpected, as Ms. Sewell’s predecessor also occupied the post, the Chinese reaction to her appointment was fairly vitriolic, with Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying saying “The Chinese government resolutely opposes any foreign country using the so-called Tibet problem to interfere in China’s internal affairs… China has never and will never recognise the U.S.’ so-called special envoy for the Tibet problem.”[2]  The high profile nature of the Tibet issue, and particularly a positive perception of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, coupled with the Dalai Lama’s status as an “…internationally respected religious and cultural leader”[3] according to US National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden, means the Chinese rhetoric falls on deaf ears.  Chinese attempts to paint the Dalai Lama as a violent separatist leader seem futile in the huge weight of Western public opinion that supports him.  This meeting and the subsequent appointment are an open snub to the Chinese by the US, asserting its ideological dominance of the human rights discourse; even if economic ties put China in a more equal position. Clearly, America still can dominate the way domestic issues within China are portrayed.

The Chinese have strongly condemned the US’s reluctance to use the word “terrorist”[4] in describing the mass knife attack on a train station in the Yunnan city of Kunming in which 29 people were hacked to death with swords and cleavers.  The state media agency, Xinhua, twice described this attack as “China’s 9/11”.[5][6]  The United States’ reluctance to describe it as a terrorist attack is evidence of a distaste for using the phrase in foreign relations and giving the Chinese legitimacy in their suppression and integration of the Uyghurs in the north-western Xinjiang province, separatist’s members of which it blames for the attacks.  The Uyghurs are a Turkic people, increasingly at odds with the ‘Hanification’ of what they consider their land, which was a short lived independent state East Turkestan, until it was brought under central control in 1949.  In 2009 riots in the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Ürümqi, left nearly 200 people dead, with the Uyghur mob targeting Han Chinese.  A car ramming and blaze in Tiananmen Square which killed five in October 2013 was also blamed on Uyghur separatists.  However, labelling these incidents as terrorism or trying to get the international community and the US to see them as terrorism is a strategy likely to backfire for the Chinese.  Increasing links between China and the Islamic world are seen as necessary for China’s fuel security, and with Pakistan to contain rival India.  However, partaking in the Islamic terrorist discourse, while expedient for legitimating short term measures in Xinjiang, could damage these emerging Islamic world relations, just as Tibetan suppression remains a hot-button issue for relations with the West.

While China’s economic might and Security Council seat give it certain privileges in the international sphere, a lesson that is still to be learnt by Chinese policy makers is that soft power is earned, not bought.  Calling out the US on a “double standard” of naming terrorist attacks while simultaneously suppressing ethnic minorities does not do their international image any favours.  While acquiescing to Spanish court calls for extradition of former president Jiang Zemin[7] for Tibetan genocide would be going too far, developing a more conciliatory and constructive approach towards minorities would greatly help China’s international image if not the domestic unity of the Party.  In Dharamshala, the Dalai Lama has been espousing his “middle way” that is not asking for Tibetan independence, merely greater autonomy within China.[8]  The World Uyghur Congress group in Germany, which strongly condemned the attack, also advocates a similar position, saying that the Chinese use of terrorist threats to justify repression and suppression of Uyghur culture is driving the Uighur’s “down the road towards military actions and attack.”[9]  The Chinese can and should bring violent separatists to justice; but the process can only be fully achieved with talks as well as coercion.

On the other hand, more Western governments have to follow the Americans in putting subtle diplomatic pressure on the Chinese.  The UK’s distancing of itself from the Dalai Lama is a shrewd move for trade relations,[10] but as China begins to float more companies on the London Stock Exchange[11],and generally becomes a more integrated and interdependent member of international society; trade-loss fears should be alleviated as evidenced by the lack of action against the US for the welcoming of the Dalai Lama.  While China’s economy is large, the combined EU’s single market is larger, so a defined and strongly articulated EU policy on Tibetan rights would be helpful.  Both sides stand to lose soft power.  As is pointed out by Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch: “It’s OK to use international justice for El Salvador, Chile and Chad, but when it comes to US or China or Russia, there’s no justice.” That really threatens to undermine the entire architecture of international justice.”[12] That architecture was erected by Western governments and using it to ensure human rights and minority rights will provide diplomatic dividends to Western governments as well.

As the Buddha saw, there is a middle way and going to one extreme or the other will bode ill for all parties.


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