Accuracy in Media

Despite sustained opposition from China, the Dalai Lama remains one of the world’s most respected and influential spiritual leaders. The borders of Tibet, over which the Dalai Lama claims leadership, are poorly defined, and constitute a potential conflict area for China, India and the U.S. On March 26th, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) gathered a distinguished set of panelists to discuss the strategic importance of Tibet, and why the U.S. must be involved in the peaceful resolution of the Tibet-China relationship. One of the featured speakers was Mr. Lodi Gyari, Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He outlined the problems in the current negotiations and explained that the conflict has been irresolvable because of failures on the part of both the Chinese and the Tibetans. The key issues in the China-Tibet dialogue are human rights, including religious freedom, and sovereignty.

On the part of the Tibetans, Gyari explained, they have “miserably failed to reach out and make the Chinese understand” the needs and desires of the people of Tibet. Poor communication between the Tibetan leadership and the Chinese leadership has frustrated efforts at reconciliation, and neither side has shown much willingness to compromise.

Misunderstandings pervade the debate on Tibet. For one, the question of territorial autonomy is frequently raised. Gyari insisted that the Dalai Lama is open to a situation in which Tibet remains a part of the People’s Republic of China. He does not “want to make this a sovereignty issue.” Chinese officials, however, characterize the Tibetans as a splinter group, and make efforts to push them away and alienate them. Communications often break down and passions flare regarding sovereignty issues, and even finding an opportunity for any discussion between the Chinese and Tibetans has proven difficult.

The failure of the Chinese is largely on the issue of human rights. However, these violations are “symptoms of a far bigger problem, that is, the Chinese government,” Gyari said. Tibetans have been strictly monitored and controlled by the Chinese government, and expressions of protest have been silenced brutally. One year ago, to celebrate the anniversary of an uprising against Chinese rule, Tibetan monks arranged a peaceful march. When the marches were broken up and monks were arrested, protests and riots broke out, sparking a Chinese response that ended with over 200 Tibetans dead and thousands arrested.

It is hard not to be sympathetic with Tibet, but the Chinese express considerable concerns of their own. As Michael J. Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown explained, the ranking of “security concerns” by the Chinese government now finds Tibet as number one, followed by Xinjiang and Taiwan.

Whether or not these concerns can be substantiated, the reality is that the Chinese see Tibet as a genuine security and legitimacy threat. Green listed some of the reasons that China considers Tibet a serious problem area:

  • Sovereignty. Tibet comprises a significant piece of Chinese land, and a separatist movement could rob China of resources and influence.
  • Pride. China is very serious about recovering “from 100 years of shame and holding together China’s sovereignty.”
  • Precedent. The Chinese government worries that the more defiant Tibet becomes, the more this will encourage other movements, like that of Xinjiang, to continue their rebellion.
  • Religion. As something that “the Communist party is absolutely unable to control,” religious freedom represents a fundamental opposition to the rule of the current Chinese regime and has the potential to spread rapidly.

Tibet has also historically been the source of a lot of foreign intervention in China, particularly from the United States. But why does, and why should, the U.S. consider the Tibetan cause so important? For one, China’s relationship with Tibet, “demonstrates quite clearly for all of China’s neighbors how a powerful Chinese government will deal with a weak, and democratic, counterpart,” said Michael Green.

“Tibet is particularly important because the counterpart in this case is seeking a non-violent peaceable way, based on norms and values the entire world, at least the free world, shares. And it should matter to us,” said Green. “I also think it’s strategically important for the United States to ensure as much international support for His Holiness as possible, for exactly that reason.”

Not surprisingly, the Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy came with some words of advice for the Obama administration as they form a Tibet strategy: continue George W. Bush’s policies. “President Bush has been a tremendous friend and supporter of this issue. We have always been very grateful…and we would very much like the Obama administration to take it up where the Bush administration has left it,” said Gyari.

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