by Edward Lucas
(first published 16 May 2013, but enduringly relevant)
The West must unite to resist Chinese bullying against those who meet Tibet’s leaders
The Tibet season has opened again, with a dire warning to the British government that Prime Minister David Cameron’s temerity in meeting the Dalai Lama last year had blighted relations. Only an apology can mend matters. The communist authorities in Beijing like to think that they can boss other countries around on this score. When Nicolas Sarkozy, then French president, met the Tibetan leader in 2009, France was forced to issue a humble joint statement implying that it would do no such thing again. In 2007, after Germany’s Angela Merkel met the Dalai Lama, Germany did the same.
These are tough times for Tibetans, not just because of their despair at occupation of their homeland, but because of Western pusillanimity. Under the last Labour government, Britain (for no good reason) dropped its position of recognising only Chinese “suzerainty” over Tibet, not de jure rule. Now Cameron is being asked to kow-tow if he wants to restore Chinese trade and investment. Estonia, where President Toomas Hendrick Ilves commendably met the Dalai Lama in 2011, has had the same icy treatment.
Chinese bullying is working. It is ever-harder for Tibetan leaders to get meetings when they travel in Europe and the United States (though the country’s émigré political leader, Lobsang Sangay, did have a reasonably successful trip to Washington DC this month).
This is a test of European and transatlantic political will. If Europe and the US adopted a common position (something on the lines of ‘we will meet with anyone we choose to, regardless of diplomatic bluster’), then the Chinese protests would be fireworks not cannons. China can afford to pick off individual countries, punishing them with a ban on high-level meetings and visits, or even trade and investment sanctions. But it cannot do that to the entire West.
The burden of responsibility and solidarity lies particularly heavily on the countries that have living memories of communist rule and foreign occupation. The Tibetan flag is banned by the Chinese authorities, just as owning a flag in the colours of the pre-war republics guaranteed harsh punishment in the Soviet era. The Baltic states were wiped off the map by the Soviet Union, which criminalised any expression of national sentiment. Migration and russification countered Baltic “nationalist” tendencies; now Beijing is destroying Tibetan identity with huge Han Chinese settlement. The bogus rhetoric of communist ethnic harmony (be like us and we can all be happy) and modernisation are almost identical. The sense of near-hopelessness is similar too. Only 30 years ago the restoration of Baltic independence seemed an impossible dream.
A similar duty lies on Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and other former captive nations. Indeed, anyone who cared about freedom in Europe during the Cold War should care about Tibet now, for the same reasons. Members of the European Parliament, of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, of national legislatures and governments, and everywhere else in public life (universities, think tanks, even media outlets) should make a point of arranging meetings with Tibetan representatives and doing so publicly and proudly. It does not require great moral courage to schedule a meeting and publish a photo. But once everyone is doing so, the ability of the Chinese embassies to feign outrage, and to impose punishments, is greatly limited. Instead of letting timidity ratchet down towards defeat, collective action ratchets resistance upwards towards victory.
The importance of this goes far beyond Tibet. If Europe cannot stick up for principle and defend itself against bullying when the stakes are relatively low, what chance is there that it can do so when the stakes are higher?
Edward Lucas edits the international section of The Economist. This article first appeared in European Voice and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.