China plays Tibet card to the full
HONG KONG - China's strong reaction to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's weekend meeting with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, is unprecedented. From Beijing’s perspective, there is ample reason to take a more hardline stance on what it sees as foreign intervention in the Tibet issue.
Sarkozy met the Dalai Lama in Gdansk, Poland, during celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of former Polish President Lech Walesa winning the Nobel Peace prize. France currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency and Beijing warned that China-EU relations may suffer, adding that the Dalai Lama was a separatist and a "political hooligan".
On Sunday, Beijing summoned the French ambassador to China, Herve Ladsous, and lodged a "strong protest", according to the state news agency Xinhua. The meeting amounted to a "rude intervention" into Chinese affairs, the agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister He Yafei as telling the ambassador. News of the meeting was splashed on national television, saying that it "severely undermined China's core interests, gravely hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and sabotaged the political basis of China-France and China-EU relations".
He said that France now must "correct its mistake with actual deeds to enable China-France relations to continue to be healthy and stable and advance forward". Or else France must be responsible for "serious consequences", hinting China may escalate the diplomatic row.
There are reports that Chinese consumers have started to boycott French goods, and that they are staying away from French giant Carrefour, which is one of China's biggest retailers with 46,000 employees. Prior to Sarkozy's meeting with the Dalai Lama, Beijing called people to remain calm and not to boycott French goods while last-ditch efforts were made to get the meeting canceled. But after it took place on Saturday, there has been no government call for calm.
After Sarkozy said he planned to meet the Dalai Lama, China announced on November 25 that as a protest Premier Wen Jiabao would cancel his plans to attend the 11th China-EU summit in Lyon on December 1. China also postponed talks on finalizing a deal for 150 Airbus passenger planes, a spokesman for the European aircraft maker said.
Remarks by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao last Thursday raised the prospect of more serious economic fallout. Liu said, "We attach great importance to our strategic partnership with France, as well as our business relations with France. These two points are closely related. Only under the conditions of good bilateral relations can we create a sound atmosphere for our business relations."
Trade between China and France was worth US$33.66 billion in 2007, up 33.6% year-on-year, according to China's Ministry of Commerce. French exports to China in the nine months through September rose 3.3% from the same period a year earlier to 6.8 billion euros (US$8.75). French demand for Chinese products rose even faster, with imports up 5.6% at 22 billion euros over the period.
This row, however, is not just about business: the year 2009 marks several important anniversaries in China.
March 31 is the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama fleeing Tibet to begin his life in exile in India after being defeated by the People's Liberation Army in a short-lived uprising reportedly supported by the US Central Intelligence Agency. June 4 will mark the bloody Tiananmen crackdown on pro-democracy students 20 years ago, while October 1 is the 60th birthday of the communist People's Republic of China.
In Chinese tradition, numbers in tens are important. Thus, the Chinese Communist Party is expected to hold grand celebrations, possibly including a military parade at Tiananmen, for the 60th birthday party.
On the other hand, Beijing definitely will try its best to prevent any attempts to highlight the two other anniversaries as these would only mean trouble for the authorities.
This applies especially to March 10, the date the armed uprising in Tibet started 49 years ago. On that date this year some Tibetans took to the streets in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The unrest escalated into riots, attracting wide attention at home and abroad ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in August.
Subsequent to the Tibet unrest, the overseas relay of the Olympic flame was dogged by pro-independence Tibetan activists. This struck a raw nerve in China where national pride was running high ahead of the Olympics. The authorities also had to take extraordinary security measures for the international sports event.
Taught a bitter lesson by this, Beijing is in no mood for a repeat come March. Thus the authorities most likely view the Dalai Lama's overseas trips in the next few months as an attempt to focus the international spotlight on his activities to mark the 50th anniversary of his exile.
The fact that it was the French president who met the Dalai Lama at a widely publicized event was particularly irksome for Beijing. After the March riots in Lhasa, Sarkozy threatened to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, and then the torch relay in Paris was disrupted. Angry Chinese netizens called for a boycott of French goods and tours to France to teach the French "a good lesson". They also demanded that the Chinese government get tougher with France.
There might also be another reason for Beijing's uncharacteristically outspoken outburst. By whipping up some nationalism, the country will receive a boost in national solidarity and social stability, something much needed in trying times.
Although China has to date been less affected by the global financial crisis than most countries, its real economy has been affected. This has forced Beijing to launch a US$600 billion stimulus package to prevent the economy from taking a sharp downtown, which could lead to social unrest.
It can't be denied that China is losing patience with the Dalai Lama and his "separatist" activities. After the March riots in Lhasa, Beijing resumed talks with the Dalai's representatives, with the most recent round in late October. Although no details were officially revealed, official sources in Beijing say in private that the talks failed to narrow the differences between the two sides.
Recently in India, a conclave of Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala decided to uphold the Dalai Lama's goal of broader autonomy for Tibet through peaceful dialogue with Beijing.
Although the Dalai Lama says he will not seek independence for Tibet, he wants autonomy for a "greater Tibet" which would cover all major areas in which Tibetans are concentrated, including Tibet, Qinghai province and part of Sichuan province. Also, the Dalai Lama acts as Tibetans' "god-king" by engaging in political activities. Beijing cannot tolerate this as its policy does not allow religion to interfere in politics.
Ye Xaiowen, the minister in charge of the Administration of Religious Affairs, published a commentary in state-run English-language China Daily on Monday to slam the Dalai Lama's "real ethnic autonomy" as a "scheme disguised under a legal packaging". "What they really want is not Tibet's 'autonomy', but the 'suicide' of Tibetans caused by ethnic segregation, ethnic antagonism and separation. Has not the 'Tibetan Youth Congress' clamored for 'fighting for independence' through 'suicides'?" Ye wrote.
The stinging response to Sarkozy's meeting with the Dalai Lama could also be a warning shot to other heads of state contemplating similar interaction. Sarkozy is the first foreign leader to meet the Dalai Lama in recent times. Given China's emerging strength, it is in a position to be more assertive in its foreign relations.
All the same, a stronger diplomatic line alone cannot solve domestic problems in Tibet. As former Chinese leader Mao Zedong said in his philosophical essay On Contradiction, "... external causes are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of change, and ... external causes become operative through internal causes. The fundamental cause of the development of a thing is not external but internal ... social development is due chiefly not to external but to internal causes."
In the case of Tibet, therefore, Beijing would be better served by reviewing its Tibet policy in an effort to reduce the potential for social conflict in the Himalayan region. If it can do this, there will be no "internal cause" for any "foreign intervention" or "instigation from outside".