Olympian Dilemmas: Summary of an Expert Roundtable on Tibet

The Olympic torch has barely begun its journey from Greece to the People’s Republic of China, but the universal symbol of unity and sporting excellence has already become a lightning rod for protests against China’s policies on Tibetan issues and a range of other human rights concerns. China's leadership — and its 1.3 billion citizens — are hoping that the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games will mark their nation's remarkable rise on the world stage. But China and the games are now in danger of being diminished by global protests and by the threat of boycotts.

Against this volatile backdrop, the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada convened a closed-door roundtable on Tibet in Vancouver in the first week of April, bringing together a small group of experts with diverse views. The goal was to encourage frank discussion on the underlying problems in the current conflict, implications for China and the world, and possible solutions, including any role that Canada can play.

Canada is at an important juncture in its relationship with China. Historically warm relations between China and Canada have cooled since the Conservative government came to power, but there have been signs recently of a desire at the highest level for more positive ties. The unrest in Tibet, followed by protests in Canada and around the world, comes at an awkward moment in Canada-China relations.

Most members of the group felt that Canada should not boycott the Olympics. According to this view, a boycott was not only unlikely to change China's Tibet policy, but would also run the risk of a significant backlash in a country with vivid historical memories of foreign intimidation. In particular, there was concern that a tarnished Olympics might trigger widespread resentment among China's majority Han population, who would blame Tibetans and foreign "colonial powers" for spoiling China’s Olympic moment. Such resentment could empower China's hardliners and lead to a post-Olympic crackdown in Tibet or other provinces with ethnic minorities.

The best way to encourage Beijing to take a more liberal policy toward Tibetans is to appeal to China’s international treaty commitments on human rights, and its aspirations to be a respected member of the world community. The group felt that it would be counterproductive to criticize China's governance of Tibet on moral grounds. Any preaching to China would likely be construed by Beijing -- and the Chinese generally -- as outsiders trying to infringe on China's sovereignty.

Even though the Chinese government line on Tibet has been consistently tough since the protests began, there is reason to believe that there are alternative voices in the Politburo who would argue for a policy that is more responsive to the legitimate aspirations of the Tibetan people. To the extent that outsiders have any influence on China’s policy toward Tibet, it would be to help reformers in the Communist Party to win the argument for such policies, but in a way that does not embarrass the collective leadership. This is a particularly difficult challenge given that the architect of current Tibet policy is no less that President Hu Jintao, who was Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region in the late 1980s and widely credited at the time for his successful handling of that responsibility. Much of the media commentary in the West that questions Chinese government statements on Tibet fails to understand that the current line is a reflexive response premised on the belief that the current policy on Tibet – consisting of economic development as well as political control -- has been a great success.

Beijing appears to have made special efforts to support economic development in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Some Tibetans have seen a material improvement in their quality of life. However, it is the migrant Han Chinese in the region who have benefited the most from these programs. Tibetans resent the influx of migrants and tourists, which they believe has led to overpopulation. There are widespread misunderstandings between the Han Chinese and Tibetans -- from issues related to the perceived preferential treatment of Tibetans to the resettlement of nomads. Tibetans accuse the Chinese government of “cultural genocide” while Han Chinese complain about the lavish attention (and money) given to Tibetans – and the ungrateful response. While Han Chinese resent the fact that nomads are provided with subsidies to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle, Tibetans complain about the loss of livelihood and tradition that is associated with nomadic life.

A succession of Party Secretaries for the Tibet Autonomous Region, including Hu Jintao, has chosen to locate in Chengdu, in order to avoid the high-altitude climate of Lhasa. The physical and psychological distance has resulted in a “remote-control” style of leadership that frustrates both Chinese cadres in Tibet and ordinary Tibetans who face long wait times for routine administrative decisions. It has also served to insulate China's leadership from the reality and sentiments of Tibetans. The forced retirement of monks, China’s interference in choosing senior lamas, and prohibitions against displaying pictures of the Dalai Lama, are just some of the irritants that contributed to the recent riots.

The experts discussed at some length the role of diaspora communities in the Tibet dispute and the danger of extremism in both the overseas Chinese and overseas Tibetan communities. ProTibet protests are starting to encounter pro-China rallies, as ethnic nationalistic sentiments reduce a complex issue into shouting matches. Within China, there is a thriving internet discussion on Tibet, which is overwhelmingly sympathetic to the government line, and which hints at the dangerous potential of Beijing whipping up Chinese nationalistic sentiment as the ultimate rebuttal to what will be seen as another episode of Western bullying.

As the Tibet protests take on a more radical character, the role of the Dalai Lama comes into sharper focus. He is consistently more moderate than the protestors and has clearly objected to some of their methods and many of their goals (including a boycott of the Olympics). Beijing’s insistence on demonizing the Dalai Lama is, therefore, a puzzle. The group is aware that there are debates within the Chinese leadership on a more nuanced strategy with respect to the Dalai Lama, but it will take time and domestic political space for a more enlightened approach to emerge. It was suggested by some members of the expert group that Beijing would score a tremendous coup by inviting the Dalai Lama to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. While such a dramatic turnaround might appear unlikely at present, China needs a skilful diplomatic response that befits its importance as a world power.

The group was very cautious about any role that Canada might play in ameliorating the Tibet problem. The solutions to Tibet lie mostly within China. But there was also a consensus that Canada has some credentials to be constructive on the issues related to the current unrest, because of the historic friendly relations with Beijing and with the Dalai Lama.

Participants in the roundtable felt that any advice to the Chinese leadership should be couched in terms of domestic and international public policy frameworks that the leadership has adopted. There are many policies already in place that can be interpreted in such a way as to provide Tibetans with greater freedom and security. For example, there has been a succession of Chinese government White Papers on human rights, the rule of law, and nationalities policies that affirm China's commitment to protecting human rights. Beijing has also embraced the language of transparency and accountability as part of its accession to the World Trade Organization and is introducing these principles into domestic legislation. These same principles should apply to China’s governance of the Tibet Autonomous Region, which would mean better information flows in and out of the region, including improved access for independent media.

The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada’s Tibet Roundtable was attended by Jack Austin, Tim Brook, Miro Cernetig, Earl Drake, Wenran Jiang, Pitman Potter, Tsering Shakya, T.C. Tethong, Yuen Pau Woo and Kenny Zhang.

Use 'AND' or 'OR' to refine your search.

Use quotes " " to get exact matches or remove them to get more results.