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John Metzler Archive
Thursday, March 20, 2008

Beijing caught between its 'autonomous' Tibet and a vibrant Taiwan

UNITED NATIONS — An ethnic/religious rebellion in mountainous Tibet, and vibrant political democratization across the Taiwan Straits, confronts Beijing’s Marxist mandarins with a daunting dilemma on the eve of the Summer Olympics. The unexpectedly serious uprising among Buddhist Tibetans has slapped Beijing with embarrassment showing just how popular the People’s Republic really is in its Himalayan Shangri La. And the free Presidential elections in Taiwan served as a poignant reminder of the potent force of political democratization among fellow Chinese who are not under direct PRC control.

That the Beijing communists cracked down hard on protesting Tibetan monks should come as no surprise; the PRC’s political pedigree rests holding power by in force, and the optimistically named “Tibet Autonomous Region” is no exception. The Tibetans, who are becoming a minority in their own lands, have little choice but to accept the diktat of the communists and have been tragically forced to endure a “cultural genocide” by being forced into China’s political cookie-mould. The PRC’s challenge in Tibet was not its military crackdown or customary media blackouts, but the fact that the world is watching carefully, especially on the eve of the Olympics.

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The Tibet crisis which has been long simmering, boiled over in mid-March when monks commemorated the failed 1959 uprising against communist rule. Events soon spun out of control for a number of reasons; the Chinese leadership was having its National People’s Congress in far-off Beijing and the local authorities had little direction what to do; with the world watching, China could not crush the demonstrations the old-fashioned way.

Tibet has already caused political collateral damage to the Olympic euphoria. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his German counterpart Chancellor Angela Merkel have pondered as to boycotting the Olympics Opening ceremony. Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Czech President Vlacav Klaus said they would not attend.

President George W. Bush in the meantime, has pressed PRC ruler Hu Jintao to open a dialogue with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama.

Despite rumblings in world capitals over the crackdown, the halls of the United Nations were deceptively silent. There were no urgent meetings of the Security Council, or breathless announcements about the loss of life (Beijing says 22 killed while the Tibetans say over 100), or the danger to regional peace and stability. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon early in the crisis, was “increasingly concerned” about developments and urged restraint by the Chinese. Ban met with Beijing’s UN Ambassador and “expressed my concern and my views to the Chinese government.”

Outgoing UN human rights chief, Louise Arbour was more direct calling on China to allow demonstrators to exercise their freedom of expression and to “refrain from any excessive use of force while maintaining order.”

As to the Security Council which meets with near Pavlovian response to the mere mentions of the word West Bank, Gaza or Palestine, I presume that China’s permanent seat on the Council, its veto, and its growing political clout, serves to effectively intimidate and relegates Tibet to the forsaken file along with Burma’s Buddhist monks.

Indeed the UN’s Geneva-based Human Rights Council should offer a perfect forum to discuss the current Tibet crisis. Yet, during a recent session states and non-governmental organizations raising the issue were continually interrupted by China, and procedural motions stopped discussion. “The council has not only the right, but the obligation to address the Tibet crisis,” said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. “It’s scandalous that the council ends up silencing those who are trying to make sure it does its job.” Australia, Slovenia (on behalf of the EU), Switzerland and the United States raised human rights abuses in Tibet but were soon sandbagged procedurally by Beijing and its allies such as Cuba, Pakistan and Zimbabwe.

Two weeks after the initial troubles a handful of foreign press were allowed into Lhasa, the besieged Tibetan capital. The Wall Street Journal said in a dispatch “Tibet’s Capital is left Scarred and Scared,” and reports, “The unrest and especially the violence in Lhasa, have unnerved many Han Chinese who believe the Chinese government has helped Tibet become more developed and more affluent.” Nonetheless, “To Tibetans however, the Chinese government is a heavy-handed presence, denying them civil rights and interfering with their practice of religion. The Dalai Lama, has said that Beijing’s policies in Tibet are tantamount to ‘cultural genocide’.”

Taiwan poses a larger challenge. Contrary to Tibet, the People’s Republic has thankfully never controlled the island even for a single day since China’s formal division in 1949. Yet, Taiwan’s thriving democracy has proven conclusively that the Chinese people can and will thrive with a free political system. Still the election equally showed maturity among Taiwan’s voters are not willing to mortgage their prosperity and security to any political party who threatens to upset the fragile status quo across the Taiwan Straits.

Thus the landslide victory of opposition Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou, sends a positive message across that Taiwan Straits that there will be renewed realism between the two de facto Chinese states, that of the PRC and the Republic of China on Taiwan. That’s refreshingly good news for cross-straits stability, for Taipei’s strained relations with Washington, and for Taiwan’s economy which has languished because of political uncertainty.

Now it’s Beijing’s time for damage control. Media observers will be treated to the finest Orwellian doublespeak concerning the situation in “autonomous” Tibet, lest anyone allow facts to mar the upcoming Olympic extravaganza.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for World
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