Sometime after the bloody crackdown of the students’ led demonstrations for democracy at Tiananmen Square in 1989 when China re-emerged on the world stage from political isolation, some political analysts contended that the issue of Tibet would be marginalised as a result of the growing economic and political clout of China. I never shared this view. Mainly because of my fundamental belief that the importance and urgency of the issue of Tibet will be first and foremost determined by the state of affairs inside Tibet and by the determination and aspirations of the Tibetan people.2008: A turning-point in the Tibetan freedom struggle
In the past 60 years of its rule in Tibet, Beijing has left no doubt about its resolve to root out the issue of Tibet once and for all. With this resolve China has experimented with varying degrees of repression in Tibet in the past decades. But all these policies have been misguided due to a fundamental lack of understanding, appreciation and respect for Tibet’s distinct culture, history and identity. Instead of pursuing a policy that aims to win the hearts and minds of the Tibetans, Beijing has been consistently relying on the use of force and coercion as the principal means to rule and administer Tibet.
As a consequence of these misguided policies, today the spirit of resistance of the Tibetan people is stronger than ever. The Tibetan resistance and freedom movement, which started in the 1950s, has been carried on up to the present by Tibetans belonging to the generations of the 20th century. However, last year the demonstrations of Tibetans throughout the Tibetan plateau signalled an important turning-point: that today the Tibetan resistance and freedom movement has been taken over by Tibetans belonging to the generations of the 21st century – who have been born and grown up under Chinese rule.
The uprising of Tibetan generations of the 21st century last year has brought the issue of Tibet once more to the focal point of world attention and has put it firmly on the political agenda of this century. Obviously this problem is going to stay unless it is addressed in a realistic and proper way and resolved through honest and earnest dialogue and negotiations. It is a dangerous political miscalculation and wishful-thinking to hope that this issue will gradually go-away own its own. Moreover, the events of last year in Tibet also demonstrated clearly how events in Tibet can seriously disrupt China’s relations with the rest of the world and her standing in the world.Impacts of China’s growing role in the world
I have always been of the view that the more a country gains on importance on the world stage the more attention is being paid to all aspects of the state of affairs of that country by members of the international community. Since the issue of Tibet has a bearing on the stability and unity of the People’s Republic of China, I have been of the opinion that the cause of Tibet will continue to receive rather more attention and to gain more significance in accordance with the increasing stature of China in the world.
Nonetheless, it is also an undeniable reality that the political environment in which the Tibet movement has been operating so far has changed significantly in recent times. China’s position in the world has become considerably stronger. For most governments in Europe, China has become an important international partner. Their relationship with China is broad, multi-faceted, comprehensive and vital in a number of areas.
Against this background the Tibet movement is facing a changed political environment.Europe’s policy of engagement and quiet diplomacy with China
In my recent discussions with a number of governments in Europe, I have gained the impression that the issue of Tibet is taken very seriously today. Tibet is being raised in bilateral and multilateral relations with China by European governments at various levels, including at summits. Since last year’s crisis in Tibet it is noticeable that there is greater awareness of the seriousness and urgency of the issue of Tibet among many European governments. As a result, it is my impression that there is greater resolve among these European governments to address the issue of Tibet with their Chinese counterparts with a greater sense of awareness, urgency and perseverance.
On the other hand, it is also a fact that is becoming clearer today that European governments are more hesitant and reluctant to criticise China publicly about human rights and Tibet. In addition to the growing importance of China as a global actor, there has always been a school of thought that contends that “quiet diplomacy” is the more effective way to enhance human rights, greater openness and more democracy in China. This view has been rebutted as a fatal fallacy by the political development of the past years and the current state of affairs in China. Sadly, many governments still continue to advance this position. It is difficult to say whether they do so just out of political expediency or on account of lack of viable policy alternatives.Shortcomings and negative consequences of the policy of “quiet diplomacy”
The debate among politicians, diplomats and political analysts about how human rights, rule of law and democracy in China can be best encouraged and promoted is a valid and important one. However, these debates focus exclusively on the Chinese leadership and government and ignore completely the forces of human rights and democracy in China. There is a total lack of appreciation and understanding of the role and importance that Chinese movements for democracy and human rights are playing and will continue to play in bringing about these changes in China. Ultimately, respect for basic civil and political rights in the PRC can only be restored and ensured if the forces of democracy and human rights in China prevail. Unfortunately, this aspect of the issue – the support and encouragement of forces for human rights and democracy in China - has so far been totally side-stepped in these debates.
The absence of public expression of concern and solidarity is a very serious matter for oppressed and persecuted people. Hope and vision are their sole source of strength and inspiration in a situation marked by intimidation, coercion and terror. The knowledge that there are people in the world who recognize the suffering and injustice they are undergoing, who have not abandoned them and who work and call for their freedom is a tremendous source of encouragement, inspiration and strength. Expressions of public concern and solidarity are the oxygen for the flame of hope and vision of oppressed people everywhere. Therefore, it is precisely for this reason why the oppressors condemn so strongly such acts as “interference in internal affairs” and are so insistent on dialogue “behind closed doors”. It is an important feature of their psychological warfare against human rights and democracy activists. Obviously, no amount of brutal oppression has such devastating effect on the hope, morale and will of the oppressed as the feeling of being forgotten, abandoned and their agony and suffering ignored by the world and fellow human beings.Power politic versus People’s power
The importance of public gestures and expressions of sympathy, support and solidarity has been clearly demonstrated by different movements in the past. The cases in point are the movements against Apartheid, the Vietnam War etc. In Europe, the important role of such gestures and expressions in sustaining the hope, courage and vision of those oppressed is well-documented by testimonies of human rights and democracy activists in former Communist countries in Europe.
In the light of political constraints that many governments in Europe seem to feel with regard to public expression of criticism of China’s repressive policies in Tibet, obviously, the Tibet movement in Europe is facing a changed political environment. The restraint exercised by governments in criticising China publicly may require that the Tibet movement review and reconsider its priorities and activities. The logical conclusion out of the new political reality would seem to counter-balance the absence of formal or official public expression of concern and support through public acts of support and solidarity directly by ordinary citizens and the media.The Berlin Solidarity Rally with the People of Tibet
In May last year the German Tibet Support Group (Tibet Initiative Deutschland) and the local Tibetan community organised a solidarity rally for Tibet on the occasion of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit to Berlin. Twenty-five thousand Germans assembled at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to show their support for and solidarity with the Tibetan people and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was a massive and most impressive show of public support for and solidarity with the non-violent freedom struggle of the Tibetan people. No message to the Chinese government as well as to the German government could have been clearer and stronger than this peaceful gathering of thousands of free citizens for a common purpose and with a common message on Tibet.
The rally conveyed some important messages. Firstly, it demonstrated to the German government the strong support for the cause of Tibet and for His Holiness the Dalai Lama among the German population. The rally was, thus, also a compelling call on the German government to act on Tibet. Secondly, the wide press and media coverage of the rally coupled with the huge presence of 25.000 people demonstrated clearly that the issue of Tibet is an issue of national concern to the people of the Federal Republic of Germany. As such it is an issue that cannot be ignored in the bilateral relationship between Germany and China.
Thirdly, the rally made clear to the Chinese government that it may be able to exert pressure on governments on the issue of Tibet but that it cannot bully the German public and media into silence. On the contrary, the more restraint governments may feel compelled to exercise under Chinese pressure, the more ordinary citizens with a sense of justice and human solidarity with the weak and persecuted will feel the need to act on their own. This was exactly what happened in the case of the “Berlin Solidarity Rally with Tibet”. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was on a visit abroad when His Holiness visited Berlin. The Foreign Minister, Mr. Steinmeier, and the President of Germany, M. Horst Köhler, both declined to meet with His Holiness. This situation motivated the German Tibet Support Group and the local Tibetan Community to organise this rally and thousands of Germans to follow the call on their own free will and at their own expense. The rally was organised within 10 days demonstrating impressively the popular appeal and the strong base of support of the cause of Tibet in Germany.The importance of sending the right signals to China
Irrespective of the current very grim situation inside Tibet and the deadlock in the dialogue process between the envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Chinese leadership, there are sufficient reasons for hope and optimism that the future of Tibet and China will move beyond mistrust and enmity to a relationship based on mutual respect, trust and recognition of common interest. This process and development can be encouraged, enhanced and accelerated significantly by sending the right kind of message and signal to the Chinese government by members of the international community, the world public and media. In this context each individual can contribute and make a difference by speaking out and acting on Tibet. There is no doubt that the continued expression of concern about and support for Tibet worldwide will, in the long run, have a positive impact and help create the necessary political environment for a peaceful resolution of the issue of Tibet.The writer is the envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He assisted the special Envoy, Lodi Gyari, in all the eight round of talks with China. He lives in Switzerland.The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.