Argument

Free Tibet — From Our Own Emotional Needs

How to think rationally about fighting for Tibetans.

Chinese paramilitary policemen patrol in front of the Potala Palace during the ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games torch relay in Lhasa on June 21, 2008. The latest leg of the Olympic torch relay was held in the Tibetan capital June 21, amid tight security after deadly riots against Chinese rule three months ago, as rights groups condemned the event. AFP PHOTO/TEH Eng Koon (Photo credit should read TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese paramilitary policemen patrol in front of the Potala Palace during the ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games torch relay in Lhasa on June 21, 2008. The latest leg of the Olympic torch relay was held in the Tibetan capital June 21, amid tight security after deadly riots against Chinese rule three months ago, as rights groups condemned the event. AFP PHOTO/TEH Eng Koon (Photo credit should read TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images)

In the 1990s, it was much easier to feel moral superiority over Beijing. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, along with the Berlin Wall. Francis Fukuyama had declared the end of history, with liberal democracies overseeing the hegemony of perpetual peace. And the Western world was counting down the hours until communist China joined the fold. In this context, deciding about highly contentious matters between China and the outside world — and in particular the United States and the European Union — was simple. Beijing was wrong; those who opposed it were right. Perhaps the starkest case was with Tibet: Heavy-handed security clampdowns in 1987 and 1989, coupled with the presence of Tibet’s hugely charismatic spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama — awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for “nonviolent opposition to China’s occupation of Tibet” — made Beijing’s rule over Tibet seem like a clear-cut case of Chinese wrongdoing.

But did that feeling of moral superiority actually accomplish anything? The Tibetan situation still remains dangerously unresolved. On Sept. 8, Beijing celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, its name for the territory that makes up much of the Tibetan plateau, with a vow to strengthen the “war” against those fighting for Tibetan independence. And in July, the Dalai Lama celebrated his 80th birthday — he seems no closer to returning to his homeland, which he fled in 1959. China is now a far stronger global economic and diplomatic player, and wields exponentially more influence than it did in the 1990s. Tibet itself, a massive plateau many times the size of France but with a population of just several million people, remains repressed. Since riots erupted across Tibetan areas in March 2008, the region has been visibly restive: More than 140 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009, and the few foreign journalists who manage to gain access to the region report a heavy police presence. The recent controversy over the death and hasty cremation of the unjustly imprisoned monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche brings the complexity and trauma of modern Tibet to the fore: Many Tibetans view their history since 1959 as one of a tragic loss of that identity, with long episodes of clampdowns and denial.

The issue still tears Western policymakers and politicians between their head and their heart. How do you solve a problem like Tibet? In the 1990s, the default position on the most contentious international issue — foreign political leaders meeting the Dalai Lama — was usually that they were meeting the Dalai Lama in his capacity as a “religious leader.” This didn’t fool anyone, although it saved face for both sides. But since the late 2000s, China has grown increasingly intolerant toward this argument. European leaders like former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and, most famously, British Prime Minister David Cameron met with vehement condemnation from Beijing. After Cameron’s 2012 meeting with the Dalai Lama, Beijing retaliated by freezing high-level political contact for almost a year.

Foreign, and in particular European, positioning on this issue was often incoherent and sometimes hypocritical. There is no rule that a head of state needs to meet with a religious leader. Beijing had a legitimate point when they accused outsiders of using this as an excuse for meddling. But on the other hand, the Chinese were also reluctant (and sometimes unwilling) to allow any other space for dialogue on the issue between them and the outside world. And their argument that Tibet was an internal matter — one which foreigners should keep out of — would have been more credible if their policies in Tibet weren’t so ineffective.

As global citizens, these issues should concern us all. And yet, the costs of confronting Beijing about them have risen steeply. For 2015, the better question is not who is right and who is wrong. Rather, we should ask: With the constraints we currently face, how can we help? And more specifically, does a foreign leader meeting with the Dalai Lama make the situation better or worse?

Here are some things worth thinking through while deciding. Foreign leaders’ justification for meeting the Dalai Lama is to show support and sympathy for the Tibetan cause — which in turn, or so the thinking goes, convinces Beijing to improve conditions for people living there. Has this been successful? Economically, Tibet — like the rest of China — is much wealthier than it was in the 1990s, but the conditions for people living in the region seem to have worsened. Self-immolations, for instance, barely occurred before 2009. And since the 2008 uprising, activists for even seemingly benign causes, like the environment, have been given harsh sentences for alleged “splittist” activities. Nor does the future look brighter: Envoys of the Dalai Lama and Beijing have not met for formal dialogue since 2010, when they held their ninth and last round of talks.

Another reason that foreign leaders meet with the Dalai Lama is to satisfy domestic constituencies. The Dalai Lama enjoys huge moral standing and great international sympathy. So it’s not difficult for politicians to justify their meetings as an obligation to supporters in their own country. Prioritizing one’s domestic audience, however, undermines the argument that the emphasis should be on improving the situation in Tibet. So, does the benefit accrued to, say, Britain’s supporters of Tibetan independence outweigh the economic repercussions Beijing doles out for revenge? In most cases, probably not.

That leads to the question of whether it is intrinsically right for foreign leaders to meet with the Dalai Lama. If the Dalai Lama is met on the grounds that it is the morally right thing to do, then this should hold true for similar cases: It’s a justification based on principles of universalizability. And yet, modern political leaders often refuse to meet many other religious or secular leaders of areas under contested rule. Consider, for example, Rebiya Kadeer — the head of the exile movement for Xinjiang, the massive region in northwest China whose people face arguably the same level of repression as Tibet. Kadeer does not get meetings with top Western officials. Is there a moral reason why the Dalai Lama is more deserving?

The fourth, and most important, question is whether there are more effective ways to achieve the desired outcome. Might supporting issues of civil society, the environment, and sustainability, more directly benefit Tibetans living in the region? Ever since November 2014, when the United States and China signed an agreement to jointly fight climate change, there has been ample room for cooperation between the two countries on environmental issues. Why not address how to sustainably use Tibet’s natural resources? Or the melting ice caps on the Tibetan plateau, which could flood parts of the region? Tying the challenges in Tibet to broader reform issues where there is less sensitivity by Beijing — including issues like the environment, healthcare, or substandard infrastructure — might be a more effective route for foreign involvement and input.

Going through this broad set of considerations might allow politicians and policymakers to be a little clearer about why they are taking a course of action, what the risks are, and what they are aiming to achieve. The Tibet issue is laden with emotion and feeling. There may be strong reasons for showing solidarity with Tibetan groups by meeting the Dalia Lama. But wouldn’t it be smarter to really think through the reasons and consequences first?

Teh Eng Koon/AFP/Getty Images

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