I have been watching with growing amazement and concern the assaults on the bizarrely quasi-religious Olympic Torch as it has staggered through London, Paris and San Francisco, as well as the self-righteous pronouncements by certain European “leaders” (and even by the European Parliament, the UN Secretary-General and John McCain) that they will not be attending the opening ceremony of the Olympics or are seriously considering not attending or urging others not to attend unless China bows to their “human rights” demands.
Have they even been invited? Who needs them? Why, aside from the obvious intention to to give offense, should the Chinese care?
I should make clear from the start that I am profoundly sympathetic to Tibet and Tibetans. I have had the privilege of meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama on two occasions, most recently when we both spoke at the same human rights conference in Sweden, and the white kata which he hung around my neck on the first occasion is proudly displayed in my study. In person, he exudes a quiet, modest charisma and aura of human saintliness that is captivating even to an atheist — unlike any other person whom I have ever met. I wish that he could return to the Potala Palace and his Norbulingka summer residence and that his people could enjoy the broad cultural and administrative autonomy which he seeks for them.
Furthermore, when I traveled in Tibet in 1981 (at a time when I had already visited all but one of the world’s then existing countries), I found it, far and away, the most fascinating place which I had ever visited. It took my breath away in every sense.
Having said that, the current anti-Chinese frenzy in the West, pursued in the guise of pro-Tibetan (and, to a lesser extent, pro-Darfuri) human rights activism, and the Western media’s coverage of it reek of hypocrisy.
As best I can tell, the recent violence occurred when some ethnic Tibetans, understandably fed up with the ever-increasing presence and domination of Han Chinese in traditional Tibetan areas, exploded in frustration, burned some Han Chinese shops and killed some Han Chinese civilians. What, in such circumstances, would one expect the Chinese authorities to do? When, by way of example, some African-Americans in Watts and other poor areas of Los Angeles exploded in frustration, burned some white- and Korean-owned stores and attacked some non-blacks, did the American police run away? As I recall, they sought to restore order. So have the Chinese authorities. (As a practical matter, the most brutal images of repressive police action against ethnic Tibetan protestors have not come from China but from other countries, most notably Nepal.)
Can anyone seriously argue that Chinese treatment of Tibetans, who have not been subject to either genocide or ethnic cleansing and of whom the vast majority continue to live on their ancestral lands, compares unfavorably with the treatment accorded to the Native Americans by the European settlers of North America or the treatment accorded (and continuing to be accorded) to the indigenous Palestinians by the Zionist settlers of Palestine? Can anyone seriously argue that it is even in the same league of evil and injustice?
With more than 50 recognized ethnic minorities comprising roughly six percent of China’s immense population, Chinese government policy has always aimed at cultural integration of all Chinese citizens rather than at multiculturalism. Inevitably, some peoples are deeply attached to their own distinct cultures and do not wish to be integrated into another one. If Chinese treatment of certain ethnic minorities justly merits criticism, most serious observers would argue that repressive measures against the Uighurs of Xinjiang have been more severe than repressive measures against Tibetans.
However, although there are many more Uighurs than Tibetans, one hears very little about Uighurs in the West. They are Muslims. Uighur nationalist movements are on America’s list of “terrorst” groups, and four Uighurs swept up in Afghanistan were incarcerated at Guantanamo for years, even long after being exonerated as potential threats to America, before finally being dumped in Albania, because no other country would provide them asylum.
Furthermore, how reasonable is it to hold China responsible for the human suffering resulting from multiple separatist insurgencies and governmental counterinsurgency measures in the Darfur region of Sudan (because China invests in Sudan’s oil industry?) while not holding America and its Western collaborators responsible for the far worse human suffering resulting from America’s invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and America’s unconditional financial and diplomatic support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine?
If the Chinese feel that the current anti-Chinese frenzy in the West has its roots in jealousy at China’s 12% annual economic growth rate and its increasing success in all aspects of world affairs, seasoned with ample doses of racism and hypocrisy, this would not be an irrational appreciation of the situation.
At least with respect to its role in world affairs, China has proven a rather gentle and benign dragon in recent decades, focused on improving the economic conditions and quality of life of its people rather than on military aggression or full-spectrum domination of mankind and the planet, even while its strength and potential power have been growing exponentially. Seeking personal emotional satisfaction or domestic political advantage by gratuitously sticking pins in the Chinese dragon is unlikely to prove a wise course of action.
The world has enough problems already.
JOHN V. WHITBECK, an international lawyer, is author of “The World According to Whitbeck“.