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The failed politics of appeasing China


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Last week, news broke that one of Tibet’s most revered Buddhist monks and fierce activists had died, following 13 years of ill-treatment and torture in a Chinese prison. He had been refused medical care despite calls from his family and international NGOs.

This is the reality in modern China today. The tragic death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche shows very clearly the choice at stake when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) meets in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at the end of this month to choose the host of the 2022 Games. Amazingly, despite everything that has happened since they last hosted the Olympics in 2008, Beijing is the leading candidate.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was jailed for life in 2002 on what were almost certainly trumped-up, falsified charges, ironically just one year after the IOC awarded the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing. The reasoning then was simple – awarding the games would push China to further open up and respect human rights and freedoms.

The country had been making remarkable progress, albeit measured against the horrific atrocities of the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s and the Great Leap Forward of the 1960s. Against that backdrop, was there really any way to go but up?

This, of course, is a theory favoured by many in international affairs, and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Liberalized economies lead to liberalized governments. The short-term suffering of people like Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and countless other Tibetans is just a ‘necessary cost’ of the vast equation of liberalism, in which, somehow, all of us will be better off.

It was the same logic that led to China’s entry to the WTO in 2001, alongside the granting of most-favoured nation trade status from the United States that same year and, more recently, the easing of visa restrictions for Chinese travellers and their big wallets into Europe.

Of course, you won’t find any Tibetans or Uighurs among those travellers, as China’s two-tiered system makes it nearly impossible for ‘unsavoury’ minorities to get a passport to leave the country. Another cost of liberalism.

Still, it hasn’t really worked, this liberalization. China hasn’t become more open. What is happening is the opposite: the country’s growing economic power has enabled it to continue exploiting the Tibetan people and pursue its other geopolitical ambitions (South China Sea, anyone?).

While the economists and academics were waiting for China’s booming economy to result in more political freedoms, those paying attention to Tibet, East Turkistan or Inner Mongolia saw an increased migration of Han Chinese into those areas, where they have quickly become the majority; growing restrictions on local language and culture; more surveillance in monasteries and local institutions; and less willingness by the Communist government to engage with activists or leaders (including the increasingly shunned Dalai Lama, who is finding fewer and fewer allies willing to offer the Nobel Peace Laureate a visa, for fear of upsetting China).

Then came the 2008 Olympic Games. Before them, ignorance may have been an acceptable excuse – but afterwards, certainly not.

In early 2008, months before the Games were to begin, Tibetans, knowing that the world was watching, began protesting against the Chinese occupation in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, protests which then spread across the country. These made headlines around the world, followed by thousands gathering to protest against the Olympic Torch rallies in Argentina, Britain, France, the US, India and South Korea.

What came next was the clearest example of the reality in China, and the failure of global institutions to address it: Tibet saw a massive state crackdown, followed by the region being closed off to the outside world.

Here it was. The proof that China wouldn’t respect human rights, even with the Olympics around the corner. That summer, despite the protests, the world turned a blind eye to Tibet, as not a single country boycotted the games.

This only made things worse, as China took global inaction as a green light that it wouldn’t be held responsible for its actions. Today, 7 years after the Games, Tibet remains closed to foreigners. According to research undertaken at the University of Colorado, there are now fewer foreign journalists in Tibet than there are in North Korea.

Surveillance at monasteries has increased, roadblocks make travel for Tibetans nearly impossible and many of those jailed in 2008 have remained in prison, ignored, like Tenzin Delek Rinpoche.

Tibetans have now taken to self-immolations as a form of resistance, with an estimated 165 having burned themselves in protest since 2008.

China’s response, according to Free Tibet, is a deeper level of surveillance and control, including the use of collective punishment, in which an entire village or family is punished for the actions of a single individual, including self-immolators.

Do we really need any more evidence that economic liberalization is not working in China? Just imagine what awarding Beijing the 2022 Olympic Games to the country will mean.

It is not only Tibetans who are suffering under Chinese control. Last year, Uighur academic Ilham Tohti was arrested and remains in custody. Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has not been seen in public since receiving his award.

Just this past week, a round-up of human rights lawyers and activists left over 80 imprisoned. The trend is clear – Premier Xi Jingping is reigning over what many see as the most repressive period in China since Mae Zedong’s death in 1976.

It is time for another method. One where it is not trade that comes first, but the rights of people like Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, Ilham Tohti, Lui Xiabo and countless others, human beings suffering under a regime that cares more about money than its own citizens’ rights.

Let’s be willing to revoke favoured trade status and WTO membership, and implement visa restrictions based on how a country treats its minorities. And finally, let’s not award the Olympics to a country that has shown itself incapable of keepings its promises.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was in jail for 13 years. Was his suffering, and that of his people, a necessary cost towards global development? I refuse to believe so, especially as the situation in many parts of China is getting worse and worse.

The first step will be the IOC showing at the end of this month that it has learned its lesson, by denying China the 2022 Games, for the explicit reason of its inadequate human rights record. Let’s put people before money. That would be the best way for us to honour Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, because, sadly, the world has failed him and his people for long enough.

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