Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dali Folly

President Obama is planning to meet with the Dalai Lama at the White House. This is terrible. He is the spiritual leader of Tibet, an advocate for autonomy from China, and the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile. And the visit with Obama implies a tacit US endorsement that will deeply offend the Chinese government, not to mention many of the Chinese people.

Right now we need close cooperation with China to address serious global issues ranging from the economic crisis, to the environment, and even global security.

Meeting with the Dalai Lama is a major affront to Beijing and to many Chinese. They consider this an issue of national sovereignty. (BTW, for an excellent book on the logic of separatist movements, see Michael Hechter's work.)

Now, there are US interest groups who care about human rights issues in Tibet to be sure. But why not engage China on human rights for all of China? The Chinese government may not agree on all points, but a conversation about human rights is one that the Chinese government is willing to have. The people of China will also appreciate that conversation. And any advances on human rights in China will help the people of Tibet along with all Chinese people. (I am grateful to my friend and colleague - and one of the world's foremost experts on China - Pierre Landry for these ideas.)

If, on the other hand, we try a conversation about independence movements - well, that's not a conversation in which China will engage. It will, quite frankly, tick them off. And for what? We lose the opportunity to truly engage in a conversation about human rights, and, let's face it, we get nothing for Tibet. The world's fastest growing superpower is not about to start giving up territory.

China is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual country. It has to deal with some problems similar to those of the United States. The path is long, circuitous and difficult. And having the leader of a rival power meet with a head of government-in-exile doesn't help.

More importantly, we've got bigger issues to deal with regarding China. Rather than meet with the Dalai Lama, Obama should be talking about Chinese currency revaluation. And he should be doing so on a daily basis. Leave China's sovereignty alone.


  1. Is there a "US Dalai" that Chinese President can meet in response?

  2. So many flaws, so little space. The good news is there is a valid point in here around the first paragraph; there is a concern that US endorsement of the Dalai Lama would offend China and interfere with our strategic relationships with them in the short-term economic/political/environmental sense. However, that view is based on a faulty assumption that China will, in the long-term, actually cooperate with the US in any of the above categories. That is false. In fact, the Party is rather expert at exploiting translation and communication gaps such that their idea of "human rights" or "environmental integrity" or "democracy," though very simple concepts become very complex and counter-intuitive. This is especially problematic because China controls all of the news and information. I once asked a Chinese graduate student at Beida in Chinese why she felt China had a democracy. She looked at me like I was crazy stupid and said "because we're making more money than we were before Deng Xiaoping." Moreover, China is not actually willing to engage in human rights dialogue. My boyfriend works at the State Department in the Human Rights division and deals with China "roundtables" all the time. These conferences usually end with China pointing their finger at how the US is a hypocrite since we imprison more people than any other country and the debacle in Iraq/ Afghanistan. Quite frankly, China will not benefit from having their population more knowledgeable about the failures of their government with human rights. The only point that the Party is willing to concede is the environmental problems; but, the devolution of Chinese state power to provincial governments makes it impossible for the national Party to enforce on the local level because of long-standing, entrenched corruption. In my opinion, the only way for the US to get China to really cooperate in the long-term is to pressure China on globally recognized social issues, and by doing so rally the attention of the growing civil society in China and creating real change. A valiant effort, Jim, but entirely too simplified.

    Alice Hsieh