Max Baucus on Tibet and human rights

On Thursday, December 19, 2013, in Recent, US Government, by Todd Stein

Max Baucus Xi Jinping

Max Baucus and Xi Jinping.

Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) is reportedly President Obama’s choice for the next Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, to succeed Gary Locke. Baucus is retiring at the end of the current Congress; he has served in the Senate since 1978.

What would this mean for Tibet and human rights? The initial reactions offer little insight into how an Ambassador Baucus would approach human rights, much less Tibet. The Washington Post’s Max Fisher found Baucus to be a “strange choice” to be ambassador, based on the fact that he doesn’t speak Chinese and is not an Asia specialist. Foreign Policy’s Isaac Stone Fish offers “three takeaways” – it could signal greater White House involvement in China policy-making; it may lead to a better Beijing relationship with Congress; and yet is an “uncontroversial and unsexy choice.”

Primarily, Baucus is seen as most familiar with trade issues with China. He is chair of the Senate Committee that oversees trade policy, and helped shepherd to passage in 2000 of the bill to grant permanent normal trade relations to the PRC. He has taken a tough position with the Chinese on matters like currency valuation, intellectual property and discriminatory practices, not to mention home-state industries.

Based on this cursory view, one could assume that economics will be at the front of Baucus’ portfolio. Does this mean other matters, like human rights will be de-prioritized? Not necessarily. Recall that Gary Locke, a former Washington governor and Commerce Secretary, came into the job with a similar background. But he has not shied away from human rights. In reality, issues like human rights, the environment and security matters are institutionally key components of U.S. policy. And the Chinese have a way of unwittingly elevating them, by locking up Nobel Peace Prize winners, denying reporters’ visas, or declaring air identification zones over Japanese-administered islands.

Since its inception in 2001, Baucus has served on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. This entity was created out of that trade bill, and its mission is to monitor China’s compliance with human rights and rule of law. Baucus knows China’s track record.

Specifically on Tibet, Baucus has not had much of a profile. He was an original cosponsor of the 2006 resolution to grant the Dalai Lama the Congressional Gold Medal. In August 1993, Senator Baucus visited Lhasa as part of a trip to China (focused on the trade status question). Here are excerpts from his trip report:

“My visit to Lhasa contrasted with the other stops in almost every way. First, local authorities were plainly not eager to meet with me… Second, my hosts tried hard (and generally successfully) to control my movements and limit my freedom to speak informally with ordinary people… Despite this, I noted many troubling signs. There is a large military presence in and around Lhasa. At least two plainly obvious video cameras are mounted on buildings in the Barkhor area. When I was taken to visit the JokhangTemple in central Lhasa, the market square in front of the temple was filled with plainclothes police. Tibetan Deputy Party Secretary Raidi gave me a much more hard-line view of Tibetan policy than did President Jiang Zemin, appearing to rule out not only independence for Tibet, but any modest move toward greater autonomy. All in all, it was an unsettling visit.”

Thus, what Baucus found two decades ago is little different from what Amb. Locke found when he visited Lhasa last summer, except the orders of magnitude of the Chinese military and surveillance apparatus.

But then, Baucus got to the issue at hand – whether to renew China’s trade status. He noted in his report that President Clinton’s executive order conditioned renewal, in part, on “overall significant progress” on “protecting Tibet’s distinctive religious and cultural heritage.” Baucus stated that he found China “in compliance,” citing renovations to temples and monasteries, and the open display of pictures of the Dalai Lama. In his prescription for U.S. policy, Baucus wrote that:

“Present U.S. policy calls for genuine autonomy for Tibet within the PRC and talks without preconditions between Congress and the Dalai Lama. It would be highly irresponsible, and likely damaging to the Tibetan people, if we went beyond this to gave China the impression that we hope to break up the PRC. President Clinton’s policy stresses concern for human and minority rights, but does not make promises we cannot fulfill. This strikes the right balance and I support it.”

Baucus’ finding of “compliance” provoked a discouraged reaction from then-ICT President Lodi Gyari, who wrote to Baucus of his “great concern” about Baucus’ findings. Gyari cited ways in which the Chinese were undermining Tibetan culture and religion, and made a case that talks with the Dalai Lama was a key way to protect the Tibetan identity.

As he championed the China trade bill (and entry into the World Trade Organization), Baucus joined the Clinton Administration and plenty of Republicans in arguing that increased economic integration with China would lead to improvements in human rights. This hasn’t happened. But there were a lot of economic promises that didn’t happen either. From this experience, Baucus will understand the reliability of China as a partner. He knows how intransigent they can be.

Some observers think that Baucus, as a long-time senator, can help the Chinese understand how Congress works. If so, he can, with no overstatement, inform his new interlocutors that concern for Tibet in Congress is both long-standing and unyielding. This Congressional interest has helped “institutionalize” the issue within the Executive Branch, from the Tibet office in the State Department, to the monitors in embassies and consulates in the PRC, and statements from the White House.

When Max Baucus arrives in Beijing, he will find a very thick folder about Tibet on his desk. He will find that, with the militarization in Lhasa and the failure to negotiate with the Dalai Lama, some things have not changed. And he will see that much else has gotten worse. Tibet is inescapably a component of U.S. policy toward China, and an Ambassador Baucus will understand it’s his duty to work toward improvements.

2 Responses to “Max Baucus on Tibet and human rights”

  1. Ellyse Adele Vitiello says:

    Dear Senator Baucus, Thank you for your reporting of your observations of your recent trip to Lhasa, which was unsettling indeed. Your experience and understanding of mutual interests between the USA and The Peoples Republic of China will serve to promote harmony for all concerned. As a concerned citizen I wish you well and look forward to hearing of your recommendations in your new post. Sincerly yours, Ellyse Adele Vitiello

  2. This is the kind of thing that can make even those democracy-minded Chinese so cynical: the constant appeal to dirty American politicians and what they could do to China. Let’s not forget that Max Baucus lead the so-called “Blue Dog Democrats” who allied with Republican Big Business interests to kill meaningful healthcare reform in the United States. And yet it is people like this that are trotted out to lecture China on caring for its own!

    Why don’t all these human rights loving people protest the fact Andrew Jackson, “Injun Fighter,” is still on the twenty-dollar bill in this ever-increasingly globalized 21st Century?? This is a man who made his career practicing open genocide on Native Americans, and boasted about it, too. As an Army colonel, he deliberately sent diseased blankets to civilian Native Americans in an early attempt at biological warfare. Why is this man still honored to no protest from all these people that care so much about indigenous cultures??

    I’m sure many Tibetans in Tibet don’t like having Mao’s picture on their money, but why isn’t there any concern for Native Americans who must handle the portrait of one of the worst racist murderers in the American government on a daily basis???

    China has no moral right to Tibet, it’s true, but its claims do still have more historical validity than the United States’ own stake to its share of North America, particularly west of the Louisiana Purchase!

    No wonder Chinese people feel so contemptuous.

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