On that morning, as soon as I walked into the HRC chamber and sat down on one of the seats reserved for NGOs, a man approached me asking me very directly whether I would give a statement on Tibet later on during the adoption of China’s report. At first, this only surprised me. ICT as a member of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) had planned to issue a joint statement together with FIDH and Human Rights in China (HRiC). FIDH, as an NGO with consultative status, was going to deliver it. However, our joint oral statement was not public yet. Moreover, I had never met this man before.
He must have noticed my surprise because he tried to reassure me by saying that he was “Tibetan” and therefore very interested in my statement. He wished to see the statement beforehand and asked me to send it to him but when he gave me his email address, it was only composed by numbers and did not have a name, or even an organization, in it. Now this made me very suspicious as to whom he was and how he knew I worked on Tibet.
When he gave a statement on behalf of his “NGO”, the China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture (CAPDTC), during a Council debate on minority issues, I knew he was not presenting the real picture in Tibet but the government’s version.He stressed that the Chinese government was safeguarding the rights of the Tibetan people, especially those concerning language and bilingual education. However I know from ICT’s reports that this is not the case in Tibet.
This was only the beginning of the many intimidation measures I would witness at the HRC those days.
Later during the day, when speaking to representatives of other Tibetan NGOs, I was told that they had been photographed by some Chinese officials while they were sitting in the UN Cafeteria.
That afternoon, when the start of China’s adoption approached, NGO seats began to be filled in the Council chamber by many representatives of Chinese NGOs, or rather representatives of the Chinese government.
The adoption started by being delayed. Rumors started circulating about a possible postponement of the adoption to the following day. The Chinese officials were complaining to the President of the HRC about NGOs’ request to hold a minute of silence to honor Ms. Cao Shunli, a Chinese human rights defender who died in detention on March 14. In the meantime, Chinese delegates were filming and taking pictures of NGO representatives in the Council chamber in contravention of the HRC’s rules, which state that only accredited press have permission to do so.
One of China’s targets on that day was Ms. Ti-Anna Wang, the daughter of a well-known Chinese political prisoner. On March 18, she had given testimony on her father’s situation in detention. A Chinese representative openly photographed her in the Chamber. On March 19, when she was sitting right next to me a Chinese official leaned over and took a photo of the screen of her laptop. After reporting these actions to the UN security guards, the devices were confiscated and the violator escorted outside the room. As reported some days later by the New York Times, the UN decided to disbar this man from its premises.
In the end, the adoption of the report was postponed to the next day.
On March 20, the atmosphere in the HRC chamber was very heavy. The feeling I had was that everyone knew that something would happen but no one wanted to mention it. Again, Chinese representatives were everywhere, especially near NGOs. During those two days, other UPR reports were adopted, such as the ones of Saudi Arabia, Chad and the Central African Republic, notably not human rights champions. However, what happened with China was incomparable to any other State.
The first speaker on the NGO list was the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR). NGOs had planned a joint action, which ISHR was leading. It involved standing up while holding posters of Ms. Cao Shunli as soon as the first NGO would start speaking and mentioning a minute of silence to remember Ms. Cao’s death. Personally, this was an incredible experience. Cao Shunli was planning to attend a human rights training and China’s UPR session in October 2013 but she was detained before catching her flight to Geneva. Six months later she was dead, simply for doing what I was doing – attending a UN session. It was beautiful and touching to see so many inspiring people united and protesting peacefully against injustice. China’s complaints as well as those from its authoritarian friends, such as Iran, Cuba, Pakistan and others, were all in vain. Civil society went on with its silent protest until the end of the Council’s debate of China’s UPR.
As FIDH delivered its oral statement, the Chinese delegation interrupted the speaker by raising a point of order. The Chinese asked the President of the Council “to abolish the status of the speaker [FIDH] to speak” because the other two organizations did not have consultative status. The UN secretariat ruled against the Chinese, citing a long practice where accredited NGOs could “mention other entities.” FIDH was allowed to continue with the statement.
This is what China is mostly afraid of. It is aware of the power of the people. This is why it wants to silence them with all means.
Oddly, I don’t think this was a bad experience for the civil society movement. On the contrary, I think it only shows the strength of our movement, the movement of thoughtful, committed citizens, who believe that there is ONE people with the same rights all over the world, be it the Tibetans, the Chinese or the Syrians. It shows that with a common, unified approach and with commitment to the fundamental values of freedom and democracy, this movement one day will win its battle. It may not be tomorrow but it is only a matter of time. On a personal level, it has reinforced my own convictions that what we are doing is right.
Moreover, this has also been a victory for ICT. The unacceptable behavior of Chinese representatives has once again proved to the whole world what the true face of an authoritarian State looks like, despite the friendly smiles and handshakes. Their measures are not only counter-productive, as they showed Chinese opposition to fundamental freedoms and drew more attention to the Tibetan cause, but mainly because they proved that China has no moral legitimacy in an important forum such as the HRC and, most importantly is a threat to democracy and freedom everywhere, not only within its own borders.
Democratic countries have nothing to share with a dictatorship. Now it’s the international community’s time to act.
Last month President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama for the third time since taking office, conversing for an hour in the Map Room of the White House. The Administration reiterated its commitment to supporting the Middle Way Approach in their official statement, while making it clear that they do not support Tibetan independence. As one might expect, Chinese officials and media organs reacted in a manner completely out of step with this highly reasonable meeting and statement, variously accusing President Obama of having “perverted purposes,” playing the “Dalai card,” forming an “unholy alliance,” and following the “abominable precedent” set by former President George H. W. Bush, the first American President to welcome the Dalai Lama to the White House.
Amidst all this froth, one particular narrative consistently pushed by Chinese officials and their media mouthpieces was the idea that all Chinese citizens, including Tibetans, were offended by the meeting. An opinion piece in China Daily penned by Lian Xiangmin, a director of the Communist Party-backed China Tibetology Research Center, claimed that the Dalai Lama’s activities not only lack the support of Tibetans, but are actively “condemned” by them. Another China Daily piece, this one an unsigned editorial, said that the Middle Way approach is “against the will” of Tibetans. A third one alleged that the Dalai Lama’s influence in Tibet has “waned.”
The writers are conspicuously silent on sourcing these claims, which leaves them suspect given the prohibition against opinion polling in Tibet. Chinese propaganda outlets apparently can’t help but to try to speak on behalf of Tibetans, despite being repeatedly contradicted by the words and actions of the Tibetan people throughout the decades. Completely misjudging the relationship between the Dalai Lama and Tibetans is something of a Party specialty at this point. In 1979, for example, Chinese authorities held meetings in advance of the arrival of the Dalai Lama’s first fact-finding delegation into Tibet, asking that locals refrain from throwing stones or spitting at them. Instead, they were shocked to see that each successive delegation was enthusiastically greeted by thousands of Tibetans at each stop- “mobbed” by them, as Tsering Shakya put it.
Ten years later the Dalai Lama was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. The news spread through Lhasa by word of mouth over the next few days, and soon thousands of Tibetans gathered in the heart of Lhasa to celebrate. Ronald D. Schwartz, a sociologist who personally witnessed many of the defining moments of the late 80′s in Lhasa, wrote of Tibetans “speaking openly of their delight in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama.” Festivities continued for days, ending only when authorities intervened and threatened to arrest celebrants. Both the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007 and the Dalai Lama’s first meeting with President Obama in 2010 were greeted by celebrations across Tibet as well.
Official claims that Tibetans opposed the Dalai Lama and Obama meeting were visibly contradicted by Tibetans posting at the time on Weibo, a Chinese social media network similar to Twitter. There, reactions[i] ranged from joy over the meeting to a rejection of Chinese propaganda on the subject. “Thank you Obama,” one reposted message said, while others posted combinations of smiling faces, peace signs, flowers, and candle icons in reaction to the news:
“Elder brother, this afternoon you said something very good. Therefore I praise you.”
Other Tibetan posters expressed derision towards Chinese propaganda in the form of laughter at a particularly hard-line editorial. Still others posted an image of Obama’s face photoshopped onto the body of a Khampa Tibetan, accompanied by approving comments:
There were also an unusually high number of references to posts being deleted on the two days following the meeting among Tibetans I checked, from which we might reasonably infer that even more explicit or popular messages in support of the meeting may have been quickly culled. Although this is still no substitute for scientific polling, at the end of the day all of the reactions I found among Tibetans on Weibo were positive, and I didn’t encounter any instances of them condemning the meeting.
The unsigned China Daily editorial did make one point I think we can all support: it closes by calling on Obama to do more to benefit “people in Tibet.” I concur, and suggest that he begin by sparing no effort to support the Dalai Lama and the Middle Way Approach by whatever methods are appropriate.
If the Chinese authorities feign to know this even after the past many years of dialogue with his representatives, I believe the answer can be got by looking at some outcomes of the Obama-Dalai Lama meeting.
First, the meeting was followed by the most categorical statement to date by the White House about President Obama supporting the Middle Way approach of the Dalai Lama. In diplomacy where each and every word in such statements are weighed, the President not only “commended” the Middle Way approach (as has been done in 2010 and 2011), but also “expressed support” for it. The Chinese Government has sensed this and hence their Xinhua piece as well as the consternation shown by the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman.
Secondly, and equally important is that the White House explained its understanding of the Middle Way. Spokesman Jay Carney told the media on February 21, “The United States supports the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” approach of neither assimilation, nor independence for Tibetans in China.”
This is very much in tune with the thinking of the Dalai Lama who has always maintained that his Middle Way was avoiding the two extremes: between the present critical situation of the Tibetan people where their very identity’s survival is at stake and the other extreme of regaining Tibet’s independence.
Thirdly, it is also significant that the White House Spokesman says “The United States supports the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” approach…” To me, this indicates that the support is not just the personal belief of the President, but also of the United States Government as a whole.
Therefore, the White House statement not only explains the fundamental concept of the Middle Way, but in the process it is a strong refutation of the Chinese Government’s attempt to discredit the Middle Way.
The Dalai Lama came forth with his Middle Way approach in earnest; as a sincere attempt to provide a solution that is mutually beneficial to the Tibetan and to the Chinese, and which takes into consideration China’s stability concerns. He started formulating this approach internally way back in the 1970s and so when the then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sent a message to him in 1978-79 that other than the issue of the independence of Tibet, everything else can be discussed and resolved, the Dalai Lama was able to respond positively.
Since then the Dalai Lama has stopped talking about Tibetan independence and has been calling for a solution that will enable the Tibetan people to live in dignity by preserving and promoting their distinct identity and heritage.
Diplomatically, the Dalai Lama came out with a series of initiatives, beginning with the Five Point Peace Plan in 1987 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to the Strasbourg Proposal at the European Parliament in 1988, etc. Instead of responding to these initiatives positively, the Chinese Government has continued to sweep the Tibetan problem under the carpet and to control the Tibetan people by force.
Above all, the Memorandum for genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people, which the Dalai Lama’s envoys presented to the Chinese Government in 2008 clearly spells out the Tibetan position. It outlines 11 areas in which the concerns of the Tibetan people needed to be addressed, all within the framework of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.
However, China ignores this aspect because it does not fit their political agenda and seek recourse to propaganda.
Those who know the Tibetan issue, know that Xinhua and the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman repeats their well known narrative; since the Chinese authorities lack the political courage to address the genuine concerns of the Tibetan people, they find fault with each and every initiative of the Dalai Lama under his Middle Way approach.
The Chinese Government says, “the “middle way” approach demands independence by its very nature.” But the White House statement reflects the international community’s acknowledgement that the Dalai Lama’s approach is one that is not of independence, but of securing dignity and respect for the Tibetan people while addressing stability concerns of China.
Therefore, if there is one clear political message from the Obama-Dalai Lama meeting, it is this: the United States is against the assimilation of the Tibetan people and that the Middle Way is the solution to the Tibetan problem.
Last week, it became public that Beijing officials informed their Manila counterparts in February that China would not take part in a UN-mediated arbitration process to settle a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. This decision gives Party leaders the dishonorable distinction of making China the first country to refuse to participate in the process created under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing’s flat refusal to submit to an independent authority it has already recognized (through its ratification of the UN convention) is a troubling development that should raise serious questions for other countries seeking mutual respect in their dealings with the Chinese leadership.
In a second recent development, back in Beijing, authorities are demonstrating open contempt for international journalists, who had already long been on tenuous footing in China, by threatening to deny visa renewals for a number of foreign journalists. Whether they follow through on the threat or not, the message of intimidation sent to foreign reporters has been clear. Officials have already demonstrated their willingness to expel or deny reentry for reporters who treat journalism as a vehicle for critical inquiry (see here, here, here, here, and here). Those journalists who remain, just like their domestic Chinese counterparts, must walk a fine line on sensitive issues, including Tibet, where they can rarely gain access without the accompaniment of government minders, leaving only the most intrepid reporters to evade authorities and sneak into the region. While in Beijing to discuss the dispute over the air defense zone, Vice President Biden pointedly raised the issue of visas for journalists. Even though the possibility of a mass expulsion remains, it is significant that Biden stated his “profound disagreements” with the Party leadership over the issue, describing it as having implications for “universal human rights.”
The Vice President’s time in China is noteworthy not only for the issues that prompted his trip, but also because Biden’s forthright approach in Beijing has been exceedingly rare among visiting dignitaries. As the oft-told story goes, China’s economic growth has propelled it up the ranks of the international order. To help facilitate this, Beijing has sought to ease anxieties over its ascendance, while expanding its diplomatic clout, largely through the exercise of soft power, much of which was initiated under former leader, Hu Jintao. This exercise has included funding development projects abroad, as well as “educational initiatives.” At one point, prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, this exercise of soft power even included promising greater freedoms for foreign press based in China. In turn, international leaders have by and large embraced China for the investment and trade opportunities it presents. David Cameron’s recent visit stands as the latest among a number of trips by foreign leaders seeking to ingratiate themselves with Beijing in return for favorable economic deals.
Diplomatic intransigence from Beijing is not new, however the current leadership, headed by Party Secretary and President Xi Jinping, appears far more confident in aggressively pursuing what is deemed to be in the Party’s interests, and less amenable to international cooperation. As the diplomatic tactics adopted by the Chinese leadership transform, it remains to be seen if those of the international community do so as well.
In substance and in form, Cameron’s visit was standard fare for a foreign dignitary visiting China. Yet, this latest trip was roundly criticized, even by Chinese state-media, and seen as desperate. The criticism should cause UK officials to call into question Cameron’s decision to ‘turn a page’ on the UK’s support for the Dalai Lama, after Beijing intimated that Cameron would not be welcomed to China until he made proper amends for meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader in 2012.
In contrast, Biden’s recent diplomatic interaction with Beijing, in what might be considered a manifestation of the Obama Administration’s ‘Asia Pivot,’ could potentially pave the way for a different approach to dealings with the Party leadership. Biden’s outspoken support for foreign journalists in Beijing could create momentum for those seeking a more robust response from US officials. These calls include visa reciprocity and including the issue in US-China bilateral trade talks.
While advocates have long called for countries such as the US to prioritize human rights in their dealings with China, the issue of freedom of the press, with its third rail-like status in the US, could prove forceful enough to push US officials forward in strongly pursuing a principled stand with China on a non-economic issue.
While it is unclear how much Biden’s rhetoric regarding the journalists was bolstered by US concerns over the East China Sea air defense zone, it remains that unless leaders in the international community learn to engage with Party officials over their intransigence on issues such as territorial disputes, journalist visas, and Tibet, Party leaders will continue to undermine mechanisms for international cooperation whenever the Party’s goals are not assured of a desired outcome.