On June 25, 2012 the Council of the European Union adopted the “EU Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy”, highlighting the EU’s determination to promote human rights and democracy in all aspects of internal and external policies of the European Union.

Some elements of the framework may aid in fostering the EU’s engagement with the People’s Republic of China on Tibet.

The Strategic Framework says that “the EU will promote human rights in all areas of its external action without exception” and “will integrate the promotion of human rights into trade, investment, technology and telecommunications, Internet, energy, environmental, corporate social responsibility and development policy…” While the Joint Statement of the 14th EU-China Summit in February 2012 included human rights, the Joint Statement following the 3rd EU-China High-Level Strategic Dialogue in July 2012 did not once reference human rights. Ideally, the EU would respect its commitment in the future and include clauses on human rights in all joint statements with China.

On freedom of religion or belief and fighting discrimination in all its forms, the EU commits itself to combating discrimination on grounds of race and ethnicity and advocating for the rights of persons belonging to minorities. As ICT’s report “60 Years of Chinese Misrule | Arguing Cultural Genocide in Tibet” points out, Tibetans have been subject to consistent discriminatory practices under Chinese rule on the basis of their ethnicity, religion and political beliefs. Therefore, it is important that the EU use any possible setting to address this issue with Chinese authorities and persuade the PRC government of the need to cease such discriminatory policies and practices, which only serve to heighten inter-communal tensions in Tibet.

The Strategic Framework also refers to the strengthening of the EU’s capability and mechanisms for “early warning and preventions of crises liable to entail human rights violations.” The situation in Tibet has reached a critical point as demonstrated by the 44 self-immolations of Tibetans challenging political, cultural, religious and social injustices within the current system. It is important that the EU puts in place an early warning mechanism to prevent the total replacement of an authentic, organic Tibetan culture with a state-approved one. Elements of cultural genocide are taking place in Tibet and as this has been recognized as precursor to conventional genocide elsewhere, it is of the utmost importance that the EU takes early and robust actions in the case of Tibet.

Finally, “the EU will place human rights at the centre of its relations with all third countries, including strategic partners” and “will continue to deepen its human rights dialogues and consultations with partner countries and will aim to ensure that these dialogues lead to results.” China is an important strategic partner for the EU, and the two hold annual human rights dialogues. While human rights and Tibet have been discussed in private talks, the EU has failed to use public diplomacy to express its concerns about human rights abuses in China, particularly when regarding Tibetans. Tibet and other human rights issues have been tackled in the setting of the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue, unfortunately though, this has not led to substantial results on the ground. Hopefully, the adoption of this framework by the Council of the European Union will reinvigorate the EU’s commitment to the inclusion of human rights in political framework agreements with China as well as its willingness to use public diplomacy to denounce human rights abuses in China, especially when these abuses affect Tibetans.

The adoption of this Strategic Framework and its Action Plan gives hopes that the EU will bear the burden of proving that dialogues and talks with Chinese officials at various levels, including the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue, are more than ritualized exercises that enable smooth EU-China relations. The EU should be clear about what improvements the Chinese should deliver in Tibet, and what the response will be if they do not.

Hu Jintao, Culture Warrior, and the Cultural Genocide in Tibet

On Wednesday, January 11, 2012, in China, Recent, by Todd Stein

“China’s President Pushes Back Against Western Culture” is the title of a January 3 New York Times article by its excellent correspondent Ed Wong that has been making the rounds.

The article’s focus, as the title suggests, is that Chinese President Hu Jintao claims the West is waging a culture war against China. He is quoted as saying, “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.”

The quote comes from an essay by President Hu printed in the party magazine Qiushi, derived from a speech he gave in October to coincide with the release of the Central Committee Decision on culture.

My first reaction was to observe, with irony and anger, that the apparently intentional evisceration of Chinese culture, as claimed by Hu, is the very thing that Beijing has been doing to Tibetan culture for the last 60 years. So I found a translation of the article and read it, substituting “Tibetan culture” for “Chinese culture” and “Chinese Communist Party” for “Western forces” where applicable.

I had planned to write a blog with excerpted phrases with substitutions that captured the tragic hypocrisy. But by the time I got to the end, my direction had changed.

Hu’s essay demonstrates that leaders in Beijing define and interpret culture in a way that is disconnected from the way the rest of the world see it. Culture, in the sense we are talking about, can be understood as “a set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterize an institution, organization, or group.” It is derived organically, the product of hundreds, thousands or millions of individual people interacting, sharing and creating, giving meaning, shape and a collective identity to their lives. By nature culture is an abstract concept.

According to Hu’s essay and the Decision, culture is a tool, a tangible instrument to be used by the Party in the pursuit of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Culture is something that can be manufactured, like an engine or a dam, operated by a controlling authority – an unsurprising notion given that Hu and many top leaders are engineers. As Hu writes, “we must scientifically determine the people’s basic cultural rights and interest, and diverse spiritual culture requirements, completely grasp the responsibilities and functions of government and market in cultural construction…”

Professor Stephen Walt critiques this view in Foreign Policy:

“What Hu doesn’t understand is that you can’t just order creativity up by fiat or by making a cheerleading speech. Nobody in Washington told Louis Armstrong to redefine the art of jazz solos, a government official didn’t order Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to invent be-bop in order to increase America’s global influence, and the Beatles didn’t spend all those hours in the Cavern Club or in Hamburg because somebody at the BBC had been told to create a “British invasion.” Instead, these things happened because these various individuals were free to assimilate influences from all over, and to work on their art for essentially selfish reasons.”

Thus, China’s leaders portray Western culture (however one defines that) as a tool by “hostile foreign powers” to undermine China. As a response, the essay and the Decision compel the Party to “raising the international influence and competitiveness of Chinese culture, vigorously expand into international cultural markets, innovate methods for culture to march out, incessantly raise national cultural soft power.”  To this end, the government announced on January 5 that it would launch a 24-hour television channel in New York to “propagate information about China overseas.”

The Asia Society’s Orville Schell offers a spot-on critique:

“China confuses propaganda and public relations with cultural power. I think it has the idea that if it only tries harder, and engages its PR and propaganda machine more forcefully, then everyone will see China’s glories and will appreciate China more. But of course that’s a very strange notion of what soft power and true cultural self confidence is. It’s not something you can create, it arises naturally out of society. I think that speaks of a lingering insecurity and uncertainty about just how substantial China really is.”

Hu’s essay also reveals a contradiction in the Party’s approach to culture. Throughout the essay, the word “culture” is always used in the singular, whether in reference to socialist culture or Chinese culture. Yet Beijing recognizes a diversity of cultures in the PRC. An official White Paper says that “the Tibetan people have created and developed their brilliant and distinctive culture.” While a good Marxist may be able to resolve this contradiction by noting that the Paper locates Tibetan culture within the “treasure-house of Chinese culture,” the problem of the singular culture cannot be easily or empirically dismissed. The bubbling unrest among the Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian, and now Hui populations, demonstrate that the Party’s approach to culture is not contributing to the multi-national harmony it seeks.

In the coming weeks, the International Campaign for Tibet will release a report provisionally titled “The Case for Cultural Genocide in Tibet.” The lengthy report documents the claim that a cultural genocide is happening in Tibet. It argues that the Chinese state has abjectly failed in its responsibility to protect and preserve the distinct Tibetan culture, a role it selected for itself following the invasion and occupation in the 1950s. The report further argues that saving Tibet’s culture should be a matter of concern for the international community as a matter of policy and as part of the overall trend toward the development of a more comprehensive regime for combating genocide.

This brings me back to my original point. Is it possible for government leaders to assert upon themselves the role of protectors of a culture, when they have a fundamental misunderstanding of (if not hostility toward) the very nature of culture? How can a governmental entity, whose official statement on its self-asserted responsibility to manage culture omits the notion of a diversity of cultures within the realm, be accepted as a responsible steward for the various cultures under its control?

Is there any possibility that the methods used to study and explain the (alleged) threats to Chinese culture could be employed objectively to develop understandings of the threats to Tibetan culture within the PRC? Can Chinese scholars and citizens even find space to explore these questions free from ideological shackles? Moreover, would there be space for scholars and citizens from other cultures to contribute?

China analyst Damian Ma concludes that:

“[Hu’s ] ‘culture war’ is not truly meant to be waged against nefarious U.S. cultural encroachments. It is instead part of a battle to sustain the confidence of its own people — via nationalism, Confucian tenets, wealth, cultural renaissance, or whatever substitute that can be dreamed up — or risk the consequences. The war is, and has always been, about defining the soul of the modern Chinese nation.”

Ma’s analysis begs the question of whether Beijing has the capacity or willingness to truly understand who “its own people” and their cultures are, much less genuinely respond to their grievances. If Hu Jintao the culture warrior truly wants a “harmonious society” as his legacy, it would seem that he has some fundamental contradictions to resolve first.