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.

New perspectives on EU’s engagement for Tibet

On Friday, November 30, 2012, in EU Policies, by Paola Trevisan

In July 2012, Stravros Lambrinidis was appointed EU Special Representative for Human Rights, the first EU appointment of this kind. At that time the International Campaign for Tibet expressed its willingness to interact with the newly appointed EU Special Representative for Human Rights regarding the situation in Tibet and called on Mr. Lambrinidis to guarantee that human rights are included at every level of EU-China relations (see: Stavros Lambrinidis appointed first EU Special Representative for Human Rights).

Mr. Lambrinidis took office on 1 September and last week, on 28 November, he addressed the European Parliament’s Sub-committee on human rights on the main activities he has undertaken during his first two months in office and future priorities for his mandate.

Among other things, Special Representative Lambrinidis expressed his readiness and commitment to work on Tibet within his mandate. Tibet was listed as one of his priority issues. He said he met with the Chinese Ambassador to the European Union Wu Hailong and communicated his interest to visit the People’s Republic of China, including Tibetan areas. Most importantly, he said that he is open to meet representatives of the Tibetans and other Tibetan people to have a better understanding of their grievances.

Just few weeks before, High-Commissioner for Human Rights Navy Pillay released a robust statement urging the Chinese government to immediately address the long-standing Tibetan grievances that have led to an escalation of self-immolations (see: UN Rights Commissioner makes strong first statement on Tibet) . Similarly, the Chairlady of the European Parliament’s Sub-Committee on Human Rights (DROI), Barbara Lochbihler, criticized the Chinese government over the human rights situation in Tibet in an interview with the German News Agency DPA on 3 November (see: Appell: Chinas künftige Führung muss Menschenrechte achten) .

All of them have expressed in different occasions their interest in visiting Tibet to personally assess the situation there according to their human rights mandate. Yet, none of them was granted formal invitation from the Chinese government to go to Tibet. However, the recent visit by US Ambassador Locke to afflicted Tibetan areas since the self-immolations crisis accelerated in 2011 demonstrates that visiting Tibet is not impossible.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has constantly appealed to the international community to visit Tibet. The international community should not give up and continue requiring the Chinese government access to Tibetan areas and the possibility to personally witness the situation on the ground.

The recent attention shown to Tibet by senior figures with leadership responsibility in the area of human rights should be seen in Beijing as an indication of serious concerns that demand urgent attention.

The missed opportunity for a debate on China (and Tibet)

On Tuesday, October 23, 2012, in China, Recent, US Government, by Todd Stein

Last night was “foreign policy night” in the third and final presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

A 15-minute segment was devoted to the subject of “The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World” by moderator Bob Schieffer.  Unfortunately, we got very little insight into the candidates view of China’s role in the world or how they would approach China overall.

Yesterday’s blog hoped that Obama and Romney would touch on issues of democracy, human rights, territorial ambitions and Tibet.  Instead, the candidates used this foreign policy topic to steer the conversation back to domestic themes.  China became a vehicle to talk about trade, manufacturing, industrial policy, taxes, etc.

The New Yorker’s always insightful Evan Osnos writes that this is troubling:

The absence of a discussion of human rights will not go over well in the American human-rights community or with Tibetan groups. For the moment, however, in Beijing it is being greeted with pleasure. China takes careful note of vocabulary—the Foreign Ministry keeps track of the mentions of specific words—and the erosion of human rights from the candidates’ priorities will be taken as a sign, as foreign-affairs specialist Zhu Feng put it, that economic issues are “something they really care more about now than human rights or security.”

A Beijing-based Chinese economist agreed: “Chinese officials will be satisfied by the debate, as the China topics were trade and currency, and neither candidate mentioned human rights, so it was quite friendly towards China.”

However, there were a couple of interesting moments that provided a window into each man’s thoughts on China.

First, President Obama opened up with the view that “China’s both an adversary but also a potential partner in the international community if it’s following the rules.”  The use of “adversary” certainly got noticed in Beijing, and according to’s Josh Rogin, appeared to contradict his own Administration’s messaging on U.S-China relations.  Rogin cites a speech by Secretary of State Clinton in 2009 where she distances the Administration’s approach from those who would label China an “adversary.”  Of course, the Administration’s posture has evolved over three years in response to a more globally assertive posture by Beijing.  Perhaps Obama’s choice of words reflects that evolution.

It is also interesting that he used the phrase “potential partner,” which implies China is not a partner now.  This also is a different tone than that expressed by his Administration, and will also be noticed in Beijing (if not first by his Treasury Secretary).

For his part, Governor Romney tacked away from Obama’s comments, saying, “We don’t have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form. We can work with them. We can collaborate with them if they’re willing to be responsible.”  This is similar to Obama’s approach, by putting the onus back on Beijing to choose whether it wants to be a responsible partner.  At the same time, experts pointed to this as a softening of Romney’s tone on China.  It seems to have been welcomed in Beijing.

Romney also said, “China has an interest that’s very much like ours in one respect, and that is they want a stable world. They don’t want war. They don’t want to see protectionism… So they want the economy to work and the world to be free and open.”

For one, Romney assesses that the Chinese don’t want protectionism even as he has previously accused them of practicing it, when he called China “cheaters” and promised to “crack down” by labeling them as currency manipulators.

For another, Romney’s claim that the Chinese want the world to be “free and open” raises eyebrows, given that China is consistently rated by Freedom House as the “worst of the worst” among the world’s most repressed society.  (This notion is cleverly displayed in TIME magazine’s recent cover story on Xi Jinping: The Next Leader of the Unfree World.)  But perhaps Romney meant to refer to free and open commercial markets.

Overall, it was revealing that the Middle East dominated the debate.  While China got one-sixth of the time, that was more than Europe, Latin American and Africa combined.  My reaction to the topical allocation in the debate can be summed up by a Tweet last night by the ever-witty @RelevantOrgans (a Twitter handle that satirizes the Chinese Communist Propaganda Bureau):

Relevant Organs Tweet
But this missed opportunity to have a serious debate on China policy doesn’t mean it’s the last chance for such a debate.  Tonight, four third party candidates will participate in a debate in Chicago – Jill Stein of the Green Party, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party.  Let’s see what they have to say on China.

Lastly, I offer a reminder to urge the candidates to respond to ICT’s 2012 Tibet questionnaire, in which they tell voters what their Tibet policy would be.  We have heard from one candidate (Obama) but not heard from the others we asked (Romney, Stein, Johnson).   Our page gives you tips for how to contact the campaigns via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.

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An (im)practical approach to human rights in China

On Friday, June 15, 2012, in China, Recent, by Leslie Butterfield

In the days leading up to the 20th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has released its second National Human Rights Action Plan of China (henceforth, the Plan). Unfortunately, just like the 2009-2010 National Human Rights Action Plan of China released in response to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review, the 2012-2015 Plan suffers from a misguided approach and a questionable perspective on reality.

Unique to this recent Plan is an acknowledgment by the Chinese government of its limitations in actualizing its aspirations for human rights. In fact, the Plan’s introduction recognizes that China still “has a long way to go before it attains the lofty goal of full enjoyment of human rights,” a rare, but welcome admission that human rights in China are not yet fully enjoyed.

Unfortunately, this recognition of limitations also creates a cop-out in the interest of relativism. Under the guise of “practicality” the Chinese government excuses itself from its full responsibilities, noting that “proceeding from China’s national conditions and new realities…” it will “advance the development of its human rights cause on a practical basis” (emphasis added). Such practicality provides an excuse for the government’s egregious human rights violations in Tibet — after all, given the ‘national conditions’ of ‘instability’ taking place in Tibet, how can the PRC be expected to ‘practically’ respect human rights?

Such relativism comes into play as we evaluate the Chinese government’s proposed protections for Freedom of Religious Belief. Each promise of free belief comes under the conditionality that the religious belief be deemed “normal” by state authorities. Unfortunately for Tibetan Buddhists, many of their traditional practices including a devotion to the Dalai Lama have been deemed as not “normal” by the state. Instead of guaranteeing Tibetans free practice of religion, the state has recently taken to stationing Communist Party cadres inside monasteries to ensure that Tibetan Buddhism is practiced according to the law and under the watchful eye of security cameras and government officials. Who better than to regulate Tibetan Buddhism than an officially atheist government?

A similar relativism characterizes the promises to protect the rights of ethnic minorities. Following its theme of legality, the Plan asserts that the “state protects the lawful rights and interests of ethnic minorities,” which, unfortunately, without adequate opportunities for participation in decision making by Tibetans, means that the state determines the interests of ethnic minorities.

In regard to cultural rights, the Chinese approach equates to the state quantifying intangible cultural expression and deeming what expression is appropriate for Tibetans to express. The PRC’s policies of ‘protecting Tibetan culture’ have instead yielded disastrous results that the Dalai Lama has compared to “cultural genocide”. ICT has recently published a report detailing how these policies and practices have led to cultural destruction instead of cultural protection.

Given the ‘practical’ approach that the PRC is taking, what does the Plan mean for the next three years of human rights promotion in China? Unfortunately, it appears to be another unapologetic justification for continuing the status quo. Only now, Chinese government officials will point to the Plan and say that they are taking steps to improve the situation.

It is up to the members of the UN Human Rights Council, and other governments, to raise the facts about the human rights situation in China and Tibet in order to hold the Chinese leadership accountable and to encourage them to take a what could be considered a more practical approach to human rights — one that involves legitimate stakeholders and truly respects the rights and beliefs of all citizens.