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.
Every few months the Chinese authorities rustle up a dozen or more foreign journalists based in Beijing to take on rigid tours of parts of Tibet. But in all the years the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has been doing this, the journalists have hardly ever—and possibly never—painted their trips or their MFA minders in a good light. Quite the opposite: the story that inevitably comes out is of the palpable fear and anger among Tibetans they meet, the frustrations with their MFA minders’ scripted evasions, and the reports end up vividly conveying the exact opposite impression that the journalists’ MFA minders would supposedly want them to—that the Chinese authorities in Tibet are at best blind and ill-informed, at worst stupid and brutal, and that the Tibetan people are understandably restless because of it.
It could be that these foreign trips are more for the benefit of China’s domestic propaganda machine. On the back of this latest trip there were reports in the TAR’s regional and the national press depicting fawning foreign journalists slightly bowed before proudly erect officials reeling off impressive economic stats; previous reports about these press trips have quoted foreign journalists delivering improbably naïve statements such as “My! Tibetan medicine surely is a treasure of Chinese culture!” or some such gem, supposedly from a Turkish journalist in a delegation last year.
Whatever the MFA’s motivation is for dragging foreign journalists around Tibet and force-feeding them an indigestible diet of propaganda, the tours at least add to the broader awareness that all is far from well in Tibet. The visits are a distant cry from the free and unfettered access to Tibet that the Dalai Lama, foreign governments and others were calling for at the height of the protests in March 2008 and since, and they should in no way be seen as evidence of a greater degree of access or progress on the free flows of information in Tibet. So long as the journalists keep reporting what they see and not what they are told to see, long may these trips continue.
(Photo Caption: Foreign journalists during this latest press trip to Tibet, interviewing a local official. Xinhua)
Hong Kong, April 6. When I was invited to speak at Hong Kong’s renowned Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk about the situation in Tibet to the international press corps in China.
The Chinese government seeks to suppress any criticism of its policies on Tibet and in the past year has engaged in a massive cover-up of its repression in Tibet. As if to prove this point, when the FCC made news of my talk public, a member of its committee was immediately summoned into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong. The Ministry demanded cancellation of my talk, which the FCC, a bastion of free speech, refused.
When a reporter called the Ministry for a quote, they said that last year’s “riots” in Tibet involved “beating people, smashing up property, looting and arson, masterminded and organized by Tibetan separatists. In view of this, we firmly oppose Tibetan separatists coming to Hong Kong for any separatist activities.”
This was not surprising; anyone who disagrees or even expresses mild concern about the Chinese government’s position is generally characterized as a separatist by Beijing. Many Hong Kong journalists then speculated whether I would be allowed admittance to Hong Kong or not, some saying that it was something of a test case for the ‘one country, two systems’ concept, and comparable to Mia Farrow’s visit speaking out on Darfur last May (she was allowed in a day before the torch relay, but only after a warning that inappropriate conduct would complicate future attempts to visit Hong Kong).
The FCC told the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that as they considered the idea of my talk to be one-sided, they were welcome to provide an official speaker to share the platform, which I also welcomed. There was no answer, so today my solo talk went ahead to a packed crowd of journalists, diplomats, China hands and NGO staffers.
While there is a strong contingent in Hong Kong of financial and business correspondents, with the economic meltdown being the dominant story, the number of attendees showed that there is also a very strong interest in what is happening in Tibet here, and that it’s unusual for people to speak about it in public.
After my presentation, the FCC presented me with a gift. A committee member joked: “We either give a tee-shirt or a Chinese visa. In your case, I think it’s a tee-shirt.”
I was privileged to be able to speak about the current crisis publicly in China, in a way that Tibetans cannot. The real story is that even talking about this in Hong Kong is a story. It’s indicative of Beijing’s efforts to block information that counters state propaganda, and a disturbing reminder of the Chinese government’s relentless efforts to cover up the ongoing crackdown in Tibet.