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.

Recent developments in Beijing’s diplomatic intransigence

On Thursday, December 19, 2013, in Recent, by Chris Ratke

Vice President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping

Vice President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping.

While tensions continue to flare over China’s attempt to enforce an air defense zone in the East China Sea, two other portentous developments have come to light that reinforces the sentiment that the leadership in Beijing is growing increasingly apathetic towards international cooperation and China’s reputation abroad.

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.

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Tibet and President Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream

On Thursday, August 22, 2013, in China, Recent, by Bhuchung K. Tsering

Chinese President Xi Jinping has talked about making arduous efforts to  achieve what he calls the “Chinese dream” (Zhongguo meng) – a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Participating in a CNN discussion on the concept,  Wu Jianmin, a former Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, said, “Reemergence of China is the Chinese dream.” He expanded, “China used to be a leading nation in the world for many. many centuries. But in the past two centuries, China lagged far behind the industrialized countries. Chinese were down and out. Chinese always dream of better future.”

More interestingly, Ambassador Wu said “we need rule of law and democracy” in the definition of the Chinese dream adding, “Rule of law and democracy is the goal of our political reform” and  “Xi Jinping was very clear on that. We need rule of law and democracy.”

I had an experience of a different kind of Chinese dream the other day when I attended a talk by a visiting Chinese professor of history.  His topic was the Cultural Revolution in his region.  For more than half an hour, he went into details about the existence of factions and their nature during the Cultural Revolution and how these had impacts on the society. The Chinese professor had collaborated with an American professor in researching on the issue and published a series of articles in international research journals. I thought he was forthright on issues, including in calling the Chinese regime a totalitarian one.

As he ended his remarks and after the chair had taken advantage of his being the chair and thus asking the first question, the next question was posed by an elderly gentleman who asked whether the many articles that he had written were solely in English or also available in Chinese and accessible to the Chinese people in China.  The Chinese professor responded that these were available at his university but not to the general public in China.

This question was followed by others about how the Cultural Revolution was being explained to the Chinese students currently and whether he could use terms such as “dictatorship” (which one questioner said he had used during his presentation here) while teaching to his students in China.

The Chinese professor responded that he was part of a committee discussing content of a text book for high school students in China and that Cultural Revolution was covered in just three pages. He said he would not be able to use terms like dictatorship in China.  In short, it was clear that only sanitized versions of such issues were being made accessible to the Chinese people.

As I sat listening to these I began to realize the existence of another Chinese dream; projecting two versions of China – one for the Chinese public and the other to the international community.

Internationally, over the years China has loosened up and has been making aggressive attempts to project a more open image. Chinese scholars and diplomats have changed their language of discourse.  State Councilor Yang Jiechi.who is also the Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Leading Group of the CPC Central Committee said it as much in a signed article in Qiushi (Seeking Truth), the flagship magazine of the Communist Party of China (CPC), on August 16, 2013: “With the layout being more comprehensive and more balanced, China’s diplomacy under new circumstances displays such features as rich ideas, clear priorities, firm positions, flexible approaches and distinctive styles.”

The article had the interesting title, “Innovations in China’ s Diplomatic Theory and Practice Under New Conditions.”

Today, Chinese scholars particularly (like the professor that I mention here) can be seen to take a more independent line on developments in China, in conferences outside of China. China scholars outside also have comparatively better access to information in China than before.  English language Chinese official media can be occasionally seen to be addressing issues that are still taboo to Chinese.

But the above seem to be a strategy aimed at fulfilling another Chinese dream: to create an image of an open China to the outside world while continuing to maintain a firm grip within China.

The same strategy is being applied to the issue of Tibet.  On the one hand, China tries to create an image of development and happiness in Tibet to the outside world; on the other Tibetans in Tibet are increasing finding greater restrictions to their day to day life, let alone their political and other grievances being addressed by the Chinese leadership.

Therefore, today there are two Chinese dreams; the one being experienced by President Xi Jinping and the other by the international community about China. I guess the truth will be known only after China wakes up to the reality from the dream.

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China’s 18th Party Congress and Tibet

On Friday, November 16, 2012, in China, by Bhuchung K. Tsering

Chinese leadership

The Chinese communist party's new leadership was unveiled November 15 in Beijing.

A preliminary look at the outcome of the much-hyped 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which was held from November 8 to 14, 2012, shows that Tibetans should not expect much under the new leadership, unless, saner thoughts prevail.

Here are a few reasons for this.

Although we saw “political structural reform” as one of the buzz-phrases at the Congress, there was no indication that this reform would apply to communities that the People’s Republic of China proclaims as its ‘ethnic minorities.’ And, even as “scientific outlook on development” was incorporated into the Party’s Constitution, we found nothing to indicate that a “people first” spirit would be applied to Tibetans when it comes to matters relating to their destiny. A statement after the first meeting of the new Politburo on November 16, 2012, said: “The foremost political task is to concentrate the mind of the Party, the nation and people of all ethnic backgrounds onto the congress’s spirit…” But the spirit of the Congress is only to consider the economic side of the equation, namely “the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects.” As the spirit of Tibetans is in crisis, with 74 confirmed incidents of self-immolation, this is a tragically narrow approach.

Another indication that Tibetans are given lesser weightage is the decrease in the number of Tibetans in the Party’s 18th Central Committee. In the past few Party Congresses, there were at least two Tibetans among the 200 plus members of the Committee. This time only one Tibetan is included. He is Pema Thinley, the current head of the Tibet Autonomous Region Government, and he was a member of the official Chinese delegation during the eighth round of discussions with the Dalai Lama’s envoys in 20087. If members of the Central Committee are ‘elected,’ then the reduced weightage it is an indication about the thinking of the majority Chinese members; if they were ‘selected,’ then it reflects the thinking of the Party itself. To be noted, there are four Tibetans who serve as alternate members in the Central Committee, the largest number we have had to date.

Speaking of representation, the most visible position that an ‘ethnic minority’ secured this time is that of being a member of the Secretariat of the Central Committee. This honor is bestowed on Yang Jing, a Mongolian. He already serves as the Minister in the State Ethnic Affairs Commission and a Vice Minister of the Central United Front Work Department. Otherwise, no ‘ethnic minority’ finds a place among the deputy secretaries, or standing committee members of the 18th Central Commission for Discipline Inspection], or the 25-member Politburo, not to talk of its Standing Committee.

In his first speech as the General Secretary of the Party, Xi Jinping, on November 15, 2012, acknowledged that: “In the new situation, our Party faces many severe challenges.” However, the growing social tension, including between Chinese and Tibetans, is a reality that the Chinese leaders will have to deal with, even as Xi says, “…Chinese people have opened up a good and beautiful home where all ethnic groups live in harmony and fostered an excellent culture that never fades.”

Culturally and psychologically, too, the ‘ethnic minorities’ seem to be considered more for their token value than substance during the Congress. Much of the reference to them during this historic 18th Party Congress was about their pictorial value for their “exotic garb.”

As we witness the historic and historical development in Tibet today, including the self-immolations by Tibetans, the following statement by Xi Jinping during his acceptance speech acquires a deeper meaning. “It is the people who create history. The masses are the real heroes. Out strength comes from the people and masses.” I believe the Tibetan people are really creating history and Beijing might want to listen.

Ling Jihua, the current head of China’s Central United Front Work Department that is the key organization managing Tibetan affairs, finds a place in the Central Committee, as was the case with his predecessors. But it is interesting that Zhu Weiqun, the Executive Deputy Minister of the UFWD, who handled day to day affairs on Tibet, does not find a place in the Committee although he was a member of the 17th CPC committee. This is all the more surprising when we consider that the former head of the UFWD, Du Qinglin, is in the new Central Committee. Du is older than Zhu Weiqun (born in November 1946 while Zhu was born in 1947), indicating that age may not have been a consideration.

It remains to be seen who will oversee organizations like the China Tibetan Culture Protection and Development Association, which Beijing has set up for their soft power outreach on Tibet. Zhu Weiqun was its Vice- President and Secretary General since 2004.

In the coming months, we may see the appointment of members of the Central Tibet Work Coordination Group or the Leading Group on Tibetan affairs, and depending on their background, we might get an idea of how the party sees the Tibetan issue. In the past, security considerations seem to have dominated in the composition of membership of the Group.

In his acceptance speech, Comrade Ji Xinping concluded,“China needs to learn more about the world, and the world also needs to learn more about China.” I would add that China and the new Chinese leaders need to learn much more about the Tibetans, too.
For more please read ICT’s special report: “China’s new leadership and Tibet” >>

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