Op-ed by Dr Lobsang Sangay
Last month, the President of United States made his maiden visit to China and as anticipated the visit was marked with much aplomb and a lavish reception. But Human rights in China and Tibet was very much off the radar.
As the President of the Central Tibetan Administration, one highlight of my position is my travel abroad to elicit support for the Tibetan cause. Given today’s environment, some may see this as a discouraging task. My last visit to Scandinavia, to Norway, was in 2014. That year, China’s GDP was $10.5 trillion in today’s dollars. It was also Xi Jinping’s first full year in power, and some held out hope that he would be a reformer. Now, in 2017, I am returning. In the intervening three years, China’s GDP has grown by another $1.5 trillion, and its economy is now far larger than any other nation’s except the United States. Inside Tibet, as well as China as a whole, we have seen the government’s policies, instead of growing more liberal, becoming even more restrictive.
Nevertheless, my hope for greater international support for the Tibetan cause remains undiminished. This continued conviction stems first and foremost from the unwavering support our cause garners abroad—including from Norway—and the opportunity I see for that support to grow despite countervailing pressures.
All too familiar with the abhorrent ways the Chinese government chooses to use the power it obtains, it is of course with great trepidation that I have watched it begin to wield its monetary influence to further its political aims abroad. This has been bad news for perhaps no other group more explicitly than Tibetans, since one of the most common manifestations of China’s influence-brandishing has been the pressuring of governments all over the world to not host or meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
I should acknowledge that this happened in Scandinavia when the top leaders of Denmark and Norway did not meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his visits to their countries, likely out of concern for China’s reaction. However, while I implore the leaders to meet with His Holiness the next time they are given the opportunity, I do not take this as a sign that backing for our cause will diminish.
First, there is a clear synergy between the values of Norway and the objectives of the CTA and Tibetan community as a whole. Norway is famous not only for having excellent respect for human rights at home but also for government and civil society initiatives promoting human rights abroad. The Tibet issue, at its core, is about human rights and moral values. Severe violations of the rights of Tibetans are why so many fled and why so many inside Tibet still protest the PRC’s rule, and relief from those human rights abuses is our primary goal for negotiations with China. Such a clear overlap of values will always push us in the direction of collaboration.
But there is also a strategic argument to be made. I believe that supporting the Tibetan cause is in fact a way to protect the long-term interests of Norway, as well as other democratic countries. As China’s monetary strength grows, the PRC will continue to exchange their economic success for military power and diplomatic influence. If it were only the Tibet issue on which China ever planned to use its influence to sway other countries, then I would have a difficult case to make on my trips abroad. But clearly silence on Tibet is not the only favor China will ask for. And this is not a hypothetical slippery-slope argument. Any questioning of what they term “domestic issues”—Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, disappearances, political prisoners, etc.—has long brought rebuke from the PRC, but the list has started to expand beyond anything resembling “domestic”.
China’s neighbors know this well. The PRC has been extremely aggressive in its territorial claims and resource exploitation, often using exaggerated or entirely imagined historical arguments to support them, as it always has for Tibet. We have seen this in the South China Sea; its various border disputes with India, most recently in Doklam; the Senkaku Islands; and its numerous damming projects on rivers that downstream countries rely on. And the PRC has made no secret about wishing to bring this style of influence to the global stage. It has been busy promoting its agenda in international bodies, often by protecting other human rights abusers, and creating its own international institutions and projects, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the One Belt One Road Initiative, that will have no qualms about supporting opponents of human rights and democratic values.
It is not a question of if China will begin to apply this aggressive influence to nations outside its own region but when. We may have caught a glimpse of this future most recently when Greece, the recipient of hundreds of millions of Euros of infrastructure investment from China, blocked the EU’s criticism of China’s human rights record in July.
There are worrying signs from Norway as well. The Sino-Norwegian human rights dialogue that began in 1997 stalled in 2010 following the conferring of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. While it is encouraging to see that both human rights dialogue and trade talks have resumed this year with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg visiting China, the reports in Chinese media that China-Norway relations got back on track after Norway pledged to “respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” is not encouraging for supporters of Tibet.
Even on the environmental front Tibet’s environment impinges on both regional and global security. The global efforts including that of Norway to reign in China’s policies in Tibet underpinning an oversight of the importance of Tibet’s environment and sensitivity over its fragile ecosystem, must be robust, after all in the age of climate change the future of Asia and by extension that of our planet earth hinges on the developments on Tibet, the roof of the world.
Not speaking up for Tibet may seem like a minor price for economic cooperation now, but it may be only the first of many seemingly “small” concessions China asks for. Over time, those concessions could wither Norway’s record on human rights as well as the enshrinement of democratic, anti-expansionist, and rights-based values in the international order. A country like Norway, built on a foundation of such values, cannot afford to concede any ground to China on critical human rights issues. By continually upholding its values in negotiations in China, Norway will secure its status as a global human rights leader and ultimately help improve the lives of the Tibetan people.
The former President of United States Barack Obama met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama thrice during his political tenure and at the same time maintained trade and bilateral ties with China. The U.S has supported both ‘One China Policy’ and at the same time the ‘Middle Way Policy’ of the Tibetan people and doesn’t find contradiction between the two.
Now is the time for Norway to lead by example and one of the most concrete ways to support Tibet would be by endorsing the Middle Way Approach based on the principles of non-violence, truth and reconciliation, one that seeks to engage with the PRC through dialogue and enable Tibetans to preserve their culture, language environment, identity and religion.
Norway calling on China to resume dialogue with the envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be both be laudable and befitting of values this great country continue to cherish and advocate.
Dr Lobsang Sangay is the democratically elected President (Sikyong) of the Central Tibetan Administration.