By Peter Hartcher, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 December 2018 Read original news here

The leader of Tibet’s government-in-exile has been telling his story about Bob Carr around the world for years and always gets a laugh. Last week he recounted it during a visit to Parliament House in Canberra.

Ever since the Dalai Lama split his job into two some years ago, remaining spiritual leader of the Tibetans in exile and handing over the political leadership to be elected from among the free Tibetans, Lobsang Sangay has been their President.

Lobsang Sangay, President of the Tibetan government-in-exile, right, smiles as he listens to the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala, India.
Lobsang Sangay, President of the Tibetan government-in-exile, right, smiles as he listens to the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala, India.CREDIT:AP

In 2013 Sangay visited Canberra and a reporter asked him whether Carr, Australia’s then foreign affairs minister, would be meeting him. It’s always a delicate matter.

A government that meets the Dalai Lama or Sangay risks the wrath of the Chinese Communist Party, which has claimed to be the sole representative of the Tibetan people ever since its army invaded Tibet in 1950.

“I said I’d love to, but I haven’t asked for a meeting”, not wanting to put Carr in a difficult position, he recalled last week. “I’m sure that, given the choice, Bob Carr would like to meet because that’s the Buddhist culture – we like to believe people are good.”

Later in his visit, the Tibetan leader was riding the lift from Parliament’s subterranean carpark into the building when the lift stopped. “The doors open and Bob Carr walks in,” the Harvard-educated legal scholar tells me. The Labor backbencher Michael Danby, Sangay’s escort for the visit, introduced the two men in the lift: “I had to decide at that moment whether to extend my hand or not. The Tibetan way is to not cause inconvenience, so I nodded and smiled. He kind of nodded – a little bit – then walked past.

“I like to say that we didn’t have a formal meeting but we had a karmic meeting. No matter how powerful the Chinese government may be, it can’t prevent the foreign minister of Australia from meeting me.”

Illustration: Dionne Gain
Illustration: Dionne GainCREDIT:

Perhaps, but the Chinese Communist Party has certainly managed to hold things up pretty successfully. Paul Keating as prime minister met the Dalai Lama in 1992. John Howard as prime minister met him in 1996 and 2007.

The last time that any Australian prime minister or government minister met either leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile was when Peter Garrett, then schools education minister in the Gillard government, met the Dalai Lama in private in his hotel room in 2011. Karmic meetings with Carr aside.

Carr is now a cheerleader for the Beijing government as head of the Australia-China Relations Institute.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson
Illustration: Andrew DysonCREDIT:

So for seven years Australian governments, Labor and Liberal, comprehensively shunned the Tibetans, an indicator of the rising power of the Chinese government to intimidate Australia.

Until last week. A minister in the Morrison government, Ken Wyatt, Minister for Aged Care and also Minister for Indigenous Health, met Sangay in Parliament House. Not in a lift or in secret or hidden away in a hotel room but during a public ceremony in the main committee room.

“Minister Wyatt is not just principled and brave” for meeting the President of the free Tibetans, “but also a genuinely nice human being”, Sangay tells me after the meeting. “Normally people will meet you when they’re not in government and then when they are in government they say, ‘Understand that I’m in a difficult position’.”

Frontline in US-China power struggle reaches Australia's doorstep

Partly this was a personal commitment from Wyatt to the Tibetan cause. Wyatt, the first Indigenous minister in an Australian federal government, spoke at the ceremony last week of the “parallels between indigenous Australians and the Tibetans”.

But it’s also a marker of Australian relations with the Tibetans in exile, and a marker in Australian relations with Beijing. Kyinzom Dhongdue is a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile, representing Tibetans in Australasia and East Asia, and she observes: “Even in the last year or so there’s a more balanced view of China not just as a trading partner but China is being seen as a threat, so Tibetan worries and experience are feeling more relevant. This year I’ve found it easier to get meetings – people are more interested in what we have to say.”

And it wasn’t just Wyatt at the ceremony with Sangay in Parliament House. There were 23 MPs and senators in total including Labor’s Michael Danby and Lisa Singh, Liberals Warren Entsch, Kevin Andrews, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Jason Falinski, Greens leader Richard Di Natale, Nationals MP George Christensen, Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick plus Derryn Hinch, as well as former Labor foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans, now chancellor of ANU.

And how is the Tibetan experience more relevant today? The emerging stories of the shocking mass repression of another of China’s ethnic and religious minorities, the Uighur people of China’s Xinjiang Province, “means that it’s more than about one example”, says Sangay.

Uighur residents in Australia holding up photos of relatives who are missing, in internment camps or have passed away.
Uighur residents in Australia holding up photos of relatives who are missing, in internment camps or have passed away.CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

“Now we have a million people in detention in Xinjiang” in what Beijing calls re-education camps. Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer calls them “concentration camps” where Uighurs, including young children, are imprisoned without due process and held indefinitely.

And then there’s Beijing’s enormous One Belt, One Road international infrastructure program. “We lost our country because of one road,” says Sangay. “First the road came, then the trucks came, then the guns came, then the tanks came. It’s the exact blueprint” for domination now on offer to scores of countries under Belt and Road, he says.

Finally, there’s the experience of what Sangay calls “elite co-option”. “We have seen this for 60 years and now you see it around the world in one country after another”, and he has a litany of examples. Money, contracts, government access, favours are on offer in return for loyalty to Beijing and its agents.

If Tibet’s long suffering under Chinese Communist Party repression is more relevant to the wider world, the wider world is also waking up to Beijing’s wide-ranging influence programs. The West’s gathering determination to exclude China’s telecoms gear manufacturer Huawei is an example. And Australia’s laws against foreign interference are another.

Those laws took effect on Monday. Anyone in Australia acting as an agent of a foreign power must register with the federal government. If suspected foreign agents fail to register, they can be issued a notice to show cause why they shouldn’t be considered to be working on behalf of a foreign power.

Do more karmic encounters lie ahead?

Peter Hartcher is the Herald’s international editor.

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