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In Beijing, sound and fury signify nothing

Thursday, 27 February 2014 | Claude Arpi | in Edit

While China has undoubtedly been vocal in its opposition to the Dalai Lama-Barack Obama meeting, it has also been pragmatic enough to continue its relations with the US in the business-as-usual mode

During his visit to Beijing earlier this month, US Secretary of State John Kerry probably informed his Chinese ‘friends’ that President Barack Obama would be meeting the Dalai Lama when the latter arrived in Washington, DC. Then Beijing did what it is good at: It pulled one of its sharpest loose-cannons from his quasi-retirement to shoot at US foreign policy. Mr Zhu Weiqun used to occupy an important position in the Chinese United Front Department, which deals with ‘minorities’; for years, he was the main interlocutor for the Dalai Lama’s envoys in the still-born negotiation process between Dharamsala and Beijing. Mr Zhu does not have an executive assignment anymore; he is a mere director of the Committee for Ethnic and Religious Affairs of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a grand-sounding title which can be useful when Mr Zhu’s ‘expertise’ is required.

Mr Zhu wrote a hard-hitting article published by the official Chinese media, where he argued that the West will soon “see the real face of the Dalai clique and East Turkestan movement” (Xinjiang). Mr Zhu, however, admitted that in the Western world today, the Chinese case on Tibet is still “weak and isolated”, but “the trend of history” was changing fast as “time is on China’s side”. Reuters noted that Mr Zhu’s message uses “unusually strong language”, suggesting that China should ignore foreign pressure on human rights.

Mr Zhu, a hardliner on Tibet, undoubtedly knew about the forthcoming meeting between the Tibetan leader and the US President. For him, “As China becomes more involved in international affairs, and as Tibet and Xinjiang further open to the world, more and more Westerners will have an understanding of Tibet and Xinjiang that better accords with reality.” The “reality”, according to Mr Zhu, is that nobody can point a finger at China, particularly when it concerns human rights and freedom of speech.

The original article, which says that the US should be pragmatic when it looks at the issue of the Dalai Lama, was published in China Tibet Online, an official Chinese website which reports issues related to Tibet. It appeared a couple of days before the announcement that the Dalai Lama would meet President Obama in the White House. Mr Zhu asserted: “What should be developed should be developed, and when stability should be maintained it will be maintained — China must totally disregard whatever the West says.” This sounds like the old Tiananmen Square rhetoric; whatever the cost, the hard-line should and will be maintained. Mr Zhu speaks of a “strange phenomenon” emerging: “When China is in steady progress, the Western leaders would line up to woo China, but change their attitude immediately and slander China as long as something happens in Tibet or Xinjiang… which is really unbelievable.”

Mr Zhu misses one part of history. Tibet has, for centuries, been an independent nation with its own Government, Army, coinage, stamps and passport. Now the Dalai Lama seeks for Tibet only a genuine autonomy within the People’s Republic of China. When he was negotiating with Dharamsala, Mr Zhu systematically blocked this type of compromise. Interestingly, he concluded: “The American foreign policy is based on ‘pragmatism’ for its own interests and ideology.” 

The day before the Obama-Dalai Lama encounter, Beijing thundered that the proposed meeting would be a “rampant interference” which would damage bilateral relations. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying angrily added: “If any country deliberately insists on harming China’s interests... it will also damage its own interests and will harm the bilateral relations between China and the relevant country. If the US President wishes to meet any person, it’s his own affair, but he cannot meet the Dalai Lama.”

Xinhua was also sanguine: “No matter what Mr Obama is to discuss with the Dalai Lama, their meeting will be sheer politics, but of no avail in manipulating China over the Tibet issue. It is high time for the United States to wake up to Dalai Lama’s hypocrisy and abandon the lose-lose deal.” But business is business. Between ‘pragmatic’ states, lose-lose can become win-win in no time and contrary to what Mr Zhu asserted, it is not the privilege of the United States to be pragmatic, China has a thousand-years-old tradition of pragmatism.

The day Mr Obama met the Dalai Lama, The New York Times quoted a top US military commander as saying that, “the US Army is working on starting a formal dialogue and exchange programme with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army before the end of the year.” From where was General Raymond T Odierno, the US Army Chief of Staff, speaking? You won’t believe it! He was speaking from Beijing!

Though the Chinese Government knew about the Obama-Dalai Lama scheduled meeting, General Odierno’s trip was not cancelled. During his Press conference in the Chinese capital, the General affirmed: “It really is about us focusing on a long-term relationship and the importance of us conducting exchanges, conducting institutional visits.” That is a win-win statement. Gen Odierno affirmed that a formal high-level Army-to-Army exchange would be helpful because “throughout history, miscalculation is what has caused conflict,” adding that the purpose of his visit was to lay the groundwork for senior-level exchanges between the two Armies.

After visiting barracks in Shenyang Military Area Command, Gen Odierno affirmed that the Chinese troops are “incredibly professional and wonderful”. After meeting with the top Chinese Generals, he declared: “It’s been very encouraging and made very clear to me the importance that you place on collaboration and cooperation. And I think that is the key.” Don’t you think that it is pragmatism all the way and from both sides? The fact that Beijing allows such a senior US General’s visit to happen despite America’s “rampant interference” in China’s so-called internal affairs, is pure pragmatism.

In the meantime, repression continues in Tibet, particularly in the restive Nagchu Prefecture and, instead of trying to dispel Tibetan resentment, Beijing makes it worse with hard-line policies. To give an example, Mr Gao Yang, a Han cadre who served a long time in Tibet, has been nominated as Party Secretary of Nagchu; he replaces the Nagchu-born Tibetan Dortho. A Han from Shandong Province, replacing a Tibetan will not help in diffusing the situation.

In any case, India should certainly learn from the Chinese and the Americans. But Indian diplomats will argue that Indian diplomacy is based on ‘principles’, not on pragmatism. By the way, why doesn’t the Indian Prime Minister meet the Dalai Lama? But perhaps the Mandarins in the Prime Minister’s Office see such a meeting as “rampant” interference in China’s affairs.