Wednesday, October 31, 2007

China's "Hurt Feelings" Over Mr. Harper's Meeting with the Dalai Lama

On October 29, Prime Minister Harper met with the Dalai Lama in his office for 40 minutes. The Canadian Prime Minister followed the Tibetan custom of placing a long white silken scarf around the shoulders of the Dalai Lama to welcome his honoured guest. Someone had the brilliant idea of embroidering a large red maple leaf to the scarf reflecting the Dalai Lama's honorary Canadian citizenship. The video of their meeting with the Maple Leaf scarf displayed prominently by the Dalai Lama was a lead item on all the nightly TV news broadcasts. The next day both The National Post and The Globe and Mail published editorials supporting the Government's reception of the Dalai Lama, The Dalai Lama was also received by the Governor-General and by the leaders of the Official Opposition parties.

The response of the Chinese Government was offensive in its tone. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao declared: "The Chinese side demands the Canadian side ... correct its mistaken conduct, immediately adopt effective measures to eliminate adverse impact (from the meeting) and stop winking at or supporting anti-Chinese activities by Tibetan forces. This disgusting conduct has seriously hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and undermined Sino-Canadian relations." This sort of hectoring is unlikely to have much impact on Canadians who are unlikely to buy into the "mistaken conduct" formulation presented in such a condescending and menacing fashion. It is more likely to simply strengthen the resolve of Canadian nationalists to deepen contact with Tibetans. But one suspects that this sort of Foreign Ministry statement is more directed at the Chinese domestic audience than at Canadians.

But some Canadians did support the Chinese Government's line. For example an opinion piece in The Toronto Star the day before by a former diplomat, Harry Sterling, said: "A nation's foreign policies should be based on its national interests, not on the personal whims or prejudices of whoever happens to be its leader at the time. Leaders of governments who confuse their own personal viewpoints with those of their countries' national interests can cause unwelcome and even dangerous consequences for their fellow countrymen. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a leader who increasingly appears to base his foreign policy actions more on his personal or ideological biases than on what may be in the best interests of Canada" ( On October 30, the Canadian Press ran an account of an interview with former Canadian Ambassador to China, Fred Bild (my boss on my first posting in Beijing of whom I have nothing but the best of memories) reading: "A former Canadian ambassador to China believes the government's decision to greet the Dalai Lama on Parliament Hill on Monday could cost Canadian companies lucrative contracts. Fred Bild, who served as ambassador to China between 1990 and 1995, doesn't believe China will intervene and sanction Canada directly. But Bild believes Chinese threats should be taken seriously. Bild told The Canadian Press in an interview on Tuesday that China is a country where the state still has a large influence on economic decisions. He criticized the Tory government for creating a confrontational situation as opposed to the more discreet approach applied by Jean Chretien and Brian Mulroney, who reserved their criticism behind closed doors."

I also have yet to encounter any person of Chinese origin who approved of the Prime Minister meeting with the Dalai Lama. One of my Chinese correspondents referred to the Dalai Lama as a "dirty-looking, nasty-dressed Tibetan." Another emailed me to say that "I am very concerned with the Tory policy to Tibet. I am shocked when watching Harper's meeting with Dalai Lama, a meeting of some sort for a head of the state. The real issue here, I think, is not human rights in Tibet and China or a meeting with Dalai Lama, but how the Tory manages emerging issues with or potential impacts on China and how far Harper can go down this confrontational road. The whole event was totally ridiculous--Canada is not the US and Germany. We do not have whatsoever cards to play with the Chinese." The CBC website quoted my colleague and friend at the University of Alberta like this: "'Canada-China relations is somehow cool, if not the lowest point since the 1970s,' said Wenran Jiang, acting director of the University of Alberta's China Institute. He said if the goal is to help Tibetans, Canada should have a more balanced approach when dealing with China — using moral statements rather than 'political theatre' meant to grab votes."

My own feeling is that "criticism behind closed doors" endorsed by Mr. Bild has had no impact on Chinese policy toward Tibet. Moreover, empty "moral statements" not backed by the courage to bear consequences for our convictions, can be a form of tacit sanction to the Chinese authorities to continue their current approach to Tibet. That is to suppress Tibetan spirituality by restricting the numbers of young men who are allowed to become monks and severely restricting access to education in the Tibetan language, especially higher education in Tibetan Buddhism. This amounts to restricting the transmission of Tibetan culture in Tibet. This problem of cultural transmission is the paramount concern expressed to me by the senior monks that I have personally met in Tibet. This follows from the strong push by the Chinese Government to reduce the rich Tibetan culture to folkloric status, as simply a colourful characteristic of one of China's 55 minority nationalities. I am regularly presented by officials of China's Ministry of Ethnic Affairs with coffee table tomes on China's 56 officially recognized ethnic groups. Seems that except for the Han, the 55 others are all "happy people who love to sing and dance." To be modern in China is to speak Mandarin Chinese and eschew religion. Atheism is a prerequisite to membership in the Chinese Communist Party. So Tibetan Buddhists are explicitly denied access to this Party, the sole locus of political power in China today.

Let us assume that the system as espoused by Messrs. Sterling, Bild and Jiang works and the PM next time gives into Chinese pressure and rebuffs the Dalai Lama. Would we have a meeting "behind closed doors" afterwards wherein the Chinese Foreign Ministry would say something like: "You Canadians have corrected your 'mistaken conduct.' While the German Chancellor has recently accepted the Dalai Lama's invitation for lunch you have wisely turned him down. So we have decided not to license a German bank to do foreign currency transactions in Shanghai but we will give that license to a Canadian bank instead"? Do the Canadians then celebrate with grateful thanks to the Communist authorities and crack open the champagne? I don't think so. This is not something most of us ordinary Canadians can stomach. Most Canadian support Prime Minister's stance that "I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide. We do that. But I don't think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values of belief in democracy, freedom and human rights — they don't want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar."

Certainly there is an important point to be made that our Prime Minister should receive in his office whoever he wishes to see regardless of the protests of a foreign embassy. Undoubtedly the Dalai Lama had a number of important things to say to the Prime Minister over that 40 minutes. But it is indeed mostly about sending a message to the régime in Beijing which is that we respect the Tibetan cultural identity and oppose measures designed to suppress it. Will this cause the Chinese Government to factor in foreign opinion in its determination of future policy on Tibet? I believe that it will.

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