China’s ban this week on tourists to Tibet — in the run-up to a Cold War era style military parade — will further strengthen the resolve of supporters of the Dalai Lama and, at first glance, the unrelated Chinese pro-democratic movement. Every time they restrict
Tibet’s freedom, they, ironically, bring freedom’s day closer.
In Beijing last year, I was a chance witness to one of the most riveting political conversations I’ve ever been privy to. It is a matter of public record, and I will recount some of it. But first, a brief word about China. I was overawed at the “Middle Kingdom’s” transformation since my first visit in 1992. On that trip, the train journey on a drab communist train from Hong Kong’s border to the still-then-new Shenzhen was a journey between two different planets: a stark contrast between glitzy, decadent Hong Kong and a still dreary communist society that I recall in the grainy black and white tones of an old movie. Today Shanghai’s Pudong skyline looks like a futuristic scene from The Matrix. Pretty chic women draped in haute couture and sharp-suited men with western haircuts throng the business quarters of Beijing and the European boulevards of Shanghai’s Bund, sipping espressos and Evian. (Although, I should add, it is quite a different story in the rural hinterland).
I was equally amazed at the savoir faire of China’s diplomacy. The scheduled meetings ran according to the precision of a Swiss railway timetable. When Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who I was accompanying, visited the Forbidden City, security men formed a semi-circle fanning away people who came too close. A guard of honour snapped to attention as his car pulled away after visiting Mao’s Mausoleum and the traffic halted so that his car could pass by. They did this for a South African politician and, of course, they do it everyday for leaders and opinion-makers from across the globe. As we were leaving an early-ish evening meeting and dinner at one of the government’s well-appointed guesthouses in Beijing, a long motorcade of black Cadillacs with the next lot of visitors was slowly winding up the drive.
China’s diplomats work flat-out, day-in and day-out, to promote China’s soft-power policy and interests. Suddenly even America’s statecraft seemed, by contrast, low key.
Then there is the Dalai Lama. This diminutive and delightfully smiley monk with a penchant for Gucci shoes remains in China’s corridors of power, to put it politely, a persona non grata. During our visit, Buthelezi had a one-on-one with Mr Li Jinjan, the Vice-Minister in the International Department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee (CPC). (This conversation is a matter of public record). Li was incredibly well briefed about South Africa and, for a de-facto communist, he was a visionary: all-in-all an impressive man. As the obligatory one hour meeting came to a close and copious amounts of green tea had been consumed, Buthelezi — who himself has a penchant for impeccable manners and diplomatic etiquette — turned to the minister, warmly smiled — and, uhm, expressed his admiration for the Dalai Lama! (The previous day there had been a desultory meeting in Shenzhen between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government). I remember thinking “not now” and groaned inwardly. I knew where this would go.
Li said that he could not express harsher views of the Dalai Lama than those with which he proceeded to do. He said that China had shown great “restraint” towards the Tibetan movement; that the CPC’s policy of ethnic regional government was working well and that, on the contrary to what Buthelezi said, the Dalai Lama did not accept Tibet was part of China. Whilst the “door of dialogue” was always open, the conditions that the Dalai Lama’s representatives attached to a settlement were unacceptable.
Getting into his stride, he said that the Dalai Lama wanted to establish a “feudal democracy” which did not fit into China’s “constitutional architecture”: the Tibetan’s demands were tantamount to “de facto” independence (I wanted to laugh thinking about the analogous debate here about the Zulu Kingdom). He went on to claim that the Dalai Lama’s representatives wanted to build a greater Tibetan region which would encompass ¼ of China’s territory, and that it would be unacceptable for China to have to withdraw the military from a quarter of its territory. His pièce de résistance was that the Dalai Lama only wanted Tibetans to reside in Tibet and that, improbably, the Han Chinese who moved there only did so for a couple of years to establish infrastructure, but did not settle because of the “high altitude”! “Come on”, I thought — even ‘Yours Truly’ who does not travel well adjusts to altitude after a couple of days in mountainous regions!
But let us be blunt here, some of what Li alluded to is rooted in the reality of modern geo-politics. The concept of the “nation state” is, largely, to quote the late and great British statesman Roy Jenkins, “illusory”. Not even a landlocked Himalayan kingdom, and the spiritual home of a revered sky-god, can keep the world out. In statecraft there are many shades of grey, and I hate it when politicians — as opposed to statesmen — mouth populist platitudes. Many Tibetans are rightly concerned, by way of example, about the impact of the pan-Himalayan railway line; an extraordinary engineering feat, which is impacting upon their way of life. Yet the Director of Lhasa’s economic development zone, Huang Yutian, said in 2007 that 112 businesses from as far away as Beijing and Guangzhou (close to Hong Kong) had already signed up to use the new industrial zone that is served by the line. These are involved in industries such as mining, and processing Tibetan wool and dairy products. Yes, China has committed heinous crimes in Tibet since its invasion over half a century ago, but I don’t think Tibet can set the clock back to being an isolated theocracy.
Yet, somehow, I don’t really think the real issue is about granting the Dalai Lama’s modest demands for self-autonomy and demilitarisation (no matter how much they detest him).
China is afraid that if it makes concessions to him, the floodgates will be breached.
China’s other separatist movements are already making similar demands from the Urumqi region to the Mongolian plateau. But most worryingly for Beijing, modest concessions to the Dalai Lama would inspire and galvanise China’s pro-democracy movement. The Chinese, unlike most of us lazy-SKY NEWS-24-hour-news-fed-junkies, understand Charles Darwin’s majestic “hand of time” through the ages. They know the entire edifice, in the end, collapses when the smallest chink in the armour is pierced.
And there, of course, on China’s bleak mountainous western borders, lies India: the world’s biggest and most chaotic democracy. She, at the moment, lacks China’s order and infrastructure, but she pulsates with free thought and enterprise. Like the proverbial tortoise and the hare, she will overtake if China does not democratise soon, because freedom and an authentic free-market are indivisible. Even so-called “yellow river capitalism” cannot buck this rule. But that’s for another day.
China, for now, has got quite enough to contend with an orange-swathed Buddhist monk. From his nest, this iconic bird must gaze longingly towards home over the snowy vistas and wonder if he will return. I hope so.