Free Countries Must Defy Chinese Blackmail and Greet the Dalai Lama

Last week, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised to meet the Dalai Lama when he comes to Britain in May. So should all other leaders of free countries, whenever the opportunity arises. Anything less would shame us all. And it wouldn't help China either.

We face at least three difficulties in reacting to the unfolding tragedy of the Tibetans. We don't know enough about what's really going on, because the Chinese authorities are determined to prevent us finding out by expelling journalists, ratcheting up their customary censorship of the Internet, and telling lies. We feel impotent to prevent the horror unfolding. And we have to balance our deep sympathy with the Tibetans against our interest in a benign evolution of China. Appeasement of Beijing for short-term political and commercial gains is contemptible; trying to ensure that anything we do to help the Tibetans won't hinder the evolution of China is not. It's statecraft -- and moral, too.

Here's the good reason for not reacting to the repression of Buddhist monks in Tibet as we did to the repression of Buddhist monks in Burma. No, we shouldn't impose economic sanctions on the whole of China, as we do on Burma. Nor should we boycott the Beijing Olympics. There is too much at stake. The French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner has suggested that if the repression in China worsens -- not only in Tibet, but also with the persecution of Chinese dissidents such as Hu Jia -- European leaders might not participate in the opening ceremony of the Olympics. A threat worth making, perhaps, though it won't get far with his fellow EU foreign ministers when they meet next week.

It may be worth calling for United Nations observers to be sent in to Tibet, though China will doubtless veto that. As important is to insist that the Chinese authorities keep the promise they have made -- and are now breaking -- to allow foreign journalists free movement around the whole of China in the runup to the Olympics. (If they don't let reporters go to Tibet, this can only mean that Tibet is not part of China.)

Yet we know, in our hearts, that none of this will prevent them clamping down, with armed force -- the knock on the door at 4am, and all the familiar apparatus of a police state. As it is, Tibetans are arrested simply for possessing an image of the Dalai Lama. And there's the rub: the exiled 72-year-old spiritual and political leader of the Tibetans remains the only visible key to a peaceful solution. On all the anecdotal evidence from travelers in these parts, he still holds the love and loyalty of the majority of his people. At the same time, he offers to China's leaders a negotiated path to Hong Kong-style autonomy for Tibet, short of full independence. If they made a rational calculation of their own long-term interest, down this path they would tread.

But they don't. With the doublethink characteristic of repressive regimes, China's communist leaders say he is an irrelevance, a feudal relic; and yet they talk about him obsessively. They routinely denounce him as a "splittist", that is, one who wishes to split Tibet from the motherland by pursuing independence. This week we had the otherwise sober Chinese premier Wen Jiabao ranting about the "incident" in Tibet being "organised, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique". This, he said, proved that "the claims made by the Dalai clique that they pursue not independence but peaceful dialogue are nothing but lies."

A throwback to the worst Stalinist demagogy, this statement is not merely at odds with, but the diametric opposite of, the truth, making black out of white. The Dalai Lama keeps repeating that he does not seek full independence. There is no human being in the world today who is more publicly, consistently and unequivocally committed to the path of non-violence. In accepting the Nobel peace prize in 1989, he mentioned "the man who founded the modern tradition of nonviolent action for change, Mahatma Gandhi" even before his own long-suffering Tibetan people. This week, he threatened to resign as political leader of the Tibetan government in exile if his followers resorted to violence. There is not a shred of evidence that he instigated the rising in Tibet. On the contrary, the fact that popular anger has boiled over into street protest -- including, it seems, some violence against innocent Han Chinese and local Muslims -- suggests that at least some Tibetans are becoming fed up with the course of non-violence on which he has kept them for so long.

So China's leaders misread, or at least misrepresent, the Dalai Lama's intentions. (How much is genuine incomprehension and how much deliberate lying is an interesting question.) Probably they also underestimate his power. As Stalin asked, "How many divisions has the Pope?", so they may ask, "How many divisions has the Dalai Lama?" If so, they are being just as shortsighted as Stalin was. Like Pope John Paul II, the 14th Dalai Lama possesses, in the affection not just of his own people but of millions across the world, one of the purest forms of soft power.

We, for our part, tend to underestimate the political importance of symbolic acts, such as meeting an exiled or dissident leader. Self-styled realists deride this as tokenism, thereby demonstrating their own lack of realism. For anyone who has experienced a repressive regime -- be it South Africa under apartheid, Czechoslovakia under Soviet-type communism, or Burma under the generals today -- knows just how important to the oppressed people are those acts of symbolic recognition, whether of a Nelson Mandela, a Vaclav Havel or an Aung San Suu Kyi. It's no accident that the website of the Tibetan government in exile lovingly lists all the "World Leaders His Holiness the Dalai Lama has met", including in recent years the prime ministers of Canada, Australia, Hungary and Belgium, the president of the United States, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

The Chinese authorities know these meetings matter too; otherwise they wouldn't expend so much effort trying to prevent them. Yesterday they declared themselves "seriously concerned" by Brown's decision. They are the real "splittists" here, trying to divide and rule between free countries competing for their economic favours. I have no doubt that this -- not any broader moral or strategic concern -- was the reason the British prime minister hesitated before committing, under pressure, to meet the Tibetan leader. So one thing EU foreign ministers definitely should agree in their informal meeting next week is that all European heads of government will receive the Dalai Lama, as a matter of course, whenever he comes calling. And the same should go for every other free country.

In establishing this principle, we would send three messages to Beijing: that democracies are not so easily divided; that the Dalai Lama truly represents -- dare I say, incarnates -- the path of non-violence and negotiation; and that we do wish to engage fully with a modernizing China and celebrate a wonderful Olympics this summer, but not over the dead bodies of Buddhist monks.

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