Copyright The International Herald Tribune
LETTER FROM CHINA
By Howard W. French
May 8, 2008
SHANGHAI: The view has taken hold in recent weeks in China that unrest in Tibet has been trumped up to be used as a cudgel to beat up this country by false friends and outright antagonists in the West.
As China’s ambassador to Britain, Fu Ying, wrote recently in The Daily Telegraph in London, “Many who had romantic views about the West are very disappointed at the media’s attempt to demonize China.”
Even columnists at The South China Morning Post, an English-language paper in Hong Kong that champions a liberal vision for that city, adopted that view, with one of them writing, “Most people who have watched television footage of the Tibetan riots seem to have given the benefit of the doubt to the mainland authorities over their use of force to restore order.”
Like lab experiments demanding exacting conditions, this theory of China as victim also depends on tight control over the terms of argument, hence a story line that emphasizes the West and focuses on riots in Lhasa, insisting that what China did in putting them down is what any government would do under the circumstances.
In the past two weeks, though, this keenly embraced view of China as the West’s victim has faced a stern test, and it is one for which its proponents seem ill prepared.
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First came the ugly behavior by Chinese students counterprotesting against South Koreans who turned out peacefully in Seoul to support the rights of Tibetans and of escapees from North Korea, whom China often returns to North Korea against their will.
An even bigger test arrived this week with the five-day visit to Japan by President Hu Jintao of China. Lately, Tokyo, which is rarely a forceful presence in international diplomacy, has found its voice on Tibet. Unlike his former boss, Junichiro Koizumi, who sometimes baited China, Japan’s current prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, has built his career, in part, on the notion that Japan needs strong and healthy ties with its fast-rising neighbor.
In that sense, Hu, who this week became the first Chinese leader to visit Japan in a decade, could not have wished for a better partner in reconciliation. The Chinese leader came bearing pandas, a traditional symbol of warming relations in Chinese diplomacy, and the two sides have made up for time lost to the long chill that has separated them, agreeing to annual summit meetings, which is good news for all of Asia.
This did not prevent Fukuda, however, from speaking frankly about Tibet last month with the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, who was in Tokyo to prepare for Hu’s visit.
The Japanese account of Fukuda’s meeting with Yang is telling. “Prime Minister Fukuda stated that there was a need to face up to the reality that the matter has become an international issue,” according to a Japanese Foreign Ministry statement.
In a meeting with the Japanese foreign minister, Masahiko Komakura, Yang countered with a warning over Tibet. “If you say anything further on this matter, it will consist of an infringement on our domestic affairs,” The Mainichi Shimbun newspaper reported. To this, Komakura replied, “I am annoyed to be told of an infringement on domestic matters while I am advising you as a friend.”
These remarkable exchanges are important for a variety of reasons. For one, although categories are sometimes stretched, Japan is not a Western country. If not mutually exclusive, its reasons for caring deeply about events in Tibet are rather different from those of the West, whose traditional human rights discourse has been painted, cynically or perversely, as a hostile doctrine by some in China.
Japan’s Buddhist roots incline it toward natural sympathy with the people of Tibet and toward concern for religious freedom there. To be sure, China may see still Japan through the mirror of its violent past, but today Japan sees China through the mirror of its own constitutional pacifism and it worries deeply what kind of neighbor is China becoming.
The same question, naturally, arises in South Korea, where the Chinese boom of the past three decades has changed people’s feelings about this country in strongly positive ways. Beijing has worked with both savvy and patience toward this end, fashioning itself as a new kind of global power, one capable of a peaceful rise, one whose arrival marks a win-win for partners everywhere.
The lesson of recent weeks, though, is that behavior trumps slogans, and for China’s neighbors, that is why what really happened in Tibet, rather than the carefully crafted official line, matters so much.
Putting down a localized riot, even violently, may be sellable, but what about the arrest of large numbers of Tibetans who protested peacefully in other places, and the punitive “re-education campaigns” reportedly under way? What about the attendant reports of numerous Tibetan deaths? What about China’s refusal to allow foreign journalists or independent observers to freely enter Tibet? What about the censoring of its own journalists on the subject, like the editor of Southern Metropolis Weekly, Chang Ping, who was fired for reflecting on the lack of honesty in Chinese reporting on Tibet? Between neighbors, openness and candor matter greatly.
In another of the preparatory conversations before Hu’s Japan visit, when Wang Jiarui, a senior Chinese Communist Party official received Bunmei Ibuki, secretary general of Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party, Ibuki pressed his host for details on conditions in Tibet.
“You came to China to make the visit of President Hu to Japan successful and not to talk about Tibet, didn’t you?” Wang asked, according to The Mainichi Shimbun. Ibuki then urged China to “solve the issue through dialogue with people close to the Dalai Lama,” to which a Japanese Foreign Ministry official added: “There was a riot in Tibet in 1989, the year of the Tiananmen incident, but the Japanese government didn’t say anything. Now, Japanese officials say things they should say, but the relationship is sustained. The quality of the Japan-China relationship has changed.”
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Copyright The International Herald Tribune