The Dalai Lama’s visit to Emory is undeniably a significant event both on an academic and an ethical level. It wasn’t altogether surprising that it also brought the debate on the political situation between Tibet and China to the forefront. I support the discussion of ethical issues such as these, but unfortunately the dialogue that I’ve seen thus far, both on Emory campus and elsewhere, has largely been unconstructive.
The primary problem is that the ostensibly worthy pro-Tibet movements are almost invariably coupled with anti-China sentiments. My experience with these debates is that unrelated charges against the Chinese government, including environmental policies and the one-child-per-family regulation, inevitably enter the discussion. What should have been a productive dialogue is quickly reduced to a disorganized compilation of grievances. Such a machine-gun approach obviously comes off as offensive and attacking, which consequently proves detrimental to the cause itself.
For most Americans, any cursory explanation about a suppressed country will inspire feelings of indignation. But a demonstration of understanding of both sides is something that should be necessary in any ethical debate, and it seems to be sorely lacking in this one. To the Chinese, it often appears that many Americans have simply jumped on the bandwagon of a movement often critically referred to as the U.S.’s “love affair” with Tibet.
Another major challenge in effectively addressing the conflict is the fact that China considers the dispute to be an internal issue, while the U.S. maintains that it is also their concern. China often bends to international pressures, but it’s been largely resistant in this situation, considering itself to be unfairly antagonized by the U.S. in debates on Tibet.
Perhaps the reason for this defensiveness is that the Chinese feel that the U.S. media has constantly presented the issue in a biased light and from a sensational angle. News outlets rightfully emphasize the numbers of Tibetans killed but rarely give substantial coverage to the numbers of Han Chinese who died in Tibet, killed during pro-independence riots. Understandably, China has taken the U.S. involvement to be an effort to undermine China rather than help either side.
While I’m not supporting China’s actions, I do think it’s crucial for those who support Tibetan independence to attempt to see China’s reasons for its actions — if for no other reason than providing a basis for a more effective approach. China’s reasons for feeling suspicious of the Dalai Lama are obvious, and a significant part of those reasons are directly related to unproductive U.S. interference.
One of the largest reasons for this wariness came in the 1960s, when the Dalai Lama and other supporters of Tibetan independence accepted funding from the C.I.A. On the surface, these actions seem innocuous enough: the U.S. was supporting a suppressed country’s freedom movement.
But the motivating factors weren’t as altruistic. The support wasn’t born out of an earnest desire to support Tibet but an attempt to weaken the People’s Republic of China — recently established, not yet recognized by the U.S. government and largely considered to be a threat. Considering that the U.S. support came at the height of Cold War tensions, this interpretation is not a leap by any means.
It should then not come as a surprise that China resents foreign involvement in discussions about Tibet, especially when such criticisms are levied against them by America, which in China’s opinion, has no dearth of misgivings to be condemned either. Furthermore, one would expect the U.S. to be especially sympathetic to the difficulties of resolving issues of race and territories.
Former ambassador Jeffrey Bader summarized the problem with America’s approach on PBS’s “NewsHour” in responding to a question about how Americans can express outrage over oppressive Chinese practices: “If [the Chinese] are approached as adversaries, they will have the natural reaction of people in any country, namely to circle the wagons and reject outside scrutiny.”
No one can deny the importance of these discussions and the need for a resolution. But in any discourse, we need to continually self-educate and re-evaluate our language to find the most effective way to address the problem at hand. The current approach by the U.S. has only been perceived as blind self-righteousness by China — that neither encourages discussion nor fosters progress, but simply furthers divides and hostilities.
Editorials Editor Catherine Cai is a College junior from Atlanta.