The spasm of political violence in the Chinese region of Tibet—coming less than five months before China takes the world spotlight as host of the Summer Olympic Games—puts the U.S. and other western governments in an awkward spot in their relations with a rising global power.
The diplomatic dilemma grew more difficult this week. As they wrapped up their annual legislative session, Chinese officials pointed the finger of blame for the violence in Lhasa and other Tibetan cities squarely at the leader of Tibetan exiles—the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist spiritual leader often hailed in Washington and European capitals as a revered symbol of the nonviolent pursuit of freedom. "The atrocities of the Tibetan independence forces manifested the splittist nature of the Dalai clique and the hypocrisy and deceit of its peace and nonviolence propaganda," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao charged that followers of the Dalai Lama aimed to "incite sabotage" against the Beijing games.
Compare that to President Bush's remarks last October at a ceremony where the Dalai Lama received the congressional Gold Medal. Bush described the honoree on that occasion as "a universal symbol of peace and tolerance...and the keeper of the flame for his people." Bush urged China to welcome the Dalai Lama back to China. "They will find this good man to be a man of peace and reconciliation," he declared.
Amid this week's pressures, however, the Dalai Lama accused Beijing of "cultural genocide" for its decades of repressive measures and for an organized influx of ethnic Chinese, who have become a target for resentment among some Tibetans. Still, he warned Tuesday against attacks on ethnic Chinese and said that he would resign as political—though not spiritual—leader of the Tibetan exiles if the unrest worsened.
Beijing says that so far at least 16 people have died in the Tibetan unrest, many of them Han Chinese attacked by mobs. Tibetan exiles say that some 80 have perished.
Washington's response to the violence, however, has been decidedly muted. That tack undoubtedly reflects a strong desire to preserve the hard-won improvement in U.S.-China ties, which American diplomats rank as one of the leading foreign policy achievements of President Bush's seven-plus years in office. The administration is counting on Chinese assistance in taking on the twin nuclear challenges posed by North Korea and Iran. And recognition of China's rapidly growing commercial clout in the global marketplace has also come to replace the strategic and military challenge of a rising China as the foremost instinct of an administration initially dominated by hawks who were inclined to work to offset that new power.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for example, issued a carefully measured call for restraint, refraining from violence, and dialogue. Specifically, she urged talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama or his representatives, as well as respect for the rights of Chinese to protest peacefully. Intermittent talks in recent years between Chinese officials and advisers associated with the Dalai Lama produced no visible progress.
But, officials say, there is no administration interest in linking China's actions in Tibet to its hosting of the Olympics, and the administration opposes any moves to organize a boycott. President Bush himself is expected to attend part of the games. China has already been targeted by activists working on the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. They argue that Chinese support of the Sudanese government is crucial to a solution, and they are urging protests at or boycotts of the Olympics.
Despite its caution, the administration on Tuesday edged out a bit more on the Tibet issue, in effect advising Beijing to avoid a harsh crackdown and rely on negotiations instead of force. Thomas Christensen, a deputy assistant secretary of state, told a congressional advisory group that Tibetans did have "long-standing grievances" that ought to be dealt with by Beijing. Officials there insist that Tibet is a strictly internal matter.
Chinese authorities have barred foreign media from Tibet—and, according to a State Department official, also U.S. diplomats interested in independent fact-gathering. Says the official: "One of the problems is a lack of information."
Even so, Christensen seemed to accept the premise that the Chinese government should consider the Olympics an especially strong incentive for moderation—in Tibet and on other human-rights issues. "The Olympics is an opportunity for China to put its best face forward and show progress to the world," he said. "To be successful, they're going to have to address some of these issues while the world is watching China."