A very interesting op ed piece in this morning’s Age throws further light on the west’s double standards on dealing with foreign dictatorships.

In an article reprinted from Tuesday’s Guardian, Isabel Hilton looks at China’s policy in Tibet, where continuing informal talks with the exiled Dalai Lama are running in parallel with a policy of harsh repression on the ground. She suggests Beijing hopes the talks “might lower the risk of embarrassing demonstrations at the Olympic games in 2008”, but that they may represent “only a slight modification” of the established policy.

China is one of the last of the great multi-national empires, and its rulers (like their counterparts in Jakarta) are obsessed by the threat of it breaking apart. They can count, however, on the firm alliance of western governments, who turn the same blind eye to Tibet as they do to human rights abuses in China proper.

Although China is still, at least in theory, a communist state, almost the only people in Australia that ever raise the issue of Tibet come from the left: Greens leader Bob Brown has been a consistent voice in support. What makes this even stranger is the fact that the Dalai Lama is a religious as well as a political leader — yet those who clamour for greater religious influence in public life are generally silent on this topic. Perhaps Buddhism fails to fit their traditional, authoritarian model of what religion should look like.

The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said he is willing to do business with the Chinese, and they in turn would clearly like to rid themselves of the Tibet problem, so some sort of autonomy deal cannot be ruled out.

But whereas they offered generous terms to recover Macau and Hong Kong (and would gladly do so for Taiwan as well), giving autonomy to a province they already hold is a much bigger step. Nor is Tibet the only problem; if imperial rule were to weaken there, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia would be waiting in line.

It therefore makes sense for Beijing to continue, as Hilton puts it, “waiting for the death of the 71-year-old Dalai Lama”. If they can outlast him, the stage will be set for another succession struggle like that of a decade ago over the Panchen Lama.

Peter Fray

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