There is something deeply unpleasant about the way China is conducting its foreign policy. After centuries of slumbering, the world’s Rip Van Winkle has awoken, discovered its strength, and is now throwing it around.
The new kid on the block is a bully, pushing the smaller kids out of the way and grabbing their possessions. It is distasteful and unedifying.
The most recent flashpoint is the South China Sea where China is asserting sovereignty rights it must know are baseless, just because it can, and irrespective in this case of a clear ruling against it by a properly constituted international body. It is a return to the worst of the 19th century practice of land grab.
Nowhere has the arrogance, and cruelty, been more marked than in Tibet, and it is heart-breaking to see one of the world’s great civilisations being systematically trashed and inexorably eradicated by Beijing.
In my capacity as President of the Tibet Society, the world’s oldest established Tibet support group, I have twice this year been to Dharamsala in northern India, home in exile to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. They are lovely people and carry the terrible hand dealt to them with equanimity and good humour. They have done a marvellous job of recreating a nation in exile, helped by the generous Indian government. But of course their desire is to return to their own country and run it once again.
The Chinese tell their schoolchildren that Tibet has always been part of the “motherland”, but that is patently untrue. We in Britain, who had uniquely close links with Tibet in the first half of the 20th century, can testify to that. We signed bilateral agreements with Tibet, like the Simla Convention of 1914.
Tibet ran its own foreign policy, had its own government, and produced its own coinage and stamps. It was without question an independent country. Until the arrival of Chairman Mao’s communist regime in 1949, that is, and the subsequent invasion of Tibet by China.
Since that time, millions have died due to the imposition of mad farming methods totally unsuited to the Tibetan plateau, over six thousand monasteries have been destroyed, and mass migration of Han Chinese into Tibet, aided by the recently constructed railway into Lhasa, has made the Tibetans a minority in their own country.
And still the destruction of the Tibetan way of life continues – indeed has accelerated under the hardline President Xi Jinping. The latest outrage, begun in July, is the razing of much of the internationally respected Tibetan Buddhist Institutes at Larung Gar. Six-hundred dwellings, mostly nuns’ homes and elderly people’s hostels, were destroyed in the first week alone.
A form of apartheid now exists, with Tibetans who are not prepared to be communist party puppets being relegated to poorly paid jobs, and second class housing. The use of the Tibetan language is severely restricted and all important business, private and public, must be carried out in Chinese.
Everything possible has been done since 1949 to turn Tibetans into Chinese, loyal to the motherland and the party, but almost 70 years on, the Tibetan spirit remains unbroken and loyalty to the Dalai Lama undiminshed. The response from the Chinese, who have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, is to clamp down ever harder, eradicate more, as if that will somehow work. It won’t. You can’t torture people into loyalty.
So we now have new laws, introduced in July 2015 under the guise of “anti-separatism”, where Tibetans who carry out peaceful protests can be labelled terrorists, and lawyers who help those arrested can be charged with acting against the interests of the state.
A month later, Xi Jinping called for greater efforts to tackle “splittists” in Tibet, and for more campaigns to increase a sense of identity with “Chinese nationality, Chinese culture and socialism with Chinese characteristics” – all in the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region.
The situation is now so bad that the US-based Freedom House has ranked Tibet as the second least free country in the world, worse even than North Korea or Saudi Arabia, and ahead only of the bombed shell that is Syria.
Checkpoints are everywhere and mass surveillance endemic. The Chinese have banned possession of the national flag and images of the Dalai Lama. Those found guilty are imprisoned and frequently tortured.
Two monks were each sentenced to three years’ imprisonment simply for leading prayers at a funeral service for a Tibetan who had self-immolated.
And in another incident, police opened fire with live ammunition and tear gas on a group of about 100 Tibetans who were peacefully celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday with a picnic and prayers.
Meanwhile, China tells the world that Tibet is a happy place, a Socialist paradise, and most of the world says nothing, because China has become too powerful to challenge. Morality is indeed a branch of geography.
Money talks so in Britain we have the conservative Daily Telegraph distributing free as a supplement a propaganda sheet for the Chinese communist party called China Watch, the last edition of which told us that Tibetan monasteries were having a “makeover”. With a ball and chain, presumably. And of course any criticism of China in the paper is so muted as to be almost inaudible.
China has concluded that it can simply ignore the norms of international behaviour, and its muscle and money will allow it to get away with it. Unfortunately, to date, they have been proved right.
The free world needs to come together, before it is too late, and reassert its belief in, and commitment to, those freedoms we have fought so hard and so long to achieve: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom from torture, freedom from state deaths.
If China is going to behave like a pariah, it needs to be treated like one. We can start by standing up for Tibet.
Norman Baker is president of the Tibet Society, and was MP for Lewes from 1997-2015.