By Matteo Mecacci and Ellen Bork
Under pressure from China, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and other key officials have declined to meet the Dalai Lama when the Tibetan spiritual leader visits Norway this week.
Oslo’s decision signals the success of Beijing’s escalating campaign to deny the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s democratic government-in-exile the standing they need to find a just solution to the Tibetan issue. The setback in Norway marks a worrying trend that should spur consultations among European countries and the United States on steps to resist Beijing’s pressure.
Norway has heretofore been a staunch supporter of Tibet and has constantly promoted efforts to bring about a negotiated solution. But when the Nobel Committee awarded Mr. Liu the prize in 2010—for his prominent work on Charter 08, a manifesto for democracy, constitutionalism and human-rights reforms in communist China—Beijing reacted ferociously. The Chinese government called on foreign countries to boycott the award ceremony, where Mr. Liu’s own absence (due to his imprisonment on “subversion” charges) was poignantly represented by an empty chair. Although the Nobel Committee acts independently of the Norwegian government, Norway was immediately made the target of diplomatic and commercial retaliation.
Norway’s experience is not unique. Lithuania and Estonia, whose leaders have defied Beijing by receiving the Dalai Lama, have also experienced political retaliation. Britain appears to have come under marked pressure as well; citing unnamed sources, the British press reported that Prime Minister David Cameron’s trip to China late last year had been preceded by a commitment that he would not raise the issue of Tibet.
To reverse this decline in international support for Tibet, Europe, the U.S., India, Japan and other democracies would have to develop a united stand that protects against China’s divide-and-conquer strategy, and band together to show respect for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile government. But why should they? After all, one might argue, Tibet’s fate is sealed and 60 years of occupation will not be undone by giving a respectful welcome to the Tibetan religious leader.
Beijing’s policies in Tibet are closely linked to its behavior in the rest of the region and the world. Beijing takes an expansive view of the “core interests” it claims in Tibet, for example by meddling in Nepal to thwart Tibetan refugees’ escape to safety. Further afield, Beijing sees its position in Tibet—which China invaded in the 1950s—as a reason to obstruct international action on other matters, lest intervention elsewhere create a precedent to intervene to stop China’s repression inside Tibet.
Coordination among the world’s democracies is also vitally important in light of Beijing’s plans to exert control over the selection of the next Dalai Lama. It is equally and similarly crucial with regard to the current Dalai Lama’s own plans for the future of his spiritual office, and to the work of the Tibetan government-in-exile based in northern India. Without a unified position on these matters, the void left behind by the Dalai Lama will be swiftly exploited by Beijing.
Aside from acting to stop Beijing’s repression in Tibet, the survival of Tibetan Buddhism and democracy-in-exile has profound implications for the future political development of China. Prominent Chinese dissidents, such as human-rights lawyer Teng Biao, argue that high-level meetings between world leaders and the Dalai Lama have a direct effect on China’s human-rights performance. Declining to meet with the Dalai Lama and failing to pursue Tibetan human rights thus undermines these dissidents, who speak out at great personal risk.
While defying Beijing is not easy, world leaders would likely find their citizens in strong support of a new, principled position that recognizes the moral and strategic importance of Tibet. Despite China’s sustained pressure on governments, support for Tibet remains surprisingly strong among European publics. In a recent Ifop poll conducted in France and Germany, more than 80% of respondents said they want their leaders to meet with the Dalai Lama, and equal or higher numbers said they want their leaders to raise the issue of Tibet when they meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Meanwhile, a whopping 90% of French respondents and 92% of German respondents said they favor a meeting between Mr. Xi and the Dalai Lama to pursue a negotiated solution.
Prime Minister Solberg’s decision has drawn protest within Norway. But she still has time to find a way to welcome the Dalai Lama. Better still, she could take steps to pave the way out of the predicament that so many democracies find themselves in, by entering into consultations with European countries and the United States over new, coordinated policies on Tibet. Only that will arrest the current dynamic of constant concessions, which not only mean terrible consequences for Tibetans, but also lost honor and legitimacy for our democracies.