May 19, 2008
It is still four months before the start of the Olympic games in Beijing, but the Games are already threatened by controversy as protests grow over human rights abuse in Tibet. Having backpacked throughout China for almost three months last summer, I am surprised by the number of people in Europe, who have clear pro-independence opinion on the Chinese bespoken province or the “heroes” who try to disrupt the Olympic flame reaching its destination. From London, Paris to Bangkok, wherever it goes, it meets protesters. These heroes are, in fact, self-proclaimed crusaders, whose actions result from misunderstanding of the local reality. The most successful tyranny is actually “Western” ignorance – one that removes any possibility of different opinion and awareness that there is an outside. The cause of the recent March unrests in Tibet is not, as protesters, politicians and media argue, a call for independence, but a spontaneous revolt against the massive commercialization and Han immigration. The Olympic games, then, only accelerated problems that people would normally pay little attention to.
Some history first. In the era of Maoist experiments, Tibetans enjoyed certain privileges such as religious tolerance and, if very limited, right to private ownership. In spite of the atheist propaganda, the Tibetan Buddhism was respected and the province secured status of an “autonomous” region. This is not to say that Tibet was by any means free, but the Communist regime paradoxically protected its traditions from commercialization. In the past few years, however, and now with the new railway connecting Lhasa to Beijing, tourism, Internet, mobile phones threaten to turn the then-sacred Tibet into neon-lit Disneyland. Gradually, the Tibetans become minority in their own homeland as profit-seeking Han Chinese build fast-food restaurants and replace old, but desolate houses with hotels and souvenir shops. True, Tibet must defend its cultural and economic autonomy, but without all the Chinese help and investment, it would have been an isolated outpost of poverty and underdevelopment. According to an informed observer (sic!), the Tibetans themselves are horrified by the Western effort to boycott China and, if anything, Dalai lama’s own official line is to defend its traditions through serious compromise and autonomy within China’s borders and without demands for independence.
No doubt that the Chinese government has gone a long way since the brutal 1989 Tiananmen square massacre, both in terms of economic and political development. Most Chinese people are marginally interested in politics and money, for many, is the new master. The rapid growth in the past decades lifted millions of Chinese from famine and poverty and while they used to take bike to work in the past, now they can afford cars, TVs or washing machines and the sort of other “luxuries” that, we, in the fortress of Europe take for necessities. Flawed as the political system may be, these achievements make the old days seem like another century. The change in China is drastic and takes place by day and if we cannot keep up with the speed of socio-economic developments, then we have ourselves to blame. According to this logic, China is a less of threat itself and is more threatened by our own ignorance than a Western observer might be obliged to admit.
The problem is that the European institutions are not doing a great job at listening to China either. The European Parliament, on the 10th April 2008, sharpened its tone towards China and urged European leaders to consider mass boycott of the Olympics opening ceremony in August 2008. The decision to organize Olympic games in China was made in 2001, how is it then possible for a European institution, itself suffering from the on-and-off repeated democratic deficit, to criticize China’s internal affairs? Restoring dialogue with Dalai lama is fine by me, but let the European policy-makers be consistent and refrain from double-standards and populism.
Also, the dominance of certain states in the European institutions is proving as a hindrance. France, for example, which will take over the EU’s presidency in July, will take the human rights abuse as an opportunity to boost its political prestige. In response to Mr. Sarkozy’s suggestion to dispatch fact-finding mission under EU-UN auspices to Tibet, China’s deputy ambassador in Paris, Qu Xing, said on the radio station Europe 1: “Would you allow a UN mission to see if all is well in Villiers-le-Bel [the troubled Parisian suburb, where riots started in November 2007]?” If anything, all the rhetoric about impeaching China is pretty moot, demonstrating French double-standards and Mr. Sarkozy’s awkward spin-doctoring. Mr. Kouchner, the French foreign minister, had to apologetically explain that any French effort to boycott China is constrained by its own “economic interests in order not to boost unemployment.” In other words, Europeans have to face the fact that our clothes, shoes, mobile phones, computers and kitchen utensils are in 90% of cases “Fabriqué en Chine”.
As I am from the Czech Republic, I am a naturally born skeptic, when it comes to my country’s glorious place at the sun, just look at our history. One has to learn how to live with tragedy when being a small ethnic group in the middle of political giants with lust for territorial expansion, be it China, Russia, France, Britain or Belgium. The Czechs are small nation in central Europe, always spiritually belonging to the West, victimized by the Soviet sphere of influence, and while there is no place like home, nationalism is yesterday’s ideology. With our subsequent independence moments in 1918 and 1990 we lost our identity based on multicultural diversity. Without the Germans, Austrians, Hungarians and Slovaks, we are all alone, left to ourselves and our “littleness” (in Czech “cechackovstvi”).
It is impossible to predict future developments in China, but as Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor, thinks – if the European Union can politically unite, there is an window-opportunity for the 21st century to become a European century. The odds are even and having thrown a coin on it, it will be European! The old European empires are dead, but long live the European empire! Without the EU Czech republic would be still firmly in the East and while Tibet without China’s help would be going its own way, it would be a way of stunted development and undignified reliance on foreign aid. With some hindsight, then, the European integration and empires are good for us!
Author is an amateur photographer, for more of his work visit www.sarapatka.eu