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Our Debt to Tibet

China’s violent repression of Tibetan freedom protesters over the past few weeks is turning into a test of the world community’s ability to act with even a modicum of conscience in the face of outrageous injustice. So far, the results are dismal.

The crisis began with a protest march by Buddhist monks March 10, the 49th anniversary of a failed, blood-soaked Tibetan uprising. The march, by most accounts peaceful at first, was met by Chinese troops with brute force, touching off weeks of rioting. China reports 22 Tibetan dead so far; Tibetan groups say the number is more than 140. As the repression mounts, China has cut off phone lines and Internet access and banned Westerners from the region.

Responses from other nations could generously be described as tepid. The issue was raised before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva by a group of human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, but the U.N. agency declined to act. Russia’s ambassador said the crisis was “clearly not an issue” for the world body.

Individual voices have been raised; major newspapers have written angry editorials, and Elie Wiesel gathered a group of 25 fellow Nobel laureates — most of them scientists, not activists or artists — to sign a letter of protest. Steven Spielberg resigned as an artistic adviser to this summer’s Beijing Olympics.

Among major governments, however, only France has offered a significant gesture, threatening to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics this summer. In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phoned her Chinese counterpart to urge “restraint,” but the White House said President Bush did not intend to boycott the Beijing games. Neither does Germany’s leader.

It’s not as if the moral equation is a complicated one. Unlike many of the world’s national-ethnic disputes, Tibet is a simple case of black and white, with barely a hint of gray. The Himalayan nation has been under Chinese military occupation since 1951, forcefully annexed by the occupier, its national language and culture suppressed, its religion stifled, its population swamped by millions of ethnic Han settlers relocated there at government behest. Attempts at protest or ethnic revival over the years have been met with deadly force.

Tibet’s spiritual and national leader, the Dalai Lama, driven into exile during the 1959 uprising, has emerged over the years as a global symbol of peace. His advocacy of nonviolence won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and his public appearances around the world attract millions of admirers. China, on the other hand, demonizes him as a criminal and a “devil.” Government spokesmen blame the current violence on “running dogs of the Dalai clique” — a double injustice, since the Dalai Lama has been deploring Tibetan violence.

It may be, in fact, that the uprising represents a new Tibetan generation’s frustration with the Dalai Lama after his years of fruitless efforts to win their rights nonviolently. If Tibetans continue down the dangerous path of rebellion, much will be lost. Tibet will lose its hope of freedom. The Dalai Lama’s star will dim, and the world could lose one of its most powerful voices of hope.

Yet the world community seems intent on turning a blind eye. Indignation over military occupation seems to operate only when the accused is too weak to defend itself. The nations, for all their lecturing of Israel over its 40-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, fall silent in the face of China’s 60-year occupation of Tibet. They are still as China works to obliterate Tibetan culture and identity. Governments delight in receiving the Dalai Lama with pomp and ceremony — Bush gave him a Congressional Gold Medal just last year — but none take up his cause.

A special word must be said about the actions of Israel and the worldwide Jewish community this month, because a special debt is owed and is unpaid. The Dalai Lama has long shown a special interest in the Jewish community because of a shared history of exile and persecution. In 1990, as Roger Kamenetz wrote here last week, the Dalai Lama invited a delegation of Jewish scholars to spend a week with him at his headquarters in India to discuss the Jewish experience of surviving as a nation in exile. His other interest, less often discussed, was to learn why so many young Jews abandon their roots and come to him for spiritual nourishment.

The Dalai Lama has visited Israel twice in recent years, in 1999 and 2006. He’s been honored by the Knesset and celebrated by the public, yet the Israeli government’s leaders, unlike those of other nations, have not received him. China is one of Israel’s important trading partners and arms customers, and Israel doesn’t feel secure enough to risk upsetting its friends over matters of principle.

Not that the Chinese appreciated Israel’s solicitude. Nothing happens in China without the government’s say-so, and the Chinese don’t quite believe that other countries are different. When the Dalai Lama visited in February 2006, the Chinese consul lodged a formal protest with Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “If China would let the head of Hamas visit, Israel would be angry,” the consul wrote, according to press reports at the time.

Four months later, China did indeed give the Hamas foreign minister a festive reception in Beijing, including a meeting with China’s own foreign minister. It was a diplomatic trifecta: a coup for Hamas, a slap at Israel and another example of official Chinese hypocrisy.

If Israel is reluctant to speak in the face of China’s latest crackdown, then, its fears may be understandable. The same can’t be said of the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. American Jewish organizations wield considerable clout in Washington and elsewhere. They have a reputation for stepping forward on matters of conscience; it’s part of the reason they are listened to. But, as we’ve noted before, it is a muscle they haven’t much used in some time, out of fear for Israel’s safety.

They’ve held back on the issue of the Armenian genocide, fearing to damage Israeli relations with Turkey. They have feared to cross the Bush administration on any number of issues, to the annoyance of longtime allies in the civil liberties, civil rights, immigrant rights and other advocacy communities. This reticence is a bad habit, and needs breaking. Diaspora Jewry should be sensitive to Israel’s insecurities, but it need not be paralyzed.

China’s repression will continue until international pressure forces it to back off. Some international leaders argue that the West should wait for Chinese market forces to generate a new openness over the coming generations. But Tibet doesn’t have time. Its culture and national identity are being steamrolled. Now, with the fires burning and the Olympics approaching, there is an opportunity that must be seized.

The world’s leaders should make it clear to Beijing that they will not attend the Olympic opening ceremony unless the Chinese leadership agrees to sit down with the Dalai Lama and start discussing Tibetan rights. Bush and German Chancellor Andrea Merkel need to take the lead; France’s president must not be left standing alone. But they won’t act unless the public demands it.

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