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Activism You Can Do: Send The Dalai Lama To The Olympics


In a Nutshell: The world's leaders should pressure China to recognize the legitimacy of the Dalai Lama by saying they'll only attend the Olympic Ceremonies if China lets him attend as well. We citizens can pressure our leaders to make that happen. (Contact info for the White House, Presidential candidates, and House and Senate leaders can be found here, as well as at the bottom of this post.)

CHINA'S DECADES-LONG OCCUPATION, and recent violent suppression, of Tibet isn't an easy problem to solve. On the one hand, any halfway objective person knows that China's invasion of Tibet starting in 1950 was wrong, its imprisonment and murder of tens of thousands of peaceful Buddhist monks, nuns and laypeople is wrong, its insistence that all other Buddhists in that country disown the Dalai Lama and swear allegiance to the "Panchen Lama" picked by the Communist government (after it kidnapped and presumably killed the child identified by the Dalai Lama as the true one) was wrong. China's suppression of Catholic Easter services near Tibet was wrong, its exclusion of journalists from all places where dissent might occur is wrong, its continued suppression of the Falun Gong religious sect is wrong, and on and on. China doesn't deserve to host the Olympics, with the boosts to its economy and to its reputation that such an honor bestows.

On the other hand, most Chinese sincerely believe that Tibet is and always has been part of China and that all pro-Tibet sentiment actually is thinly concealed anti-Chinese prejudice. In foreign affairs, China's leaders are almost as paranoid, and their thinking is almost as skewed, as North Korea's, a reality that most Americans don't fully appreciate. It's easy to hurt their feelings and stir their nationalist sentiments. And that wouldn't be a good idea: China is the second-largest of America's foreign creditors, and one of America's largest trading partners; if China got really angry it could elect not to buy any U.S. Treasuries at the next quarterly bond auction, and potentially plunge our economy from recession into a full-blown depression. We've come to rely on China's goodwill far, far too much, with the result that we are not free, and we are not safe. But since we can't extricate ourselves from that dependence right away, especially under the current Administration, we do need to tread carefully.

There are a number of ways countries could respond to China's latest human rights violations, ranging from meaningless verbal expressions of outrage (President Bush's response) to a full-blown boycott like the one Jimmy Carter called on the Moscow Olympics when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan (an invasion that led, more or less directly, to 9/11 and to our occupation of Iraq). One alternative falling somewhere in the middle of that range is for other nations' leaders to personally boycott the Opening Ceremonies, which would be a significant slight to the Chinese government's self-image. When unrest in Tibet flared up again a month or so ago, Bush twice ruled out such a personal boycott, saying that while he hoped the Chinese would show restraint, he still would attend the Olympics' opening ceremonies because the Olympics are just a sporting event. But suppression has continued; U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced he won't attend the Opening Ceremonies unless he sees serious dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama, and Hillary Clinton (after ducking the issue for too long, and still without calling for the Administration to reinstate China to the U.S.'s list of human rights violators (they were removed just this year) has correctly called for Bush to boycott the Ceremonies.

There's a big problem with the "we'll boycott the Opening Ceremonies unless you open real dialogue with the Dalai Lama" approach, though: talk is cheap. The Chinese could "dialogue" with the Dalai Lama until the Olympics were over, then return to their old views as soon as the Olympics were over. That approach gives good "cover" to both China and to Western leaders who need to appear outraged but who don't really want to rile the Chinese - but it won't do Tibet any good. No: any threat to boycott the Opening Ceremonies - or even the Olympics themselves, which I favor; we could hold a "Freedom Olympics" elsewhere so that the world's athletes could still compete - must be coupled with something much more tangible than "dialogue." The question is, what would be a tangible, and significant, way for China to signal a serious change of policy toward Tibet?

In comments this morning, the Dalai Lama himself may, probably inadvertently, have given us the key: he would like to attend the Opening Ceremonies.

That's brilliant, and we should seize it: The rest of the world's leaders should announce that they will do as the Dalai Lama does: if the Chinese allow him to attend the Games, they will attend the Games; if China won't let Tibet's rightful head of state attend, then no other world leader will attend.

To understand the huge significance such a simple thing would mean for China, we have to understand China's policy toward the Dalai Lama. Consistent with his spiritual role in Tibetan Buddhism as the embodiment of Compassion itself, the Dalai Lama has said that China is entitled to hold the Olympics - and even that he doesn't want full independence for Tibet, just real freedom of religion and government. Many of his followers think he's being too passive, and when he passes away all possibility of such a modest settlement of its dispute with Tibet will probably disappear, but the Chinese government continues to demonize the Dalai Lama, calling him a tyrant, accusing him of conspiring with Muslims to destroy China, and other downright silly claims. The last thing the Chinese want to do - and the thing they should be eager to do - is recognize the Dalai Lama's legitimacy, and to bolster his leadership of the Tibetan community worldwide, so they can snap up the once-in-a-lifetime (literally) compromise he offers.

So one goal of an Opening Ceremony or even Games-wide boycott could be to obtain clear Chinese acceptance of the Dalai Lama as the legitimate political, as well as spiritual, leader of Tibet. That would be a huge victory for Tibet, given that the Dalai Lama hasn't returned to China or Tibet since he fled in 1959, and there are Tibetans in Chinese jails at this moment merely for possessing his photograph. To give him any credibility at all would be a wrenching change for Chinese policy. And the Olympic Games present a perfect opportunity to make recognition happen. Conditioning a boycott on China granting permission for the Dalai Lama to travel freely to the Games would put the entire matter squarely in China's lap: if they care more about suppressing internal dissent, then they will lose their standing in the international community, and if they care more about their world standing, then they will have to alter their "internal" policy on Tibet. And having the Dalai Lama appear on TV as the leader of Tibet during the Olympics would be an irrevocable recognition of his leadership - galling, but irrevocable.

So let's help the Dalai Lama get what he wants, by calling for President Bush and the rest of the world's leaders to condition their attendance at the Opening Ceremonies on the Dalai Lama's own attendance. And let's not just blog about it; let's make our voices heard, by telling both the President and our other leaders what we'd like to see: that WE GO ONLY IF THE DALAI LAMA GOES.

CONTACT INFO FOR THE WHITE HOUSE, THE THREE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES, AND THE SENATE AND HOUSE LEADERS CAN BE FOUND HERE. Have fun, be polite -- and please post comments back here to indicate how those contacts go!

Follow M.S. Bellows, Jr. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/msbellows