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ISSUE 121 VOL 17 PUBLISHED 4/18/2008

Activists misconstrue Tibetan situation

By David Henke
Variety Editor

Friday, April 18, 2008

The 2008 Beijing Olympics are a coming out party of sorts for The People's Republic of China, a debutante's ball for a country that is being hailed as the newest economic and political superpower on the block. So it's not surprising that a lot of China's dirty little secrets are being exposed by the glare of the Olympic spotlights, especially for those of us that are used to the litany of news stories about toxic Chinese-made children's toys or melamine-tainted dog food.

For those of you who have somehow managed to avoid the cavalcade of headlines and news reports, the latest round of international criticism revolved around China's human rights "track record" in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The Tibet Autonomous Region is the second-largest province in China. It has been so since 1951, after the Chinese People's Liberation Army occupied much of the area that is now considered "historical Tibet," and signed an agreement with members of the Tibetan government recognizing Chinese sovereignty over the area.

It's easy to villainize the Chinese government -- the reports of gunfire and images of tanks and army vehicles bearing down on Tibetan protesters are reminiscent of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the brutal suppression of the liberal students and labor activists by Chinese government. But before you jump on the "Boycott the Beijing Olympics" bandwagon, stop and reflect on a few points.

Since the protests began in March, the Tibetan protesters have engaged in what The Economist reporter James Miles called "calculated targeted violence against an ethnic group, or I should say two ethnic groups, primarily ethnic Han Chinese living in Lhasa, but also members of the Muslim Hui minority in Lhasa." Miles, who was in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, during the protest, gave an interview for CNN in which he referred to a number of instances where protesters burned businesses own by Han or Hui citizens, and even stated that, at one point early in the protest, he witnessed protesters throwing stones at a 10-year-old boy bicycling in the street. At the conclusion of that portion of his interview, Miles stated, "It [the protest] was a remarkable explosion of simmering ethnic grievances in the city."

I didn't bring up this point to shift blame, or to state that China's draconian behavior in Tibet is somehow justified, but to suggest that there are a number of nuances and complications that need to be taken into account before anyone addresses the issue of Tibetan freedom or supports the boycotting of the Beijing Olympics.

For instance, we should ask ourselves what the Tibetan people really desire. As of 2001, the official stance of the Dalai Lama is not full independence for Tibet, only a "mutually agreeable" plan where the Tibetans may "enjoy genuine autonomy within the framework of the People's Republic of China," while maintaining the "stability and unity" of China. And yes, though the Chinese government has humiliated and persecuted the Tibetans for decades, they have also brought economic reform to the region; Tibet's annual GDP averages 12 percent -- while the average growth rate for China as a whole is only 10 percent. Not only that, but the incomes of urban and rural residents in Tibet have risen 30.4 and 55.9 percent since 2000.

Also, before we condemn the Chinese for human rights abuses, or refrain from participating in the Beijing Olympics, we should also stop to consider our own human rights track record. Do the names Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib ring any bells? Is it any wonder why the Bush Administration has stayed so silent on the issue of Chinese human rights reform? Any statement issued by the United States -- especially a boycott of the Olympics -- would smack of hypocrisy in light of the waterboarding, sleep deprivation and lack of due process employed at our detention camps.

Don't get me wrong, I'm in favor of Chinese human rights reform, and I'm glad that the international protests over Tibet have proven that a symbol like the Olympics still has the power to raise the ire of our collective conscience. But I think we must temper that enthusiasm in order to effectively address some sticky issues at home and abroad.

Variety Editor David Henke '08 is from Detroit Lakes, Minn. He majors in English and environmental studies.

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