Skip to main content

Rights group: Obama must turn up the heat on Tibet

By Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, Special to CNN
updated 1:22 AM EDT, Thu June 6, 2013
Tibetans-in-exile hold a vigil in Kathmandu, Nepal, following the self-immolation of a monk in protest against Chinese rule.
Tibetans-in-exile hold a vigil in Kathmandu, Nepal, following the self-immolation of a monk in protest against Chinese rule.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren: Obama should raise issue of Tibet during meeting with Xi
  • She says world leaders have been silent, despite wave of Tibetan self-immolations
  • China has accepted the need to improve its human rights performance, she says
  • "China, the U.S. and Tibet all stand to benefit" from addressing the issue, she says

Editor's note: Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren is the director of Free Tibet -- an international campaigning organization that stands for the right of Tibetans to determine their own future. They campaign for an end to what they call the Chinese occupation of Tibet and for the fundamental human rights of Tibetans to be respected.

London (CNN) -- While President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping enjoy the Californian sunshine this week, a different kind of heat threatens Xi in his troublesome backyard, Tibet.

Nearly 120 Tibetans have doused themselves in gasoline and set themselves alight in protest against Chinese occupation and repression. Most have died.

Theirs is not the only form of protest. In November, students gathered in their hundreds in Chabcha (known in Chinese as Gonghe) county, Qinghai province, to protest the use of Mandarin, rather than Tibetan, as the language of education. In April, unemployed Tibetan graduates in Machu county, Gansu province, protested that Chinese immigrants were taking jobs, while last month, thousands of Tibetans converged on a pilgrimage site on Naghla Dzambha mountain to prevent a Chinese company mining it.

Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren
Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren

The default Chinese response to protest is to use force. In its official human rights report this year, the U.S. State Department described repression in Tibet as "severe," noting abuses such as "extrajudicial killings, torture [and] arbitrary arrests." In March, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee described Tibet as among the world's "most repressed and closed societies."

The cycle of repression and protest goes on. Just last week Tenzin Shirab, a 31-year-old nomad, died after setting himself on fire. In 2011, the self-immolation of another young man, Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, was said to be the catalyst for the Arab Spring, an outpouring of long-repressed desire for freedom that was hailed by world leaders. But you will search in vain for any stirring words on Tibetan freedom from President Obama or other world leaders.

Tibetan self-immolations on the rise
Chinese artist portrays Tibetan woes
Dalai Lama silent on self-immolations

Western politicians perform a careful dance in relation to Tibet. Those who elect them want them to speak out for freedom and human rights; China, reported to hold more than one-fifth of the United States' total foreign-held debt, wants them to shut up. Realpolitik dictates appeasement: electoral politics requires tough talk. The result is a mess.

There have been countless official "expressions of concern" about the situation since the self-immolations started to spread two years ago, and we are constantly reassured that private channels are being used to apply pressure to China. Officials and junior ministers are permitted to issue calls for restraint. But there is a ceiling above which such statements do not go: leaders remain mute.

President Obama has not publicly addressed the issue of human rights in Tibet since taking office. Secretary of State John Kerry has made one careful comment since his appointment, but there is no evidence he raised Tibet during his visit to China in April.

China recently threatened commercial consequences for the UK unless Prime Minister David Cameron apologized for meeting the Dalai Lama in private last year. His response -- while falling short of an apology -- reassured them that the UK views Tibet as part of China, and failed to mention human rights at all.

Sinologists -- and spin doctors -- in Washington or the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth office may argue that Tibet will benefit from a sensitive approach. Late last year, however, two British government ministers who had been leaned on not to meet with the Dalai Lama for fear of offending China again, finally lost patience with that view, writing that "where Tibet is concerned, the Chinese government does not respond positively to any conciliatory gesture ... but instead interprets this as a sign of weakness and so makes further demands for concessions."

What goes for London goes for Washington -- and Berlin, Paris and Ottawa for that matter. Western policy on Tibet is pleasing no one -- not China, not the electorates, and certainly not Tibetans. It must be changed.

China's economic engine is slowing, and Beijing is acutely conscious that without growth, its 1.3 billion people will be far less tolerant of continued dictatorship.

Between 250 to 500 public protests are already estimated to take place every day in China -- foreign trade and investment will dry up if China starts to look like an unstable place to do business. Reform is in China's interests.

China also seeks legitimacy as a full member of the world community and is undoubtedly sensitive to criticism on human rights. This year, it seeks election to the U.N.'s Human Rights Council (HRC). While economic muscle helps it win nations' votes for the HRC election, it still needs to offer its potential voters some tokens of sincerity.

More tellingly, China actually accepted 42 out of 99 recommendations to improve its performance on human rights following its last full human rights review by the UN in 2009. In choosing not simply to reject that kind of external assessment, China has also accepted the need to demonstrate progress. It faces another such review this year.

Beijing has not gone soft, however. It will not choose to show progress on Tibet, unless it is called to account for Tibet. No one expects President Obama to embarrass his guest this weekend with tasteless honesty or Arab Spring-style rhetoric on Tibet. But bringing Tibet to the table will show China and the American people he represents that he recognizes the old model has failed.

China, the U.S. and Tibet all stand to benefit from that.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT