Skip to main content

Rights group: Obama must turn up the heat on Tibet

By Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, Special to CNN
June 6, 2013 -- Updated 0522 GMT (1322 HKT)
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
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT