Politics & Policy

The Dalai Lama as a ‘Necessary Sacrifice’

Leaders around the world are currying favor with China by refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama.

Oslo, Norway — Vladimir Putin’s Russia isn’t the only country European leaders are kowtowing to. Human-rights leaders are aghast that Norway’s government caved in to pressure from China and snubbed the Dalai Lama last Friday, the final day of his three-day visit to Oslo at the invitation of the Nobel Committee to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his peace prize.

Norway’s foreign minister and the president of the parliament have each served as the head of the parliamentary committee for human rights in Tibet. But that was then, and this is now China’s time to flex its geopolitical muscles. Neither man would agree to meet with the Dalai Lama during his visit. He was instead invited to meet with individual members of parliament, after discussions over whether the government would allow him to use the main entrance to the parliament building or force him to go through a back door. The meeting was then held in a “screening” room rather than in an official reception room.

#ad#Why the shabby treatment? It all stems from the 2010 decision of the Nobel Committee, an independent group of five judges appointed by Norway’s parliament, to give its peace prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. In 2009, the Chinese government imprisoned Liu for heading up a drive for constitutional reform. Beijing forbade Liu and his family from attending the Nobel ceremony, rebuked the Oslo government for the award, and suspended all high-level contacts with Norway. Relations between the two countries are only now slowly being reestablished. Chinese officials told the Financial Times in 2013 that Norway was excluded from a visa-free travel program because it had been “badly behaved.” Trade also suffered: Norwegian salmon used to make up 92 percent of imports to China; today they are only 29 percent.

“After four years, we find ourselves in a situation where there is no political contact with Chinese authorities,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg desperately explained to Norwegian journalists last week. “This makes a dialogue on difficult matters like the climate or human rights impossible. It is therefore a necessary sacrifice in order to show China that it’s important for us to have a dialogue with them.”

The Shanghai-based news website East Day headlined a story “The Norwegian Government Refuses to Meet with the Dalai Lama: Doesn’t Want to Make Enemies with Powerful China.”  

“We have noted the Norwegian government’s recent new position,” Chinese foreign-ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a daily news briefing. Norway “ought to conscientiously deal with China’s core concerns and take real steps to correct their mistakes,” he said with great relish. “If you say that they made a mistake in the past, and can now change it, that is worth encouragement and approval.” China’s view of the mild-mannered 78-year-old Dalai Lama is that he is in fact a dangerous nationalist bent on re-creating an independent Tibet.

Human-rights leaders are condemning Norway’s subservient attitude. “It is heartbreaking and very disappointing that Norway’s most vigorous defenders of the Tibetan people, now in power, have adopted realpolitik as the modus operandi of a government that promised in its political campaign that global human rights would be the leading concern in their foreign policy,” Thor Halvorssen, head of the annual Oslo Freedom Forum, told me.

“Norway’s decision not to meet the Dalai Lama repeats the same mistake many others have made,” says Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “What other decisions will it cede to Beijing?”

Certainly, Chinese pressure on nations to keep their leaders from making appearances with the Dalai Lama is working. Two European scholars, Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann, have determined by empirical analysis that when a top leader meets with the Dalai Lama, his country’s exports to China will decline by at least 8.1 percent for roughly two years and then will gradually return to normal. Not surprisingly, the number of top leaders the Dalai Lama has met with has declined from eleven in 2001 to only two last year. In 2013, Beijing cancelled a planned visit by British prime minister David Cameron because Cameron had ignored Chinese warnings about the Dalai Lama and visited with the religious leader in 2012. After this slap, Cameron made clear that he will not meet again with the Dalai Lama.

Even the United States hasn’t been immune to pressure. The game of “hide the Dalai Lama” is an old one in Washington, stretching back to the days of President George H. W. Bush. When Bill Clinton was in office, he would briefly “drop by” the small office where the Dalai Lama was meeting with Vice President Al Gore, rather than hold his own official meeting with him. President George W. Bush would meet with the exiled Tibetan leader in his private residence.

In 2009, a previously planned meeting between President Obama and his fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner never materialized because the White House feared that it would anger China before an upcoming summit meeting. When a meeting finally came about, the Dalai Lama was spirited into the White House through a side entrance and brought to the Map Room in the basement, rather than to the Oval Office. Despite the White House’s best efforts to keep this meeting low-key, China hauled in Jon Huntsman, then the U.S. ambassador to China, for a dressing-down at its foreign ministry. Beijing warned him that the meeting could damage future relations with the United States. To his credit, President Obama met again with the Dalai Lama in February of this year, but the White House was careful not to release a single photograph of the two men together.

Some snubs, such as Norway’s decision to treat the Dalai Lama as the political equivalent of a typhoid carrier, are deplorable. Others are petty, which is what the no-photo-with-Obama tactic was. But all the snubs apparently come under the umbrella of the “necessary sacrifices” of human rights in order to curry favor with a dictatorship. Back in the 1930s, we had a better and clearer name for the practice. It was called “appeasement.”

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist at National Review Online.

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