As is well known,some people in the West go soft in the head over Tibet. One tinkle of the temple bell,one whiff of incense,or one sip of rancid yak-butter tea,and they lose their critical faculties. They fawn over the Dalai Lama,who cloaks his sinister splittist ends in monks robes and jovial common-sense. They blind themselves to the misery of past mass monasticism and feudal serfdom. They wilfully overlook the wonders of the economic development China has brought to the lofty plateau.
Fortunately for the Chinese government,these inane sentimentalists neither make policy,nor beyond the occasional tiresome protest,have much to do with China. Luckier still,those in the West who do deal with China often suffer even more acute mental squishiness over Tibet,with the opposite effect. So anxious are they not to hurt the feelings of the Chinese people in this especially tender sore spot,that they fall over backwards to make concessions that are neither necessary,nor,in many cases,even demanded.
Consider the celebration of September 8,the day bestowed on Britain by the organisers of the Shanghai World Expo as UK National Day. The festivities were to have included a short new ballet,The Far Shore,based loosely on the folk tale that inspired Swan Lake. Then it emerged that the composer,Pete Wyer,had dedicated his score to the people of Tibet for speaking the truth,[and protecting their cultural identity,despite the dangers they face. In response,the English National Ballet,who were to dance with the Shanghai Ballet,and the British Council,the arm of cultural diplomacy that had organised the gala,cancelled the performance. They expressed regret that it had become a political vehicle and hence not appropriate.
This takes the famed British posture towards China of the pre-emptive cringe,long noted in its dealings over Hong Kong,to bizarre extremes. Neither Mr Wyer nor the score was in Shanghai the dancers were to perform to a recording of his work. The score had not been published and would have been seen only by a few musicians. The performance was cancelled before China had a chance to protest. If it had,there were plenty of good ripostes: none of this had anything to do with official British policy; in Britain an artists work is not judged by his personal views; and what is wrong with the dedication by the inanely sentimental composer anyway? It does not champion the taboo of Tibetan independence,but cultural identity,which nobody
opposes. Another celebration in Shanghai was the culmination
on September 5 of the Expos
Those who took the decision to pull the ballet were following their governments accommodating precedents. A more drastic sop to Chinese sensitivities over Tibet came in a statement on the British Foreign Offices website in October 2008. This junked the countrys longstanding position on Tibet,which,uniquely,had fallen short of an explicit recognition of full Chinese sovereignty. It was a position that mattered far more to China than to Britain. The concession was presented as an exercise in diplomatic house-tidying. If China reciprocated,it did so imperceptibly.
Britain may be unique in its readiness to anticipate Chinese demands and grievances. But it is far from alone in yielding over Tibet once China starts its thunderous blustering. Those tirades have taken on a new vigour in the past two years,since Chinas Olympic torch-relay was greeted with pro-Tibetan protests around the world. Robert Barnett,a Tibet expert at Columbia University in New York,points out that a number of European governments including Denmarks,Frances and Germanys have responded to Chinas scolding (usually over their leaders meeting the Dalai Lama) with conciliatory statements that have gone further than China can have hoped. Besides reaffirming that Tibet is part of China,they have,oddly,promised not to encourage Tibets independence. Chinas policy,in Mr Barnetts phrase,is to shake the tree. It yields a bumper crop.
China knows the Dalai Lamas meetings with other world leaders are symbolic rituals that do not affect policy. It also shows a growing understanding that they may reflect domestic political compulsions or even (whisper it) principle rather than the national interest narrowly defined. Yet it has worked hard to curb the Dalai Lamas access.
It has had more success in Europe than America. But even Barack Obama delayed a meeting in the White House until February,to avoid spoiling the mood for his trip to China last year. This seemed to concede Chinas point,that the meeting was not a matter of principle,but just one diplomatic bargaining chip among many. But at least the meeting itself was non-negotiable. It seems to have done little lasting damage to Chinese-American relations.
By casting every discussion of Tibet as a core interest of national sovereignty,China does at least manage to deflect attention from other issues,such as the continuing repression there. Since riots and protests in March 2008,hundreds of Tibetans,including prominent intellectuals,have been detained. Another generation seems to be growing up in Tibet chafing at Chinese rule and looking to the Dalai Lama for salvation. Despite the apparent hopelessness of their cause,Tibetans seem not to have given up; and nor have their foreign sympathisers.
Mr Wyer is developing an idea for an opera based on the life of Ngawang Sangdrol,a former nun,jailed for 11 years in Tibet,and now an activist in America. She became famous for a tape of Tibetan songs she and other inmates smuggled out of Drapchi prison in Lhasa. She is now married to a former monk who was a contemporary in Drapchi. So,rare for an opera,and rarer still for Tibet,it would have a happy ending.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2010