On the Horns of a Dalai Lama

The government’s explanation for denying a visa to the Dalai Lama evolved.  Such evolution generally betokens discomfort. A fair conclusion is that this was a cup the ruling party would have preferred prefer to have taken from its lips. It drank, but without joy, protesting a little too much that the decision to do so was its own.

The outcry has not spread much beyond South Africa’s borders.  As the Times of India observed in an editorial on Monday, “the most stringent criticism…is coming from within South Africa, and indeed from inside the government itself.” At this writing there has been little to no thunder from the mainstream US media.

Internationally, the score is understood. China is a bully.

South Africa, as finance minister Trevor Manuel has been reminding us, is heavily dependent on foreign savings to build a better life for all.  China, somewhat uniquely in these parlous times, has vast savings and is interested in investing them in Africa.  With such investment, whoever the investor, come conditions. Conditionality isn’t something only the IMF and World Bank do. It’s universal.

Of course, as Goldman Sachs’ Dembisa Moyo writes in her splendidly argumentative new book, Dead Aid, “China is our friend”.  The fact that you can now drive on a decent tarred road all the way from Cairo to the Cape is largely down to China.  For many African leaders, a particularly attractive feature of China’s reawakened interest in the continent is that it is unaccompanied by nagging.

Don’t complain about what we do to our people and we won’t complain about what you do to yours.  That’s the China compact. The corollary is that if you do complain, or show any sympathy for others who complain – for example, the Dalai Lama — Beijing will turn its back on you until you come to your senses, which could be costly.

Here, from an article by Pico Iyer in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, is what the Dalai Lama has been saying lately: “The situation inside Tibet is almost like a military occupation. Everywhere fear, everywhere terror.”

No doubt he would have said much the same thing in South Africa, if asked the question, as he would have been. Cameras rolling, he would have described China’s kragdadigheid in Tibet following last year’s Lhasa riots in terms grimly reminiscent of the 1976 Soweto uprising, quite possibly with Archbishop Desmond Tutu at his side.

For Beijing, a prospect – to use a phrase favoured by defenders of the status quo in old SA – too ghastly to contemplate. It might have given hope to those Tibetans who did not felt inclined to celebrate last Saturday as the 50th anniversary of Serf Liberation Day.

Ten years ago, the Atlantic Monthly ran an essay by Peter Hessler entitled “Tibet Through Chinese Eyes”. “Nothing,” Hessler wrote, “makes the Chinese angrier or more stubborn that the sight of the Dalai Lama and other exiled leaders seeking – and winning – support in America and elsewhere”. Orville Schell, a leading US China watcher, is quoted in the same piece:  “I don’t think there is any more sensitive issue (for Beijing)…This issue touches on sovereignty, it touches on the unity of Chinese territory, and especially it touches on the issue of the West as predator, the violator of Chinese sovereignty.”

“I have to accept failure,” Iyer heard the Dalai Lama say last November. “In terms of the Chinese government becoming more lenient (in Tibet), my policy has failed. We have to accept reality.” The reality is that there is a new hegemon on the block not as sensitive to others’ sovereignty as it is about its own.

There’s an apocryphal story about a meeting between Dr Chester Crocker, President Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, and China’s US ambassador.  The administration was under growing pressure to impose sanctions on South Africa. Crocker called in ambassadors to get a measure of what other countries were doing. China’s envoy reportedly allowed as how Beijing looked at the situation as one set of inferior people exploiting another.

Too apocryphal, surely. Or so one must hope.

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