West’s reaction to Tibet unrest reveals widespread hypocrisy

Just months before the opening of the Beijing Olympics, China now faces a grave situation in Tibet.

In Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, weeklong peaceful demonstrations for Tibet’s autonomy turned into deadly riots Friday. The rioters now hold an area of the city, surrounded by government forces.

With biased reporting from the media and common misconceptions of the China-Tibet relationship, many Westerners are quick to condemn China and its human rights record, and the call to boycott the summer Olympics is renewed.

The demonstrators question China’s historical claim over Tibet, a topic that arguments can be made for both sides. While Tibet has enjoyed prolonged periods of practical autonomy in the past, beginning in the 13th century, Chinese dynasties from Yuan to Qing had always claimed it within their borders. In other words, while China’s claim over Tibet may not be absolute, it is infinitely more legitimate than the United States’ claims over Texas, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

Those who chant the “free Tibet” slogan must understand that for all practical considerations, Beijing can’t allow Tibet to split from the central government.

Strategically, Tibet, with its vastness and geographical obstacles, serves as an important buffer region against India; taking Tibet out of China’s grasp would leave the rich and populous province of Sichuan and the inner provinces exposed and vulnerable.

More importantly, Tibet is not the only region in China calling for its independence: Muslim separatists in Xinjiang province and the island of Taiwan are paying close attention to how Beijing handles the Tibet situation; granting it independence, or even showing any signs of weakness, will set a dangerous precedent and encourage other separatist movements in the country.

While I am deeply worried about the situation in Tibet, I remain optimistic that it will be resolved with minimal bloodshed. After the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Beijing knows better than to repeat history in Lhasa.

As for those who fear an ethnic cleansing following the riots, they should ask themselves: What do you know about the China-Tibet relationship? China’s treatment of Tibet suggests the exact opposite. In the past two decades, it has invested heavily in Tibet without consideration of economic returns. Huge sums were spent in improving the region’s transportation — including building a railroad that connects Tibet to the rest of the country, diversifying its economy and providing free education to Tibetans.

What bothers me more is the self-righteous Westerners’ failure to examine themselves in the same light. One cannot dispute that China has a shaky record on human rights, but one would be equally ignorant to say that the West, particularly the United States, has a human rights record to be proud of.

Currently, the United States and the rest of the “coalition forces” remain in Iraq, locked in a five-year-old war that, if presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain has his way in the election, may last another 100 years.

According to a September 2007 survey by Opinion Research Business, the estimated total number of war casualties in Iraq since the 2003 invasion exceeded 1.2 million. Reports of U.S. soldiers and mercenaries committing atrocious crimes surface regularly, yet the so-called human rights advocates don’t seem to care.

One doesn’t hear calls to investigate the United States’ handling of the war and the staggering civilian casualties, yet riots in Tibet can raise overwhelming sympathy and finger-pointing from the West. It’s safe to say that Beijing doesn’t have the patent to hypocrisy.

Countries act in their self-interests. Sometimes such acts are controversial, and often one country’s self-interest conflicts with others’. China is no exception, but at least it doesn’t cry foul at the first news a controversy emerges in another country. The West should do the same.

Linsen Li is a history and journalism junior. E-mail [email protected].