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20 March 2008 Edition

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China's economic power deflects Western support for Tibet

OVER THE DECADES, particularly since the Second World War, it has been painful to watch the self-appointed watchdogs of ‘The Free World’ – an interesting concept – damn from great heights every popular and progressive liberation movement that has dared to raise its head above the parapet, castigating them as terrorists and enemies of the civilised world.
It is an experience with which we are only too familiar on this small island but one which is shared by countless peoples in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.
Simultaneously, the self-appointed guardians of order have embraced and supported an array of obvious psychopaths (Rios Montt, Guatemala), kleptomaniacs (Mobutu, Congo) and others so odious (take your pick) that in any truly civilised world they would be deemed a threat to public safety and locked up.
It is worth considering, then, what the reaction of those self-same guardians would be if the events currently unfolding in Tibet were occurring in, say, Venezuela or Cuba: borders sealed, armed troops on the street, 100 or more civilians dead, people living in fear and pleading with the outside world for help...
You can imagine the near hysteria, the blanket and rolling media coverage, the condemnations and denunciations, emergency resolutions tabled before the United Nations, threatened international military interventions and probable economic sanctions.
That sort of reaction would be entirely feasible and predictable in the case of either Venezuela or Cuba. But China is different.
First of all, it’s sort of big and has lots and lots of soldiers and tanks and missiles and things. So instead we get calls for ‘calm’ and ‘restraint’ and other such innocuous sentiments. You would associate these remarks more with an outbreak of fisticuffs at a wedding than with what has all the appearances of a spontaneous civilian uprising in a part of the world that demands, variously, greater freedom or outright independence from its larger, more powerful neighbour.

CHINA’S ECONOMIC MUSCLE
However, China’s putative military might is not the deciding factor and, in some respects, is a minor consideration when compared to Beijing’s new-found economic muscle. Whereas, in the past, the US has been involved in real and threatened confrontations with China – Taiwan and Korea – economic developments over the last decade have now effectively neutralised US military power.
A decade ago, China was still the subject of relatively frequent attacks by the West, usually in relation to human rights, albeit an exclusivist and wholly Western version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an excellent framework when applied in full.
But as China adopted a policy of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ – or ‘Market Leninism’, as some have called it – and opened up to greater foreign investment, so talk of human rights abuses lessened. In fact, there is probably a direct corollary between the two – investment up, human rights down – in equal proportions.
In some respects, the culmination of this process was the decision to award the 2008 Olympics to Beijing.
China is now the world’s largest consumer of steel, copper, coal and cement and the world’s second largest consumer of oil (after the US). It is also the world’s fastest-growing economy and is the world’s largest recipient of foreign investment, much of it from US multinationals.
Thus, it is in the interests of the major corporations with billions invested in China that nothing upsets the apple-cart, that nothing derails the rapid growth of recent years. Unfortunately, for the people of Tibet, their interests will never outweigh the demands of multinational shareholders.
Equally, given China’s voracious appetite for energy and other resources needed to drive its growth, Tibet is home to significant reserves of copper, chromium, mica and industrial crystal, has forest reserves covering some two billion cubic metres and, crucially, possesses hydro-electric power capacity equal to some 30 per cent of China’s.
That latter fact alone means Tibetan independence in the immediate future is an unlikely prospect and this may have informed the Dalai Lama’s recent conversion to the cause of greater autonomy, as opposed to the outright ‘independence’ that was formerly espoused, a move that has provoked anger among some supporters and threatens to divide his movement (it is rather difficult to label as an ‘independence movement’ something which seeks the restoration of an old-fashioned theocracy).

CHINA’S TRUMP CARD
But whatever notional support Tibetan independence may have once enjoyed in the West – as a cause célèbre in Hollywood, for example – that has now evaporated in the face of China’s ascent to economic superstardom. And China holds one major trump card, one that grows stronger with each installment of the crisis in the US economy
Over the last decade, China has assiduously purchased US Treasury Bonds (and dollars), one of the means whereby the US Government raises money overseas. Indeed, it is believed an integral cause of the current crisis in the US has been the reliance of George Bush on such instruments, primarily to pay for the $3 trillion war in Iraq.
It is believed China holds almost one trillion dollars’ worth and thereby has a financial hold on the US that is unprecedented in modern history. Indeed, there is good reason to suspect that Chinese opposition played no small part in the abandonment of US plans to attack Iran (an attack that would have driven up the price of oil and cost China billions). In short, expect the ‘case for Tibet’ to be made with less and less frequency in the coming weeks and months.

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