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International

A Gold Medal and Nothing More

''I support religious freedom; he supports religious freedom. ...
I want to honour this man." --George Bush

Nader Rahman

Bush lends an ear, if nothing else, to the Dalai Lama.

That is not a misquote, George Bush apparently supports religious freedom, cultural and ethnic freedoms were conveniently left out of that statement as any brown man who passes through a U.S. airport will testify to. What he left out of his statement is actually at the heart of the problems in Tibet, and the man he wants to honour is the only person who can truly tackle them. Recently George Bush became the only U.S. president in office to meet publicly with the Dalai Lama, and what a meeting it was. He awarded the spiritual leader of Tibet the highest civilian honour the United States has to offer, the Congressional Gold Medal.

The Dalai Lama is used to a medal or two, at 72 he has probably received a medal for every year he has been alive, along the way he picked up a little something known as the Nobel Peace Prize. He would give them all up in a heartbeat if only he could return to his country, if only the Tibetans were treated with some sense of dignity and if only their culture, heritage and history were not systematically destroyed by the Chinese government. A medal presented by the president of the United States of America is always a prestigious affair, but the pomp and pageantry of the ceremony was also infused with some tough talking by President Bush. He urged the Chinese government to take part in talks with the Dalai Lama, and also questioned the level of religious freedom in the country. It truly was a bold move on the part of Bush, but on the larger scale of things it was a drop in the bucket. What was thought to be tough talking was actually a bit of banter, it seemed much bolder than it really was.

The response from the Chinese government filled column inches around the world, it seemed they took the award and Bush's words in great anger. They said “the move is a blatant interference in China's internal affairs. It has hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and gravely undermined bilateral relations.” Following that the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi summoned U.S. Ambassador to China, Clark Randt, to strongly protest on behalf of the Chinese government against the award of the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama and his meeting with President George W. Bush. Again it seemed things could take a turn for the worse as China pulled out of a planned strategy session with the U.S. on Iran. Sino-U.S. relations seemed strained at best, but one might also be tempted to say it was all a bit of gamesmanship between both the nations, using the Dalai Lama as their pawn.

With China emerging as a genuine superpower in Asia they can only go so far without U.S. trade which numbers in the billions. The States on the other hand need China on a host of other issues, firstly they need to convince the world that Iran is a nuclear threat and without major Chinese support it seems unlikely that any agreement between the U.S. and Iran will be reached. Aside from that they need Chinese assistance in tackling North Korea (which they have already received) and the military junta in Myanmar. China on the other hand is also adept at international relations and seems most likely to help the U.S. out with most of their demands, in return they have implicitly received US backing for their positions on Taiwan and Tibet. Everything works itself out.

The Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama is at best a salvo from the normally reserved U.S. President. There is no doubt that he deserves the medal, although Bush talking about religious freedom was a novel concept. What it did in effect was to say to China, “you can make a big deal about this publicly, but the status quo won't change, you still need us and we still need you.” Apart from a little huff and puff from both sides nothing substantial will occur as a result of the medal, and that is where the problem lies. China has far too much to lose, their human rights record is appalling and any real sign of protest against the meeting of Dalai Lama and Bush will greatly jeopardise their Olympics next year. Already there are many dissenting voices in the Senate that have talked of a U.S. boycott of the games, and if that were to materialise it would be disastrous.

After the economics and international politicking is left out of the picture what has been forgotten amidst all of this is that Tibet and the Dalai Lama have suffered long enough under Chinese rule. Nearly 50 years since he has left his homeland even his wants have changed, he no longer wants an independent Tibet, a concept that has met with substantial opposition from most Tibetans in exile. As he said in his speech to the Congress “On the future of Tibet, let me take this opportunity to restate categorically that I am not seeking independence. I am seeking a meaningful autonomy for the Tibetan people within the People's Republic of China.” He no longer campaigns for a free Tibet but in his own words he says "We are willing to be part of the People's Republic of China, to have it govern and guarantee to preserve our Tibetan culture, spirituality and our environment.”

The Chinese government has categorically denied the Tibetans their rights in their own land, so much so that they are almost minorities in their own land. It all comes down to a matter of perspective, in 2006 the Qinghai-Tibet railway was launched and it was the first time that China proper was connected to Tibet via railway. To the Chinese government it was an engineering marvel, 4,064 Km of railway lines connected the heart that is Beijing to the soul of Tibet. They claim it proves their seriousness about bringing great change into Tibet, modernizing it and moving it forward with the rest of China. To the Tibetan people it is simply 2500 mile leash that binds it to China proper and only brings with it more ethnic Chinese people into the region. So much so that now the ethnic Chinese Han population now exceeds the number of Tibetans, 7.5 million to 6 million, it is as the Dalai Lama puts it “Chinese Apartheid”.

To China he is a separatist, and example from which Taiwan can learn, to Bush he is a “universal symbol of peace and tolerance, a shepherd of the faithful and a keeper of the flame for his people.” Without any real help from the West, history will sadly remember him as the last keeper of the flame of his people. Bush may have given him an award and ruffled a few feathers in Beijing, but he did and will do nothing more. All his talk is rhetoric, when he says, “Americans cannot look to the plight of the religiously oppressed and close our eyes or turn away”, he was right, but he was also the one who turned away, as did the rest of the West. They all have far too much to gain from China, arguing over Tibet could cost a nation billions of dollars and make them a powerful enemy and no one is willing to suffer those consequences. It is left up to noble people like the Dalai Lama to defend a nation, Bush and the so called “free West” have turned away and merely left him with a gold medal and a handshake.

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