Postponing Dalai Lama Meeting Sends Wrong Message
U.S. President Barack Obama’s apparent decision to postpone a meeting with the Dalai Lama sends the wrong signal to the Chinese government at a time when the authorities in Beijing are intensifying efforts to silence peaceful critics at home and abroad.
Obama reportedly delayed meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader this week to win favor from China's leaders ahead of his first visit to Beijing as president next month. It will be the first time since 1991 that the Dalai Lama has not met with the U.S. president while visiting Washington.
"The doors of the White House should always be open to a globally-revered advocate for peaceful efforts to secure fundamental human rights," said Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director. "It is hard to see how shunning the Dalai Lama will advance American interests. The Obama administration is presenting an unfortunate profile by putting human rights so conspicuously on the backburner in its relations with repressive regimes."
Already this year, the administration has given only muted support to pro-democracy activists in Iran and has withdrawn funding from independent, pro-democracy activists in Egypt. On China, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier this year that human rights would not "interfere" with the U.S. dialogue with China on other global concerns.
China's leaders use a mixture of interference, cooptation and intimidation to muzzle voices critical of the Chinese government beyond its borders. A few recent examples include:
• Under pressure from Beijing, South Africa blocked the Dalai Lama in March from attending a conference in Johannesburg on racism backed by the Nobel Peace Committee. The Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
• In September, organizers of the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany revoked invitations to Chinese dissident writers Dai Qing and Bei Ling after China’s organizing committee complained. Beijing also succeeded in blocking Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu, who served four years in prison for a poem he wrote about the Tiananmen massacre, from participating in another event connected to the book fair.
• In Taiwan, the Chinese government has exerted pressure to block the screening this month of “The 10 Conditions of Love,” a documentary about exiled Uighur rights activist Rebiya Kadeer. Despite pressure, the Kaohsiung Film Archive and the organizing committee of the 2009 Kaohsiung Film Festival says it will go ahead with the screening. The Chinese authorities exerted similar pressure at the recent Melbourne film festival.
• In September, Uighur activist Dolkun Isa was denied entry into South Korea to take part in a conference on democracy. Isa, who fled China in 1997 and obtained asylum in Germany, was held at the Seoul airport without explanation for two days.
By preemptively postponing the meeting with the Dalai Lama the administration risks further emboldening the Chinese authorities’ impulse toward censorship. Freedom House examines this impulse in Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians, a study jointly released in June with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia. Freedom House is especially concerned about China's recent efforts to undermine democratic institutions in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
"Beijing and Moscow prefer an agenda focused solely on economic or security matters and this is the type of relationship with the U.S. that they are working toward," said Christopher Walker, Freedom House director of studies. "The Obama administration risks falling into the authoritarians’ trap if it buys into this restrictive approach."
China is ranked Not Free in the 2009 edition of Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties and in the 2009 version of Freedom of the Press. If
China became a Free country, the percentage of the world’s population living in freedom would rise from 46 to 66 percent.
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Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties in China since 1972.
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