It was impossible not to notice that the United States removed China from its list of top 10 human rights violators just as the biggest anti-China protests in 20 years erupted in Tibet. Even when handed that undeserved dispensation, the Beijing government cannot control its authoritarian nature.
A week of protests in Tibet turned violent last Friday as Chinese security forces clashed with hundreds of Buddhist monks and other ethnic Tibetans. Information was hard to verify — nearly all foreigners are barred from entering and Tibetans have no freedom — but news reports said a market in the capital was burned; at least 16, and perhaps many more, people were killed; and paramilitary police and troops were deployed. Over the weekend, rioting spread to neighboring provinces, and demonstrations even reached Beijing.
The protests began March 10, the anniversary of a failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. The Chinese took Tibet by force in 1951, and the region has been a source of tension ever since. Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama — who, much to Beijing’s fury, met President Bush at the White House last October — has urged greater religious and cultural freedom for Tibet. But talks with Beijing have gone nowhere.
To earn the right to play host to this summer’s Olympics, Beijing promised to improve its human rights record. As its behavior in Tibet — and the recent arrest of the human rights advocate Hu Jia and others — demonstrates, China does not take that commitment seriously.
In its annual human rights report on 190 countries, the State Department conceded that Beijing’s overall performance remained poor. But in what looked like a political payoff to a government whose help America desperately needs on difficult problems, the department dropped China from its list of 10 worst violators.
Whatever gain China may have gotten from being elevated above the likes of North Korea, Myanmar, Iran and Sudan was lost by the crackdown on Tibet.
China had a chance to shine for its Olympic coming-out party and is blowing it. Its leaders will continue to have to battle protests and unrest — and endure international approbation — until they ensure more freedom for all their citizens, including greater religious tolerance and freedom for Tibet.
* Editorial New York Times (March 18, 2008)