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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Dalai Lama was a slave master, China tells Obama

November 16, 2009

The Associated Press
November 15, 2009

BEIJING -- The conviction was clear but the
message befuddling: China's Foreign Ministry
spokesman was equating serfdom in Tibet to
slavery in the U.S. - just ahead of President
Barack Obama's first trip to China.

Was it a monumental gaffe, last-minute stab at
finding a common frame of reference, or a canny
piece of strategy designed to redefine the U.S.-China dispute over Tibet?

Whatever the motivation or intended effect, the
response so far probably won't be to Beijing's
liking. Among academics, activists and
commentators, the remarks have been labeled
illogical, ignorant, and even insensitive.

Ministry spokesman Qin Gang's argument broke down
like this: Obama, as the first black U.S.
president and an admirer of Abraham Lincoln,
should appreciate the importance of liberating
slaves - exactly what China says it did in Tibet in 1959.

"We hope that President Obama, more than any
other foreign dignitary, can have a better and
deeper understanding of China's position
regarding safeguarding its national sovereignty
and territorial integrity," Qin said.

Such reasoning struck some as patently offensive
to Obama for linking his policy decisions to the
color of his skin, and to Tibetans, who revere
the Dalai Lama as part of their Buddhist faith.

"It is an insult for the unelected and
authoritarian Chinese government to suggest that
an instinctive democrat such as Abraham Lincoln
would have sided with China in seeking to deny
the Tibetan people their fundamental right to
determine their own future," said Stephanie
Brigden, director of the Free Tibet campaign.

White House officials when asked on the sidelines
of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in
Singapore for a response to Qin's statement had no comment.

To be sure, Qin's words underscored the huge gulf
in perception between China and the West over
Tibet and its exiled Buddhist leader.

China views Tibet, which communist troops entered
in 1950, as inherently part of its territory and
key symbol of Chinese sovereignty and independence.

Many Tibetans and their supporters in the West
say Tibet was effectively independent for most of
its history and regard Chinese rule as occupation
for the sake of economic exploitation.

The divide is even more bitter regarding the Dalai Lama himself.

To Western eyes, he is a spiritual leader who
works tirelessly promoting rights and freedoms
for Tibetans and who has promoted democratic, not
feudal, values as leader of the self-proclaimed
Tibetan government-in-exile in India since
fleeing there in 1959. The Dalai Lama says he
seeks only meaningful autonomy for Tibet under Chinese rule, not independence.

To China, he is a former slave master, covert
secessionist and general evildoer. Such
sentiments have only hardened in the wake of
anti-government riots in Tibet last year that left at least 22 dead.

"The Dalai Lama was the overall leader of the
Tibetan serf system in 1959, and when the Chinese
government abolished that system it marked a
tremendous step forward for the cause of human
rights," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin told
reporters on Thursday. "In the same way,
President Lincoln abolished slavery in the United States."

Qin was simply trying to use an historical
analogy that would be familiar to nearly every
American and that should carry particular
resonance for Obama, said Shen Dingli, director
of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University.

"I am kind of supporting Qin Gang," said Shen.
"The West has been accustomed to listening to the
Dalai Lama's argument and they do not care to listen to our argument."

However, Robbie Barnett, director of the modern
Tibetan studies program at Columbia University,
said he sees Qin's comparison less as a
conciliatory gesture and more as an attempt to
reframe the issue on China's terms. Beijing wants
Americans to see Tibet through the lens of their
own history and come to think of Tibet as a
region of China with troubled, racially tinged
history, and not a region that is seeking or might deserve greater autonomy.

"They want the Americans to start referring to
the Tibetan issue as an ethnic problem because
Chinese see ethnic issues as common to almost all countries," he said.
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