Tibet plunges Bonn into row with China

Germany fell off its tightrope yesterday, after repeated attempts to do lucrative business in China, on the one hand, while proclaiming itself to be the conscience of the world, on the other.

Klaus Kinkel, the Foreign Minister, suffered a series of humiliations during the course of the day. In the morning, China closed down the Peking office of a political foundation run by his own party, the Free Democrats. In the afternoon he was attacked by German MPs for his wimpish response; one Green MP accused the Foreign Minister of "kow-towing to a dictatorial regime".

By the evening Mr Kinkel was piggy in the middle, in a row that is threatening to unravel German attempts to project an independent foreign policy in the economically dynamic region.

Chinese ire was provoked by the Dalai Lama's plan to hold the second World Congress of Tibetan Exiles in Bonn this weekend. Although the German government distanced itself from the event, the Congress is being organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, an influential think-tank headed by the former Economics Minister and respected Free Democrat, Count Otto Lambsdorff.

In closing down the Foundation's office, Peking accused it of supporting the "Dalai Lama clique".

Indirectly, the charge could also be levelled at the German government, which has been strenuously cultivating links with the Chinese government in the hope of gaining fat contracts for its industry. Earlier this year, Chancellor Helmut Kohl led a 100-strong trade delegation to China, during which he appeared to absolve the regime of the crimes of Tiananmen Square by meeting generals of the Chinese People's Army. Arms sales were high on the delegation's agenda.

The twin-track approach of making money in the Far East while paying lip service to human rights in the region finally foundered yesterday. Even before Peking's intervention yesterday, opposition MPs had planned a motion calling for state support for the Congress through the Foundation, which receives some of its money from one of the parties in the governing coalition. The motion was defeated, but another, criticising Chinese human rights violations, is on the way.

Fairly innocuous in its wording, the motion due to be tabled next week is explosive in substance. The text was drafted not only by opposition politicians, but also MPs from the coalition parties, and somehow got the approval of a Christian Democrat whip. There were dark hints circulating in Bonn yesterday that if that motion were approved, Mr Kinkel would have no choice but to resign.

The Foreign Minister tried to escape the gathering storm by instructing his office late in the day to call in the Chinese ambassador for a dressing- down.

The German government regarded the closure of the Foundation office as an "inappropriate reaction", Mr Kinkel explained in a statement.

"The federal government supports the demand of Tibetans for cultural and religious autonomy," the statement went on. "Tibetans have a verifiable traditional historical right for autonomy."

The pundits wondered whether this heralded a change of government policy. Alas, we are still in lip-service territory. The statement explains that Germany recognises Tibet is part of China, and could not recognise the Dalai Lama as anything but a figurehead.

Rather than dousing the flames, Mr Kinkel's belated response is likely to pour more oil on the fire. Tensions between China and Germany are bound to rise throughout the duration of the Congress, although the Dalai Lama can be excused for wondering what all the fuss is about.

So far, he has made no complaint about German hospitality. He is being looked after by Petra Roth, the Mayor of Frankfurt, and a prominent politician in Mr Kohl's Christian Democratic party. But don't tell Mr Kohl - he doesn't want to know.

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