Adrian Hamilton: A way out of this Olympic confrontation

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I have a suggestion for breaking out of the impasse over the issue of Tibet and the Olympics. It is for the West to make the Dalai Lama the arbiter of whether we should attend the opening ceremonies or not. He's for the Olympic Games, after all, and says he wants them to be a success. It's the treatment of his people he is challenging.

Of course any suggestion of bringing in Tibet's spiritual leader will arouse the fiercest condemnation from Beijing, which has made a fetish of demonising him as an agent of separatism and the source of all recent troubles within and without Tibet. But then it is China's demonisation of the Dalai Lama which has helped get them into such contention with the West in the first place and made all efforts to reach a compromise so difficult, if not impossible.

The confrontation over Tibet has emerged as one of the most astonishing, and certainly least expected, diplomatic developments of our time. Without anyone quite realising it, the protests at China's Tibet policy have gathered pace to a point where they threaten seriously to undermine the status of the Olympic Games themselves and to sour trade as well as political relations with China.

Western leaders, it has to be said, have been taken as much by surprise as the Chinese. To Beijing, Tibet was a little local difficulty that might cause some huffing and puffing from the usual cast of Tibetan exiles and activist groups, but really had no connection to political issues. And that, it must be said, is broadly how Western governments looked on it. Of course, the pressure of publicity and activist groups made it impossible for leaders going to China not to say something about human rights. But it was becoming something of a formality.

What, after all, was the first thing that happened after the furore over the Olympic Games and Gordon Brown said, no, he wouldn't boycott the Olympic ceremonies and then said that he had never intended to go to the opening ceremony in the first place? Why the British Chancellor, Alistair Darling, flew off to Beijing to beg the Chinese authorities to help out in the current credit crisis by investing through their sovereign funds, and I bet human rights were not on the agenda for discussion. And what is it about Gordon Brown not approving of boycotts? Isn't he the leader who refused to go to the recent EU-Africa summit because Mugabe was attending?

The extraordinary thing about the Tibet protests is that they have short-circuited all the empty rhetoric on human rights and gone straight to the hard centre where the issue catches China at its most oppressive and most obdurate. And it is an issue forced on the politicians from below.

Darfur proved the first, and most surprising spark, when Steven Spielberg pulled out as artistic director of the Games citing China's failure to constrain Sudan in Darfur. It caught Beijing genuinely puzzled. With a policy of non-interference in other countries' affairs, it couldn't see its responsibility for Darfur.

Tibet is proving a different matter altogether, an internal affair of China's in which the outside world, in Beijing's eyes, had no right to poke their noses. Yet it is Tibet that has incensed the world outside and had crowds of protesters on the streets where the torch has been run.

In terms of human rights in China as a whole, granting Beijing the Olympic Games has not done much to help. Indeed you could argue that they have made matters worse as the security forces have arrested every dissenter in sight to make sure there is no trouble on the occasion. Over time, however, it is possible to see improvement as greater middle-class wealth and artistic freedom works its way into political expression.

On Tibet, on the other hand, China won't budge, while Western politicians cannot fail to press the case because their public and the media have made it a litmus test of an ethical foreign policy. Direct intervention has been killed by the experience of Iraq and the impossibility of doing it in most cases. But partly for that reason, the pressure on politicians to stand up for rights abroad in their diplomatic dealings has grown the stronger.

It's not a clash of civilisations but it is a straight conflict of view, on which the Chinese government has the support of nearly all (with some honourable exceptions amongst dissenters) of its population. If China were a democracy the majority would cheerfully have every male Tibetan castrated. But then, when every candidate in the US presidentials is forced to take a position on the Olympics, you know that this is a cause which Western politicians can't duck.

So what is to be done? The beauty of involving the Dalai Llama is that he already charts a course of compromise. For pragmatic reasons rather than those of justice, he has accepted that Tibet is part of China. He has also stated that he has no quarrel with the Han Chinese as such and is all for the Olympic games. It is the treatment of the Tibetans within Tibet that he is complaining about.

It is not an easy position for him. There are many, and not just Tibetans, who feel that historically Tibet has every right to full independence. At the same time there are many younger Tibetans who feel the Dalai Lama's moderate path has got them nowhere and direct action is now needed. The country is being swamped by immigrants and time is not on their side – which is why there was such violence in recent demonstrations.

If Gordon Brown were to meet the Dalai Lama when he visits London next month at No 10 (not Lambeth palace as now scheduled) and if he were to come out and say, yes, he would be going to the opening ceremony at the request of Tibet's spiritual leader while accepting the Dalai Lama's other concerns, and if other leaders in Europe and elsewhere, were to do the same, you would achieve two purposes. One would be to reinforce the international community's support for the Dalai Lama. The other would be to back his role as a voice of moderation, contrary to China's charges, and make the Dalai Lama the instrument of our going.

It is of course possible that Beijing simply isn't interested in moderating its stance, that it is determined to continue its policy of emasculation of the Tibetans, is hell bent on proving its authority by taking the torch through Tibet next month and is absolutely insistent that it will not speak or deal with the Dalai Lama.

In which case Western leaders have to stand by their position, whatever the cost to the Olympics and relations with China, and make the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games the price of our disapproval of China's actions in Tibet. We are, after all, democracies, and that is the will of our people.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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