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China’s thin skin

Posted by Author on November 29, 2008

Editorial, The Financial Times, November 26 2008 –

The friend of your enemy is not necessarily your enemy. But China seems to think it is. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, currently occupying the chair of the European Union, is due to meet the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, in Poland on December 6. In retaliation, the Chinese government has pulled out of a summit meeting in Europe with just days to go. It is an unwise and ill-considered step.

As recent economic developments have shown, China is intimately connected to the rest of the world. Wednesday’s sharp cut in interest rates is a direct result of that interdependence. In the present climate, the Chinese authorities must make more effort to build and maintain their alliances.

Mr Sarkozy was entirely within his rights to ignore calls from Beijing not to meet the Dalai Lama. The occasion is a meeting to honour Poland’s Lech Walesa, a Nobel prize winner like the Tibetan leader. It is hardly a deliberate show of support by Mr Sarkozy for the Tibetan campaign for greater autonomy.

Chinese sensitivity to meetings with the Tibetan leader is hard to fathom. His peaceful “middle way” calls for protection for the Tibetans’ distinct culture, language and identity within the People’s Republic. His main source of political weakness among his own people is his moderation and his unwillingness to consider more extreme measures. He discourages violence.

This is a bad moment for China to be burning bridges. Beijing needs to work to build stable alliances with its main strategic partners, such as the EU. Pulling out of the summit with four days’ notice will not allay concerns about the human rights record of the world’s second-largest exporter. It could aggravate protectionism. Europe is China’s largest export market. Only this month Brussels increased tariffs on citrus fruits and imposed new anti-dumping measures on Chinese candles and certain industrial products.

As if further proof were needed of China’s reliance on the rest of the world, it has recently become a large importer of economic gloom. The World Bank expects the Chinese economy to grow next year at a mere 7.5 per cent – the slowest in two decades. Its vast planned fiscal stimulus and Wednesday’s hefty 108 basis points interest rate cut are both consequences of its dependence on a sickly world economy.

China’s problem with Tibet is not the Dalai Lama. The greater threat is the increasing appeal of active resistance in Tibet to Chinese rule. A successful negotiation with him is the only way to ensure a peaceful outcome to the stand-off.  China should understand this.

The Financial Times Limited

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