Nobody ought to have been surprised that South Africa chose to heed
China’s concerns and deny a visa to the Dalai Lama not because of the
South African government’s poor record of responding to human-rights crises
in its own neighborhood, but because of China’s growing diplomatic influence
and assertiveness thanks to its status as the great hope of an ailing world
economy. Regardless of their rhetoric, most governments
make foreign policy decisions less on moral grounds than on
cold-blooded assessments of national interest. And the South African
government said bluntly that it was not in the country’s national interest
to host the Tibetan spiritual leader at a conference that was to discuss
using the soccer World Cup to fight racism.
A government spokesman said that no visa would be issued for the Dalai
Lama to visit South Africa before the soccer tournament, which is to be held next
year in South Africa. “We want the focus to remain on South Africa,” said
Thabo Masebe, spokesman for President Kgalema Motlanthe. “A visit now by
the Dalai Lama would move the focus from South Africa onto issues in Tibet.”
And, of course, there’s the little matter of the Chinese embassy’s warning to the South Africans that the visit would be “inopportune” and
would put bilateral relations at risk.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the longtime antiapartheid campaigner who had
personally invited his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate to the conference, was
outraged. He condemned the decision as “disgraceful, in line with our
country’s abysmal record at the U.N. Security Council, a total betrayal of
our struggle history,” adding that “we are shamelessly succumbing to Chinese
pressure. I feel deeply distressed and ashamed.” The conference has been
But the South African government appears to have concluded that the
outrage of Tutu and other human-rights campaigners is preferable
to the wrath of the country’s major trading partner and foreign investor.
After all, France is still paying a serious diplomatic price for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to
meet with the Dalai Lama last year. China immediately canceled a planned
summit with the European Union; Premier Wen Jiabao avoided France on a
European tour that was lucrative for local business; and Beijing will again
snub the French leader at the forthcoming G-20 summit. South Africa, with its
high unemployment levels, is in a far more economically vulnerable position
than France is. China has in recent years invested some $6 billion in the
South African economy, which accounts for about 20% of Africa’s booming trade
It could be argued that because the Dalai Lama had been invited to a
civil-society event, the South African government might have tried to
assuage the Chinese by simply refraining from meeting him in any official
capacity as the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel did when
the Tibetan spiritual leader visited Germany last May. Last year’s riots in Tibet, and the fact that this year is the
50th anniversary of the Chinese military’s roll into Tibet and the Dalai
Lama’s flight into exile, have made Beijing move more aggressively to limit
the Dalai Lama’s access to international platforms.
“Regarding the Dalai Lama’s overseas activities, we resolutely oppose
any country’s government having official contact with the Dalai Lama or
enabling or offering a platform for his splittist activities,” Chinese
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters this week. Although the
Dalai Lama has limited himself to calling for autonomy, Beijing accuses him
of leading a secessionist movement.
While Tutu and other activists admonish the South African government for the
decision, and liken it to the nation’s passivity in the face of President
Robert Mugabe’s violent suppression of democratic opposition in next-door
Zimbabwe, the South African stance is hardly unique. Just this week, the
government of Taiwan hardly a flunky of Beijing urged a local
journalists’ organization to cancel a planned Dalai Lama visit to the island, saying the time was not “opportune” for such a visit.
China is not only Africa’s most important economic partner; it is
increasingly the most important economic partner of the major Western
European economies. Its economic role will inevitably boost its diplomatic
influence. It can be argued, of course, that China’s economic ties are
based on self-interest and would not be jeopardized if governments could
find ways of symbolically acknowledging the plight of the Dalai Lama and his
people while giving priority to relations with China. That’s something the
U.S. will hope to continue to do. But given France’s experience and the
state of South Africa’s economy, Pretoria clearly feels it is in no position
to test the limits of Beijing’s tolerance for what China sees as meddling in
its internal affairs.
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