Zakaria: Don't Feed China's Nationalism

At first glance, China's recent crackdown in Tibet looks like a familiar storyline: a dictatorship represses its people. And of course that's part of the reality—as it often is in China. But on this issue, the communist regime is not in opposition to its people. The vast majority of Chinese have little sympathy for the Tibetan cause. To the extent that we can gauge public opinion in China and among its diaspora, ordinary Chinese are, if anything, critical of the Beijing government for being too easy on the Tibetans. The real struggle here is between a nationalist majority and an ethnic and religious minority looking to secure its rights.

In these circumstances, a boycott of the Olympics would have precisely the opposite effect that is intended. The regime in Beijing would become only more defensive and stubborn. The Chinese people would rally around the flag and see the West as trying to humiliate China in its first international moment of glory. (There are many suspicions that the United States cannot abide the prospect of a rising China.) For most Chinese, the Games are about the world's giving China respect, rather than bolstering the Communist Party's legitimacy.

For leaders to boycott the Games' opening ceremonies alone is an odd idea. Is the president of the United States supposed to travel to Beijing to attend the women's water-polo finals instead? (Britain's Gordon Brown, for instance, has said he'll attend the closing, but not the opening ceremonies.) Picking who will go to which event is trying to have it both ways, voting for the boycott before you vote against it. Some want to punish China for its association with the Sudanese government, which is perpetrating atrocities in Darfur. But to boycott Beijing's Games because it buys oil from Sudan carries the notion of responsibility too far. After all, the United States has much closer ties to Saudi Arabia, a medieval monarchy that has funded Islamic terror. Should the world boycott America for this relationship?

China's attitude toward Tibet is wrong and cruel, but, alas, not that unusual. Other nations, especially developing countries, have taken tough stands against what they perceive as separatist forces. A flourishing democracy like India has often responded to such movements by imposing martial law and suspending political and civil rights. The Turks for many decades crushed all Kurdish pleas for linguistic and ethnic autonomy. The democratically elected Russian government of Boris Yeltsin responded brutally to Chechen demands. Under Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin, also elected, the Russian Army killed about 75,000 civilians in Chechnya, and leveled its capital. These actions were enthusiastically supported within Russia. It is particularly strange to see countries that launched no boycotts while Chechnya was being destroyed—and indeed welcomed Russia into the G8—now so outraged about the persecution of minorities. (In comparison, estimates are that over the past 20 years, China has jailed several hundred people in Tibet.)

On this issue, the Bush administration has so far followed a wiser course, forgoing the grandstanding taking place in Europe and on the campaign trail. It has been urging the Chinese government quietly but firmly to engage in serious discussions with the Dalai Lama. Diplomacy can be scoffed at, but every multinational business that has had success in persuading the Chinese government to change course will testify that public humiliation does not work nearly as well on the regime as private pressure.

Negotiating with the Dalai Lama is in Beijing's interest as well. It faces a restive population that lives in about 13 percent of the land area of China. Many Tibetans want independence. But the Dalai Lama has repeatedly said that he does not seek independence, only cultural autonomy. Even last week he rejected any boycott of the Olympics and urged his followers to engage in no violent protests whatsoever. If there were ever a leader of a separatist group whom one could negotiate with, he's it. And once the 72-year-old Dalai Lama passes from the scene, Beijing might have to deal with a far more unpredictable and radical Tibetan movement.

So why doesn't the Chinese regime see this? Beijing has a particular problem. Now that communism is dead, the Communist Party sees its legitimacy as linked to its role in promoting and defending Chinese nationalism. It is especially clumsy when it comes to such issues. Clever technocrats though they are, China's communist leaders—mostly engineers—have not had to refine their political skills as they have their economic touch. In the past they have stoked anti-Japanese and anti-American outbursts, only to panic that things were getting out of control and then reverse course. They fear that compromising over Tibet would set a precedent for the unraveling of the Chinese nation. China has grown and shrunk in size over the centuries, and its dynasties have often been judged by their success in preserving the country's geography.

In fact, in almost all cases—Turkey, India—granting autonomy to groups that press for it has in the end produced a more stable and peaceful national climate. But that is a lesson the Chinese government will have to learn for itself; it is unlikely to take instruction from outsiders. Its handling of the protests in Tibet is disgraceful. But humiliating the entire country over it would make matters worse.