On Having Reasonable Opponents

“If China overnight adopted a democratic system, I might have some reservations… If central authority collapsed, there could be a chaotic situation, and that’s in no one’s interest.”

One of the keys to understanding why the Chinese government gets so worked up about certain people is this: they aren’t really afraid of people who come out swinging at China. What really unsettles them is when their opponents offer a hand instead of a fist.

The above quote is from the Dalai Lama, who has been in Washington for the last week giving religious teachings. Most of his activities there have fallen short of newsworthy, until that quote (captured in American hack columnist Fred Hiatt’s WaPo piece) caught my eye. It’s the perfect illustration of why Beijing goes to such lengths to call him a jackal in monk’s robes: because he’s actually being very reasonable.

Think about Liu Xiaobo for a second. Charter 08 landed him in prison, despite the fact that the bulk of it merely called for what, on paper, Chinese citizens already have. Pretty reasonable document. The Dalai Lama has regularly been giving the Chinese government proposals for how to solve the Tibet problem, and they’re full of easy, uncontroversial stuff, like “protect the Tibetan language” and “allow Tibetans to practice their religion.” They’re available online in English, Chinese, and Tibetan, and it would all be enforceable by China, so there’s no chance of Tibet seceding from China. In other words: extremely reasonable proposals.

So why do they do it? Why do they keep Liu Xiaobo locked up, despite all the flak they get for it? Why constantly insult the Dalai Lama, certainly one of the most popular people in the world?

The reason is that the Chinese government knows both people are being very reasonable, and that this means they could very easily connect with a third party: the Chinese public. If the Dalai Lama was actually some kind of cackling anti-Chinese psychopath they wouldn’t need to paint him as one, because there wouldn’t be any risk of Chinese citizens coming to agree with him. If Liu Xiaobo really wanted to topple the Chinese government and replace it with a foreign-dominated failed state… well, that isn’t really an idea you can sell to many people here.

On the other hand, if you were allowed to walk the streets here and tell people that they should enjoy the rights and liberties that are their birthright as Chinese citizens, or that Tibetans should be allowed to use Tibetan as the dominant language in their autonomous regions and prefectures, plenty of people would agree with you. Sure, some people might not fully agree with all of it, but neither of these men’s ideas are sufficient on their own to necessitate Two Minutes’ Hate.

So the propaganda outlets and government ministries here will continue to attack anyone with a reasonable idea- not because their ideas are abhorrent to the Chinese people, but because they aren’t. The day when any Chinese citizen can pick up and read a copy of Charter 08 or the actual words of the Dalai Lama is the day they realize that neither men are villains, and that they might agree with far more of their points than they would have thought.

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Filed under China, Communist Party, Dalai Lama, Liu Xiaobo

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