Rethinking Security in Tibet (Part 1 of 2)

April 30, 2008

Human Rights vs. Human Security in Tibet

I am writing this blog post to try to work through why I, as someone who believes that human security provides a promising framework for reducing global insecurity, have such difficulties with much of the international criticism of China’s human rights record in Tibet. Can I call myself a human security advocate while at the same time disagreeing with many of the perspectives of the dominant human rights discourse towards China? Does the human security model offer any insights to China in resolving its recent troubles concerning Tibet?

As the end of our Human Security class draws near, my hope is that my (overly verbose and rough) attempt to work through my views on this issue will help you to clarify your own feelings on the (un) viability of the human security approach, especially as it applies to China.

Human Rights Criticisms Help Promote Healthy States

I should start by saying that I have no problem with human rights groups criticizing Chinese government policies and generally agree with the political objectives for which most Tibetan protesters seem to be aiming — the end of cultural and political discrimination/repression towards Tibetans within China. Multinational human rights groups are part of the global political fabric with which all governments must learn to contend. Moreover, human rights activists in particular have an important “gadfly” role to play in checking abuse of government power, especially when domestic political biases obscure the illegitimacy of government behavior (ex., as when the Bush administration tapped into popular fears of terrorism to justify its administration’s human rights abuses at Guantanamo).

As China grows in global influence and power, it is only natural that the international community would feel more of a vested interested in China’s domestic political climate. As an engine of the international economy, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as a role model for the developing world, as a major greenhouse gas producer, and as a government that represents 1/5 of humanity, Chinese government actions are integral to global security and sustainability. When this government employs repressive strategies at home to maintain its power, it is fair and legitimate for the rest of us to question the implications of such tactics for the role that China will play at the global level.

An Anti-China Bias

While sympathetic to these general human rights objectives, I disagree with those who argue for international shaming tactics as a way to pressure China on its human rights record. I am always wary, for example, of US politicians using China or the “China threat” to further their own political agenda. Hillary Clinton’s comments suggesting that Bush skip the Olympic opening ceremonies are more about gaining votes for Hillary Clinton than about improving human rights in China. If improved human rights were the real objective, then US political leaders would forgo the political theatrics and instead pressure Chinese leaders behind closed doors.

I also believe that the international media coverage of these protests has been largely “anti-China” (especially in the coverage of the initial March protests) and am fearful that this skewed coverage will empower hard-line nationalists in China who in turn might undermine the good work being accomplished by China’s current national leadership under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. Human rights activists too often adopt a sledge –hammer approach targeting governments as the “bad guys” in the fight for human rights, when in fact complicity for human rights abuses and discrimination within societies is typically shared among a broad array of actors.

When international critics label the Chinese central government as the “bad guy” in this case (especially when the regime has a very high degree of domestic popular support), a popular nationalist attack against the messenger is a predictable response. Of course, such counter-attacks also serve to discredit the very legitimate critique being offered of why China must concern itself with protecting the basic needs of all its people.

So the question becomes what, if anything, should the international community do to support the enhancement of security for both Tibetans and fellow Chinese citizens.

Human Security and Tibet

Human security and human rights both operate on the premise that humanity, as a whole, is only as secure as its weakest members. Human security in particular would argue that China’s poor track record towards its Tibetan citizens is a source of insecurity for the country as a whole. (The same could be said for the US’s discriminatory treatment of its African-American citizens.)

The recent protests in Tibet have highlighted the truth of this insight for China. From a national security perspective, China is experiencing one of its most peaceful and prosperous periods in recent memory. Yet, it is today haunted by simmering discontent of a repressed and neglected Tibetan community within its borders — internal discontent largely ignored under a national security paradigm. Discontent in Tibet has also been unresponsive to the central government’s economic development outreach, with the region a beneficiary of massive central government spending and double digit economic growth rates.

Of course, many Chinese would argue that China’s Tibetan problems are not as serious as the foreign media portrays, but are the work of a small group of extremists and have been exploited by outsiders who feel threatened by China’s success. Yet, regardless of whether one believes that outsiders are exploiting these problems or that the problems themselves are festering of their own accord, China is still faced with the problem of how to more effectively manage the balance between the needs and concerns of its Tibetan community with those of the country as a whole.

Moving Beyond Human Rights

Human rights activists would say that the implementation of a clear and enforceable legal framework of individual protections, along the lines of our shared collection of global human rights treaties, provides a clear roadmap for the Chinese governments to follow to achieve the communal stability it seeks in Tibet. Adhering to these human rights standards at the national level has the added benefit of helping to shape China into a good global citizen, thus reducing the potential for violence at the international level. China has already incorporated most of these human rights protections into their legal code, so it is simply a matter of getting the Central People’s Government (CPG) to enforce their own laws.

Unfortunately, human rights law alone has proved to be an insufficient tool to tackle the problems ailing Tibet. Laws alone are not enough to provide for protection against disease and violence, access to education and employment opportunities, or support for cultural and religious expression – all important preconditions for Tibetan human security. Moreover, effective judicial infrastructures are either absent, weak, or only slowly emerging in many nations, including China, which in turn impedes the protection of human rights there. Finally, human rights are hampered by the fact that our current international legal framework is based on principles of sovereign non-intervention, which gives national governments the final say in human rights adjudication. This is not only problematic when the government is the “abuser” but, as mentioned previously, this reality incites a destructive “blame the government” attitude, when responsibility for these problems and solutions should be shared among a broad array of stakeholders.

While the human rights focus on the protection of the individual is correct, its over reliance on a state-centered, legal framework makes it a highly problematic model for China to adhere to in order to address human insecurities in Tibet. In the next post, I will argue that Human Security offers important insights for how to rethink security policy in Tibet to make it more responsive to the needs of its peoples.


One Response to “Rethinking Security in Tibet (Part 1 of 2)”

  1. Rebecca Hui Says:

    I agree with Dr Cummings that human security model is more helpful in understanding the current turmoil in Tibet. Some observations can be made here.
    First, I agree with Dr Cummings that a comprehensive and holistic approach is required to understand the root causes of the turmoil in Tibet. I personally agree that the concerns of the local Tibet people must be accomodated otherwise the conflict is unlikely put to a halt.
    As mentioned by Dr Cummings, religious discrimination and economic inequalities are particularly relevant in teh present context. On one hand, the PRC leaders have been very active and dedicated in developing Tibet in the hope of balancing the great economic ineqaulities between teh East and West and further boosting its political legitimacy. On the other hand, they fail to identify who exactly the beneciaries are under such economic development. Instead, they just focus on the fact that China’s overall economic clout will be enhanced.
    It is true that following the construction of the Qinghai–Tibet railway, transportation has been improved and boosts the local tourism. However, it appears that not only are the tourists are attracted to Tibet, but also other Chinese from other provinces are attracted to reap this economic fruit. The fact is that most of the shops and economic activities are monopolized by the “Han” people and the local Tibetans do not appear to be better off. Therefore, that is one of the reasons why the local shops opened by the Han people were attacked. Thus, the Chinese government should resort to more affirmative actions in empowering the Tibetans to ensure their economic security will not be threatened by the influx of immigrants.

    Second, one has to the religious dilemma in Tibet. Tibet is distinquished from other Chinese provinces for its distinctive relgious culture and background. It is in China’s interest not to constrain the freedom of religion enjoyed by this group of religious minorities, since this action will further intensify the ethnic conflicts in Tibet.

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