Today, President Dalia Grybauskaite welcomed His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, to Vilnius, Lithuania. Two years ago, her Estonian counterpart, President Toomas Ilves, also defied Beijing by meeting the Dalai Lama. Their gestures of principle and graciousness, made in the face of Chinese pressure, are very significant.
It makes sense that two Baltic countries should hold the line against Chinese pressure on Tibet. Like Tibet, the Baltic countries have experience struggling to maintain their identity under communist occupation. The elected democratic leader of Tibetan government in exile, Lobsang Sangay, has cited the Baltic countries as a source of inspiration. “‘Did you really believe in the 1980s that you would get back your homeland?’” Mr. Sangay has said he asked friends from the Baltics. “And they said, ‘In our heads, no. In our hearts, yes.’”
The comparison is no longer exact. The Tibetan leadership has renounced independence as a goal. The Dalai Lama’s priority is for his countrymen to live in freedom under Chinese rule. He expresses his concern for his Chinese “brothers and sisters” by breaking through the barriers of Chinese Internet control and propaganda via online dialogues and other forms of outreach.
Many Chinese return the sentiment, studying Tibetan Buddhism and contributing to monasteries. Some Chinese question their government’s policies in Tibet, or offer as human rights lawyers did to defend Tibetans arrested in the uprising of 2008. By resisting Chinese pressure on Tibet, leaders like Presidents Ilves and Grybauskaite (indirectly) support these Chinese who of course are risking a great deal more than they are.
Indeed, like President Ilves, President Grybauskaite will now experience diplomatic and commercial retaliation. Rather than let Beijing sow division and fear, European leaders, should step forward in solidarity. So of course should other democratic leaders. Only that will render Chinese bullying ineffective – an achievement that will have consequences for other important issues as well.