Way back in March 2008, widespread protests erupted across the Tibetan plateau and were brutally crushed by a massive Chinese security response. On March 28, then-Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama, who had previously shown little interest in Tibet, sent a letter to President Bush chiding him for not doing enough about the situation there and helpfully suggesting some specific steps he should be taking. A few choice selections:
The United States has many issues for which China's cooperation is important, including denuclearization of North Korea, ending Iran's nuclear program, stopping the genocide in Darfur, confronting repression in Burma, and combating global warming. However, it is important that we give high priority to the plight of Tibetans and make clear to President Hu that the way in which China treats all Chinese citizens, including Tibetans, profoundly affects how China is viewed in the United States and throughout the international community.
I hope you made clear to President Hu the American view about the importance of the following: a negotiation with the Dalai Lama about his return to Tibet; guarantees of religious freedom for the Tibetan people; protection of Tibetan culture and language; and the exercise of genuine autonomy for Tibet. That is the path to the stability and harmony that the Chinese leaders say they are seeking in Tibet.
In addition to your personal intervention with President Hu, there are other steps I hope you will take to highlight our concern. I support your call for the foreign press and diplomatic personnel to have free access to Lhasa and other Tibetan cities and villages to ensure that repression and human rights violations cannot escape the world's notice. Beijing has committed to the International Olympic Committee to allow foreign journalists free access to cover stories throughout China, including Tibet. We should hold them to that commitment. The U.S. and our democratic allies and friends should also urge the UN Human Rights Council to send an investigatory team to Tibet. China should be encouraged to allow the International Committee for the Red Cross to visit prisons in Tibet to ensure that detainees are not held under inhumane conditions, tortured, or mistreated.
Like you, I want to take steps that increase the chance of a negotiated solution between Beijing and the Dalai Lama, and that have the best chance of improving the lives of ordinary Tibetans. Therefore, I support your effort to aggressively use your relationship with President Hu to achieve these goals. Should it appear, however, that the Chinese are taking private diplomacy as a license for inaction or continued repression, I would urge you to speak out forcefully and publicly to disabuse them of the notion that they can thus escape international censure.
How times have changed. When President Obama stood next to Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing yesterday and uttered the words "Tibet is part of the People's Republic of China", he may have been the first U.S. president to do so on Chinese soil. In any case, this was more than just an idle (and unnecessary) repeating of long-standing U.S. policy; rather it was a concession to a very specific and intensely-sought Chinese demand for this trip.
In the weeks before Obama traveled to China, following on his refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama, three Tibetans were executed in Lhasa after closed trials that failed to meet minimum standards of due process, and a prominent Tibetan blogger was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his writings, without any comment from the White House. Talks between the Dalai Lama's representatives and China have been stalled for the past year. The repression on the ground has not changed, but Obama's views on how to treat those responsible for it certainly have. Instead of seeing Tibet as a priority in U.S.-China relations, he now seems to view Tibet as a cheap bargaining chip to be traded away in a futile attempt to curry favor with the Chinese. Hypocrisy we can believe in?