The “Forum on the Development of Tibet, China” organized in Lhasa on 12-13 August 2014 is a significant public relations activity in the Tibet component of Beijing’s goal to build China’s soft power. In her quest to become a super power, the Tibet factor has made significant dent in the country’s soft power metric. The outburst of Tibetan political and human rights grievances in 2008 and the subsequent crackdown made a deep negative impact on the country’s worldwide image despite the successful staging of the Olympics. Beijing’s diplomatic charm offensives around the world have been relatively successful but the Tibet issue creates considerable doubts about the country as a model for others to follow in finding solutions to their domestic issues.
So far, Beijing’s decades old main policy planks of development and stability in Tibet have turned a hard sell. The 2014 Tibet Development Forum is definitely an escalation in public relations exercise to disingenuously persuade the international audience to adopt its success narrative. However, the results are not guaranteed. Just as there is no international audience for the brittle propaganda started in 2009 in announcing plans to spend billions of dollars to develop global media giants “to use soft power rather than military might to win friends abroad,” positive outcomes from the conference is also uncertain.
While Beijing did manage to maneuver the current forum on its position by bringing together a good number of qualified professionals on its side, the impact of such a publicity gain remains to be seen in the future. Except for positive reportages by the domestic media and one India based media, the global media took a low level of interest on the forum; and where there were discussions, the associated controversies may have outweighed the public opinion against the conference objectives.
In fact, the “Lhasa Consensus” which is purely a political statement may have done more harm than good to Beijing’s public relations goals as consumers of international media can smartly distinguish between good and bad publicity. Ill managed publicity can boomerang on the state’s credibility which is a contradiction to its goal in building soft power. For example, the veracity of the statement is easily destroyed with negative impacts through New Zealand’s former Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker’s response to the BBC’s inquiry on his consent to the document. He responded, “I’m aware that the statement was made but I certainly haven’t signed up to it. I think a number of people who were there were a little surprised to hear about that statement…Certainly the conference that I’ve been attending has been focused on sustainable development and there were no real political themes running through it at all.” Similarly, Irish politician Pat Breen in an email response to the Irish Tibet Support Group replied, “I was asked to sign the Lhasa Consensus statement and I refused to do so.” Corroborating this statement was the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade’s response which stated “Your email was considered by the joint committee at its meeting on Wednesday 3rd September 2014. The joint committee directed me to inform you that Chairman Breen did not sign the “Lhasa Consensus”. Similarly, the Rector of University of Vienna stated that “according to Prof. [Richard] Trappl, the Lhasa consensus statement was not a discussion topic for the participants of the conference. The statement was prepared by the organizers of the conference and simply read out at the end of the conference…Prof. Trappl is not responsible for the content of the consensus statement…The consensus statement does not reflect in any way the official position of the University of Vienna.”
Being the fourth international development forum on Tibet, the central government seemingly is on a hurry to gain leverage from its forum investments beginning from 2007. The controversial “Lhasa Consensus” statement is a calculated political statement under the guise of being a statement on development in Tibet.
Development is a jargon popularly understood in terms of high GDP and infrastructure. In such a narrow understanding of the term, human well-being is sidelined in pursuit of double digit economic growth to impress the domestic constituency and international audience. While there definitely is a short term gain in such a pursuit, the long term implications of putting under the carpet today’s problems may come to haunt disadvantaged policy makers in the future. This is what is problematic in Tibet’s “development” as the local government is under a massive bad debt to the central government and today’s economic and development gains are not sustainable so long as the human welfare aspect of it is simply sidelined. The forum topics while broadly covered various topics in development studies overlooked the rights based approaches in developmental work and also the local opinion impact resulting from the state’s development programs so far. It falls short of the inclusivity standards needed for any development program to work successfully.
The “2014 Forum on the Development of Tibet, China”, jointly organized by the State Council Information Office and the People’s Government of Tibet Autonomous Region, saw participation of around 100 delegates. Titled as “The Development of Tibet: Opportunities and Alternatives” with “Sustainable Development”, “Inheritance and Protection of Tibetan Culture” and “Ecological and Environmental Protection” as sub-themes is the fourth international development forum on Tibet. The first three were held in Vienna, Rome and Athens in 2007, 2009 and 2011 respectively. Unlike the previous three forums, the current forum drew the largest number of 41 foreign delegates comprising of academics, politicians and journalists representing 31 countries. 52 Chinese participants also attended the forum.
Country wise representation of the international delegates are as follows: Austria (2), Belgium (1), Britain (2), Canada (1), Chile (1), Costa Rica(1), Czech Republic (1), Iceland (1), India (2), Ireland (2), Italy (1), France (1), Greece (2), Japan (1), Kenya (1), Malaysia (1), Mexico (1), Mongolia (1), Nepal (1), New Zealand (3), Nigeria (1), Peru (1), Poland (1), Romania (1), Russia (1), Slovenia (1), South Africa (1), Sri Lanka (1), Switzerland (1), Thailand (2), U.S. (3).
Quotes in Media
New Zealand politician rejects pro-China Tibet document, BBC, 15 August 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-china-blog-28804216
Speaking to him [Bob Parker] on his mobile phone I asked if he had indeed endorsed the statement. “Not at all,” he said. “I’m aware that the statement was made but I certainly haven’t signed up to it. I think a number of people who were there were a little surprised to hear about that statement.” “Certainly the conference that I’ve been attending has been focused on sustainable development and there were no real political themes running through it at all.”
“I came here as a New Zealander with a unique opportunity to get into Tibet and see some of these unique communities with my own eyes,” he told me. “There seems to be a good degree of openness and happiness in the communities that I’ve been to.” “But I’m not a Tibet expert, I’m not a global politician, I’m just a citizen who had a chance to come to a very special part of the world to see some of these things with my own eyes.”
“I’m not happy to be included in a document that states some very powerful political perspectives. I don’t actually think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s what I signed up to do by coming here and I will be making that point,” he said. “Having said that I’m thrilled to have come here and had a chance to look at the countryside and to meet people.”
International forum issues the ‘Lhasa Consensus’, CCTV News, 14 August 2014
“Tibet has been visibly transformed by double-digit GDP growth over two decades without a break and has entered a new stage of development”. He further affirmed: “As a result of this development, Tibet’s interaction and integration with the rest of China has deepened and its isolation from the rest of the world has decisively been ended.”
“But even if the 14thDalai Lama said if there was a solution, he would dissolve his government in exile and claimed that he was a simple monk. He had no intention of coming back, because he has spent his whole life fled, from 24 years old when he was immature, and now considered as a wise man over art of happiness and meditation. It is not doubt that he is more a political leader than a monk. He knows how to play on the emotions, which fools the world. Even the Hollywood stars think he is charismatic.”
“Many Western reports are written by enthusiasts of the Dalai Lama. …It is uncomfortable and expensive to have their prejudice challenged.”
Lord Neil Davidson
“We have twelve guidelines. Every man who is deciding or in the deciding level has to deal with the guidelines. He has to think the environment protection and all these decisions and to fulfill these guidelines,” said Peter Wittmann, member of Austrian National Council.
“For Tibet, the religious system first of all, the various habits of population, but also the costumes and the architecture, I think due its unique landscape, and its altitude. Tibetan architecture is a really great contribution to the world cultural heritage. I know that there are seven UNESCO cultural heritages from Tibet. Maybe there should be even more,” said Richard Trappl, Director of Confucius Institute, University of Vienna.
British and Westerners’ “Shangri-la complex” stymies rational perception of Tibet, 13 August 2014, rightways-tan1.blogspot.in ,
“It’s very clear that the investment that has been put into Tibet has raised the standards of living of people here quite remarkably.” I was hearing about the doubling, more or less, of the longevity of the population. These are remarkable accomplishments achieved in a very short time.”
The Independent, Labour peer under fire for ‘cynical’ praise of China’s work in Tibet, 15 August 2014
“Despite the British invasion of Tibet in 1904, the West did not have the opportunity to understand Tibet,” Alessandra Spalletta, China news editor of the Italian news agency AGI, spoke at the forum. “They started amystification of Tibet while building the mythology of ‘Shangri-la.'” … “Western people are fond of their own images of Tibet,” she said, “rather than the real Tibet.”
The notion of Shangri-la, created by the Westerners, has been utilized by separatists for splitting Tibet from China… “Romanticization (of Tibet) is a part of the Dalai Lama’s campaign for separatism,” said Narasimhan Ram, chair of Kasturi & Son Limited and publisher of the Indian newspaper Hindu.
Matevz Raskovic, a board member of the Confucius Institute, the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, told Xinhuathat some Western media’s skewed depiction of Tibet that has reinforced the “Shangri-la complex” hinders and limits rational understanding of Tibet.
“When you look at Tibet the way some Westerners perceive it, it always goes to religious issues,” he said. “It should be responsibility of journalists to expose other faces of Tibet, such as tourism opportunities and cohabitation of diverse cultures.” – Xinhua
“Japan has experienced setbacks in balancing industrial development and environmental protection after World War II. I do not want to see such a beautiful place as Tibet take that detour,” Shoichi said. “Tibet has rich minerals underground. The cheap labor and modern transportation system here are attractive to foreign companies. But the industries must be run in proper ways with effective supervision,” said keynote speaker Pat Breen, chairman of the Joint Committee of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Irish Parliament.
Tibet Development Forum Wraps Up in Lhasa, People’s Daily Online, 13 August 2014, chinatibet.people.com.cn
Otto Kolbl, researcher at the University of Lausanne of Switzerland, said following thorough discussing delegates on his panel agreed the local people should be put at the center of economic and ecological development in Tibet.
Responses from concerned individuals and third parties
Pat Breen’s email reply to TSG-Ireland’s email inquiry dated 18 August 2014 on his position on the Lhasa Consensus statement
XXX, [Name withheld]
Thank for your email. I was asked to sign the Lhasa Consensus statement and I refused to do so.
I trust this this clarifies the position for you.
Sent from my iPhone
Pat Breen TD
Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade’s email reply dated 10 September 2014 to XXX’s inquiry to the Committee Chairman
Brian Hickey, Clerk to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, letter states:
“Your email was considered by the joint committee at its meeting on Wednesday 3rd September 2014. The joint committee directed me to inform you that Chairman Breen did not sign the “Lhasa Consensus”.
Rector of University of Vienna’s reply dated 29 August 2014 to TSG Austria’s inquiry.
The Rector of the University of Vienna has stated the following:
– that according to Prof. Trappl, the Lhasa consensus statement was not a discussion topic for the participants of the conference. The statement was prepared by the organizers of the conference and simply read out at the end of the conference.
– Prof. Trappl is not responsible for the content of the consensus statement.
– The consensus statement does not reflect in any way the official position of the University of Vienna.
Prof. Trappl is the head of the Confucius Institute in Vienna.
The head of the Social Democrats in Austrian Parliament had this to say:
The Social Democratic Party in Austrian Parliament has neither financed nor officially sent any of its Members of Parliament to the conference in Lhasa.
Tenzin Norgay is a senior fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here does not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.