By Tenzin Norgay*
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).
*The writer is a senior fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute.
This article was originally published on tibetpolicy.net on 18 September 2014