10 Questions for Richard Baum

10 Questions for Richard Baum

Photo by Reed Hutchinson

A crackdown on protesters in Tibet last month triggered demonstrations in London and Paris amid the running of the Olympic torch, effectively turning this summer's sporting contest in Beijing into what some are calling the "Human Rights Games." Richard Baum, veteran Sinologist and professor of political science, talked to Staff Writer Ajay Singh about China's decades-old Tibet challenge.

This article was first published by UCLA Today Online.

By Ajay Singh

Generally, are you hot or cold on China?

Some days I wake up optimistic, some days I wake up terribly pessimistic. Right now I'm wavering — I don't like what's happening with this whole pre-Olympic political furor.

Was the West being romantically optimistic when it expected China to allow greater political liberalization and human rights in light of the Games?

After all, in 1988, with the Seoul Olympics coming, the regime there did open up and democratize. The Chinese were aware of that expectation and played into it.

What would induce Beijing to permit greater freedom?

As it feels more confident in its ability to satisfy human needs and wants, I think the government will begin to relax what you might call its pathological demand for stability and unity. Ever since the 1989 Tiananmen disturbances and the crackdown that followed, the Chinese leadership has been terrified of unrest and its potential for destroying everything they've created. So they tend to overreact to anything that smacks of political unrest.

They also can't stand perceived humiliation.

Oh, absolutely. The idea that you can publicly humiliate China and expect them to change their policy is unrealistic in the extreme, because of their sensitivity to slights, cultural and national. There's even a name for it in Chinese — the guochi syndrome, or the national humiliation syndrome.

Why is the Chinese government frustrated over Tibet?

They were over a barrel about Darfur and Myanmar when Mia Farrow called these the 'Genocide Olympics.' Then, just as they were making some headway in Myanmar and Sudan, Tibet blew up. They can't acknowledge any governance problems in Tibet. Lots of problems in China are swept under the rug. Their thinking is, if you give the Tibetans an inch, they'll take a mile.

How does Beijing view the Dalai Lama?

The Chinese are tone-deaf when it comes to the Dalai Lama. They can say all they want that he is instigating violence and terror. But the truth is that it is not him, but radical elements in the Tibetan community who are angry and impatient with Chinese rule.

How is the Dalai Lama handling the crisis?

He's caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, militants are constantly pushing him to stand up to the Chinese. On the other, his Western audience expects him to be a man of peace, meditation, reconciliation and justice. I think that's who he really is, but he can't satisfy everybody.

Some pundits say the Dalai Lama is politically naïve.

I think there is some truth to that. He has allowed himself to be used on both sides of the issue.

What's the Chinese game plan in Tibet?

They're trying to outlive the Dalai Lama — they would like him to die in exile so that they can appoint and manipulate a successor.

What do you make of a spiritual leader who heads a government in exile?

That's the problem — he's a god-king in Tibetan Buddhism. But we don't have god-kings in the secular world anymore.

Published: Tuesday, April 22, 2008