Beijing’s ‘internal affairs’


HONG KONG — Ever since the 1950s, China has subscribed to the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries, which was first written into a treaty that it signed with India in 1954. China has loudly upheld this principle and criticized those who, in Beijing’s view, interfere in its internal affairs, including those who comment on its human rights record.

During this period, however, China has by no means lived up to its own standards. In the Maoist era, for example, Beijing supported world revolution and called constantly for the downfall of “American imperialism” and its “running dogs.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, China supported insurgent movements in Southeast Asia. Even as the Chinese government was pledging eternal friendship to governments with which it had forged diplomatic relations, the Chinese Communist Party was covertly supporting underground movements intent upon overthrowing those same governments. It was not until the 1980s that such blatant interference in other countries’ internal affairs finally ceased.

With the recent rise of Chinese economic power, Beijing appears to have widened its definition of what constitutes its internal affairs. Indeed, its definition of Chinese internal affairs increasingly seems to overlap with other countries’ definitions of their internal affairs.

For example, Beijing calls on leaders of other countries not to meet with the Dalai Lama, whom it accuses of being a splittist, intent on separating Tibet from China. Last year, it canceled a summit meeting with the European Union because French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who then held the rotating presidency of the EU, insisted on meeting with the Nobel laureate. Sarkozy asserted his right to meet whomever he wanted: “It’s not for China to fix my agenda, or to dictate my meetings.”

The Chinese position seems to be that any government that accords any recognition to the exiled Tibetan leader is interfering in China’s internal affairs.

This Chinese position extends beyond visits with government leaders. Beijing doesn’t want foreign governments to issue visas to the Dalai Lama, even though the right to issue visas is intrinsic to a country’s sovereignty.

Governments ordinarily issue or withhold visas according to their own interests, not those of others. Incurring China’s displeasure incurs certain costs.

Last month, for example, China rejected a requested port call in Hong Kong by Japan’s navy. The official China Daily cited visits to Japan by the Dalai Lama and Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer as reasons for turning down the request.

The number of individuals whom the Chinese government wishes other countries to boycott has also increased. Beijing used to focus on Taiwan, warning all countries with which it has diplomatic relations not to receive senior officials from Taiwan. Visas for China’s critics have also come under Beijing’s scrutiny.

Last week China tried to prevent the environmental activist Dai Qing and the writer Bei Ling from visiting Germany to take part in a symposium leading up to the Frankfurt Book Fair. When the two showed up for the forum Saturday, the entire Chinese delegation walked out in protest. China is this year’s guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair.The United States, of course, has been a major Chinese target. Former President George W. Bush met repeatedly with the Dalai Lama and, in 2007, was present when the Tibetan received the Congressional Gold Medal.

In recent months, Australia has borne the brunt of Chinese ire, largely because it allowed Rebiya Kadeer to visit while the Melbourne film festival screened a documentary about the exiled Uighur leader. The screening went ahead even though a Chinese diplomat telephoned the festival’s director demanding that the film be dropped. Some Australians saw this as interference in their country’s domestic affairs.

Canada was told recently that it was back in China’s good graces. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said in June that the key to success was “not to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs,” which was taken to mean an end to criticism of China’s human rights practices.

The Dalai Lama is visiting the U.S. next month and President Barack Obama sent representatives to Dharmasala to discuss the possibility of a presidential audience. It was decided that Obama will not meet the Tibetan leader this time, apparently because Washington wants to ensure the success of his visit to China in November.

In the end, just as China decides whatconstitutes its internal affairs, other countries will have to decide where China’s domestic affairs end and their own internal affairs begin.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator (