FOR those who want to get a measure of the the UK Government’s approach to religious freedom in its foreign policy — and the extent to which it is willing to compromise when it sees a benefit in doing so — this is an interesting few weeks.
Last month, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, visited the UK. Next Tuesday, the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, comes to the UK on a state visit. Official responses to the two visits are a study in contrasts, and offer few reassurances to those who still hope for a foreign policy "with an ethical dimension".
The Dalai Lama is, of course, a respected and loved global figure. He has a strong commitment to interfaith agreement: he hosted a two-day event in Cambridge with Lord Williams during his visit, for instance.
The Dalai Lama probably enjoys more credibility among those not of his faith than any other religious leader in the world. As such, it was once a matter of routine for political leaders to enjoy a photo opportunity at least with him when he visited their country.
Not any more.
THE Dalai Lama is also the former political leader of the Tibetan people. The 14th in the line of Dalai Lamas, historically both political and spiritual heads of Tibet, he was the teenage ruler of Tibet when China invaded the country in 1950.
After an uneasy period of partial autonomy, Tibetans rose up in 1959, fearing that their revered leader was to be kidnapped or killed by the Chinese government.
The uprising was brutally crushed, and the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he has lived as a stateless refugee ever since.
Despite more than 50 years in exile, Tibetans inside and outside Tibet continue to be devoted to him. As a result, he is vilified by the Chinese government. His teachings and even his picture are banned throughout Tibet. Monks and nuns showing loyalty to him risk prison or "political re-education", in which they may be forced to denounce him. Monasteries have been shut in Tibet in their thousands. Today, they are forced to fly the Red Flag.
NOW that it is a great power, China’s government feels able to object in the most robust terms when foreign political leaders propose meeting the Dalai Lama.
In recent years, governments in Norway, South Africa, Germany, and France have bowed to Beijing’s will and spurned him. Although later denied by the Vatican, it was widely believed that Pope Francis felt unable to give the Dalai Lama an audience last year because of fears of reprisals for Catholics in China.
Alone among the powers, only the United States has bucked the trend of recent years: in February, the Dalai Lama participated in the annual National Prayer Breakfast hosted by President Obama.
The UK has not bucked the trend. After the private meeting between the Dalai Lama and David Cameron and Nick Clegg in 2012, the Chinese government threatened "serious consequences", saying that the meeting had "seriously interfered with China’s internal affairs, undermined China’s core interests, and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people". The message was received loud and clear in Westminster.
In 2013, Mr Cameron announced he had "no plans" to meet the Dalai Lama again, and has been true to his word, looking the other way as His Holiness came to the UK. Since 2013, he and George Osborne have both visited China. Now, President Xi comes to be honoured in the UK — where he will be hosted in Buckingham Palace by the Queen herself, the Defender of the Faith.
FAITH certainly needs defending in China. Beijing exerts control over religious appointments in every religion, not just Buddhism. The Muslim Uyghurs of north-western Xinjiang province have suffered acute repression, while beards and the observation of Ramadan have been banned in some areas.
The Falun Gong movement has been brutally put down, and China’s small Christian population is under increasing pressure. To give just one example, more than 1200 crosses were stripped from churches (News, 14 August). This year, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has, not for the first time, described China as "a country of particular concern" — diplomat-speak for serious abuse of religious freedom.
Mr Cameron has made a deliberate choice to abide by Beijing’s wishes in regard to the Dalai Lama. But giving way to Beijing is a grave error. When foreign politicians shun the Dalai Lama, they give China the right to interfere in their affairs. It also sends a message to China that, instead of engaging in dialogue to promote the peaceful resolution of the ongoing crisis in Tibet, China can continue with the repression, suppression of religious freedom, and assimilation that have caused Tibetans such deep distress, and provoked resistance and protest for many decades.
The UK has often identified religious freedom in Tibet, and across China itself, as a matter of concern. The question is: what will the Government do about it? President Obama addressed these concerns directly and publicly in the presence of President Xi during a joint press conference, when the Chinese leader visited the US just a few weeks ago. Few expect Mr Cameron to do the same. He should.
Alistair Currie is Campaigns and Media Manager at Free Tibet, which campaigns for an end to China’s occupation of Tibet and for international recognition of Tibetans’ right to freedom (www.freetibet.org).