World·In Depth

Dalai Lama envoy says Canada-China free trade must factor in Tibetan crisis

Tibetan rights advocates believe Justin Trudeau may have the credibility needed to get China back to the negotiating table with the Dalai Lama and his representatives.

Penpa Tsering says self-immolations, repression need to be addressed

Tibetan schoolchildren bearing photos of a self-immolation protest take part in a rally against the Chinese government in Dharmsala, India, in 2013. (The Associated Press)

The self-immolation protests of 144 mostly young Tibetans since 2009 cannot be ignored as Canada embarks on exploratory free trade talks with China, says the Dalai Lama's special representative to the United States and Canada.

"They should look at the reason why people are doing this," Penpa Tsering said in an interview from Washington.

"This is happening with a lot of younger people who see only what the Chinese government is doing right now."

Among the latest to die was 18-year-old monk Kalsang Wangdu who, according to reports, set fire to himself in China's Sichuan province in March and died from his injuries soon after.

'A strong, more stable relationship'

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, accompanied by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, announced the two countries were embarking on exploratory talks about a free trade deal that would double trade between them by 2025.

Li's visit came just three weeks after Trudeau met with him and President Xi Jinping in China.

Asked what advice he would give to Trudeau as he engages in trade talks, Tsering said Canada must negotiate on the basis of national values as well as national interest.

"You have your national interests, but also make sure your values are preserved and respected," Tsering said. "Put your national values in the forefront when you negotiate with powers like China."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduces Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at a business luncheon in Montreal. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

A role for Trudeau

One important contribution that Canada could make is getting China back to the negotiating table with the Dalai Lama and his representatives, Tsering said.

Carole Samdup, executive director of the Canada-Tibet Committee, said she believes Justin Trudeau might have the credibility on both sides to actually make that happen.

Talks between the two sides broke off in 2010 and have never resumed.

In Shanghai earlier in September, Trudeau told businessmen gathered there that "a stronger relationship makes it easier for our two countries to have regular, frank discussions" on topics including human rights.

While agreeing that such discussions are important, Samdup said they need to happen now as part of exploratory talks on free trade.

"Tibetans have no voice," Samdup said. 

"They can't speak out. They can't have a campaign. They can't have a demonstration. They can't go to the courts. We can't go there and monitor. We can't bring people here to testify before Parliament."

Exiled Tibetan nuns in Dharmsala, India, pray during a candlelit vigil in solidarity with two Tibetans who immolated themselves demanding freedom for Tibet. (The Associated Press)

Calls for impact assessment

The Canada-Tibet Committee greeted news of the exploratory talks with a news release saying the Canadian government should conduct a "full and immediate" human rights impact assessment of any free trade deal with China.

Samdup said such a process would ensure that a trade agreement respects Canada's "international treaty obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights."

"Given the systemic nature of human rights violations in Tibet today, Canada has a moral responsibility to ensure that new trade rules will not entrench existing human rights violations or derail efforts to resolve them in the future," Samdup said.

Tsering backs such a study, which he said must include an assessment of whether the Chinese government is prepared to respect the Tibetan language, culture, religion and environment.

"I think the importance of China respecting human rights for its own people and its national minorities should be mentioned in [trade deal] documents to ensure it's a holistic document and not just about the economic gains for each side," he said.

Samdup, however, said conducting a human rights assessment of Tibet that is both transparent and participatory — two fundamental features of any legitimate impact study — is essentially impossible at the moment.

A photo released by Xinhua News Agency earlier this year showing Gyaltsen Norbu, the Chinese government-appointed 11th Panchen Lama, center, accompanied by Tibetan monks at the Kalachakra ritual in China's Tibet Autonomous Region. (The Associated Press)

Situation 'very grim' in Tibet

Tsering described the situation for Tibetans in China today as "very grim." The self-immolation protests are one result of government policies to suppress Tibetan culture in China's western provinces and the Tibet Autonomous Region itself, he said.

A wave of protests against Chinese rule in those areas in 2008 resulted in the introduction of a series of repressive measures, including forced "patriotic re-education" programs for monks and nuns involved in the uprisings.

Tibetans now live under constant surveillance, which Tsering compared to East Germany at the height of the Cold War.

"Physically and mentally, you're not free to do what you want … Every minute you're being watched," he said.

China has also ramped up its colonization of Tibet by ethnic Chinese migrants to the region while exploiting its natural resources and building infrastructure mega-projects like dams with no consultation of indigenous Tibetan communities, Samdup said.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang shakes hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during their meeting in China in early September. (The Associated Press)

Economic benefits?

China's position is that its policies are working to lift Tibetans out of poverty and bring them into mainstream Chinese life.

But Samdup argues that Tibetans draw little economic benefit from Tibet's development, and she worries a trade agreement will only deepen the economic divide that now exists.

"There are two economies in Tibet — the dominant Chinese economy, and Tibetans who operate in a rural economy and provide the inputs and raw materials," she said.   

"If a trade agreement came in on top of that, it would exacerbate those inequities and entrench what's already happening there."