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Nicolas Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama

Increasing tension between EU and China

By Joffre Agnes

On 6th December, President Nicolas Sarkozy met the Dalai Lama in Poland while he was running the presidency of the EU and as a result attracted the wrath of Beijing. The tension raised so high that China boycotted the EU-China annual summit planned in Lyon. A rare breach of diplomatic manners: but why did it prompt such a strong reaction?


Demonstration during the Olympic Torch relay in Paris
Demonstration during the Olympic Torch relay in Paris
Yet, Gordon Brown, George Bush, Angela Merckel and so on have all met Tibet's spiritual guide, without hurting Beijing’s extreme sensibility. In fact, since the Olympics Games, western countries seem to be filled with remorse regarding Tibet. Malicious gossip would say that they are trying to ease their conscience about human rights, once again, but won’t do anything concrete about it. And this seems to be the sticky point. Hypocrisy or just waste of effort? The thing is China is still self-confident, imperious and as strong-minded to keep Tibet under its control and this has been true since the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368).

However, the effectiveness of the meeting between Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama for the autonomy of Tibet is not the main point here. The question is about China’s reaction. Why are they so mad at President Sarkozy? 10 years ago his predecessor Jacques Chirac invited the Dalai Lama at the Elysée to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The symbolic impact was far stronger, and yet Beijing didn’t budge that much. So why is China choosing to make such a fuss now?

Anti-French boycott
Anti-French boycott

First of all, it’s important to understand that French and Chinese relations are at an all time low. Nicolas Sarkozy had strongly criticised China’s violent handlings of demonstrations in Lhasa in March. He had questionned France’s participation in the Olympic Games. Then came the incident in Paris with the Olympic flame. We can safely say that France is clearly in China’s firing line. One can of course remember the boycott of French brands and the demonstrations against France that took place in China.

This time however Nicolas Sarkozy was not only representing France he was also representing the EU. In is fair to say that the EU-China relations were not the best before that… In fact, on 23rd October, the European Parliament had decided to award the jailed Chinese dissident Hu Jia the Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thoughts. More recently the Dalai Lama made a speech in front of the same European Parliament on 4th December pleading for Tibet’s political autonomy and denouncing Beijing as “a capitalist and dictatorial regime” which flouts human rights and uses propaganda. Shortly before, the Dalai Lama was  touring Europe and was received by Angela Merckel, Gordon Brown and many other leaders. This was in no way going to improve the EU-China relations.


Dalai Lama at the EU Parliament
Dalai Lama at the EU Parliament
Sanctions came immediately. China pulled out of the EU-China summit with less than a week’s notice. Later, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao refused to meet François Fillon to sign commercial contracts which had been previously agreed. Other economical threats have been made but no contracts have been cancelled as yet (only delayed) and no boycotts of French brands in China have been promoted. Nevertheless, Chinese websites and newspapers are filled with insults about France and Nicolas Sarkozy. EU and China were meant to discuss the economical crisis but this is not likely to be taking place until the deadlock is over. Beijing waits for a sign from Paris, and Paris is not about to apologize…

According to Jean-Vincent Brisset, China specialist, Beijing’s reaction is not only due to vexation. He thinks that China is acting out of self-interest and that the meeting between Nicolas Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama was only a pretext. But why is France being singled out? China means to weaken the EU. Since it considers France as its weakest link it seems fair to start there. In fact, France keeps on changing its mind about the behaviour it should adopt towards China. The Olympic Games are a perfect example. Nicolas Sarkozy first criticised China about Human Rights but finally apologized and came to the opening ceremony. Angela Merckel and Gordon Brown stayed determined and didn’t go. In the same way, French government apologized profusely for the incidents in Paris with the Olympic flame whereas it was clearly not its fault. Acting in this way only increases Beijing’s contempt since China only respects force and determination. Therefore France seems easy to weaken. By boycotting the EU-China summit and attacking France, Beijing tests the EU cohesion and strength.  Let’s not forget that the EU is one of its main economical and political rivals.


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