Elie Wiesel presses China on Tibet

Elie Wiesel has recruited 25 of his fellow Nobel laureates to sign a letter condemning the Chinese government’s “violent crackdown” on protesters in Tibet.

The letter, which was released March 20, urges the Chinese government to show restraint and calls for a resumption of talks with Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

“We protest the unwarranted campaign waged by the Chinese government against our fellow Nobel laureate, His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” the letter reads. “Contrary to the repeated claims of Chinese authorities, the Dalai Lama does not seek separation from China, but religious and cultural autonomy. This autonomy is fundamental to the preservation of the ancient Tibetan heritage.”

For nearly two weeks, China has worked to suppress reporting of the worst unrest in Tibet in decades. Protests earlier this month defying a Chinese order led to riots in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and a violent crackdown by China, which has occupied Tibet since 1951.

Wiesel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, said that he finds China’s insistence on claiming sovereignty in Tibet to be inexplicable.

“One thing is clear,” Wiesel said. “What I say to my fellow Nobel laureates, it is our duty to speak up on moral issues.”

The latest conflagration in Tibet couldn’t come at a worse time for the Chinese authorities. China’s leadership has invested massively in the success of this summer’s Beijing Olympics, which are widely viewed as a coming-out party for an emerging global power and a potent source of national pride.

Increasingly, however, China’s plans seem in danger of going off the rails.

Recent news reports have focused on Beijing’s major pollution problem, which could pose health risks to the athletes. And as the games draw closer — the opening ceremonies are Aug. 8 — China’s foreign policy and human rights record have come under increasing scrutiny, in particular its role in abetting the mass murder in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Last month, Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Spielberg backed out as an artistic adviser to the games because China was unwilling to take stronger action against Sudan. China sells military equipment to Sudan and imports from that country a significant amount of the oil required to fuel its exploding


Some have called for a boycott of the games. Wiesel has been unwilling to endorse that step — so far.

“I think this is the ultimate sanction,” Wiesel said. “It could be possible if things become more serious, rather than stop and start a dialogue with the Dalai Lama’s representatives.”

If an Olympic boycott gains any traction — Europe and the United States are on record opposing one — it almost certainly would lend a momentum boost to boycott efforts targeted at Israel, whose occupation of the Palestinian territories is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as China’s occupation of Tibet.

Wiesel rejected any such comparison.

“China does not dialogue with the Dalai Lama,” Wiesel said, adding that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “meet all the time.”

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.