Beware of those bearing cute, cuddly gifts

Earlier this month, three giant pandas on loan at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. were crated up and loaded on a FedEx jet for a trans-Pacific flight. China had requested their return. Frequent visitors to the zoo were left weeping at their departure.

Me? I say good riddance.

Now, I have nothing against pandas. I had a toy panda as an infant and remember it fondly still. But almost all living pandas come from Tibet, which was invaded and conquered by China in 1950 and annexed in 1959. The head of the Tibetan government, the Dalai Lama, fled to India and remains head of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Upon the departure of the pandas, Chinese diplomat Xu Xueyuan said they had “contributed strongly to the mutual understanding and friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.” She might have overstated the case, but Panda Diplomacy did contribute, at least a little, to the success of China’s aim to maintain its hold on Tibet and integrate it into the rest of the nation. In 2014, President Barack Obama said that the U.S. recognized Tibet as part of China.

Obama went on to “encourage Chinese authorities to take steps to preserve the unique cultural, religious and linguistic identity of the Tibetan people.” But American encouragement had little effect on Chinese policy. A U.S. Department of State report issued in 2022 found “significant human rights issues” in Tibet including “torture,” “extrajudicial killings by the government,” “severe restrictions on freedom of religion,” “coerced abortion” and “violence or threats of violence targeting Indigenous persons.”

Schools are eliminating the teaching of Tibetan culture and history. Reports indicate over three-quarters of Tibetan children have been shifted to state-run boarding schools. The Chinese government has incentivized members of the Han ethnic group, the overwhelming majority in China, to move to the Tibet Autonomous Region, about half of historic Tibet.

Oxford Languages defines colonialism as “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” It sure looks as though that’s what’s going on in Tibet. The Chinese government is following the playbook in Tibet that it uses in dealing with other ethnic minorities. However, it has not advanced as far in the TAR as it has in Xinjiang province where over a million ethnically Uyghur residents were put in concentration camps.

President Joe Biden met with Chinese President Xi on Nov. 15. Did he even mention Tibet? Almost certainly not. Our relations with China — the U.S.’s biggest trading partner and biggest military rival, and by two times the world’s biggest carbon emitter — have higher priorities. Issues of war and peace aside, the American government knows only too well that 22% of all U.S. imports come from China. In 2019, 70% of shoes purchased in the U.S. were made in China. More than 95% of Apple’s iPhones, AirPods, Macs and iPads are made in China. Going without pandas might generate tears, but Americans are not about to go around barefoot and disconnected.

What about nongovernmental left-wing protests over Chinese policy in Tibet? Anti-Israel activists justify attacks on that country because of its alleged colonialism. (The claims are false, but we’ll address that another day.) Why no protests against actual Chinese colonialism in Tibet? The far left wouldn’t be swayed because Chinese imports to the U.S. are 200 times Israel’s. It cannot be a matter of Muslim solidarity — while the Tibetans are Buddhist, Uyghurs are Muslim, and there’s not much protesting going on about them either. Is it simply a matter that Jews form the majority in Israel, but not China?

Alas, pandas are soft and fuzzy, but international affairs are not.

“Giant pandas belong to China,” Chinese diplomat Xu Xueyuan said.

No, they don’t, say I — while typing the words of this column on a Chinese-manufactured laptop.


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