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Expert Believes West Can Do Little to Sway China over Tibet

As the UN's top human rights body faces calls to break its silence over China's crackdown in Tibet, DW-WORLD.DE spoke to a German political expert about the protests and what action the international community can take.

Protesters gather around burning debris in the streets of Lhasa, Tibet,

China has reacted with force -- lethal in some cases -- to the protests

China appears to be ramping up its security presence in Tibet and neighboring regions, and has admitted that security forces shot four people in the southwestern Sichuan province. Beijing has also expelled all foreign journalists from the region. Werner Pfennig, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, is pessimistic about the prospects of any change happening soon.

DW-WORLD.DE: Why do you think that the protests in Tibet and neighboring regions have taken place now?

Werner Pfennig: I can only wildly speculate what the motives were of the individuals who actually took part in the protests. However, March marks the anniversary of the 1959 uprising against the Chinese army's repressive actions. It was also favorable because the People's Congress was meeting in Beijing and Tibet's leading politicians were not in Lhasa. Thirdly, the opening of Olympic Games is getting nearer and China is increasingly coming under the media spotlight. Protesters can count upon more media attention at the moment.

Can we expect that what has happened will lead to any change in politics in China?

No, if there is any change, it will be in terms of methods. The autonomous region Tibet is a fixed part of China and there is no possibility of secession from the People's Republic of China. After the police and military's "clean-up" operations, I could imagine that Beijing's strategies might change. They might buy time, hold talks and get the Olympics over and done with. But there won't be any real change of direction. Tibet will continue to be regarded as a intrinsic part of the People's Republic.

Demonstrators with banners in Switzerland

There have been demos calling for a boycott of the Olympics this summer

Order has to be restored in Tibet and neighboring regions and perhaps that will involve a renewed offer of dialog, but it won't happen overnight. A big hurdle to any dialogue will that the two parties mean something very different when they refer to Tibet. For Beijing, it's the region of Tibet with its 2.7 million people. For exile Tibetans, Tibet means Greater Tibet with a population of 6 to 7 million, which includes the areas in neighbouring Chinese regions where there are also protests.

Does the West have any scope to exercise more influence on China over Tibet?

Very little. It is good that the demonstrations being staged by committed people: NGOs, protesters with sympathy for Tibet are getting prominent coverage in the media. However, what's more important is what's taking place at the government level. The Polish government has said it will meet the Dalai Lama. The German government has called upon the two sides not to use force and to solve the problems in dialog with one another. I believe that one of the few options open to the West is to make it clear to the Chinese government that, in the long term, talks are the only way ahead and that the Dalai Lama is the appropriate person to talk to.

Why is the West's strategy against China so different than that, for example, wielded against Burma?

Burma is not China. It's a big economic power that also has many links with other parts of the world. China is needed in problem regions, North Korea, Sudan, Afghanistan. There's a long list. Burma, in contrast, has nothing to offer. Many of the women in the Burmese textile industry have lost their jobs as a result, but in Burma nothing has changed (despite some economic sanctions). Economic boycotts have very rarely worked in the past because they rely on everyone adhering to them.

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama gestures during a press meeting

The Dalai Lama has criticized the crackdown but signaled a willingness to talk

Some have called for a boycott in response to what has happened in Tibet. Do you think that there would be any point?

If there were to be a boycott of the Olympic Games, for example, that would not lead to any change in the policies of the Chinese government. And, secondly, it must be possible to communicate the sense of a boycott to those who are immediately affected by it. The Chinese people would not understand why they should now be punished because of Tibet and why they have made all of the sacrifices for the Olympic Games for nothing. I also don't think it would even be possible. The Olympic Games are a huge economic event. I do not think it would be feasible to impose a boycott against the wishes of huge media concerns and Adidas, Nike, etc.

Do you think the German government could do more?

I hope that the Chinese government should be told as often and as forcefully as possible to sit down and talk with the Dalai Lama. He is the best that they can speak to. The next generation is more impatient and prepared to use violence. The Dalai Lama is not aiming for independence, but for wide-reaching autonomy. If as many people as possible say we know him, he's trustworthy, find a way of talking to him, then that would be extremely helpful.

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