Reconsider China investments, Tibetan official urges

President in exile says Canadian trade in some sectors is harmful to Tibetans

Lobsang Sangay, president of the Central Tibetan Administration: “what we say with mining is that it has to be environmentally sustainable, culturally sensitive and economically beneficial for local Tibetans” | Chung Chow

As the Canadian public’s attitude toward China deteriorates in the fallout from the arrest of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. CFO Meng Wanzhou, Tibetans want Ottawa to take a tougher stand on human rights when talking trade with the world’s second-largest economy.

In its latest report on trade, the Canada Tibet Committee said Ottawa’s sector-specific agreements with China – in lieu of a comprehensive free-trade agreement that now seems like a pipe dream due to what some describe as a “poison pill” clause in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement – mean that more trade in several of Canada’s priority sectors could hurt Tibetans who live in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.

Trade and Human Rights in Tibet highlighted Canadian investment and trade in mining, tourism, clean technology, agriculture and communications as areas in which business can harm Tibetans’ quality of life – unless Canada adopts measures such as identifying how its trade priorities in China will affect Tibet.

Lobsang Sangay, president of the Central Tibetan Administration – Tibet’s government-in-exile since it was established in 1959 – recently visited Vancouver and reiterated the recommendations of the report, which also included ensuring environmental sustainability in sectors where Canadian capital funds Chinese projects in Tibet.

“Generally, we are not against any country engaging in diplomatic or business relationships with China,” said Sangay, now in his eighth year in his position. “We always said China should be brought in as a responsible member of the international community, and business relationships should continue. But at the same time, we should not compromise morals; I’ve seen that – once a free-trade agreement is signed, most of these countries then give China a free pass on human rights, democracy and environmental issues. And this is not the way.”

The arrest of two Canadians in China and import bans on Canadian canola, moves widely seen as Beijing’s retaliation for Meng’s arrest, have affected Canadian perceptions of China.

In March, a University of British Columbia national opinion poll found that Canadians’ views on China have soured significantly since 2017, with only 21% having a favourable view of Canada’s second-largest trading partner (compared with 67% unfavourable). The same figures were 36% and 56% just two years ago, before the Meng incident.

But the report also found that, while the “overall negativity surrounding China is significant and growing,” support for a free-trade agreement remained at 64%. Also, the report found that 32% of Canadians viewed trade and investment as Canada’s top priority in engaging China; promoting human rights, meanwhile, sits as a priority for only 17% of respondents.

Sangay said Canadians need to know the subtle ways a purchase can affect Tibetans.

He noted, for example, that as much as 70% of Chinese lithium – used in batteries – is mined in Tibet. The mining process is complex and requires chemicals, high heat and water, and pollutants from the extraction process are often handled improperly in the region, causing water, air and soil pollution.

“Canadian companies can do business in Tibet, like mining,” Sangay said. “Then the issue is, are Tibetans benefiting when Canadians engage in business in Tibet? Or is it Chinese companies or businessmen who are the primary beneficiaries? That should be dealt with. What we say with mining is that it has to be environmentally sustainable, culturally sensitive and economically beneficial for local Tibetans.”

Tibet remains one of the most politically sensitive topics in China, and Beijing has in recent years touted major infrastructure improvements in the region as improving the quality of life in the region. Projects that usually get the spotlight include the Beijing-Lhasa railroad, improved utilities services, new roads, airports, housing projects and schools.

But observers often point to the continued repression of religious freedom, and one would still be hard pressed to find a single photo of the current Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, in residents’ homes today.

Sangay added that China’s policy of trying to assimilate Tibetans includes efforts to discourage the use of the native language, among other abuses.

“No one denies the infrastructure in Tibet has improved,” Sangay said. “But then it corresponds directly with Chinese migrants coming, using the infrastructure to settle in urban areas and capture the market. In Lhasa, up to 90% of the businesses – from small shops and restaurants to taxis, hotels and travel agencies – are dominated by Chinese migrants. So the question again is, who is the primary beneficiary of this infrastructure?”

Sangay noted, however, that he has seen movements in countries like Germany, Belgium, France, Lithuania and the Czech Republic, which support a different approach to doing business with China.

He said some countries have expressed dissatisfaction with China’s human rights record. But another key driver of such discussions may be that a closer trade relationship with China has not necessarily brought these countries the wealth they expected.

“Co-prosperity was the No. 1 slogan when dealing with China, and many people wanted that,” he said. “But now some of them are not seeing the co-prosperity. A lot of the countries who trade with China end up with a trade deficit. So what is the gain we have here? They are capturing our market, and we are losing more money buying Chinese goods than selling to China.”

There have been cases in Canada and other countries in which Chinese students, citizens and others have launched backlash campaigns against Tibetan voices. In February, the election of Tibetan-Canadian Chemi Lhamo as the student president at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus sparked pro-China threats and attacks on social media.

But despite Beijing’s hardline stance toward him and his organization, Sangay said he remains open to talks with Chinese authorities on the future of Tibet and its people – with one key caveat.

“If genuine autonomy is given [to Tibetans] as per the Chinese constitution, we will not ask for separation or independence,” Sangay said. “Are we entitled to have independence? Yes. But the Chinese government has said that One China cannot be compromised. Sovereignty and territorial integrity of China cannot be negotiated. So His Holiness Dalai Lama said we will not challenge China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – provided Tibetans are given genuine autonomy within the framework of the Chinese constitution. This is a very moderate, reasonable, win-win situation.”