China's bidding: Should South Africa issue a visa to the Dalai Lama?

South Africa's delay in issuing a visa to the Dalai Lama – scheduled to attend the 80th birthday bash of fellow Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu – has created a controversy over China's growing influence.

Bob Edme/AP
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama attends a session of meditation, at the Zenith in Toulouse, southwestern France, on Aug. 14.

In the world of diplomacy, the question of whether to allow a Nobel-Prize-winning Buddhist monk to visit one’s country is generally not controversial.

But for South Africa – which is carrying out a major state visit to China and has just signed a deal for $2.5 billion in Chinese investment in South Africa – the question of whether to allow the Dalai Lama into South Africa to participate in fellow Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations has become a matter of embarrassment. For critics of South Africa’s government, it's become a sign of South African subservience to China.

On Tuesday, South Africa’s spokesman on foreign affairs issues, Clayson Monyela, said that the South African high commission in New Delhi has begun processing the Tibetan Buddhist leader’s visa application after a lengthy delay. Mr. Monyela said that all outstanding documents required by the South African government had now been submitted.

Archbishop Tutu’s birthday bash is scheduled for early October.

China's $2.5 billion investment deal

The Dalai Lama’s visa application has stolen some of the attention from China’s $2.5 billion investment deal, signed this week by China’s Development Bank and visiting South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. Mr. Motlanthe, who is on a state visit to Beijing, said the deal showed that China’s relationship with South Africa was deepening.

The difference between the present deal and those of the past, Mr. Motlanthe told a small news conference in Beijing, is that “instead of just exporting these minerals as raw materials, there will be ... value add to create jobs on both sides."

South Africa exports about $5.5 billion of minerals each year to China, and a $2.5 billion investment in mineral refining inside South Africa would be a welcome boost for a South African economy that is struggling with chronic 25 percent unemployment, particularly among its youth. This year, China edged out both the US and Britain to become South Africa's largest trading partner.

Chinese pressure

China has been known to exert pressure on its trading partners, including even the United States, to avoid official contact with the Dalai Lama, who Beijing sees as the leader of a separatist movement in Tibet, a region that China controls. Both US Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have ignored Beijing’s protestations and met with the Dalai Lama in the White House.

President Bush’s insistence on meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader in the personal residence of the White House, in May 2001, prompted a scornful response from then Chinese Foreign Ministry representative Zhu Bangzao, who told reporters at the time, “the Dalai Lama is no ordinary religious figure. He’s a political exile engaged in separatist activities.”

While South Africa has indicated that it will now proceed with the Dalai Lama’s visa, the initial delays sparked anger from Mr. Tutu, who complained that the South African government appeared to be catering to the Chinese government, which he said is “viciously cruel to its own citizens.”

South Africa did deny a visa to the Dalai Lama once before, in the lead-up to the South African-hosted World Cup of 2010.

The prospect of another visa rejection caused a media storm in South Africa, with the Mail and Guardian’s online editor Chris Roper leading the sarcastic charge.

It's not as if we're rejecting ethics and morality entirely -- we can just adopt the ones of whichever country buys us at the highest price. Sure, there might be a few sacrifices if it's America, like having to give up polygamy and supporting Palestine. Or if it's China, we'll have to become a one-party state that's big on oppression of freedom of speech, that's run as a kleptocracy, and that treats its people as commodities in the great economy of retaining power.

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