Human Rights Facts (59): The Dalai Lama Effect in International Human Rights Discourse

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data / economics / human rights facts / international relations / intervention / trade

dalai lama torch free tibet


I’ve complained many times before about the reticence of Western politicians when it comes to discussing the human rights record of economically powerful states such as China. There’s a manifest reluctance to say anything about human rights violations in China. Even very carefully drafted questions are out of bounds, and sometimes a simple meeting with an opposition figure such as the Dalai Lama is enough to upset the Chinese leadership. The economic opportunities in China are considered too important to risk China’s ire. And Chinese leaders artfully exploit their economic power. When faced with possible criticism – or even a possible meeting with a dissident – it threatens to end or withhold lucrative contracts and to cooperate instead with more compliant countries.

double standard

double standard

As a result, international human rights discourse is stained by legitimate accusations of double standards. Poor and economically insignificant countries feel the full brunt of criticism for the rights violations occurring in their territories. Sometimes they even suffer military intervention (perhaps in some cases deservedly) while China is able to impose a quasi-silence. That doesn’t do the cause of human rights any good, not in China and not elsewhere.

There’s an interesting study here looking at the seriousness of Chinese economic threats. The study coins the phrase “Dalai Lama effect” to describe the economic results of human rights criticism directed at China. Apparently,

Tibet's Dalai Lama in 1940

Tibet's Dalai Lama in 1940

receiving the Dalai Lama … can decrease exports to China by as much as 8.1%. … [G]overnments of autocracies exert more influence on trade flows than democratic administrations. … Since China is neither a democracy, nor a free market economy, its administration has greater capacity to impact on trading decisions than democratic governments. Given the importance Beijing’s government attaches to the containment of its political opposition, it appears that China’s administration uses its extensive influence in the economy to exploit trade flows as a foreign policy tool. However, such an economic punishment mechanism will only prevail as long as the expected political gains from stabilising the regime outweigh the losses from trade diversion. … [T]he “Dalai Lama Effect” … disappears two years after a meeting took place. … [T]his “Dalai Lama Effect” is only observed for the Hu Jintao era and not for earlier periods. This result is in line with the increased political and economic power China acquired in the world in recent years. … At first glance, it may seem odd that China would be willing to forgo the gains that arise from trade under efficient importing decisions in order to punish trading partners for political reasons. However, China’s political leadership may be willing to bear the economic and political costs that arise from diverting trade away from Dalai Lama-receiving countries if such “punishment” increases the likelihood of its political survival. (source)

There’s an interesting map here that deals with the same topic. More on human rights in China, and in particular on the role of Confucianism as a justification of human rights violations, is here.


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