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China, South Africa and the Dalai Lama: costs and benefits

When Nelson Mandela met the Dalai Lama, Mandela hailed his commitment to the values of “every decent human being”.

When Nelson Mandela met the Dalai Lama, Mandela hailed his commitment to the values of “every decent human being”.

by Dr Ross Anthony

The beginning of September witnessed the Dalai Lama cancelling his third consecutive trip to South Africa. As with his 2011 cancellation, the South African government never officially denied the Dalai Lama entry. Rather, they claim that he cancelled his application at the last minute. In contrast to this, the office of Tibet in Pretoria stated that they were contacted by South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation to inform them that the visa had been cancelled and that this was done in the national interest so as not to upset relations between South Africa and China.

Irrespective of the technicalities, the event will further cement public opinion, both within South Africa and beyond, that South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) is beholden to Beijing’s interests at the expense of its own historic principles. In the realpolitik of a cost-benefit analysis, the ANC is most likely not that fussed: economic and political ties with China now far outweigh the domestic South African opinions of a vocal, but ultimately minority, constituency.

Shifting allegiances
The bedrock of post-apartheid South Africa, under the leadership of the ANC, was the struggle against oppression and a commitment to democratic government. Many South Africans view the Tibetan struggle, in certain respects, as akin to the struggles in apartheid and colonial era South Africa. When Nelson Mandela met the Dalai Lama, Mandela hailed his commitment to the values of “every decent human being”.

China has long held an ambivalent attitude toward Mandela, not least because when he came to power in 1994, he did not immediately switch official recognition to mainland China (during the apartheid era, South Africa held official relations with Taiwan). Rather, he attempted to impossible: namely trying have recognition with both Taiwan and the PRC. This was anathema to Beijing and ultimately, in 1998, South Africa switched recognition to the PRC.

Since then, two key processes have cemented South African relations with Beijing. Firstly, South Africa’s foreign policy, shifted gear from an idealistic outlook which saw South Africa as defender and promoter of human rights and democracy under Mandela, to one which embraced economic pragmatism under Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. The second shift was more global in nature. Since the 2000s, China’s economic growth has been explosive, leading it to become the dominant economic player in a host of African countries, including South Africa, where it is now officially its largest trading partner. Within this context, China’s relationship with South Africa has become a top priority for the government.

A cost-benefit analysis
As is often the case with economic diplomacy, the South African government has most likely had to weigh up the costs and benefits of its decision. Does it grant the Dalai Lama a visa and placate domestic audiences who largely support him, while alienating Chinese economic and diplomatic support? Or does it alienate this constituency and placate China by granting him a visa? A key question here is: who is this domestic audience?

The ANC has been engaged in a long struggle with what it perceives as very vocal, mainly white elite, who controls the media in South Africa and who is a vocal opponent of the ANC leadership. This same constituency has demonstrated, on several occasions now, great displeasure at the government’s attempts to prevent the Dalai Lama from visiting. Many in the ANC view this media bias as distorting the actual wants and needs of the majority of the country’s voters. It is true that many of the ANC voter-base is rural and not preoccupied with geo-political events occurring outside of the country. Whether the government grants or does not grant a political figure from far-flung India a visa to come to South Africa is of little concern to rural farmers in Kwa-Zulu Natal or Mpumalanga. These populations are the bread and butter of the ANC electorate; denying the Dalai Lama a visa will have little bearing on who they will vote for in the next election.

If those are the costs– and, outside of the media furore, the costs are slight – then what are the benefits? We can only speculate. The “black box” question is what are the carrots and sticks which the Chinese government use to influence the South African government’s decisions on this issue? Potential financial deals which could be pulled off the table? A downgrading of relations? Cancelling of high level meetings? Additionally, through what channels do the Chinese lobby the South African government? It has been suggested that pressure is exerted not in official government meetings, but rather in “Party to Party” meetings, which the ANC and the Chinese Communist Party are very fond of, with reports recently emerging that China will donate financially to the construction of an ANC Party school.

Another scenario is that China exerts little to no influence at all; rather, in fear of alienating Chinese business and investments, the South African government simply errs on the side of caution and kicks the visa application into the long grass, so as not to irritate Beijing; a kind of self-censoring. Certainly, South Africa’s current engagement with Taiwan echoes this pattern: South Africa tends to steer clear of substantial economic engagement with the Taiwanese in the interests of appeasing China. China, however, has no problem with extensive economic engagement with Taiwan (and does so itself!).

Implications for China
Possibly to the South African government’s displeasure, China’s official news mouthpiece, Xinhua, ran a piece on the 5th of September proclaiming: “China voices appreciation after South Africa refuses Dalai Lama a visa”. While China might claim a minor victory in its long-standing war of attrition with the Dalai Lama, it also needs to begin addressing how its anti-Dalai Lama stance is affecting its reputation in Africa.

Many South Africans have an ambivalent attitude toward China, who is keen to counter this through the exertion of soft power within South Africa and beyond. Whenever the issue of the Dalai Lama arises, China’s reputation is damaged, as it comes across as a country keen to meddle in South African affairs (something which, at the level of international policy, China is strongly against, barring issues of Taiwan and Tibet). While the masses in South Africa may be largely indifferent to the saga, the chattering classes are most certainly not. China is keenly aware of how the media shape its perceptions in Africa, so much so that its government TV news outlet, CCTV, has set up an Africa channel with headquarters in Nairobi. The South African media will now have a field day bashing South Africa and the PRC for collusion in inhibiting the spirit of democracy.

In China’s own cost-benefit analysis, would it not help its own soft power ambitions in Africa, to simply stand back next time the Dalai Lama wants to visit?

Dr Ross Anthony is the Acting Head of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, which originally published this commentary.

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