It was evident from the very beginning that the Dalai Lama’s visit — though supposedly apolitical — would not be well received by Beijing. Forced into a corner by its mismanagement of Typhoon Morakot, the embattled administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) had no choice but to grant the spiritual leader a visa, but attempted to mitigate a backlash by hinting that Ma and the Dalai Lama would not meet and dispatching a high-level Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) representative to Beijing.
As expected, Beijing lashed out at Taiwan for allowing the visit, but it has done so in calibrated fashion to spare Ma, who remains crucial to the Chinese leadership’s unification designs. It reserved its fiercest criticism for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose local representatives issued the invitation, as well as the visitor himself.
Still, Beijing had to act. In its view, Ma could not lose face, but a slap on the wrist was still in order. It is therefore no coincidence that yesterday the organizers of the upcoming Deaflympics in Taipei announced that China confirmed it would boycott the opening ceremony.
That China would risk “hurting the feelings” of the residents of Taipei — a predominantly pro-KMT city whose mayor invested substantial political capital in the event — is a sign that the visit will not be without repercussions for Ma and the KMT.
Beijing is performing a careful balancing act. Its awareness that Morakot seriously weakened the Ma administration has compelled it to abandon its usual carpet-bombing approach to criticism and be a little more surgical. The fact that the Chinese troupe that was scheduled to perform during the ceremony will still do so is likely a sign of this.
Beijing also had to act because of its global propaganda strategy to isolate the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause. Muted, targeted criticism, with an indirect snipe at Ma through its boycott of the Deaflympics’ opening ceremony, was its only option.
While it needs Ma to remain in power and to be able to effect pro-China policies such as an economic cooperation framework agreement, Beijing is also using the Dalai Lama’s visit to remind Ma who is in charge. Consequently, Beijing will likely tell the Ma administration that while it was willing to show flexibility by not reacting too strongly to the visit, the price for this would come in the form of concessions — by Taiwan.
This development suggests that Ma is in a vicious circle. He is forced to make political decisions based not on his Cabinet’s assessment of what is best for the country, but as unavoidable concessions to activist elements such as Morakot victims, the DPP and Beijing.
It’s even worse if a president has to make a concession to mitigate the harm done by a previous concession, as could happen after Beijing seeks to cash in on its “goodwill” in not retaliating over the Dalai Lama’s visit.
When political imperatives are driven by external forces — as is the case here — a president is no longer a leader.
He’s a puppet.