With the summer rapidly approaching, many seniors like myself are looking forward to the freedom and responsibility coming after graduation.
But, the whole world’s eyes seem to be focused on the summer’s Olympic host, China. After an uprising in Tibet that brought the travails of a cultural minority to the forefront of the media, activists have demonstrated solidarity with Tibetans by protesting the Olympic torch as it passed through different cities. I cannot help but feel empathy with the political leaders who must now decide how they will react to the issue: take an absolute moral stand and risk offending an economically powerful ally, or say nothing and accept fiscal benefits while effectively selling your soul. In fact, my personal experience as a member of the Baha’i Faith on a modern college campus feels oddly similar to the delicate place these policymakers find themselves in.
Many political commentators and activists have pointed out that the Chinese government sees these Olympic Games as a coming-out party — its very own debut ball wherein China can show the world how modern, powerful and cultured they are. Attending the 2008 Olympics could be seen as a ratification of that idea, while the suppression of minority cultures and dissenting political voices seem to counteract the image Chinese officials want to project. President Levin recently disclosed that he has “expressed concern” about the situation in Tibet to Chinese government officials. Likewise, political leaders have embraced a variety of responses, from not attending the Olympics at all, to Gordon Brown’s compromise (he’ll only attend the closing ceremonies). The next logical step would seem to be economic sanctions.
South Africa only ended apartheid after being faced with massive divestment from its economy. Of course, we could never realistically use economic pressure to change Chinese policies; its economy is just too powerful. More importantly, I would imagine that given the intractable response met by previous attempts at pressuring China, a soft approach would seem more likely to succeed. Just as Levin points out that long-term partnerships can have impact — such as the efforts by our China Law Center to “advance the rule of law” in the countryside — the world’s governments and activist groups would be well-served by trying to form mutually beneficial partnerships that can steer and nudge policy. In any case, the option of bludgeoning them with economic and political punishments will never work.
Clearly, balance is the key. Mutually beneficial partnerships are only going to help the voiceless in China if the non-Chinese parties are willing to speak up when something is clearly amiss — as Levin did regarding Tibet. And the humility this situation forces onto Western politicians is healthy. Gone are the days when we could surgically extract political forces we disliked, or command and control the world from our capitals. To influence China, we need to be open to a true partnership, to a dialogue, just as the Chinese officials need to be receptive. Furthermore, we need to remove the planks — racial and economic inequality — from our own eye before looking for the speck of dust in China’s.
Though it might seem a strange parallel, I am very comfortable with this balance; I practice it in my daily life at Yale. As a member of the Baha’i Faith, I abstain from a lot that defines the college experience for many people: namely, alcohol and sex. Moreover, my religion espouses social beliefs that go overlooked in modern society, and even at Yale: namely, the equality of men and women and the need to eliminate all racial and religious prejudice. But I have found that I cannot survive on a campus with so few coreligionists without being comfortable with the divide between my beliefs and the world around me. Though I strive to avoid becoming sanctimonious, I often feel the need to speak when issues are unaddressed. I am a religious person aiming to change the world without imposing my beliefs on it; and with that mission, I encounter the same situations of compromise that face world leaders regarding China today.
My column, “Daft Like Dar,” has been my attempt to engender dialogue inconspicuously. My pieces are an extension of the conversations that have enriched my life at Yale, forced me to reckon with the formerly unknown and hopefully shown others a perspective and a lifestyle they hadn’t yet encountered. When I wrote about Internet neutrality, I drew on the Baha’i principle of independent investigation of the truth; my thoughts on the presidential election reflected the Baha’i admonition that partisan politics are inherently divisive. Every column began with a news item and a Baha’i principle. If these columns spoke to you, I recommend you look into both.
The approach to China and Tibet has been informed by the Baha’i principle of moderation in all things. I can only hope that the combination of sincere dialogues and an unfailing sense of moral rectitude in politicians can take its effect sooner rather than later. The world faces many challenges today; to overcome them, we must first overcome our own divisions and prejudices. As is written in Baha’i scripture, “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”
Dariush Nothaft is a senior in Saybrook College. This is his final regular column for the News.