ONE STOOD UP to Communist China; the other knuckled under. One refused to help Beijing blot out a small nation's aspirations and dignity; the other consented. One put principle above profits; the other cast principle to the wind.
The one with moxie was the Walt Disney Co. The one that blinked and meekly toed the line was the government of Nelson Mandela.
Who would have thought that an entertainment corporation could give a Nobel peace laureate a lesson in commitment and courage?
Disney executives are paid to make money. Few things matter more to the company's managers than revenue growth and business development. And nowhere does the promise of new business and higher earnings beckon more invitingly than China, where "Mickey's Corner" stores are already a success and the appetite for Disney films is immense.
But when The New York Times reported last week that Chinese officials had warned Disney not to release "Kundun," a movie about the life of the Dalai Lama, the company didn't hesitate. It promptly announced that the movie would be shown in the United States as planned, China's threats notwithstanding. "We have an agreement to distribute 'Kundun' domestically," Disney's spokesman said, "and we intend to honor it." And if the aging dictators who rule one-fifth of the human race retaliate by excluding Disney from the vast Chinese market? "We won't be dissuaded."
The Dalai Lama is spiritual leader to the Buddhist people of Tibet, whom Beijing has persecuted with unsparing cruelty. How unsparing? Mass arrests of Buddhist monks. Nuns tear-gassed in the street. Thousands of monasteries destroyed. Waves of forced deportations. The beating and jailing of children as young as 12. Tortures grotesque and horrifying. ("Two nuns in Gutsa prison," reported Amnesty International, "are said to have had first rubber balls and then electric batons forced into their vaginas.") And of course murder -- more than a million Tibetans slaughtered since 1950.
China has made it a crime even to display the Dalai Lama's photograph. No wonder Beijing is enraged that a movie is being made about him. Which makes Disney's grit -- "We won't be dissuaded" -- all the finer.
The day after Disney refused to be cowed, President Mandela rolled over. The South African Foreign Ministry announced that diplomatic relations with Taiwan would be severed in favor of ties with mainland China. South Africa thus became the latest in a long parade of countries to join Beijing's diplomatic embargo of Taiwan. The Communist regime vehemently maintains that there is but "one China" and that democratic Taiwan is little more than a renegade province. As a condition of exchanging diplomats with any government, Beijing insists that that government treat Taiwan as a pariah.
This is international apartheid, imposed by an intolerant bully on a smaller, weaker neighbor. And if any head of state should refuse to be a part of such ugliness, it is Mandela. Until last week, he had refused. "It is not easy for me to be assisted by a country," Mandela said in July, referring to Taiwan's support in his struggle against South Africa's former government, "and then, once I come to power, I say: 'I have no relations with you.' I haven't got that type of immorality."
Well, he's got it now. Pleading that the absence of diplomatic ties to China "is inconsistent with South Africa's role in international affairs," Mandela is abandoning Taiwan, leaving it more shunned and humiliated than ever. And for what? For this: to curry favor with one of the bloodiest juntas on the planet. To creep into the good graces of thugs who have sent millions of innocent Chinese to slave labor camps. To do business with the killers of Tiananmen.
Not even Nelson Mandela is willing to speak truth to Communist Chinese power.
It is bad enough that Bill Clinton toadies to the same Chinese despots he once (properly) attacked George Bush for coddling. But Clinton is dishonest and shifty; from him, no one expects moral leadership. Mandela is the world's most renowned former political prisoner, a man of honor and a moral exemplar. He above all should be a model of steadfastness, refusing to sanction injustice no matter which way the political winds blow. Wicked regimes should be resisted, not appeased -- else what was the meaning of those 27 years on Robben Island?
China resorts to tantrums and savagery to get its way, and the civilized world shrugs and indulges it. Missiles fired at Taiwan? Peaceful reformers convicted in show trials? Forced abortions on women in their last weeks of pregnancy? Buddhist nuns raped with cattle prods? Ah, well. Better not rock China's boat. Mustn't jeopardize access to that lucrative Chinese market.
No existing government has killed more people or committed more crimes against humanity than the terror state in Beijing. It, not Taiwan's freely elected leaders, should be the object of a global blockade. The Western democracies should be working day and night to liberate 1.2 billion Chinese from the Communists' stranglehold. Every form of pressure should be used to squeeze the dictators -- diplomatic, economic, political, even military.
But China's ruthless bosses are cozied up to and "engaged," not challenged or faced down. Not by the United States, not by the Europeans, not by the UN, not even by Nelson Mandela. No one is prepared to speak truth to Beijing's power, it seems, except a few brave dissidents and a handful of human-rights monitors.
And the Walt Disney Co. "We won't be dissuaded." That's the sound of statesmanship. If only our statesmen had some.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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