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Opinion

Free Tibet from China – and the West, too

Tibet will be free once it’s shaken off the bonds of both Chinese authoriatian rule and patronizing Western pity.

By Brendan O'Neill / July 29, 2010



London

Here in the West, we often hear the rallying cry “Free Tibet!,” especially from students and latte-sipping liberals, for whom Tibet has become a personality-defining issue.

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Step on to any trendy, politicized campus in the US or Western Europe, and you’ll see at least one student wearing a “Free Tibet” T-shirt, accessorised with traditional Tibetan bangles and maybe a cloth shoulder bag made by Tibetan nomads.

Yet having recently returned from a sojourn to “Shangri-La,” as some people call it, I can confirm that Tibet needs to be freed twice over. Firstly from the authoritarian Chinese Stalinists who rule there, and who deny Tibetans basic liberties such as freedom of speech and the right to protest. And secondly from the Western “Free Tibet” lobby itself, whose shallow solidarity seems to be keeping Tibet in a pre-modern, underdeveloped state for the benefit of eco-conscious Westerners.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Somewhat appropriately, given that it is such a mountainous region, modern Tibet is stuck between a rock and a hard place – between the rock of authoritarian government, and the hard place of a patronizing Western pity, which treats Tibetans, in the stinging words of one leading Tibetologist, as “the baby seals of the human rights movement.”

When you first arrive in Tibet, you can’t help but be impressed by how much religious freedom there seems to be. Having heard activists from Free Tibet UK argue that the Chinese authorities are seeking to “wipe out Tibetan identity and culture,” I find myself pleasantly surprised, and relieved, that in fact Tibetans can go about their daily religious business largely unmolested.

My guides, two Chinese officials and one Tibetan official, take me to Jokhang Temple in the capital of Lhasa, Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest site. We watch old women in traditional Tibetan dress spin prayer wheels, young boys prostrate themselves before the Buddha on the unforgiving, bruising earth, and monks and nuns in saffron robes give potted histories of Tibetan Buddhism to wide-eyed Western tourists.

I’m handed over to a smiling, excitable monk who takes me on a fascinated guided tour of the temple, explaining its history and its mysteries in pidgin English.

Yet Tibetans’ basic right to worship Buddha, which my official guides are so keen to show off, cannot disguise the fact that they are denied other important freedoms.

They’re not allowed, for example, to put up pictures of the 14th Dalai Lama, who currently lives in exile in northern India, or to say anything positive about him. Earlier this month, a Tibetan environmentalist called Rinchen Samdrup was imprisoned for five years for posting a “pro-Dalai Lama article” on his website.

Tibetans don't have full freedom

Tibetans might be allowed to pray and to prostrate themselves to their hearts’ content – but the fact that they are forbidden from singing the praises or looking at images of the 14th Dalai Lama means they do not have full religious freedom.

They are deprived of political freedoms, too. Like other Chinese people, they have no right to set up a newspaper or magazine without state approval and they do not enjoy the right to protest, that key freedom that allows people to express their angst and aspirations and to hold their rulers to account.

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