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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.

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The Lhasa-shaking unrest of March 2008, when thousands of Tibetans rioted and attacked the property of what they see as the privileged Han Chinese immigrants, was sparked by the local police’s assault on a small march by monks and nuns to commemorate a failed Tibetan uprising of 1959. For the Chinese rulers of Tibet, even a peaceful protest by robe-wearing religious people is an affront to the state and must be squished.

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So, yes, Tibet needs to be freed from the iron grip of Communist officials who have little respect for people’s right to speak, protest, politically organise themselves, and live their lives as they see fit.

Liberation from Western cheerleaders

Yet Tibet needs to be liberated from its cheerleaders in the West, too.

The problem with the Free Tibet lobby over here is that it hates Chinese governance of Tibet for all the wrong reasons – not so much for its authoritarianism and its denial of democratic rights, but for its modernising zeal and its temerity in trying to turn this apparently ancient, mystical land into a bustling part of the 21st-century universe.

Contemporary, hippyish Free Tibet activism is less about liberating Tibetans from authoritarian government than liberating the entity of Tibet itself – the landscape, the skyscape, the mountains – from smoggy, smelly Chinese industrialization.

So Free Tibet UK campaigns against what it calls “large-scale infrastructure projects” in Tibet, including China’s construction of the vast Gormo-Lhasa railway which means riders in Beijing can take the train all the way to the Tibetan capital. It says such projects “increase environmental pressure on Tibet’s fragile high-altitude ecosystem.”

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that some Free Tibet activists are motivated by a desire to keep Tibet in a cultural timewarp, to preserve it as a kind of permanent, unspoiled paradise in our swiftly modernising world. As the late Oxford-based anthropologist Graham E. Clarke once argued: “In the West, traditional Tibet at times is almost beatified, and becomes a spiritual emblem of all that is lost to industrial civilization.”

Many Tibetans take offense at the idea that they should live harsh, archaic lives simply because some activists in the West don’t like the idea of Tibet being propelled toward modernity.

A Tibetan worker at the China-Tibetology Research Center in Beijing told me: “It’s always the people who live most comfortably who would like Tibet to remain stuck in the Middle Ages.” In Lhasa I see numerous young Tibetans enthusiastically embracing the trappings of modernity: they drink beer, party, shop in Nike stores, ride motorbikes (but not necessarily in that order).

Speaking to Tibetans – sometimes openly in bazaars and bars, other times in whispered conversations in the corners of temples – I get the impression that they are not happy about being bossed around by Beijjing or about being patronized by Westerners. I am confident that things will improve in Tibet once Tibetans have shaken off both of these external pressures.

Brendan O’Neill, a journalist based in London, is the editor of spiked, an online publication.

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