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.
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.
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.
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.