Something I wrote about Tibet.
What Does "Free Tibet" Mean for You?
The struggle to be free is one that is commendable and deserves our sympathy. At this time when the state is committing brutal violence against a people, solidarity and action is needed and in fact, around the world well-wishers have expressed their outrage at the situation in Tibet. Protest movements have been calling for "an end to cultural imperalism", "freedom", even for "crushing the oppressor" and are united in such slogans and demands. Yet what if Tibet were to gain independence from China?
The question of national liberation is a complicated one. Discrimination, destruction of culture and community are forms of repression which are often seen in the contest of nation against nation instead of in the context of the ruling classes against the subjugated. Thus national liberation movements of all kinds tend to create the illusion of a mass common interest against an oppressor which is always external. "Self-determination" is too often a slogan which really means establishing the right of the elites of a given nation to exert power and influence, both economic and political, over those who would be subjects of a new nation state.
It is no coincidence that the "struggle to be free" is supported selectively. Individuals or larger groups of society may give precedence to one struggle over another for various reasons and in Europe and North America one can observe the existance of "cause celebres" which are given both support by famous and powerful persons and disproportionate media attention (when compared to other analagous struggles). Cause celebres are able to attract and mobilize people, gather ardent supporters for the cause. But not all social struggles or even human tragedy can qualify as a cause celebre.
Cause celebres are easily mobilized around those national liberation movements which are also (not coincidentally) related to establishing independence from the superstates created by so-called "communist nations". The brutal totalitarian nature of such states are joyously exposed with indignation by countries which many even have equal atrocities on their account. Members of the American political establishment are fast to condemn human rights conditions in China and some even call for a boycott of the Olympics similar to that held in 1980 while Americans continue to kill civilians in wars for oil, support right-wing murderous paramilitaries, execute prisoners and financially support slave-like working conditions in factories around the world producing goods for American consumers. Few "concerned citizens of the world" were whipped into such a frenzy to demand a boycott of Olympic games in the US.
This is not to say that a reaction to the situation in Tibet is undue. Quite the contrary. However I would like to pose a few questions for consideration.
The Tibetan situation is treated by many with, quite justifiably, a sense of urgency. In my city, at least three pickets have been held in the past week with large crowds in attendance and throughout the country, people mobilized instantly. We are being passionately implored to boycott the firm that is producing Olympic uniforms, to go to the Chinese embassy, to boycott Chinese goods and anybody who has been less than enthusiastic about this may be told they are supporting genoicide. By comparison, many recent events have gone largely ignored in these parts, for example recent Turkish military actions against Kurds or, even more tragically, the ongoing and outrageous situation in Congo. How is it that over 5 million people have been killed in Congo over the last ten years and the great local activist masses have stayed passive, if not totally ignorant of the situation?
The answer is complex, and, unfortunately not very convenient. Tibetans can be easily portrayed as the ultimate victims. As some internet commentor argued, Tibetans are more deserving of our support (than Kurds) because they haven't been violent. I was asked "how many people have they killed" (in comparison to Kurds).
I don't think any historians are in a position to give an answer to this question. During the CIA-sponsored Tibetan resistance, surely tens of thousands of Chinese were killed, but supporters of the Tibet cause would argue that this was merely self-defense. Currently some Tibetans have also taken part in random ethnic violence (in fact pogroms) which also tends to be justified by supporters of the cause as an appropriate reaction to Chinese settlement in Tibet. These types of episodes, if known at all, are easily juxtaposed by the dominant images of Buddhist monks, lead by the Dalai Lama, as men of peace, a noble opposition to the violent and barbaric Chinese.
The creation of such images of peaceful happy Tibetans is probably the result of a long-term PR campaign boosted by naive believers and well-wishers as well as government-sponsored propaganda. Few people care to know about the realities of the feudal system which existed in Tibet up until the second half of the twentieth century, nor do they wish to view "his holiness" the Dalai Lama as a human deity who lived in a huge palace upkept and served by serf labour, a person whose prime interest was to maintain social servility and Tibetan elites. The social composition of of Tibetan society played no role when the CIA supported the Tibet resistance; its support was absent when it needed China as an ally and came when its political priority became "fighting the spread of communism".
The campaign to free Tibet which sprung up in the 1980s was largely kickstarted through help from the CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy. With such backing it had a good start to build grassroots movements and student groups which would later give it complete activist legitimacy. The Tibetans were a perfect subject which could be presented as the ideal victims: peace-loving, religious, wise, living in Shangri-La and viciously oppressed by the world's worst human rights abusers. Celebrity Buddhists and New-Agers helped segue this issue into the mainstream. Thus gaining its legitimacy through the mainstream media and having become a cause celebre, thousands of people around the world interested in peace and social justice have taken up the cause. Some may envision the development of some sort of bourgeois civil society after Tibetan is free, while others maintain some idolized vision of spiritual Tibet and appear at pickets donning orange robes and carrying portraits of the Dalai Lama. And while this cause is picked up by the thousands, hundreds of equally urgent struggles remain unknown or are dismissed as the actors in these struggles fail to present themselves as the perfect victims. They may have been defined and portrayed to the world through the lense of the capitalist-dominated press or otherwise did not inspire enough empathy to mobilize support.
The struggle for a "Free Tibet" may begin with a struggle against the Chinese police state - but it certainly does not end there. Self-determination is usually a code word for national determination, but real self-determination begins with self-management.
Can the movement in Tibet be transformed from a national liberation struggle into a social revolution? We have no evidence of such revolutionary tendencies although the information we receive tends to be filtered through the ideological lense of the liberal establishment. Recent experience has tended to show that people can throw off the yoke of a totalitarian communist state but without experience in grassroots self-organization and operating largely in a vacuum, such countries can develop into more-or-less democratic market economies run by economic elites, or they can develop into autocracies or rather undemocratic regimes such as one finds in parts of Central Asia.
The struggle for freedom in Tibet thus is not just a struggle against the Chinese state, but also a struggle against all the powers which would enslave the average Tibetan upon gaining nominal independence. The feudal order represented by the monks, the Dalai Lama and the children of the merchant class in exile cannot be allowed to take root again in that country.
One may be quick to point out that feudalism is not likely to be restored in Tibet but this does not mean that similar conditions cannot arise under different socio-economic regimes. Many workers find themselves in indentured servitude even in Western Europe, the US or the Gulf States where such an economic system does not technically exist. In factories throughout Asia, workers are treated as chattel, although their countries have achieved national independence. The chains of one ruling class where simply exchange for those of another, the form of slavery merely modified.
"Free Tibet" cannot be reduced to religious freedom, freedom to associate in non-threatening civic organizations or other freedoms which are normally the rewards of democratic independence movements. Of course one cannot justify repression of such freedoms; even a critic of clericalism can condemn repression on the grounds of religious conviction and understand the impulse to fight against this. Yet all of these freedoms do not amount to a society where there is true popular control, where workers and communities cooperate to create social equity and where the financial and political elites are divested of their power, their means of exploiting and controlling people. This vision of "Free Tibet" is inspiring but, unfortunately one that is still lacking in the popular imagination.