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What Does "Free Tibet" Mean for You?

category eastern asia | imperialism / war | feature author Friday March 28, 2008 19:45author by Laure Akaiauthor email akai47 at gmail dot com Report this post to the editors

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.

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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 existence of "causes célèbres" which are given both support by famous and powerful persons and disproportionate media attention (when compared to other analagous struggles). Causes célèbres 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 célèbre.

Causes célèbres 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 many of which even have equal atrocities on their account. Members of the American political establishment are quick 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 the 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, led 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 Tibetan society played no role when the CIA supported the Tibetan 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 that 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 célèbre, thousands of people interested in peace and social justice around the world 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 lens 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 lens 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 is thus 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 chattels, although their countries have achieved national independence. The chains of one ruling class were simply exchanged 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.


Laure Akai

Article written for Anarkismo.net

author by Ben Starostapublication date Wed Apr 02, 2008 12:28author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Thank you for the interest article.
I would like to add what the Free Tibet Movement means to me within the United States.

As a citizen of the U.S., and living in a college town, I have frequently seen stickers on cars and patches on tote bags spreading the message "Free Tibet." Outside my state's capital building, during the weekly farmers' market, I have seen demonstrators urging people to join them in the movement to "Free Tibet." To me, this position is rather pointless.

While it is good to know what is going on outside of one's country, I find it foolish to believe that one is going to change a political situation on the other side of the globe from them, by informing others of it in their hometown. What can citizens of the U.S. do to incite change in Tibet? If one believes so strongly in the cause, they should go to that nation, and try to really accomplish something. I is just not possible to help the citizens of Tibet by waving a sign in some town in the middle of the United States.

My main argument is that there are plenty of issues that all these people in the U.S. could be demonstrating about in which they could actually make changes. People could be protesting to end the U.S.' imperialist conquests. They could protest about a lack of health care for the poor in their county. They could protest about poor working conditions in the U.S., or he bills passed by the U.S., which cause poverty in other nations, such as NAFTA. It just makes sense that these people should be talking about an issue that they can actually help to change, one that citizens can pressure their politicians to change.

Noam Chomsky once suggested that it is cowardly to criticize a government's policy from outside that nation. His point was that change comes from within. Criticizing from outside is rarely beneficial. The people who are part of the "Free Tibet" movement in the U.S. should do something about it in the actual country of Tibet, or pick up a cause within the U.S. that they can help to actually bring about change in.

author by Waynepublication date Thu Apr 03, 2008 07:23author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I have no problem with people carrying bags saying, Free Tibet! There is nothing wrong with expressing solidarity with the people of Tibet against their oppressors. A certain amount of international public opinion expressed in support of the Tibetans right now may perhaps put some pressure on the Chinese rulers.

But as the article says, the nationalism of the Tibetans, while understandable, is no solution--as was expressed in the attacks on Han Chinese in Tibet. An example of the problem can be seen by looking at the Chinese. Their nationalism is based on centuries of oppression of Chinak, but now it is used by the ruling bureaucracy to whip up anti-Tibetan sentiment. It is being used to support national oppression of other peoples (Tibetans, Taiwanese).

However, the main point raised by the comment is correct. It is our primary job to oppose U.S. and Western imperialism and its wars ( as in Iraq or Afghanistan). This is both because we (the writers) live in North America and Western countries--the states claim to act in our name--and also because the U.S., and then the other Western powers, are the main imperialist powers, dominating the world.

author by Cloudpublication date Wed Apr 09, 2008 13:13author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I agree with this article completely. I disagree with one of commentators: I believe that individuals can incite change, and one should NEVER feel that they should keep silent because they are just "one" individual" and what can "one individual" possibly do? If everyone thought that way- what change would ever come around?

On the other hand, I feel like many attach themselves to the Free Tibet campaign in order to glorify (or delude) themselves as "true activists", and to be part of a second "civil rights" movement- relive some sort of hippie fantasy. Other human rights violations around the world are not less important in my eyes. Where are the protests for those atrocities? Why protest for a Free Tibet now? Why not year round? Why not fly thousands of protesters straight to China and protest in Beijing? Grabbing at the Olympic Torch and snuffing it out is not going to change China's policies. And as Americans, what about the impoverished and underprivileged people of this country? Thousands of homeless people walk the streets of San Francisco- are they less deserving t of support than Tibetans because they're perceived as druggies, crazies, and alcoholics? Should Tibetans who are perceived as wise, religious, peaceful nomads and sheepherders have more rights than other oppressed ethnic minorities in other countries? Or are human rights only touted for those who prove themselves to be deserving?

Yesterday, one of the SF golden gate climbers was interviewed, when asked why he was protesting, his answer was that he wanted to reveal China's true motives behind the Olmypics, which is to tout itself as a major player in the global arena, despite its human rights violation.
Can China's motives be anything but obvious? Of course the Olympics is a chance for China to parade herself on the global stage. I certainly don't need a guy hanging from a cable to tell me that.

And what will Tibet become if liberated? Another puppet of American democracy like Iraq? (and we can see how that's going-who different topic there!)

I guess the question I would like to ask is Why Tibet?, Why now?, Why not others?

author by Laurie Qualepublication date Wed Apr 16, 2008 08:31author address author phone Report this post to the editors

For those who feel people are "jumping on the bandwagon" -I'm all for it. I've been aware of the Tibetan struggle for many years and finally to see others interested, talking about it and information actually being given on the news and in the papers is a miracle. Over Six millions Tibetans have been killed. That is Genocide. History just repeats and repeats.
As far as the Olympics go, you lay down with the devil, and what do you expect? Really?Did people think this was going to go off without a hitch and be peaceful. I truly feel for the athltes, and am torn for my feeling about them -but there are so many Tibetans living in forced exile who just want to see a home they have only heard and dreamed about. I'm not sure we can imagine what that truly feels like. The major players of the world have stood by for years, and done nothing to help Tibet -just as they have stood by with Darfur, and so many other places "that don't matter". We can only pray that someone will do more than stand by. I pray one day Tibetans will go home to a place that actually does not have an amusement park and mall next to the Potala Palace, one of the holiest sites in the country. If that doesn't open your eyes to how the Chinese government really feels and respects His Holiness and the people of Tibet, I don't know what else to write.

author by Henry Starpublication date Sat Aug 23, 2008 12:00author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The Chinese capitalist state is a pretty oppressive state: working people to death in sweatshops, throwing communists in jail for passing out leaflets, and so on, but Tibet is probably the worst example to use. Actually, Tibetans are exempt from the two-children limit; are the only religious group allowed to keep their religion and join the CP. Their own language is a compulsory subject in school.

It's probably best not to base your criteria for what constitutes national liberation from the likes of the CIA and Nazi authors like your man who wrote Seven Years..., just a thought.

 
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