Free Tibet From What?

What is it that the Students for a free Tibet (SFT), an activity being run in Atlantic College; want Tibet to be free from? If the answer is China, then SFT should certainly stop and think about what it is they are demanding. If it isn’t China, then they should make there goals and aims clearer, and perhaps stop walking around campus with ambiguous, easily misunderstood, statements like ‘Free Tibet’ on their armbands.

Halfway through the 20th century China was a poverty-stricken land, laid waste by decades of civil war, occupied and sacked by Japanese militarism and subject to the machinations of the imperialist powers.

Warlords and feudal despots exercised untrammelled power in their fiefdoms while religious tyranny was widespread. This applied to Tibet as much as the rest of China.

Now, however, for all the mistakes of the Chinese government, China stands someway up a huge mountain of modernisation; in front of them is where they are headed, and behind them where they have come from. The successes of their policies have been tangible, with huge improvements in living standards.

Nowhere is this truer than in Tibet, where the abolition of slavery and serfdom liberated the mass of the people, prompting the landowners and feudal lords to resort to force of arms in the 1950s to halt social progress and revert to the old pre-revolutionary regime.

Their comprehensive defeat in 1959 was a prelude to raising Tibetan educational, health and living standards. Last year’s opening of the Qinghai-Lhasa railway on the roof of the world was a major step forward for Tibet’s economic and cultural development, enhancing links with the rest of China. SFT claim the only purpose of the building this multi-million-pound railway was to assist with migration to and from Tibet, helping them to ‘erode Tibetan culture’. Whilst it is true that the railways have helped with migration, the reality that no more than 5 per cent of Tibet’s population is either Han Chinese or from any other of China’s 56 national minorities gives the lie to claims of ethnic swamping or dilution of Tibet’s cultural essence. Additionally, SFT fails to recognise that increased accessibility is a positive thing. Every nation strives towards the improvement of domestic infrastructure and increased accessibility to rural areas: A mobile labour force leads to a productive labour force, and a productive labour force leads to improved standards of living.

I am aware, however, that the Chinese government is no saint. However, we westerners should be aware of our hypocrisy. There should, of course, be a global movement to end capital punishment, in China as well as America. There should, of course, be a global movement to end torture, in China as well as America. There should, of course, be a global movement to protect minority languages and cultures, in China as well as Britain and Spain.

It irritates me when I see westerners campaigning to boycott the Olympic Games. I ask myself, why are they not also campaigning to boycott London 2012 Olympics? The UN, along with most in this college, would agree that the most sacred human right is the right to life. China’s economic progress has ended the mass starvation that so recently engulfed the country on a regular basis.

Those who lecture China on human rights, especially from the US and Britain, should perhaps, in light of the illegal invasion of Iraq, which has brought about more than a million deaths, ponder the relationship between stones and glass houses.

Alex Michie (AC 06-08)

– UWC Student Magazine –






One thought on “Free Tibet From What?

  1. “A lie repeated a hundred times becomes the truth.”
    -Chairman Mao

    While I appreciate the critical and thoughtful voice and analysis of the situation, not to mention the opportunity for a catchy headline, the basic claim that Tibetans somehow defaulted their right to sovereignty and self-determination due to the state of their society can never hold water in my book. Also, SFT is not advocating a boycott of the games, only of the opening ceremony and asking for the torch to not be brought through Tibet, considering recent events.

    But back to your post – here is a great article that addresses Parenti’s article and all of your derivative points, by longtime Tibet supporter and former SFT board member Josh Schrei: “A Lie Repeated – The Far Left’s Flawed History of Tibet”

    See, we don’t just wave flags and take irrational stances, we think, discuss and learn, and publicly share this knowledge with our student chapters.

    This page also has a wealth of information on Myths vs Facts of Tibetan history, both pre and post-occupation:

    “Old Tibet was a backwards, feudal society and the Dalai Lama was an evil slaveholder”

    Beijing (as well as sympathetic Western scholars such as Michael Parenti, Tom Grunfeld and Anna Louise Strong) asserts that “pre-liberation” Tibet was a medieval, oppressive society consisting of “landowners, serfs and slaves.” Tashi Rabgay, a Tibetan scholar at Harvard, points out that these three alleged social classes are arbitrary and revisionist classifications that have no basis in reality. There were indeed indentured farmers in old Tibet. There were also merchants, nomads, traders, non-indentured farmers, hunters, bandits, monks, nuns, musicians, aristocrats and artists. Tibetan society was a vast, multifaceted affair, as real societies tend to be. To try to reduce it to three base experiences (and non-representative experiences at that) is to engage in the worst kind of revisionism.

    No country is perfect and many Tibetans (including the Dalai Lama) admit that old Tibet had its flaws and inequities (setting aside whether things are better under Chinese occupation). But taking every real or imagined shortcoming that happened in a country over a 600-year period and labeling it the “way it was” is hardly legitimate history. Any society seen through this blurry lens would come up short. And in many ways, such as the elimination of the death penalty, Tibet was perhaps ahead of its time. The young 14th Dalai Lama had begun to promote land reform laws and other improvements, but China’s take-over halted these advances. It is instructive to note that today the Tibetan government-in-exile is a democracy while China and Tibet are under communist dictatorship.

    The crucial subtext of Beijing’s condemnation of Tibet’s “feudal” past is a classic colonialist argument that the target’s alleged backwardness serves as a justification for invasion and occupation. These are the politics of the colonist, in which the “native” is dehumanized, robbed of agency, and debased in order to make occupation more palatable or even necessary and “civilizing.” China has no more right to occupy a “backward” Tibet than Britain had to carry the “white man’s burden” in India or Hong Kong.

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