Monday, April 07, 2008

Why Tibet Matters

It's been almost fifty years since the 1959 invasion of Tibet by China, an act of aggression which merely formalised the sustained political, military and social pressure that an increasingly strident Communist government had been applying for several years to the isolated country. The political and religious elite fled soon thereafter, crossing into India where they were granted political asylum, setting the precedent for a stream of over 1 million Tibetan refugees over the years. However, after capturing the attention of the world for a few brief years, the Tibetan struggle for independence soon fell by the wayside, as more and more governments sought to form stronger ties with a China that was growing at a sustained pace never recorded before in world economic history. Who cared about the concerns of a small minority, whose only claim to fame was that their temporal leader was also one of the most influential figures in Buddhism, itself a religion easily relegated by the more rigid of thought to a less than serious status as the manna of a hippie fringe seeking enlightenment?

And so it may have been - for over thirty years, the world turned a blind eye as the population of ethnic Tibetans remained stagnant at just over 5 million, while the number of ethnic Han Chinese in the territory has increased several fold. The world ignored Tianenmen Square, and also the brutal suppression of protests in Lhasa in 1989. The world ignored the Chinese crackdown on Falun Dafa, as it ignores the continued arrest, torture and detention of Chinese human rights activists; the recent imprisonment of Hu Jia is only one of many such acts. In fact, not only did the world ignore these excesses, it was often complicit in them: multinational companies, including Google and Yahoo, were too eager to bend over backwards and provide sensitive information to Chinese authorities regarding political dissidents in their attempts to avoid being kicked out of an increasingly attractive market. Economics, or so it appeared, had won the battle for the world's willingness to engage with China. The manner in which Chinese support for a regime supporting genocide against its own people in Darfur has stymied international intervention over the past two years seemed to indicate that the Red Dragon had won, and nobody would quite be willing to take a stand against what is most likely going to be the hegemon of this century.

So why bother? And does it matter whether or not the world takes up the Tibetan cause?

The answer is that it does matter. In fact, it is of crucial importance that the world engages with China (and when I say China I refer to both its government and its people) if we are to influence the the world we will live in tomorrow. Globalisation is often touted as a recent phenomenon, something that really only became a reality in the latter part of the twentieth century. This is, however, only partially true - the only thing that is recent about globalisation is its democratisation, and the flexibiltiy with which both human and financial capital can now be deployed around the world. Technological advances have made it much easier for individuals to move and travel, while access to information is increasing exponentially (provided you're not sitting behind a Chinese government firewall in Shanxi or Guangzhou).

What is a much older phenomenon is what I could call the authoritarian part of globalisation, where the fates of millions were decided by decision makers in places often thousands of miles away. Jewish populations in Lithuania and Italy were condemned to gas chambers by policies agreed in Berlin; millions of Indians died of famine during World War II thanks to Winston Churchill's economic policies, while Palestinians today live in refugee camps or in ghettos in the West Bank and Ramallah thanks to the Balfour Declaration made in London. Iraq is burning today thanks to decisions made in Washington DC, and even as we speak, it is difficult to guess where Iran will be in the next few years. The impact and influence at any given time that the world's current hegemonic power has over the rest of the globe is immense and often immeasurable; just watch the fascination with which media organisations cover US Presidential elections around the world; elections in which only a few hundred million will vote to choose a leader with the greatest global impact worldwide.

And this is why Tibet matters. IR theorists have been debating whether or not America's role as the world's sole superpower, a position of preeminence that it has enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is coming to an end or not. What is not being debated is China's inexorable rise as a military and economic power; as time goes by, the extent and strength of the influence it will exert in global discussions will only increase.

And so the question we must ask ourselves is what sort of global power do we want to be active in the world over the next one hundred years? Do we want the worlds that we and our children will live in to be shadowed by the presence of a large, largely democratic state that values human rights, encourages dialogue and freedom of speech, and values the individual's right to life, liberty and property? Or will we be happy to have the greatest influence of global discourse on trade, defence and economy to be an authoritarian state, where torture in prisons continues to be an endemic issue, where arrests are sudden, unprovoked and where shrill government spokespersons are the only sources of information, where free speech does not exist, and where critical thinking is not tolerated?

So the issue of Tibet is now much more than how China chooses to engage with demonstrators in the territory. While the protests surrounding the Torture Relay are as much about the brutal crackdown on clergy and laity alike in Tibet and China's western provinces, the issues has magnified into something much less tangible, but with far greater repercussions on all of our lives. How China deals with Tibet has become part of a broader discussion of the shape and form of the world that we want to live in. Tibet is no longer an issue between two Asian countries. And if you think that Tibet is someone else's problem, you only need to look at the streets of London yesterday, where a large Chinese security detail, part of the government machinery that uses brutal methods against its population, jogged with impunity through the streets, while protestors wearing "Free Tibet" t-shirts were ordered to leave the area. Democracy is a very fragile institution, and it does not take much to descend into authoritarianism (and if you disagree with that, I'd only point you towards Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib). The question is, at what point does it become important to speak out?

So, dear reader, if you live in a country where you will not be jailed for raising your voice, for wearing your beliefs on your t-shirt, where it is legal to stand in the street and chant, "Tibet will be free", and if you are in a city through which the Torture Relay is scheduled to pass, then as a citizen of the world, as a friend to those millions who cannot wave a simple cloth without fear of detention, torture and summary execution, in solidarity with the people of a country where it is illegal to have a photograph of the Dalai Lama, go and protest. Do so nonviolently, because violence only begets violence. Go and stand in peace, in harmony and in solidarity. Go and protest the rally, not just for your Tibetan brethren, but for the millions of Chinese citizens who are currently locked up in prison for having the courage to express their views in public, for challenging their regime through peaceful protest and dialogue. Go and protest to send a message to your government and that of China's, and other authoritarian regimes like it, that the voice of millions cannot be discounted. Do not despair - it was after all the student protests of the 1980's that finally forced an economic embargo onto the apartheid regime in South Africa, which crumbled in the following decade.

Do not be silent, because that is another name for complicity. Protest, for the millions in bondage around the world. Protest, but not just for the millions in bondage around the world.

Do it for yourself, and do it for your children.


Sunny Singh said...

Thank you. The most cogent call for the cause of Tibet I have read. It needs to be read everywhere.

Revath said...

Why do you think the chinese want to control Tibet? Tibet holds the key the water resources of the future- when other glaciers have melted and joined the various seas, Tibet (China) will control the water resources of the whole south asian region. When I need water, do I ask the Dalai Lama or the chinese govt? The answer is obvious.

ray of light said...

powerful writing. thanks again for a well phrased, though provoking post.