Turning to Tibet

It's not often that I find myself compelled to write about political subjects, given that most of the time it's hard to get me to try and wrap my head around political topics and current events; but the latest wave of Tibet-related protests in London in Paris is beginning to verge into the realm of the ridiculous, with people leaping off parapets wielding fire-extinguishers or trying to smother the torch with a blanket or, presumably, just blowing really hard and hoping the flame will go out like a birthday candle. The slogan they are chanting is, for the most part, 'Free Tibet'.

How can one question the moral rectitude of the Free Tibet movement without sounding like an imperialist apologist? It should fit neatly on my ideological shelf as a self-proclaimed left-leaning liberal. In writing this I don't in any way claim to know much beyond the first thing of what the Tibet issue is all about. The problem is, I don't think most of the protesters do, either. 'Free Tibet' is a nice slogan with a nice ring to it, but as a directive it has absolutely no political reality: China is not going to partition off the Tibetan plateau and give them independence. The Chinese belief in a single unified state that must be maintained at all costs, even of violence, is an idea that dates back to the (perhaps mythological) unification in 221 BC. So what are the protesters realistically demanding of Beijing? 'Free Tibet from human right violations' makes more sense. But then why stop at Tibet? China has to reform on all sorts of human rights issues in all areas; and this is a process that will take time. Now is a good time to start; but it's not going to get done in time for the Olympics.

Beijing is giving the Tibetans what they are trying to provide to the whole country: infrastructure in the form of roads, electricity, telecommunications, and transport links to the rest of China; Tibetans don't seem to be as grateful as Beijing thinks they should be. The natural result of better connections is an influx of outsiders, internal migrant of (largely) Han Chinese from other regions. They are the owners of the homes that are being burned and shops that are being looted. The riots are thus a domestic conflict that are (very broadly) analogous to the sort of civil strife that erupted in Northern Cyprus; and the Chinese government did what all governments are supposed to do in situations such as these: try and keep the peace. The Chinese army's methods of keeping the peace are undoubtedly worth questioning, but it is easy to lose sight of the fact that this is their responsibility.

There is a great deal that can be put right in Tibet; the hold of the monasteries over the people and their faith is still strong, and this faith, both in itself and because it gives the exiled Dalai Lama hold over the region's people, make it a threat to unity and government. The problem is that an entire way of life and culture and enmeshed in this faith, and the efforts of the government in Beijing to respect and preserve this culture are clumsy at best, and ruthless at worst. Monasteries lie half-deserted; ancient scrolls are crumbling in the damp. Tibet is the problem child of the Chinese government, and the truth is probably that Beijing has a weak hold on the region, and more importantly, an even weaker understanding of what the Tibetans are unhappy about. They don't know what to do, and they don't know what's going on. Neither do the majority of the protesters.

This photo is of the interior of a temple in Tibet, taken less than two years ago.

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