Tibetophilia won’t set Tibet free

Western pro-Tibet campaigning is driven less by a passion for freedom, than by disgust with modernity - and a view of the Chinese as ‘subhuman’.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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An edited version of this article was first published on Comment is Free on 6 March 2008.

‘Tibet, Tibet!’ With those two words (well, one word repeated), Bjork caused a storm of controversy at her concert in Shanghai last week. The Icelandic warbler has joined a long list of celebrities, commentators and sportsmen who plan to use the platform provided by the Beijing Olympics to protest against China’s occupation of Tibet.

If Bjork’s squealing of the T-word is anything to go by, these protests will confirm what lies behind the adoption of the Tibetan cause by many in the West today: not a passion for freedom, but a distaste for modernity. Tibetophilia is driven less by solidarity with Tibetans than by disdain for the old ‘yellow peril’ – the Chinese – who are seen as too modern, too calculating and too materialistic.

The people of Tibet, like the people of China itself, should be free to determine their own destinies and affairs. They need democracy and full and unfettered freedom of speech, rather than to be controlled and ‘looked after’ by China’s authoritarian Stalinist regime (1). However, anyone who wants, truly, to see more freedom in both Tibet and China should steer clear of the celebrity-fronted, Prince Charles-endorsed pro-Tibet lobby – for, ironically, this campaign is underpinned by its own deeply patronising, borderline colonialist view of Tibetans as innocent, child-like creatures, and by a desire to preserve Tibet as a pure, green, mystical land for the benefit of wealthy Westerners disillusioned by Western modernity.

Pro-Tibet campaigners seem always to be outraged by two things in particular: China’s incessant modernisation of Tibet, and its refusal to allow the Dalai Lama to return and assume his ‘rightful’ position as Tibet’s leader.

Currently, pro-Tibet activists are particularly agitated by China’s construction of the Gormo-Lhasa railway, a spectacularly ambitious project that will allow trains to run from the heart of China into Tibet. They claim the railway will damage Tibet’s environment and ‘wipe out Tibetan identity and culture altogether’ (2). They also campaign for China to engage in direct dialogue with the Dalai Lama, currently living in exile in India, and to recognise him as the ‘spiritual leader’ of the Tibetan people (3).

These two aspects of pro-Tibet campaigning show what lies behind Tibetophilia. First there is the desire to save Tibet from anything that looks or smells modern: from Chinese jobs, industry, railways. Apparently such things are a threat to Tibetans’ ‘way of life’, which is honourably simple, rustic and rural. This paternalistic defence of natural and childlike Tibet from rampant, industrious China is perfectly captured in a poster made by the British campaign group Free Tibet. It asks ‘Whose side are you on?’, and shows on one side a Chinese official sitting in a train, surrounded by modern weaponry and pumping out grey smog into the environment, and on the other side, wise-faced Tibetans in traditional dress surrounded by their happy, leaping farm animals. (See the poster here (pdf): notice how the Chinese official and his troops have distinctly yellow skin, goofy teeth and slitty eyes, while the Tibetans have either pale or brown skin and wear serene expressions. Even in trendy, PC campaigns, it seems, yellow skin tone is used to denote ‘Bad Easterners’.) The message of the poster is clear: China is modern, and thus wicked, and Tibet must be protected from anything so new-fangled as railways or factories.

At the same time, campaigners’ unquestioning support for the Dalai Lama suggests they see Tibetans as an immature people who need a godlike figure to lead them. The Dalai Lama was never elected by anybody; rather, in a process that makes Britain’s House of Lords seem almost modern and democratic (I said almost), he was handpicked by a tiny sect of monks who believed that he represents one of innumerable incarnations of the Buddhist entity Avalokitesvara.

Indeed, some writers on Tibet have pointed out that the idolisation of the Dalai Lama by Western activists and officials, and of course by some Tibetans, might actually undermine the development of democracy in Tibet. In her book The Tibetan Independence Movement: Political, Religious and Gandhian Perspectives, Jane Ardley writes: ‘[It] is apparent that it is the Dalai Lama’s role as ultimate spiritual authority that is holding back the political process of democratisation. The assumption that he occupies the correct moral ground from a spiritual perspective means that any challenge to his political authority may be interpreted as anti-religious.’ (4)

In elevating the Dalai Lama to the position of unquestionable representative of the Tibetan people, pro-Tibet activists are helping to stifle ‘the opportunity for opposition and the expression of different views’ (5) – the very lifeblood of democracy. Indeed, some Tibetan Buddhist groups that have challenged or questioned the authority of the Dalai Lama have found themselves denounced and suppressed by the Dalai Lama’s people (6). Western activists’ celebration of the Dalai Lama as a ‘saviour’ of Tibet is akin to Britain being under occupation and campaigners around the world hailing Prince Charles, or worse, Dr Rowan Williams, as our true, brave, godlike spokesperson.

Tibet has long been the plaything of people disillusioned by the modern world. Since James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon in 1933, in which Tibet was depicted as ‘Shangri-la’, Tibet has been used and abused, turned into an idealised land of goodness and purity by aristocratic and artistic elements in the West who despise the pace of change over here, and who like the idea of a completely natural, archaic, politics-free land ‘over there’.

In his 1991 book Sacred Tibet, Philip Rawson wrote: ‘Tibetan culture offers powerful, untarnished and coherent alternatives to Western egotistical lifestyles, our short attention span, our gradually more pointless pursuit of material satisfactions…’ (7) In other words, the driving force behind Tibetophilia today is not political solidarity with the Tibetans, and certainly not any positive argument for full democratic equality for Tibetans, but rather a sense of disgust with Western life. It is a deeply narcissistic project, where ‘the West perceives some lack within itself’ and seeks to find fulfilment in the always-preserved ‘pure East’ (8).

This is why pro-Tibet campaigning can so easily slip into ugly China-bashing. In the morality tale constructed around Tibet, China comes to be seen as the evil representative of modernity, a faceless, smog-producing people who are ruining Western activists’ spiritual backyard in Tibet. As Donald S Lopez Jnr argues in his fascinating book Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West: ‘The invasion of Tibet by [China] was and still is represented as an undifferentiated mass of godless Communists overrunning a peaceful land devoted only to ethereal pursuits… Tibet embodies the spiritual and the ancient, China the material and the modern. Tibetans are superhuman, Chinese are subhuman.’ (9)

Too much of today’s pro-Tibet campaigning is underpinned by two things: self-loathing for our own, apparently over-modernised societies, and a semi-colonialist view of Tibetans as spiritual children and the Chinese as evil automatons. No wonder it can attract the support of such an archaic, illiberal figure as Prince Charles. Tibetophilia will do nothing whatsoever to increase the freedom of the people of Tibet, or the people of China.

An edited version of this article was first published on Comment is Free on 6 March 2008.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

(1) Tibet anniversary: contrasting views, BBC News, 23 May 2001

(2) Gormo-Lhasa Railway Project, Free Tibet, June 2005

(3) Free Tibet Campaign urges new Chinese Communist Party General Secretary to pursue unconditional negotiations with the exiled Tibetan government, Free Tibet, November 2002

(4) The Tibetan Independence Movement: Political, Religious and Gandhian Perspectives, Jane Ardley, Routledge, 2002

(5) The Tibetan Independence Movement: Political, Religious and Gandhian Perspectives, Jane Ardley, Routledge, 2002

(6) See Dalai Lama ‘a religious dictator’, by Brendan O’Neill, LM, November 1998

(7) Sacred Tibet, Philip Rawson, Thames & Hudson, 1991

(8) Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, Donald S Lopez Jnr, University Of Chicago Press, 1998

(9) Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, Donald S Lopez Jnr, University Of Chicago Press, 1998

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