Using Tibet to settle scores with China

Tibetans want to be free. But they’ve been given a green light to riot by Western elements driven more by spite and envy than a love for liberty.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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The grainy, sneaked-out footage of Tibetans rioting in Lhasa and in parts of China itself clearly reveals one thing: Tibetans want more control over their daily lives and destinies. Frustrated with living under illiberal and undemocratic Chinese rule, they are lashing out against what they consider to be symbols of Chinese domination: Han Chinese businesses and buildings owned by Chinese officialdom.

But there’s another story behind the images of instability being broadcast around the world, a more complex, dangerous and difficult-to-spot story of cynical, spiteful political manoeuvring. Elements in the West have effectively encouraged Tibetans to riot, not because they are committed to democracy and liberty, but because they fear and loathe the Chinese. Western encouragement of Tibetan instability may dress itself in the rallying cry of ‘Free Tibet!’, but its real motivation is to ‘Humiliate China!’

The Tibetan protesters’ angry outbursts reveal their deep-seated dissatisfaction with life under the Stalinist regime. Yet the protests can also be seen as a physical, violent manifestation of Western China-bashing, which is increasing in intensity as the Beijing Olympics approach. For the past three months, Western officials and commentators have implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) encouraged Tibetans and others to ‘use the Olympics to humiliate China’ (1). Taking their cue, at least in part, from Western culture’s feverish fear and suspicion of China, Tibetans have launched protests that seem designed as much to please Western observers as to push through real, meaningful changes in Tibet and China.

In both their timing and their presentation, the protests seem more a product of Western cajoling than of an independent, groundswell demand for liberty amongst Tibetans. It is no coincidence that the protests, reportedly the biggest amongst Tibetans since the late 1980s, have erupted in the run-up to Beijing 2008. Vast numbers of political entrepreneurs and activists are trying to transform the Olympics into a platform for moral posturing and China-bashing. According to the International Herald Tribune, such is the frenzied politicisation of the Olympics by Western officials and campaigners that athletes are becoming confused about which cause to support. They have found themselves ‘overwhelmed by menu choices’ and also by numerous ‘wardrobe decisions’: should they wear a ‘China, Please’ armband to protest against China’s links with Sudan, or a yellow ‘Livestrong’ bracelet to indicate their support for a ‘pollution-free games and lead-free toys’? An American triathlete has complained: ‘Every time you turn around, there is someone trying to make a statement about something.’ (2) The relentless politicisation of the Olympics by Western elements, the widespread discussion of Beijing 2008 as an opportunity to ‘humiliate China’, has helped to create a volatile atmosphere in the more restive parts of China and its surrounding territories, including Tibet.

Presentation-wise, the protesters’ use of English slogans and their speedy dissemination of mobile-phone footage suggest the demonstrations are aimed very much at a Western audience. In the march of the Tibetan monks in northern India last week, and during the more fiery protests in Tibet and China over the weekend, Tibetans carried placards with English-language demands such as ‘Tibet Needs You’. They wore headbands saying ‘Free Tibet’ – the favoured slogan of Western middle-class and even aristocratic pro-Tibet sympathisers, such as Prince Charles (3). Tibetan monks in Dharamsala, India (where the Tibetan government-in-exile resides, led by the Dalai Lama) have put up English posters saying ‘Beijing 2008: A Celebration of Human Rights Violations’ (4). One British newspaper has celebrated Tibetan protesters’ use of ‘the most dangerous weapon in the world – the cameras on their mobile phones’ (5). Many Western observers who cheer Tibetans for using this ‘weapon’ to beam images of their struggle around the world would probably feel very uncomfortable if Tibetans used real weapons to force their Stalinist rulers to make changes or concessions.

The protests seem orientated very much towards the outside world. They appear to gain their legitimacy and fire from today’s widespread China-bashing, and they seem designed, in some ways, for Western consumption. This shows the extent to which Tibetans have become caught up in a global tug-of-war between the West and China. No doubt some people feel genuinely inspired by the Tibetan unrest, but many of the Western elements cheering the Tibetan cause and encouraging the Tibetans to ‘humiliate China’ are motivated less by a genuine commitment to liberty and democracy than by a deep and cynical desire to make life difficult for the Chinese.

Today’s Tibetan protests are taking place in a broad, quite sinister political context: the West’s transformation of China into a cultural and political target. In recent years, China has inexorably, and in some ways unconsciously, been transformed into a whipping boy for the West. Anti-Chinese sentiments cut across the political divide: on both the old right and the new left, attacking China for its economic growth, human rights record, environmental destruction or suppression of the Tibetan people has become de rigueur. There is an unspoken consensus today – amongst Western officials, commentators and radical activists – that China is a global threat which must be put back in its place with a short, sharp dose of humiliation. Far more than the demonisation of the Soviet Union as the ‘Evil Empire’ during the Cold War era, the labelling of China as a dirty, uncontrollable, violent beast enjoys widespread, unquestioned support throughout political circles in the West.

On the right, China-bashing has become a way of settling old scores from the Cold War. American right-wing thinkers and officials seem to take comfort in the familiar feeling of standing up to an ‘old communist foe’. Robbed of the ‘Evil Empire’ in the East by the end of the Cold War, and thrown by the unpredictability of global affairs more broadly, old right elements cling to China as an old-fashioned enemy from an era when politics was simpler and international affairs were more black-and-white; they are trying to recreate that era with a new ‘yellow-and-white’ divide between barbaric China and the civilised USA (6). Last week, the Pentagon made a splash with its annual report to US Congress on the threat posed by Chinese military power. It was hard not to nod, at least in partial agreement, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman who accused officials in the Pentagon of being consumed by ‘Cold War thinking’ (7).

There is also an element of palpable jealousy in right-wing attacks on contemporary China. As America’s economy spins from one crisis to another, becoming reliant in many ways on East Asian cash to bail it out, traditionalist economic thinkers are discussing Chinese growth as a problem and a threat. Using the language of environmentalism – clearly sensing that old-fashioned protectionism would not go down very well today – establishment publications in the US publish essays with headlines such as ‘Choking on growth’; they argue that if China is to reduce its carbon emissions (that is, slow down its growth) then there will have to be a ‘wholesale mindset change’ amongst the Chinese people (8). Books such as The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future are snapped up and celebrated by traditionalist American thinkers and economists (9).

Amongst left-leaning campaign groups and writers, China has become the No.1 International Bogeyman because of what they see as its ceaseless industrialisation. Westerners who find the idea of growth so nineteenth-century openly discuss China as a poisonous nation that is killing its own people and possibly the planet. Liberal green writers see only the ‘dust, waste and dirty water’ in modern China; they describe the economic progress there as the ‘mass poisoning of a people and the ecological devastation of a nation’, which is a product, apparently, of greed – ‘ours and theirs’ (10). Those greedy Chinese, getting jobs in the city and buying cars and TVs… why don’t they go back to the paddy fields where they belong? Green campaign groups call on Western nations to cut their political and economic ties with China, and instruct Western consumers that ‘If it says “Made in China”, don’t buy it’: only then, they argue, will ‘The World’s Biggest CO2 Emitter’ and ‘The World’s No.1 Consumer of Coal’ (that’s ‘China’ to those of us who don’t think and speak in the dehumanising language of trendy China-bashers) be forced to change its ways (11). They fancy this as a radical stance, but in today’s Great China-Bashing Consensus, greens are merely the protesting wing of the backward, fearful, protectionist politics of a West worried about the ‘Chinese threat’.

In many ways, campaigners and commentators in the West are projecting their own disgust with ‘the Western way of life’ on to China. They see in China everything that they doubt or loathe about modernity itself. That is why commentators frequently tell China not to make ‘the same mistakes that we made’. On everything from economic growth to sporting competitiveness, from the use of coal to the building of skyscrapers, today’s China-bashing is motivated by Western self-loathing, as well as by spite and envy towards the seemingly successful Chinese. Ironically, this means that China is now seen as ‘the Other’ precisely because it appears too Western: it is China’s ambition, growth, its leaps forward – things that a more confident West might once have celebrated – which make it seem alien to Western observers who today prefer carbon-counting to factory-building and road tolls to road construction. China-bashing is underpinned by a crisis of belief in the West in things such as progress, growth, development.

It is the sweeping consensus that China is dangerous and diseased that has attracted Western observers to the issue of Tibet. Both left and right elements in the West are exploiting the Tibet issue as a way of putting pressure on China. They are less interested in securing real freedom and equality for Tibetans, and for the Chinese people more broadly, than they are in using and abusing internal disgruntlement in China and nearby territories as a way of humiliating the Chinese government. That is why Tibetans can symbolise different things to different people. For conservative commentators, the Tibetans are warriors for freedom against a Stalinist monolith; their protests are a replay of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 (12). For greener, more liberal campaigners, Tibetans are symbols of natural and mystical purity in contrast to rampant Western and Chinese consumerism. As one author puts it, Tibetan culture offers ‘powerful, untarnished and coherent alternatives to Western egotistical lifestyles [and] our gradually more pointless pursuit of material interests’ (13). Various political factions in the West are using Tibetans as ventriloquist dummies in order to mouth their own complaints against modern China. They are promoting Tibetan unrest not to liberate Tibetans but in the hope that the protests will represent their own personal disgust for China in a real-world, physical manner.

There is a long history of Western politicians and activists using Tibet as a stick with which to beat China. In his fascinating book Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, Donald S Lopez Jnr shows how, in the Western imagination, ‘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.’ (14) Today, too, pro-Tibetan activism often disguises a view of the Chinese as subhuman. Indeed, in the current, all-encompassing right/left consensus about China, even left-leaning campaigns can employ old right tactics of demonising the Chinese. A poster for the trendy campaign group Free Tibet shows Tibetans as serene and peaceful and the Chinese as smog-producing modernisers with distinctly slitty eyes and goofy teeth (15).

spiked is no friend of the Chinese regime. Yet those promoting self-serving internal unrest in the run-up to the Olympics, encouraging Tibetans and others to bash China for real where the West only does it with words and propaganda, are playing a dangerous game indeed. Such a strategy of cynical destabilisation could unleash yet more violence in China, and have repercussions around the world. And the biggest losers, at least in the short term, are likely to be Tibetans themselves: they will not win liberty or equality by being transformed into performing protesters for the benefit of Chinaphobic Westerners.

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

(1) China feels the heat of its Olympic ambitions, Los Angeles Times, 13 February 2008

(2) Athletes face dizzying choice of causes, International Herald Tribune, 15 August 2007

(3) See Australia won’t support boycott of Beijing Games: Olympic chief, The Citizen, 17 March 2008

(6) China condemns Pentagon’s Cold War thinking, Reuters, 4 March 2008

(7) China condemns Pentagon’s Cold War thinking, Reuters, 4 March 2008

(8) Economy: China’s ability to tackle greenhouse gas caps, Council on Foreign Relations, September 2007

(9) The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future, Elizabeth C Economy, Cornell University Press, 2005

(10) See Polluting minds, by Brendan O’Neill, Comment Is Free, 25 July 2007

(11) See Enough is Enough’s Boycott China campaign here

(12) Could Tibet achieve the impossible dream of independence?, Vancouver Online, 16 March 2008

(13) See Why Western Tibetophilia won’t set Tibet free, by Brendan O’Neill

(14) See Why Western Tibetophilia won’t set Tibet free, by Brendan O’Neill

(15) See Why Western Tibetophilia won’t set Tibet free, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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