Tibet protests: putting the ‘I’ in internationalism

The arrest of four Free Tibet protesters in Beijing shows that Tibet still fulfills the fantasies of posh, disillusioned Westerners.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World

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It looks like posh Brits have found something to do in Beijing this summer besides dressage and coxless pairs. That’s right, the banner-drop ‘free Tibet’ protest – all the toff kids are at it.

Just this Wednesday, Edinburgh-based Iain Thom, helped by Lucy Fairbrother, the daughter of a former Baring’s Bank Director, plus two Americans, Phill Bartell and Tirian Mink, successfully scaled 120ft lighting poles outside Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium and unfurled some agit-prop for gleeful consumption by Western media. ‘Tibet will be free’ one banner announced in Chinese. Another parodied the Beijing Olympics tagline: ‘One World, One Dream, Free Tibet.’

The British press has lapped it up: ‘Graduate Activists who humbled might of China’s Security Forces’; ‘Britons brave China’s wrath to stage protest about Tibet’ came the headlines (1). It seems that it’s not just in sport that the image of the plucky Brit has resonance.

Iain Thom and Lucy Fairbrother
pictured with Tibetan flag
upon their return to the UK

Their fate, however, with the Olympic Games so close, was never really in doubt. Arrested and deported before you could say ‘China is using the Olympics to ingratiate itself with the global community’, both Iain and Lucy are back home now, able to bask in the warm glow of sanctimony. And bask they certainly are: supporters have been cheering; reporters have been gushing; and their parents are just beaming (2).

‘I am very proud of him’, Iain’s father Brian told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One programme (3). Brian, however, has appeared a bit of a shrinking violet compared with the one-woman PR campaign of Lucy’s mum, Linda Fairbrother, a TV presenter: ‘Lucy has been involved with Students for a Free Tibet for quite a long time’, she told one newspaper, ‘and, although as a parent I am very concerned about the consequences and implications of being detained, I support her fighting for the freedom and democracy of Tibet.’ (4)

It comes to something when youthful protest gains enthusiastic establishment approval. And when it’s your parents, that should really give the game away. What it shows is that while some rebellion, such as seeking the removal of British state forces from Northern Ireland, for instance, might still be beyond the establishment pale, seeking the independence of Tibet is not. Little wonder Linda Fairbrother felt Lucy was a chip off the old (no doubt counter-cultural) block: ‘she is doing what she feels is right, and what I feel is right.’ (5)

‘Doing what I feel is right.’ Such all too deeply felt and conviction-heavy rhetoric has been to the fore in the pro-Tibet protests. While dangling from his Beijing lighting pole, Thom’s recorded message struck the same strangely self-aggrandising tone: ‘I’m here today because I’ve been a long-term Tibet activist and I feel like now is a really critical time for Tibet…’ (6) Notice how he talks about himself more than Tibetans – because these protests are about making ‘me’ feel morally superior rather than winning freedom for anyone.

While there’s no doubting Thom’s sincerity, there’s also no mistaking its self-dramatising nature: ‘We know that change only occurs when people of conscience openly confront injustice, and as the Chinese government has done everything in its power to silence Tibetan voices at this critical moment, it is imperative that global citizens speak out.’ (7)

A person of conscience? A global citizen? Some citizens, it often seems, are more global than others: it’s difficult to imagine a Chinese national draping a Free Northern Ireland banner from Big Ben. This is internationalism all right, but of the missionary variety rather than the socialist. Abstracted from anything like common material interest and shared struggle, to claim solidarity with Tibetans is nothing more than a parade of one’s superior ability to sympathise, a grand ‘I feel your pain’ gesture. It is a parade of preening compassion, an X-Factor for the self-righteous.

Not that the protesters would see it that way. For them, Tibetans really do appear as kindred spirits, and Tibet itself a magical kingdom. Since James Hilton’s Lost Horizon in 1933, with its depiction of the mythical Himalayan utopia Shangri-la, Tibet has long been the object of disillusioned Westerners’ fantasies. And the greater the disillusionment – and lets face it, there aren’t many celebrating modernity, capitalist or not, these days – the more attractive a reified notion of Tibet seems. Contrasted with what is perceived as the vacuous materialism and soulless consumerism of Western society, the idealised feudalism of Tibet, rich in mysticism and enchantment, becomes a promised land, a retro-future purged of all the foul-tasting fruits of modernity. The People’s Liberation Army’s defeat of the Tibetan army in 1950 was nothing less than the fall of paradise in some Westerners’ eyes.

If that seems crudely simplistic, that’s because it is. As Brendan O’Neill showed in a dissection of a Free Tibet campaign postcard, which depicted the Chinese as slitty-eyed automatons and the Tibetans as expressive, soulful humans, such a naive, simplified view of a complex situation pervades the pro-Tibet lobby (see Slitty eyes and buck teeth? It must be China, by Brendan O’Neill).

That it does so is because China’s occupation of Tibet has a largely metaphorical significance for the pro-Tibet lobby groups. China appears as the embodiment of rapacious Godless modernity, an unthinking menace to the spiritually soaked culture of Tibet. For example Free Tibet UK’s opposition to the Gormo-Lhasa railway turned on its threat to ‘wipe out Tibetan identity and culture altogether’ (8). The Students for a Free Tibet group articulates similar sentiments. Talking of China’s tellingly entitled ‘Western Development plan’, a scheme that will involve ‘natural resource extraction, large-scale infrastructure projects and population resettlement’, they argue that it will ‘erase existing economic, socio-cultural, and political divisions between eastern and western China’.

Erasure of socio-cultural divisions; wiping out of Tibetan Identity and Culture… what is at stake for pro-Tibetan protesters is not the self-determination of the Tibetans themselves, but a paradisical notion of Tibet, produced and reified in the West.

The tragedy of the pro-Tibetan lobby is that it threatens the very thing it pays lip-service to, namely freedom and democracy. By restricting freedom to the special, fetishised category of ‘Tibet’, they undermine the struggle for self-determination elsewhere. For freedom, if it is to be freedom at all, can only be a universal, not a petty, cultural category. But with no other objective than the celebration of an ossified, fetishised culture, the pro-Tibet lobby turns the Tibetans from potential subjects of liberation into objects of pity. As for the rest of China, well, it seems they’re not worth thinking about.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

(1) See Graduate activists who humbled might of China’s security forces, The Times, 7 August 2008; Britons brave China’s wrath to stage protest about Tibet, Indpendent, 7 August 2008

(2) British activists return home as heroes, Indpendent, 8 August 2008

(3) Tibet protester’s father tells of pride over son’s actions, Guardian, 6 August 2008-08-08

(4) Bankers daughter arrested in Beijing protest, Evening Standard, 6 August 2008-08-08

(5) Tibet Demo Britons to be deported, Guardian, 7 August 2008

(6) Long record of protests by Scot arrested over Beijing Olympic stunt, Scotsman 7 August 2008

(7) Free Tibet activists arrive home after bold banner action in Beijing, Free Tibet 2008, 7 August 2008

(8) See Slitty eyes and buck teeth? It must be China, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) See Students for a Free Tibet website here

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Topics World


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