Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Evading the Tibetan Pariah
WASHINGTON, DC, June 16, 1998 --
The organizers of Sunday's Tibetan Freedom Concert
in Washington were reluctant to brag about the size of the crowd. Most
of the 65,000 people at the fund-raiser for Tibetan independence were
just as ignorant of Tibet as the rest of Americans. Activists cared little
about this ignorance. They've learned that public knowledge means nothing;
celebrity support means everything.
The Tibetan independence effort has captured celebrity support like
no movement since the anti-aparthied struggle of the late 1980s. Indeed,
activists regularly draw parallels between the anti-aparthied struggle
in South Africa, and the Tibetan struggle in China. In both cases, a powerless
ethnic group has sought to end the repression of a dominant and intensely
unpopular cultural invader. In both cases, protesters in the repressed
population have faced imprisonment, torture and exile from their homeland.
In both cases, celebrities have been at the forefront of the international
movement for change.
But the parallel ends there. Unlike South Africa, China is a major player
on the world stage. It is a nuclear-armed permanent member of the United
Nations Security Council. It has the largest population on earth and the
fastest growing economy in the world. No matter how hard celebrities shout,
no matter how much they lobby, there will be no sanctions against China
for its repressive policies.
The celebrities' strategy serves only to glorify Tibetan Buddhist culture.
It is understandable that Westerners find beauty in a culture that is
unsoiled by the complexities of the modern world. Observers should remember,
however, that a culture free of Western vices is often free of Western
virtues. As the Chinese rulers of Tibet like to recall, human slavery
was part of the Tibetan culture until the establishment of Chinese rule
in the 1950s. A return to Tibetan self-rule may prove embarrassing for
the cause's most ardent supporters.
The Tibetan freedom movement is, after all, a nationalist movement.
This should give some cause for concern. Recent nationalist victories
in Armenia, Afghanistan and Serbia have shown how seemingly noble ideas
can quickly degenerate into terrible repression when put in the hands
of a newly empowered but unenlightened government. If care is not taken,
Tibetans could one day find themselves on the list of nationalist pariah
Make no mistake, the cause of Tibetan freedom is just. What's more,
there is plenty of reason for hope. Although the prospect of economic
sanctions leading to political change is inconceivable, change will eventually
come. The growth in the economic status of the Chinese people is staggering.
The day when an educated and prosperous Chinese populous outgrows its
repressive regime and forces political change cannot be far away. This
future government will have no interest in continuing a forced marriage
with China's captive nations of Tibet and East Turkistan.
When this change comes, it will be both a day of triumph and a day of
reckoning. Will a Tibetan government return the country to a regressively
nationalistic feudal system? Will it open Tibet to adopt the best ideas
of both Western and Buddhist culture? These are questions over which celebrities
and their American followers have far more influence than that of independence
If Tibet is to be the free and prosperous country that activists seek, it is crucial that celebrities halt their romanticized notions of Buddhist monks and the feudal culture they represent. The idea of freedom for Tibet is a dream of the future. Let's not allow it to become a nightmare of the past.