Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 
Evading the Tibetan Pariah
By David G. Young 

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 states.

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 itself.

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.