Tibet will be free once it's shaken off the bonds of both Chinese
authoriatian rule and patronizing Western pity.
Here in the West, we often hear the rallying cry "Free Tibet!,"
especially from students and latte-sipping liberals, for whom Tibet
has become a personality-defining issue.
Step on to any trendy, politicized campus in the US or Western
Europe, and you'll see at least one student wearing a "Free Tibet" T-
shirt, accessorised with traditional Tibetan bangles and maybe a
cloth shoulder bag made by Tibetan nomads.
Yet having recently returned from a sojourn to "Shangri-La," as
some people call it, I can confirm that Tibet needs to be freed
twice over. Firstly from the authoritarian Chinese Stalinists who
rule there, and who deny Tibetans basic liberties such as freedom of
speech and the right to protest. And secondly from the Western "Free
Tibet" lobby itself, whose shallow solidarity seems to be keeping
Tibet in a pre-modern, underdeveloped state for the benefit of eco-
Stuck between a rock and a hard place
Somewhat appropriately, given that it is such a mountainous
region, modern Tibet is stuck between a rock and a hard place -
between the rock of authoritarian government, and the hard place of
a patronizing Western pity, which treats Tibetans, in the stinging
words of one leading Tibetologist, as "the baby seals of the human
When you first arrive in Tibet, you can't help but be impressed
by how much religious freedom there seems to be. Having heard
activists from Free Tibet UK argue that the Chinese authorities are
seeking to "wipe out Tibetan identity and culture," I find myself
pleasantly surprised, and relieved, that in fact Tibetans can go
about their daily religious business largely unmolested.
My guides, two Chinese officials and one Tibetan official, take
me to Jokhang Temple in the capital of Lhasa, Tibetan Buddhism's
holiest site. We watch old women in traditional Tibetan dress spin
prayer wheels, young boys prostrate themselves before the Buddha on
the unforgiving, bruising earth, and monks and nuns in saffron robes
give potted histories of Tibetan Buddhism to wide-eyed Western
I'm handed over to a smiling, excitable monk who takes me on a
fascinated guided tour of the temple, explaining its history and its
mysteries in pidgin English.
Yet Tibetans' basic right to worship Buddha, which my official
guides are so keen to show off, cannot disguise the fact that they
are denied other important freedoms.
They're not allowed, for example, to put up pictures of the 14th
Dalai Lama, who currently lives in exile in northern India, or to
say anything positive about him. Earlier this month, a Tibetan
environmentalist called Rinchen Samdrup was imprisoned for five
years for posting a "pro-Dalai Lama article" on his website.
Tibetans don't have full freedom
Tibetans might be allowed to pray and to prostrate themselves to
their hearts' content - but the fact that they are forbidden from
singing the praises or looking at images of the 14th Dalai Lama
means they do not have full religious freedom.
They are deprived of political freedoms, too. Like other Chinese
people, they have no right to set up a newspaper or magazine without
state approval and they do not enjoy the right to protest, that key
freedom that allows people to express their angst and aspirations
and to hold their rulers to account. …