Political pressure and the fight for Tibetan freedom

A few weeks ago, a very negative critique of the Tibet movement was published in the South China Morning Post. It’s one of a number of pieces lately that draw the mistaken conclusion that the terrible situation in Tibet and the excruciatingly slow pace of change mean campaigns by Tibetans and supporters outside Tibet over the last decades have been wrong, and in particular, that pressure is an ineffective tactic.

In fact, we are in fact making (slow) progress in the face of a mammoth adversary. Global support and action have played a huge role in this and will continue to be critically important pieces in the struggle for Tibetan freedom.

I sent this letter to the South China Morning Post in response:

James Rinaldi and Kunsang Dolma’s op-ed essentially makes three points: pressuring China leads to retaliation against Tibetans, political activism more generally is useless at best, and the West should hand leadership of the Tibet issue back to Tibetans.

The first argument implies that international condemnations of China’s abuses in Tibet are somehow the catalyst for subsequent abuses. China’s leaders would doubtless be pleased if criticism ceased, but the authors don’t supply evidence that this would lead to policy change, and I think they would be hard pressed to do so. In fact, with the exception of a slight easing in the 1980s, China has consistently imposed extreme restrictions on Tibetans’ culture, religion and way of life and enforced its rule through intimidation and violence. This pattern pre-dates the “internationalization” of the Tibet movement.

Far from being the cause of repression, external pressure – from governments and everyday people – is one of the most powerful tools that Tibetans and their supporters have to influence China’s long-term calculus on Tibet, driving up the cost of occupation and lowering its benefits. Internal Chinese documents like one leaked to a Danish newspaper in 2011 stating, “We must reduce the power that supporters of Tibetan independence…enjoy in the international public opinion,” indicate the importance of international actors in continuing to build Tibetans’ negotiating power.

Government action and grassroots mobilization have also generated tangible short-term results in Tibet, such as the early release of political prisoners and the cancellation of exploitative development projects. Perhaps most importantly, the struggle has led to a heightened sense of unity and resolve among Tibetans.

I share the authors’ frustration with the slow pace of change in Tibet. The tragic self-immolations in recent years show that the situation is unbearable. But let’s put the blame where it belongs: with the Chinese government. Systemic political change is still the only way to address the root causes of the problems in Tibet. Ireland, India, South Africa, the Baltic states and East Timor didn’t achieve freedom at a regular, predictable rate. Their resistance movements built power and leverage over time, and when a key moment of opportunity came, dramatic shifts took place.

The authors close by exhorting westerners to “give back the stewardship of the movement to the Tibetans themselves.” This amounts to a sweeping dismissal of the Tibetans who have painstakingly built the Tibet movement and led it from its inception. With an exile population of only 130,000 and a population inside Tibet that is under lockdown, gaining support from the rest of the world is a strategic move, and one that doesn’t negate the agency of Tibetans in building and waging their struggle for rights and freedom.