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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Torture Relay - Why Tibet Matters

April 9, 2008, India
April 08, 2008

It's been almost fifty years since the 1959 invasion of Tibet by China,
an act of aggression which merely formalized the sustained political,
military and social pressure that an increasingly strident Communist
government had been applying for several years to the isolated country.
The political and religious elite fled soon thereafter, crossing into
India where they were granted political asylum, setting the precedent
for a stream of over one million Tibetan refugees over the years.
However, after capturing the attention of the world for a few brief
years, the Tibetan struggle for independence soon fell by the wayside,
as more and more governments sought to form stronger ties with a China
that was growing at a sustained pace never recorded before in world
economic history. Who cared about the concerns of a small minority,
whose only claim to fame was that their temporal leader was also one of
the most influential figures in Buddhism, itself a religion easily
relegated by the more rigid of thought to a less than serious status as
the manna of a hippie fringe seeking enlightenment?

And so it may have been - for over thirty years, the world turned a
blind eye as the population of ethnic Tibetans remained stagnant at just
over 5 million, while the number of ethnic Han Chinese in the territory
has increased several fold. The world ignored Tianenmen Square, and also
the brutal suppression of protests in Lhasa in 1989. The world ignored
the Chinese crackdown on Falun Dafa, as it ignores the continued arrest,
torture and detention of Chinese human rights activists; the recent
imprisonment of Hu Jia is only one of many such acts. In fact, not only
did the world ignore these excesses, it was often complicit in them:
multinational companies, including Google and Yahoo, were too eager to
bend over backwards and provide sensitive information to Chinese
authorities regarding political dissidents in their attempts to avoid
being kicked out of an increasingly attractive market. Economics, or so
it appeared, had won the battle for the world's willingness to engage
with China. The manner in which Chinese support for a regime supporting
genocide against its own people in Darfur has stymied international
intervention over the past two years seemed to indicate that the Red
Dragon had won, and nobody would quite be willing to take a stand
against what is most likely going to be the hegemon of this century.

So why bother? And does it matter whether or not the world takes up the
Tibetan cause?

The answer is that it does matter. In fact, it is of crucial importance
that the world engages with China (and when I say China I refer to both
its government and its people) if we are to influence the the world we
will live in tomorrow. Globalisation is often touted as a recent
phenomenon, something that really only became a reality in the latter
part of the twentieth century. This is, however, only partially true -
the only thing that is recent about globalisation is its
democratisation, and the flexibiltiy with which both human and financial
capital can now be deployed around the world. Technological advances
have made it much easier for individuals to move and travel, while
access to information is increasing exponentially (provided you're not
sitting behind a Chinese government firewall in Shanxi or Guangzhou).

What is a much older phenomenon is what I could call the authoritarian
part of globalisation, where the fates of millions were decided by
decision makers in places often thousands of miles away. Jewish
populations in Lithuania and Italy were condemned to gas chambers by
policies agreed in Berlin; millions of Indians died of famine during
World War II thanks to Winston Churchill's economic policies, while
Palestinians today live in refugee camps or in ghettos in the West Bank
and Ramallah thanks to the Balfour Declaration made in London. Iraq is
burning today thanks to decisions made in Washington DC, and even as we
speak, it is difficult to guess where Iran will be in the next few
years. The impact and influence at any given time that the world's
current hegemonic power has over the rest of the globe is immense and
often immeasurable; just watch the fascination with which media
organisations cover US Presidential elections around the world;
elections in which only a few hundred million will vote to choose a
leader with the greatest global impact worldwide.

This is why Tibet matters. IR theorists have been debating whether or
not America's role as the world's sole superpower, a position of
preeminence that it has enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union,
is coming to an end or not. What is not being debated is China's
inexorable rise as a military and economic power; as time goes by, the
extent and strength of the influence it will exert in global discussions
will only increase.

So the question we must ask ourselves is what sort of global power do we
want to be active in the world over the next one hundred years? Do we
want the worlds that we and our children will live in to be shadowed by
the presence of a large, largely democratic state that values human
rights, encourages dialogue and freedom of speech, and values the
individual's right to life, liberty and property? Or will we be happy to
have the greatest influence of global discourse on trade, defence and
economy to be an authoritarian state, where torture in prisons continues
to be an endemic issue, where arrests are sudden, unprovoked and where
shrill government spokespersons are the only sources of information,
where free speech does not exist, and where critical thinking is not

So the issue of Tibet is now much more than how China chooses to engage
with demonstrators in the territory. While the protests surrounding the
Torture Relay are as much about the brutal crackdown on clergy and laity
alike in Tibet and China's western provinces, the issues has magnified
into something much less tangible, but with far greater repercussions on
all of our lives. How China deals with Tibet has become part of a
broader discussion of the shape and form of the world that we want to
live in. Tibet is no longer an issue between two Asian countries. And if
you think that Tibet is someone else's problem, you only need to look at
the streets of London yesterday, where a large Chinese security detail,
part of the government machinery that uses brutal methods against its
population and the Tibetans, jogged with impunity through the streets,
while protestors wearing "Free Tibet" t-shirts were ordered to leave the
area. Democracy is a very fragile institution, and it does not take much
to descend into authoritarianism (and if you disagree with that, I'd
only point you towards Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib). The question is, at
what point does it become important to speak out?

So, dear reader, if you live in a country where you will not be jailed
for raising your voice, for wearing your beliefs on your t-shirt, where
it is legal to stand in the street and chant, "Tibet will be free", and
if you are in a city through which the Torture Relay is scheduled to
pass, then as a citizen of the world, as a friend to those millions who
cannot wave a simple cloth without fear of detention, torture and
summary execution, in solidarity with the people of a country where it
is illegal to have a photograph of the Dalai Lama, go and protest. Do so
nonviolently, because violence only begets violence. Go and stand in
peace, in harmony and in solidarity. Go and protest the rally, not just
for your Tibetan brethren, but for the millions of Chinese citizens who
are currently locked up in prison for having the courage to express
their views in public, for challenging their regime through peaceful
protest and dialogue. Go and protest to send a message to your
government and that of China's, and other authoritarian regimes like it,
that the voice of millions cannot be discounted. Do not despair - it was
after all the student protests of the 1980's that finally forced an
economic embargo onto the apartheid regime in South Africa, which
crumbled in the following decade.

Do not be silent, because that is another name for complicity. Protest,
for the millions in bondage around the world. Protest, but not just for
the millions in bondage around the world.

Do it for yourself, and do it for your children.
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