“Free Tibet” is a phrase with a bit of a history. More or less since the Chinese army entered Tibet in 1951, some people have asserted that Tibet should be its own country. Over time, the cause became popular among Westerners, especially students and celebrities. The intensity of the protesting comes and goes as things in Tibet happen (or don’t), but the song has remained more or less the same: “Free Tibet.” Yet, if Tibet were to become independent, it would be a disaster for the Tibetan people.
Reasons for Western Interest in Tibetan Independence
Why has this particular cause attracted so much attention in the West? There are two reasons. One is Western perception of the Chinese government, which is shaped mainly by the knowledge that they are Communist and that they once killed students in Tiananmen Square. They are, as a result, “evil”. Western perceptions of Tibetans are based on the Dalai Lama, who seems calm, wise, peaceful, spiritual—everything it seems the Chinese government is not. Controversy closer to home is always complicated, but from afar the China-Tibet issue comes off as good-versus-evil to the uninformed.
The other reason Tibet in particular has attracted so much attention is that it appeals to a certain nostalgia many Western intellectuals have; a desire to return to a simpler, more “pure” time. Tibet’s “spiritual” traditional society, its ruggedly beautiful terrain, and its ancient, mysterious religion all give it a special sort of “flavor” that Westerners feel is being destroyed by the modernity the Chinese government brings to Tibet.
Unfortunately, those perceptions are misguided. Traditional Tibetan society may have been spiritual, but it was also a slave society. The vast majority of Tibetans were extremely poor, there was no real justice system, and the political structure of its government was rife with corruption, exploitation, and perversion. In the book The Struggle for Modern Tibet (the autobiography of a Tibetan who has lived in Tibet, mainland China, India, and the United States), Tashi Tsering describes how as a child in pre-1951 Tibet he was chosen to become a dancer for the Dalai Lama, taken from his family forever as a kind of “tax”, and forced into a dance troupe run by a sadistic director and forever plagued by horny Tibetan monks. These monks (Tibetan monks may not marry) took out their sexual frustration through sexual relationships with the children in the dance troupe—Tsering describes this as common practice. Perceptions of pre-1951 Tibet as a utopian Shangri-La are, at best, extremely oversimplified.
Similarly, what China does in Tibet often goes unreported or is misinterpreted by a Western public eager to find fault with the Chinese government. For example, last May, some Tibetans began a violent riot that caused millions of dollars in damage and touched off a series of racially-motivated hate crimes against Han Chinese and Muslims. Non-Tibetans in Lhasa were stabbed, beaten, and even burned alive in the streets. The Chinese government sent in police to stop the riots. There was no evidence of violence and the Western reporter in Lhasa at the time reported seeing no police misconduct:
What I saw was calculated targeted violence against an ethnic group, or I should say two ethnic groups, primarily ethnic Han Chinese living in Lhasa, but also members of the Muslim Hui minority in Lhasa.
Still, the story that played in the West was one of a “brutal crackdown” against “peaceful Tibetan protesters”. CNN even doctored a photo of Chinese police vehicles that ran on their website, editing out Tibetan rioters who were attacking the trucks. Myriad other news media ran misleading headlines and photographs, including numerous photographs of police in Nepal beating protesters that were labeled as if they were photos from China.
In the end, though, whether or not the Western media covers Tibet fairly, and whether or not traditional Tibetan society was good for Tibetans is largely irrelevant. The international political climate has changed since 1951. If Tibet became independent, it would be a disaster for the Tibetan people.
Tibet Should Not Be Independent
Why? Well, for one thing, Tibet is still quite undeveloped, economically speaking. China pours money in but gets almost nothing back. The Economist reports:
In 2001, for example, for every renminbi of Tibet’s economic growth, central-government spending increased by Rmb2, according to Mr Fischer. In that year alone, state spending increased by 75%. By 2004 the situation had changed only slightly, with Rmb0.65 of economic growth requiring only Rmb1 of increased subsidies and state investment.
Many might be inclined to blame this on government policies designed to keep Tibet weak, but actually NPR reports that in fact, Beijing pays for 90% of all government expenditures in Tibet, and floats gigantic infastructure projects like new highways and a massive hydroelectric dam.
Now, let’s imagine for a second that tomorrow, Tibet were to become its own country again. What would happen?
Well, the Dalai Lama and the rest of the exile community would probably return. They would arrive to find a society greatly changed from the one they ruled over half a century ago, and a people who have had little contact with them for decades. They would also find strong racial tensions that did not exist in the 1950s, and that has frequently erupted into violence in the past. The embittered remnants of the former Tibetan provincial government would likely also remain, and possibly position themselves in the way of anyone attempting to commandeer their bureaucracy. It seems unlikely that the exile leaders would actually be able to run a modern nation on their own; but even if they were theoretically capable, what money would they use?
As mentioned above, Tibet’s economic output is insufficient to support the region. The removal of all Beijing’s political infastructure would undoubtedly weaken Tibet’s economy further, leaving the new “nation” in the hands of an inexperienced relgious sect with little governing experience and no money.
Tibet would have almost no hope of finding support from other nations, either. China would certainly never support an independent Tibet, and other nations would also refuse support for fear of angering China and harming trade relations.
There seems very little reason to speculate that a “Free Tibet” wouldn’t quickly devolve into some third-world hellhole, complete with all the starvation and social instability that comes along with that title. At the end of the day, protesters calling for a Free Tibet must ask themselves what, exactly, it is that they want, and who they want it for.