An Analysis of “Free Tibet”

“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.
James Miles

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.
The Economist

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.

0 thoughts on “An Analysis of “Free Tibet””

  1. Holy baloney! Is this “Fool’s Mountain lite”, or what? You speak as if Tibetans did not exist. No one denies that Tibet before 1951 was an oppressive society, but you cannot account for the Tibetan conundrum accurately by jumping from 1951 to 2008 and pretending that no oppression of Tibetan aspirations took place in between. Sorry. I just don’t know what more to say, this is one of the most appalling posts I have seen for quite some time.


  2. I’m not pretending anything didn’t happen, nor am I attempting to “account for the Tibet conundrum”; my point is simply that Tibet should not be independent because “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.”

    I believe Tibet becoming independent would be BAD for the Tibetan people, REGARDLESS of what has happened in the past, my apologies if that was unclear. I don’t deny that China’s done bad, bad things in Tibet, but turning it loose (especially in the middle of a worldwide economic crisis) isn’t going to undo that damage, nor is it going to help the Tibetan people.

    Additionally, I wanted to point out that the reasons for Western interest in the Tibet issue specifically aren’t necessarily good ones. There is a reason lots of people in the West will say they want a Free Tibet but blink at you soundlessly when you ask them whether they support freeing Hu Jia (or whoever). Tibet has been orientalized and romanticized, and that’s undeniably part of the reason it attracts so much Western attention. Another reason, as I noted, is that in recent years there’s been a clearly evident media slant in most Western countries.

    That doesn’t excuse anything bad that China has done, but it doesn’t change the fact that a Free Tibet would be good for more or less no one (including but not limited to Tibetans)


  3. You still speak as if Tibetans did not exist, and as if this was a question of “total independence” vs. status quo. A lot of other alternatives to independence have been raised by different Tibetan groups, but the Chinese government – which you defend – refuses to discuss any changes to the status quo. And I don’t see why we should punish Tibetans because we in the West have romanticized them.


  4. Of course. The essay is called “An Analysis of “Free Tibet”. What it’s about is whether or not a completely independent Tibet is a good idea. Of course reforms can (and I believe should) be made; those possibilities are not what I was trying to discuss here.

    I think you’re either making some assumptions about my opinions that aren’t in the piece or misinterpreting its purpose and scope.


  5. You’re the one making assumptions; you assume that calling for a “Free Tibet” is the same thing as calling for an “independent Tibet”, which would restore a society rife with “corruption, exploitation, and perversion”. Sorry, but I don’t see the connection here, but it seems that you are declaring the Tibetans unfit to rule themselves. “Turning it loose”, you say, as if Tibet was a piece of real estate populated by mindless cattle. That is a colonial attitude, to say the least.

    In an earlier post, you criticize what you call “New orientalism” in Western coverage of China. Yet I wonder who is the real orientalist here. Out of a single book about a Tibetan refugee, you seize on the most sleazy parts of the book a center on a “sadistic director”, “horny Tibetan monks” with “sexual frustration” who had “sexual relationships with children”. There is much more to that book, the purpose of which actually was to counter stereotypes of Tibets feudal past.

    And when you describe the Tibetan uprising in TAR, Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan, you chose to focus on the fact that “non-Tibetans in Lhasa were stabbed, beaten, and even burned alive”.

    When you set out to describe a complex society or a complex social conflict, you chose to focus on: sex and violence. Who’s the real orientalist?


  6. To the vast majority of Westerners, i.e., the audience of this blog (I assume), “Free Tibet” does mean a completely independent Tibet. Nor did I ever say (or even imply) that Tibetans are unfit to rule themselves, what I said was that an exile government that hasn’t been in-country for half a century probably is. You criticize my tone and call me an orientalist, repeatedly, but you haven’t actually suggested that you even disagree with that. I think Tibetans can (and should) rule themselves, although for the time being I think that rule will have to be as an autonomous region of China. Anything else would be bad for the Tibetan people–not because Tibetans are corrupt and exploitative, but because a small nation with a terrible economy that borders its worst enemy is going to produce that kind of situation, especially when no other nations are going to help it for fear of angering that enemy. It would happen anywhere. If you believe otherwise, by all means attempt to convince me.

    My focus on the sexual abuse from that book, and the violence in the recent riots, again, is because I’m trying to point out aspects of Tibetan society that are underreported (or not reported at all) in the West. In no way am I attempting to “describe a complex society or a complex social conflict,” my goals with this piece were: 1) to address some misperceptions about the black-and-white way the Tibet issue is often presented in the West and 2) to argue that an independent Tibet is (in the current political climate) not in the best interests of the Tibetan people.

    Perhaps the confusion is this: this is NOT an essay about the China-Tibet issue generally, nor is it really addressed to people who follow the issue closely (who should know all this stuff already). I wrote it with people I know from the States in mind, people who support “Free Tibet” based primarily on the assumption that Buddhism is better than Godlessness and anything is better than communism. They hear nothing negative about Tibet pre-1951, and they hear nothing positive about it post-1951. THOSE are the people this post is aimed at, that that’s why the focus is thusly skewed. (Well, that and that a complete analysis of the Tibet issue is way, way, way beyond the scope of a thousand-word blog post).


  7. Thanks for the clarification, but I’m not letting you off the hook here.

    1) to address some misperceptions about the black-and-white way the Tibet issue is often presented in the West

    You don’t address misconceptions by reversing black-and-white with white-and-black.

    Has it ever crossed your mind that you can’t decide your own audience and that there are hundred of thousands of Tibetans who read English and are on-line? I wager that you would think twice before you posted something similar on African or Native American culture. Put yourself into the shoes of a Tibetan, and imagine what it feels like to read stuff like you wrote here, or Shangri-la idealizations too, for that matter? I have met Tibetans who say that they feel uncomfortable interacting with “China hands” like you and me because they are fed up being lectured on their own culture by people who assume that just because they know one or two things about China, they know Tibet.

    what I said was that an exile government that hasn’t been in-country for half a century probably is. You criticize my tone and call me an orientalist, repeatedly, but you haven’t actually suggested that you even disagree with that.

    Again, ever though of other alternatives of looking at this? Unlike you I don’t presume to know what’s best for Tibetans. I support their right to discuss their future and their right to self-determination, and I try to keep up to date by reading what I come across about Tibet.

    I think Tibetans can (and should) rule themselves, although for the time being I think that rule will have to be as an autonomous region of China.

    That’s not the case today and has not been the case for the past 50 years. The government of TAR is almost completely in the hands of Han Chinese. Not a single Tibetan has been entrusted with the post of party secretary in TAR. Not a single Tibetan is a member of the powerful “Central Tibet Work Coordination Working Group” in Beijing. Tibetan is taught in schools, but is useless on the job market. Nomad Tibetans are being forced off their land and herded into shanty towns. Rural Tibetans can’t compete on the job market in the cities because fluent Mandarin is required for most jobs. Even basic construction jobs go to migrant workers. Today Lhasa is for all intents and purposes a Han Chinese town with Tibetan ghettoes. Simply put, the beneficiaries of the money that is being invested into Tibet are Han Chinese, who benefit from the structure of the economy. That’s how you create a huge underclass that is ready to riot for any excuse.


  8. I’m aware that I can’t decide my own audience, but as I said, a complete analysis is beyond the scope of this post, nor can every post be written with every potential audience in mind. Would that it could, but I simply don’t have the time. I have a full time job, a part time job, and three other major long term projects in addition to this blog, which at the moment is still being written entirely by me; I don’t have time to be all things to all people in every post, or present every situation from every possible angle. That said, this is not a “lecture” directed at Tibetans, nor do I presume to know what’s best for them, although I do presume to know that a completely independent Tibet is a bad idea, currently.

    Anyway, I think that rather than continuing this argument in comments, it might be more productive to post something. If you’d like to write your own piece, I’ll be more than happy to post it, assuming that the writing is good. (Also try to avoid using Chinese terms that are likely to get this site blocked in China. That may be an inevitability, but I’m trying to put it off as long as possible because I live in China and that would make my life difficult).


  9. There are major systemic problems in Tibet. You have a choice of getting schooling in Tibetan, but these schools are third-class and extremely underfunded, and so if you go this route it will be near impossible to get a job in the 汉族 world. And there is HUGE discrimination against Tibetans in finding work even if they do go to the Mandarin schools.

    But your average “Free Tibet” protester doesn’t know or care about this, he only knows that Dalai Lama = spiritual and cool, and Communist China = bad. I saw this one YouTube clip from this one group of protesters who flew to Beijing during the olympics, went to Tian An Men square, and lay down on the ground chanting “Free Tibet” it English. Nobody had any idea what they were saying, you can hear the spectators wondering aloud things like “他们饿了还是?” (Are they hungry or .. ?)

    So instead of encouraging our governments to have a dialogue with China about the best way to minimize racial tensions in Tibet and improve the conditions of Tibetans in Tibet in a friendly manner, we just criticize China for having bad human rights.

    Canada actually had/has a similar problem which we have not yet found the solution to, we had things called Residential Schools that took Native children away from their families and tribes and attempted to forcibly assimilate them. We had these until the 1970’s, and Native people still experience poverty, alcoholism and prejudice way more than the average white/asian/black person here.

    What won’t work is to do what George Bush and Stephen Harper have done, tactlessly say “You don’t respect human rights”, which just pisses China off. We need to say, we have some similar problems to you, here are some things that we’ve done that have helped somewhat, and here are the mistakes we’ve made that have exacerbated the problem. We need to have an open dialogue and figure out what works, rather than antagonizing China.


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