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Why Just a Free Tibet? How About a Free China?

Yan Sham-Shackleton

Dear Bono, Bjork and the Beasties: Free Tibet is great. But Tibet is only a fraction of the population of people who are also deserving of your celebrity activism.

July 6th was the Exiled Tibetan Spiritual and Political Leader, 1989 Nobel Prize winner, honorable highness, Dalai Lama's 69th birthday. A celebration attended by 5,000 devotees was held in Paris, and the occasion was, no doubt, honored by many of the 100,000 Tibetan refugees around the world. The six million Tibetans who reside within the Chinese owned territory of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, along with parts of the provinces of Gnash, Sichuan, and Yunnan, would have had to mark the day in secret because any outright celebration would be seen as an uprising against the Chinese government. Even owning just a photograph of Dalai Lama is outlawed in China.

Located within the mountainous regions bordering India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar, Tibet was independent until 1950, when the one-year-old Chinese Communist Party expanded into the western areas of the then Chinese border and took over the country. For the past 54 years the Buddhist people have struggled to regain their independence. Most noted was the 1959 failed uprising, which was sponsored by the US. The Dalai Lama and the rest of the remaining Tibetan government were forced into exile in India.

Since then it is estimated that 1.2 million people, one-sixth of the Tibetan population, have been murdered by the Chinese government. Their religious and historical sites are destroyed, and their language, desecrated. Last year, Tenzin Delek and Lobsang Dondrup, both Monks who continued to live in Tibet and teach religious beliefs, including autonomous ideology, were sentenced to death in a secret trial. They were accused of "terrorist activities", and denied legal representation. After much organizing from the global Tibetan community and other activists, Delek was spared. Dondrup was executed in 2003. Following the activists' efforts world-wide, six other Tibetans, were imprisoned, and an estimated 100 people went into exile. (See "The Trials of China's Tibetans", by Mickey Spiegel, International Herald Tribune, 17 February, 2004)

Indeed, there is a massive case for supporting the Tibetan Freedom and Independence movement. The West's interest in alternative spirituality, plus the enigmatic leadership of the Dalai Lama, mixed with the potent advertising of the plight of the people by western pop cultural stars such as Bono, Bjork and the Beasties Boys, have made "Free Tibet" a cause celebre. In my personal memory, the celebrity interest in Tibet started at the 1993 Oscars, when Richard Gere made a political rant against human rights abuses in China with emphasis on Tibet. "Free Tibet" then appeared in banners at the Lollapalooza tour in 1994, which grew into the "Tibetan Freedom Concert" series begun in 1996. The 1996 concert featured Eddie Vedder, Bono, De La Soul, Bjork, Radio Head, the Smashing Pumpkins, among others, and was organized by the Beastie Boys. The concert was an annual event until 2001, held in various places across the globe from London, to Amsterdam, Chicago, Sydney, Tokyo, New York, DC, and San Francisco, (Tibetan Freedom Concert). The live recordings were broadcast on MTV and spawned a three CD box set from songs recorded in 1996 and 1997.

From then on, "Free Tibet" bumper stickers could be found affixed to the bumpers of old, beat-up cars on college campuses all over California and Seattle, right alongside other progressive messages protesting war, and favoring women/labor/immigrant rights. It was understood: the Chinese government was evil in its oppression of the peaceful, religious people of the Himalayan country under its rule. For the last two years of my college education in California, I found myself having to listen to a lot of angry white college kids giving me an earful about the errors of my perceived government. I was not particularly fond of the Chinese government myself, and I was acutely aware that soon, the British handover of Hong Kong to China was about to take place.

But not one of my colleagues at my overtly liberal University of California (U of C), Santa Cruz institution, seemed particularly concerned about the plight of the people of Hong Kong. They were unaware of Chinese dissidents such as Wang Dan, who was still in jail for his participation in the 1989 democratic movement. They didn't know that Chinese missiles were trained on the island of Taiwan; the Taiwanese were routinely threatened by "military exercise" throughout the late '90s.

They were oblivious to the every day oppression suffered by the mainland Chinese people. The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) was a totalitarian regime; among other things, it mandated that Chinese Han, Tibetan, and other ethnic minority women undergo forced abortions in order to comply with China's one child policy. It continues to imprison and torture dissidents; Chinese and Tibetan, alike. In fact just last month Dr. Jiang Yanyong, 72, a semi-retired surgeon turned political dissident, was jailed for "reeducation" and "indoctrination" and will remain jailed until he agrees with the policies of the government regarding the events of 4 June 1989 in Tiananmen Square. ("Chinese Pressure Dissident Physician Hero of SARS Crisis, Detained Since June 1", Washington Post Foreign Service, 5 July 2004.)

Here is my question to the promoters and attendees of the "Tibetan Freedom Concert", to my colleagues at U of C, and to all the well-intended people who are concerned about Tibet. Why is the world, or at least the big name western stars, focused only upon the oppression of just six million people in a country of a billion? Is it easier to isolate and contain the Tibetan cause because one people's colonial situation is easier to grasp than the complex, messy situation of an entire country? Is it a romantic image thing; monks wearing orange robes, living in a beautiful, mountainous country, pitted against unfeeling soldiers wearing green Mao uniforms? That's certainly more image ready and PR friendly than that of the plight of a billion living in a giant land mass. The idea and pursuit of freedom should be universal; be it for those who live in concrete and steel highrises in Hong Kong, peasants in rural Hunan, or the people of Tibet. Freedom is a cause worth fighting for, for all of China, right now.





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