Whatever happened to “Free Tibet”?
With its heyday probably twenty years ago, it used to be a major cause celebre for artists and activists, with bumper stickers adorning countless cars, including – proverbially – the early Priuses. It was mostly a thing of the left (certainly in Australia it was largely associated with the Greens) and the hippies and New Agers enchanted by the wit and wisdom of the Dalai Lama, spruiking his version of Buddhism from exile. This probably scared many people off, which is a pity because the question of Tibetan independence shouldn’t be judged on the merits of its incense burning Western supporters.
So what happened? Tibet is certainly still not free – if anything the things have gotten worse on the rooftop of the world – but the campaign has largely dropped out of the public consciousness. I don’t quite know the answer myself. Maybe some political causes, like fashion trends, have limited life spans. Maybe the left has learned to stop worrying and live with China as one of the few viable alternatives to the “Western neoliberal world order”. Maybe China has become too rich and powerful to hope that candle-lit vigils for Lhasa will do any good.
So what’s been happening in Tibet lately, just out of interest?
China is pushing hundreds of thousands of Tibetans into forced labour camps, mirroring a program in the western Xinjiang region, as the International Olympic Committee is urged to strip Beijing of the Winter Olympics.
New evidence suggests the Chinese government now has a large-scale mandatory “vocational training” program in Tibet, pushing more than 500,000 rural labourers into recently built military-style training centres in the first seven months of this year alone.
The evidence has been compiled by German anthropologist Dr Adrian Zenz, whose research was instrumental in raising the profile of the security build-up and mass detention of Uighurs in China’s remote Xinjiang province.
The labour camps are accompanied by enforced indoctrination, intrusive surveillance, and harsh punishments for those who fail to meet labour transfer quotas, according to the research.
Since the total population of Tibet is just over 3 million people – of which an unknown proportion are ethnic Han Chinese that Beijing is resettling there in order to alter the demographic balance within the “autonomous province” – half a million is a massive chunk of the population, probably twice the ratio of 1 in 10 Uighurs (one out of 10 million) experiencing the joys of Chinese “vocational education” in Xinjiang. Speaking of Xinjiang, the Australian Strategic Policy now believes that there 40 per cent more detention camps in the province than previously thought.
As the Uighurs are now more of a right than a left-wing cause* (in line with the more general scepticism of and opposition to China as an aggressive dictatorship, hostile to Western values), it will be interesting to see if the cause of Tibet eventually too becomes reincarnated on the right. For those with long memories, it will be quite ironic.
* it’s certainly not a Muslim cause as Muslim governments around the world consider China too important to give a shit about their coreligionists in Central Asia.