The Problem with the Free Tibet Movement

The main problem is that it’s never going to happen.

When your supreme leader admits that full independence is not a realistic goal, that’s a pretty good indication that you should settle. The true aim of the Tibetans should be a return to the days when Tibet and China mostly left each other alone, each deferring to the other in either political or spiritual matters. But it seems the window of that opportunity is long past.

It used to be that Chinese emperors considered the Dalai Lama to be their spiritual guide, while the Tibetans conceded Beijing as the political center. When the Qing dynasty collapsed (and even before, since things were falling apart for a while), Tibet enjoyed a short period of independence – about 30 years. The Japanese invaded China and then there was the civil war, all of which couldn’t have concerned the Tibetans less, as they sat up in their safe Himalayan suite and let China implode.

The trouble started brewing when things settled down under Communism and Mao started ruminating about how to get his fat paws on Tibet again. A series of unfortunate things happened then which led to the current predicament.

First, the Tibetan leadership decided against modernization. Although they briefly flirted with raising a proper army and moving past their feudal economy, the project was eventually shelved under pressure from certain factions of the nobility. Hence the country was left defenseless and poor.

Second, as it became more obvious that the Commies were coming, the Tibetans reached out to Great Britain and America, who essentially left them twisting in the wind. For decades, the Western powers walked a fine line on Tibet. They had direct communication with the Dalai Lama and his ministers, but they never formally acknowledged Tibet as a free and sovereign state. They always deferred to the China line that Tibet was a part of the Motherland. When the pivotal moment came, the US and Britain decided that their interests laid in trade with China. They have never wavered from that decision, except as PR posturing.

Think about what could have happened if my country and Britain had shown some spine when it counted. Look at Mongolia and Taiwan. The American and British governments supported Chiang Kai-shek as he fled to Taiwan, and they kept up that support for 50 years. Now Taiwan is de facto independent, with their own passports, Olympic teams, and UN seat. Russia did the same for Mongolia, which became officially independent of China. The same could have happened for Tibet if my government and the British had cared at all. But there was no reason for them to – because despite all the nonsense my government spits about human rights, it always comes down to money, and there was none to be made from Tibet. Guess what, there still isn’t – and there’s even more to lose from getting on the wrong side of China. You can’t bite the hand that holds your debt.

In Taiwan, we had the Nationalists, whom we had supported full-bore, getting their asses thrashed by the Commies and retreating to the island. The US had to keep supporting them in order not to lose face, and I suppose because they thought it would be prudent to have a little satellite colony off the coast of the behemoth China.

But Tibet was another issue. The Americans probably saw it as more of a British responsibility, since the Brits owned India until just before Mao took over China, and as the Tibet question reared its head again after “liberation,” the Brits deferred to the Indian government, who knew there was more to gain by befriending Mao than by pissing him off. When the Brits passed on helping Tibet, so did the Yanks.

And that unhappy sequence has basically remained in stasis up to the present. The chance for real Tibetan independence passed with the fall of the Nationalists and the rise of the Communists. That was the last opportunity Tibet had to fight for its freedom. But they were unprepared. They would have been slaughtered, and since no one came to their aid they wisely accepted a deal which handed power to Mao. The deal called for Tibetan culture and power structures to remain intact. It was unique to all the other territories Mao conquered, and the Dalai Lama felt it might work. But of course it unraveled as Mao got crazier and the Dalai Lama eventually fled to India.

Change is good. Reforms can help. But anyone who thinks that a free Tibet, independent of China, is going to happen while the Commies are still in power is dreaming. The only way to try would be through mass violence, but it would fail because China is much more powerful and they care way more about keeping Tibet than they do about keeping the Olympics. The Dalai Lama understands this. The tragedy is that he’s been away from his people so long that many of them aren’t interested in what he has to say anymore.