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Radical Chic

Whenever a protester wins the fulsome praise of politicians, the media, and especially the radical’s own mother and father, I get suspicious.

In 1993, as an angry 19-year-old, I marched against police racism in East London, coming nose-to-nose with truncheon-wielding, hot-blooded coppers. In 1994, I joined an irate throng outside the American Embassy in London to register my opposition to Clinton’s invasion of Haiti. I also marched against NATO’s bombing of the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, its air assault on Yugoslavia in 1999, and its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Not once did I receive a pat on the back from a politician or sycophantic coverage in a sympathetic broadsheet. As for my parents, they thought I was certifiably off my rocker.

How different it has been for Lucy Fairbrother, the British 23-year-old Free Tibet protester who was deported from Beijing after hanging a banner reading “Tibet will be free” outside the Bird’s Nest stadium. On Aug. 6, two days before the Olympic Games kicked off, Fairbrother and three other Free Tibet activists scaled 120-foot-tall lighting poles close to the stadium and unfurled their banner for the clicking cameras of the world media. Overnight, Lucy—the daughter of a former director of Barings Bank—was transformed into a plucky hero. Upon her arrival at London City Airport, she was snapped by swarms of paparazzi and asked for her views on the future of China and Tibet. Her grinning mug shot graced the pages of every newspaper the following day, where she was described as “brave,” “committed,” and the “best of British.” Her mother beamed with pride. “I’m so proud of her. She is doing what she feels is right, and what I feel is right,” she declared. Normally, parental approval would sound the death knell to the career of any self-respecting protester, yet in the Tale of Lucy Fairbrother, her mother’s voice merely joined the deafening chorus of approval.

This should confirm that there is nothing remotely radical, much less progressive, about jumping on the Free Tibet bandwagon. Instead, yelling “Free Tibet!” from the top of a pole in Beijing or outside the Chinese Embassy in London, where Free Tibet activists gather every day, will win you a round of applause from bankers, editors, and even Prince Charles, a supporter of the Tibet cause who is reportedly impressed by the Fairbrother girl.

“Free Tibet” has become the cry of the backward and the reactionary. Across the West, it has been turned into the pet cause of poor little rich girls (and boys) who feel disillusioned with modernity and cynical about China and for whom Tibet has become a mystical playground that must be protected from the evil forces of progress.

Though the campaign has the word “free” in its title, the Free Tibet lobby has little to say about political freedom in Tibet. It rarely demands that Tibetans be granted the right to vote or organize their own protests. Instead, it focuses on protecting the “cultural integrity” of Tibet and the religious freedom of its Buddhist monks. Students for a Free Tibet, an international group of which Lucy Fairbrother is a member, frets that Chinese development in Tibet—including its “extraction of natural resources” and its “large-scale infrastructure projects”—will “erase existing socio-cultural and political divisions between China [and Tibet].” Tellingly, activists refer to China’s presence in Tibet as a form of “cultural genocide,” where the alleged hampering of ancient practices, rather than the denial of democratic rights, is the real crime. This is a campaign not for political self-determination for the people of Tibet but for the protection of a cultural entity imagined and reified by Western activists. It is about maintaining Tibet in a time warp for the benefit of protesters cum eco-tourists.

The essentially narcissistic focus of Free Tibet campaigners is revealed in their two main obsessions: passionate opposition to China’s modernization of the Himalayan kingdom and outrage that Beijing will not allow the Dalai Lama to return and assume his “rightful” position as Tibet’s leader.

Free Tibet activists expend much of their energy campaigning against anything that smells modern—especially Chinese jobs, industry, and infrastructure. They are currently agitated by China’s construction of the Gormo-Lhasa rail line, a spectacularly ambitious project that will allow trains to run from the heart of China into Tibet. Apparently such things are a threat to Tibetans’ way of life, which—in the eyes of comfortable Westerners and the daughters of rich bankers—is honorably simple and rustic, and must be kept so.

At the same time, Western campaigners’ unquestioning support for the Dalai Lama suggests they see Tibetans as an immature people who need a godlike figure to lead them. The Dalai Lama was never elected by anybody. Indeed, some perceptive writers argue that the idolization of the Dalai Lama, by both powerful Westerners and many Tibetans themselves, has impeded the development of democracy. In her book The Tibetan Independence Movement, Jane Ardley writes, “[It] is apparent that it is the Dalai Lama’s role as ultimate spiritual authority that is holding back the political process of democratization. The assumption that he occupies the correct moral ground from a spiritual perspective means that any challenge to his political authority may be interpreted as anti-religious.”

Far from assisting the emergence of freedom, Free Tibet activists want to preserve Tibet as a museum, to keep it as a land cut off from modernity. And far from bringing democracy to Tibet, the activists’ slavish worship of the Dalai Lama has helped to stifle, as Ardley further writes, “the opportunity for opposition and expression of different views,” the very lifeblood of the democratic way.

Tibet has long been the plaything of people disillusioned with the modern world. Since James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon in 1933, in which Tibet was depicted as “Shangri-la,” it has been used and abused, turned into an idealized land of goodness and purity by aristocratic and artistic elements in the West who despise the pace of change over here and like the idea of a natural, politics-free land “over there.” In his 1991 book Sacred Tibet, Philip Rawson wrote, “Tibetan culture offers powerful, untarnished and coherent alternatives to Western egotistical lifestyles, our short attention span, our gradually more pointless pursuit of material satisfactions.”

The driving force behind Tibetophilia today is not political solidarity with the Tibetans and certainly not any positive argument for full democratic equality, but rather a sense of disgust with Western life. In Rawson’s words, “the West perceives some lack within itself” and seeks to find fulfilment in the ostensibly preserved “pure East.” Ironically, then, Free Tibet activism has a colonial bent to it: wealthy Westerners pursuing emotional occupation.

In this simple world, Tibet is always good and China is always bad. As Donald S. Lopez Jr. argues inPrisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, many Westerners talk of the Chinese in Tibet as “an undifferentiated mass of godless Communists overrunning a peaceful land devoted only to ethereal pursuits” and come to see Tibetans as “superhuman” and the Chinese as “subhuman.” That demonization fits well with the agenda of many Western governments and media outlets. Hence the adoration heaped on Ms. Fairbrother and her friends, who can congratulate themselves. They are not just idiots. They are useful idiots.  

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Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com). 

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