Feature photo courtesy of the Canada Tibet Committee
The present North American political context is defined by the perpetuation of deep fear, factual inaccuracy, and the subordination of Otherness. It is one characterized by the struggles of neoliberalism and the politics of greed and fracture which accompany it. In the wake of the recent American election, radical right-wing political projects to limit migrant and refugee rights, and complete destructive pipeline projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline have made this social reality unquestionably explicit. Even if today’s situation may seem unique in recent Canadian and American memories, the projects of the present are mere contributions to a much broader global trend towards unrestrained growth and private ownership. Tibet seems perhaps an unlikely place from which to understand the challenges afflicting today’s North American context, though the sustained struggle of its traditional inhabitants offers a model for resilience in the face of powerful oppressive institutions.
In 1950, The People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet and by the end of 1951 had annexed the entire Tibetan Plateau. The young Dalai Lama, who serves as the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan nation, sought common ground with the occupying power to no avail. On March 10, 1959, tensions culminated in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, leading to massive uprisings, during which more than 10,000 people are believed to have been killed. Following these uprisings, the Dalai Lama fled his ancestral homeland to exile in India, followed by around 80,000 Tibetans. The Indian city of Dharamsala is now home to both the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration: the governing authority which Tibetans consider legitimate. Due to its significance in the collective Tibetan memory, March 10 now serves as an international day of resistance against China’s abusive colonialism.
Lhasa, the historical religious and political capital of Tibet, lies in an area designated by the Chinese as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Despite what the name suggests, the region’s government largely advances Chinese Communist Party (CPC) directives through a local “people’s congress” designed by and answering to the CPC. In order to have any real influence in local politics, Tibetans must join their local Communist Party branch, where the atheism required for membership effectively prohibits representation for the Buddhist majority. International labor and human rights organizations are categorically banned from working in the region, while access for foreign journalists and diplomats is extremely limited and restricted only to government-approved areas.
Despite the façade of modernization propagated by the Chinese government, Tibet is one of the most severely repressed places in the world. The region ranks at the bottom of Freedom House’s 2016 ‘Freedom in the World index,’ second only to Syria. Acts as harmless as possessing a photo of the Dalai Lama are met with arrest and beatings, while political dissidents are routinely silenced with lengthy prison sentences and torture. This has led to a frustrating tension within Tibetan society: while the Dalai Lama’s pacifist message emphasizes nonviolent resistance, avenues for such resistance have been blocked off by the Chinese regime.
Both culturally and naturally, Tibet is under profound threat. At three miles above sea level, Tibet is the source of several of Asia’s major rivers, which leads to its popular characterization as the ‘roof of the world.’ The detrimental effects of climate change are often first and most intensely experienced within the region through droughts, which devastate local agricultural practices, melting of permafrost grounds which form the foundations for countless communities, and the loss of a myriad of keystone species which provide a crucial source of food in the harsh environment. More directly, Chinese presence within the region has radically disrupted environmental autonomy through the development of invasive damming projects and by way of pollution via mining industries and nuclear waste disposal sites throughout remote portions of Tibet.
Such kinds of ecological domination must necessarily be conceived of as inseparable from social forms of oppression, wherein Tibetans are limited in their freedom to practice indigenous spirituality and Tibetan Buddhism. Since the Chinese Cultural Revolution from the mid-1960s to 70s, 99 per cent of Buddhist monasteries have been closed at the hands of the state. Most recently, China has begun the destruction of Larung Gar, one of the largest religious communities in the world populated by over 10,000 practicing Buddhists. Due to the nonviolent teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, a radical act of political protest has been popularized: self-immolation. In response to the desecration of their way of life, 146 Tibetans aged 16 to 64 have self-immolated since 2009.
Because of their lack of political rights and meaningful representation in formal governing structures. Tibetans have had to look to alternative forms of mobilization. Direct action such as disruptive protesting has become the norm, as the only practical way to seek change. Within Tibet, significant actions have been undertaken, not by political elites but rather by everyday Tibetans. Outside of Tibet, a transnational social movement has transpired thanks to the advances of social media. Tibetans in exile, despite being scattered across the globe, have set up various issue-oriented interest groups such as the Canada Tibet Committee and Students for a Free Tibet. Unfortunately, countries consistently disregard the situation within Tibet and continue to treat China with deference. In fact, due to Chinese pressure, South Africa has consistently refused the Dalai Lama entry, notably for fellow nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu’s 80th Birthday celebrations in 2011 as well as for the 14th World Summit of World Peace Laureates of 2014. Other countries to act as such include Mongolia and Norway.
Ultimately, globalization has acted as an empowering force for the Chinese state and has granted it considerable commercial, economic and diplomatic power on the international stage. Canada has contributed to Tibet’s contemporary challenges in the form of extractive mining developments. Companies previously financed by Canada, such as China Gold, aid the project of colonialism and environmental devastation through mining techniques involving the pollution of local water sources, resource extraction, and exploitive labor practices. Tibetans hired to work at these mines frequently face dire health consequences and become cyclically impoverished as they come to depend on the menial wages they receive from the industry.
In the early 1970s, Canada was one of only two Western nations (the other being Switzerland) to offer resettlement to Tibetan refugees. However, Canada has had a mixed record, choosing to adopt a foreign policy of “principled pragmatism” with respect to China. This has translated into a careful diplomatic balancing act aimed at appeasing the Chinese government on the one hand, while maintaining the carefully cultivated image of a country that recognizes human rights as a cornerstone of is international relations. In fact, having de-linked human rights and trade to the point of withdrawing support for a United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution on China in 1997, Canada has effectively excused itself from putting meaningful pressure on China. The likely-impending free trade deal between our two nations will likely increase Canada’s involvement in the economic colonization of Tibet.
China’s far-reaching economic and political influence does not mean there is nothing we, as Canadian individuals, can do to sustain the resistance movement. The Chinese government is extremely sensitive about its reputation and sustained pro-Tibet movements here and elsewhere in the world have had a tremendous impact, leading to the release of numerous jailed dissidents. Showing solidarity with the struggle of Tibetans on March 10 sends an important signal to the government of China that the oppression with which they meet Tibet’s nonviolent resistance movement is not ignored by the world. Standing with Tibet means standing against injustice and colonialism everywhere. Bhod Gyalo!
For more information or to find out how you can show solidarity with Tibetans, please contact the Canada Tibet Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org.