As I type, protesters gather in San Fransisco along the route of the Olympic Torch. I’ll wager many, if not most of those gathered have little idea that they are hypocrites. Strong words. I know. I’m little disgruntled. Banners hang from the Golden Gate bridge, and “Free Tibet” is the mantra, but what does it really mean? I want to ask those people why it is that they’re there.
That the people of Tibet live under an oppressive government, there can be little doubt. China’s record of human rights abuses is well documented. I read recently in Julia Sweeney’s blog her account of the plight of Tibetans, and I couldn’t help but feel moved. It’s heartbreaking, what’s happened to the people and their culture.
Just moments ago I heard the Chinese Governor of Tibet on Radio 4, insisting that the Olympic Torch will travel through Tibet, as planned. He issued a stern warning that protests along the Tibetan route will not be tolerated. He explained that China had brought democracy to the people of Tibet, that before the Chinese government got involved, Tibet was a feudal society, with a rigid social caste system.
Obviously what they call “democracy” in China is not really democracy – a few more freedoms and you’d be a little closer, but still not there. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press would do, though, for a start. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that the Chinese rhetoric, about “bringing democracy” to a people hungry for change, sounded very familiar. Where had I heard that before? Oh yes. I remember now. It’s not terribly different than the rhetoric coming from Britain and the US, with regard to Iraq.
Let’s look at the similarities. Invading a country illegally, and overwhelming the population with vastly superior military forces. Check. Topple the country’s government and imprison and/or assassinate its leaders. I’m not saying Saddam Hussein was a noble leader and a great guy, and didn’t deserve what he got. And the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, yes, a technicality. If he’d stayed, he’d likely still be in prison. Or dead. So, check. Set up a new system of government and instill your own handpicked leaders to rule the country. Check. Set up camp, stay for decades, even if it’s clear that the people you came to “save” want you out. Check, and… well I guess we’ll have to wait and see about the staying for decades part, though it looks fairly clear that we’ve settled in for the long haul.
And therein lies the hypocrisy. Why do the banners flying from the Golden Gate bridge say “Free Tibet” and not “Free Iraq”? Perhaps the image of gentle Buddhist monks fighting, in robes, for their freedom, is simply easier to identify with than that of machine-gunned wielding, armed to the teeth Muslim insurgents, fighting for exactly the same thing. Maybe it’s that it’s China’s fault, not ours. It’s always easier to put someone else’s house in order than it is to see the dirt in your own. I know whenever a friend is in trouble, any friend, I feel certain that life would improve for her, that life would be so much better for her – perfect, in fact – if only she’d step out of the way and let me run her life for a little while. I’m sure I know best.
I’ll be the first to admit that my own reason for shouting “Free Tibet” at the TV last Sunday, as the Olympic Torch made its halting progress through London, is that China scares me. Not the Chinese people, mind.* China. It’s big, it outnumbers me, it’s exhaling carbon into my atmosphere; gobbling up resources like there’s no tomorrow, and if it keeps on like this, there may not be. Still, the difference between “Free Tibet” and “Free Iraq” is one of semantics. I know this. And maybe some of the San Fransisco protesters do too. China is embarrassed by “Free Tibet”, and that is not a bad thing. It’s good to see China with a little egg fu yung on its collective face. Pardon me for a moment while I wipe my own.
*My father visited China years ago, and found the people warm, friendly and very ready to laugh at the tall man, with the red beard, wearing the Emperor’s robes at the Summer Palace. Chinese people are, by my father’s accounts, wonderful. I hope to visit them one day.