09 Apr 2008

Any excuse for a protest.

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.

Posted on April 9, in Blog


  1. Sleepycat wrote:

    The thing is, I wouldn’t doubt many of those same people are also among the large numbers of Americans protesting the war in Iraq. That just doesn’t get press anymore since it’s such a regular occurrence.

    I just feel sorry for the athletes caught in the middle of all of this mess.

    Posted on 4.9.08 ·
  2. Karen wrote:

    And, as I watch this on the news, I can’t imagine how it could possibly make a difference. I have heard that the US ended involvement in Viet Nam due in part to the massive protests so I can only hope opposition to the invasion in Iraq could have some effect, but the Chinese government ain’t listening to us!

    Posted on 4.9.08 ·
  3. Cara wrote:

    I work in San Francisco and barely a week goes by without a protest to get out of Iraq and to impeach Bush. Most of the people here (like myself) did not vote for the president or the war. It happens so regularly that I view it as a minor inconvenience on my way to work, which is a definite shame.

    Posted on 4.9.08 ·
  4. I understand your point/frustration Brenda, but I agree with Sleepycat. I’m from that area and visit often. Protests about Iraq are frequent as well but don’t get the publicity. The big issue in the news now, for right or wrong, is China and the Olympics. So the protests being shown are China and the Olympics. I don’t think hypocrisy is the appropriate word…except maybe used toward the media, not the protestors.

    Posted on 4.9.08 ·
  5. Jasmin wrote:

    When the war on Iraq started (in 2003), I was attending a women’s college in Oakland. SF was a shuttle ride away, and the protests made the major news- for maybe two weeks. Now it’s old news. People can’t stay out of work and school forever, and after the protesters in San Francisco clogged up the streets for a few days, things went back to normal.

    I suppose you could say that those of us who vote are protesters. Get the warmongers out of office, and we’ll see how things shape up.

    Posted on 4.9.08 ·
  6. M-H wrote:

    Karen, I think you’ll find that the US pulled out of Vietnam because it wasn’t winning the war. To be bIunt, the US lost. I remember it well. I really don’t care about the torch; people have a right to protest if they want to. But I am disturbed that the Chinese government is determined to take the torch relay through Tibet – I think that is a bridge too far and I hope that they can be made to see sense at an international level.

    Posted on 4.10.08 ·
  7. Juliann wrote:

    I think this is rather unfair: as it has been pointed out much of the same people *DO* protest what is going on in Iraq and also there’s no rule (or even agreed custom) that says we must protest everything worth protesting ALL AT THE SAME TIME. It would dilute the messages at the very least and be confusing at best. Free Tibet, Iraq, bring democracy to Pakistan, Myanmar, hey even “our allies” the Saudis — just because we don’t bring out the laundry list every single time doesn’t mean that we don’t still care about more than one cause at a time. The Olympics just highlight the China issue and therefore make it a good time and place to discuss TIbet but not, say, the lack of sufficient wheelchair accessible transport in Britain. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped caring that I can’t use the Tube just because I didn’t hold up a sign about it as an Olympic torch rushed past.

    What strikes me as hypocrisy are people who are in favour of Tibet and yet are placidly supporting the Olympics anyway. I know that it is really rough for the athletes, but I think the people of Tibet need my support more than the atheletes of my countries. I’ll be boycotting anything and everything to do with the Olympics for that reason (yes, even Knitting Olympics if there are any this year).

    Posted on 4.10.08 ·
  8. Sasha wrote:

    Isn’t it revolting that the Iraq issue has become old-news and uninteresting to the media now, I’m sure the families and individuals struggling through the horror of life there at the moment aren’t finding it old and uninteresting now simply because time has passed.

    I feel that the fact that something has gone on for such a long time (and as you say appears likely to continue still) is reason to pay it MORE attention not tire of it and move on to other topics.

    Posted on 4.10.08 ·
  9. tea wrote:

    my thoughts exactly!!!!! is the fact that we’re in Europe a factor? does it all look different from here?

    Posted on 4.10.08 ·
  10. Cristina wrote:

    I’ve been avoiding making an opinion on the matter, and have remained quiet so far in my work discussions about the matter. However, this is the internets, so I might try to say something. So thanks Brenda for giving me a place where I can think and voice my opinions.

    The reason I have avoided an opinion is that I’m not sure where I stand (let me explain, don’t jump on me just yet). I agree Tibet is under an oppressive government with no regard for human rights, and I agree that it is also happening in other places.
    But I like the Olympics. I like what they represent. Citius, altius, fortius. The human individual overcoming. I’ve watched the Olympics as long as I can remember, and loved all of it. And I think that, for me, in the end, the human power will overcome everything else. Horrible as it may sound in this case, I do regard them as above everything else.

    Ok, there. You may shoot me now 🙂

    Posted on 4.10.08 ·
  11. Zabet wrote:

    Cristina, I agree with you on both those counts, but I also think it’s hypocritical to let China host the Olympics when they are doing what they are doing in Tibet. (I would say the same thing for letting the U.S. have the Olympics right now, too.)

    And it is a shame that the same media system that brought the horror of the Vietnam war home and helped to end it is now to blame for desensitizing the public to said horrors and to be so advertising-driven that they are always looking for the next new story to keep us interested.

    Posted on 4.10.08 ·
  12. Renee wrote:

    when I saw your post, I thought it was going to hit closer to home — such as, all the stuff we in Britain and America buy from China because it’s cheaper than paying living wages to those who make the goods. Everytime we buy these goods made in China from Target, and Walmart, we are participating in the system.

    Sure, the Iraq war is horrible, but there are many protests happening — one right in my city on the 5th anniversary. The thing is, our political election is engaged on this issue, there are Congressional hearings on it. The political system is responding, although here in the US, that won’t be ’til November.

    On the other hand, ’til the Tibetan activists focused on the torch relay and the monks rebelled, not much was happening. Now, we’ve got Bush making statements about the need for China to engage with the Dalai Lama, and a lot of pushing internationally. He’s having to figure out whether to go to this charade this summer. The protests started a new engagement.

    Posted on 4.10.08 ·
  13. Melissa wrote:

    Did China invent the Olympics? No, they didn’t. They just happen to be the host country this time around. If the Olympics were taking place in ..oh..i don’t know..France..would people be disrupting this celebration of global unity with Free Tibet Protests? No, they wouldn’t. I’m all for a free Tibet, freedom of speech, but I love the Olympics and it makes me sad that people are treating IT like the enemy!
    Thanks Brenda for your thoughts on this topic. I think I need to pick up my pointy sticks now..I really hate to get worked up about things!

    Posted on 4.11.08 ·
  14. Erin wrote:

    I’m not positive what things are like in Britain, but in the US, protests about Iraq happen A LOT. It doesn’t seem fair to paint the Tibet protesters as hypocrites just because they’re using this highly publicized opportunity to make their voices heard and hopefully embarrass China into listening.

    I do agree with some of the other commenters that it’s unfortunate the Olympics may get tainted by all this, especially when the athletes work so hard.

    Posted on 4.11.08 ·
  15. Angelina wrote:

    Hi, brenda

    I too, have visited China – lived there for a short while, and LOVE the people, and am terrified of their government. I currently live just outside of San Francisco (having recently moved back to the Bay Area from Tennessee) and there are pretty much perpetual protests of our presence in Iraq going on – have been for years now, they just don’t get much press these days. I am also in the interesting position of working with a very dear woman who is, with her family, in exile from Tibet. There were, according to my co-worker, a very large number of Tibetans in SF on Wednesday (she was there with her husband), and they felt very much supported by the people who were there with them who were not Tibetan. I don’t know what effect the protest had, if it will help the plight of the Tibetans at all, if it will affect the Olympics (I hate it for the athletes that it is such a source of strife, but I hate even more that China got the Olympics… but that’s another beef), but I know that Sonam and her family feel less alone knowing that some people cared enough to come out that day not knowing what would happen. The big demonstrations in San Francisco ended peacefully, but that was not guaranteed, so the folks who showed up *were* taking their chances… Sorry if this sounds at all like a rant, it’s not meant to.

    oakland, ca

    Posted on 4.12.08 ·
  16. Angelina wrote:

    i just realized that I echoed a lot of other folks in the comments regarding protests and the bay area…. sorry for being redundant!

    Posted on 4.12.08 ·
  17. alke wrote:

    It makes me happy to hear in the comments, that what we see is not the whole truth, as it always is.

    But – I HAVE TO AGREE with Brenda, as she describes the picture, the ‘rest of the world’ sees. And there is lots of us, inhabitants of the ‘rest of the world’. Which at this point also includes China – and Iraq for that matter.

    We do not control the media, we are all subject to selective views of the truth, knowing that, maybe we all have to change some views about each other….. don’t we?

    Posted on 4.12.08 ·
  18. Bonnee wrote:

    Flame throwers ready? Make sure they’re charged… Okay, I’ve got my Kevlar. Vietnam was never our war. France requested “military advisors” to aide them in their struggle for power. (Shall I make a comment about the irony of that compared to Iraq now? No, let’s not.) Kennedy swelled the numbers from 25K “advisors” to 500K in his short term in office. It was Nixon who recognized that we never belonged there in the first place and got us out. Yes, the protests helped. Yes, the Tibetan people need to see the Dalai Lama returned to his palace and that cannot happen as long as China holds sway. But I also remember the boycotted Olympics of the ’70s in Moscow and how politics interfered with the lives of individuals and dashed their dreams because of a political statement. While I abhor what China has done for the last 40+ years in Tibet, I will not hold it against the athletes of the Olympics nor the individuals of a particular country. Keep the politics in our governments and the government out of our sports. Do you _really_ want me to rant about Congress investigating the use of steriods in baseball? That’s why baseball has Bud Seelig. I’d much rather see Congress spend my tax dollars in the form of their salary looking into the outrageous price gouging at the gas stations.

    Feel free to rally. Feel free to protest. But an athlete works their entire life for one possible moment that might be all theirs to shine. Must we tarnish that shine because we don’t like the politics of the host country? China was already ensconced in Tibet years ago when they won the bid to host the games. The protest time was then. Yes, it might be now also, but don’t take away from the athletes who’ve worked hard to get to the Games because we don’t like the host country.

    Posted on 4.12.08 ·
  19. Karen S wrote:

    I’m a little suprised that people choose to attact the Olympic flame as a protest against the Chinese suppresion… I’m agains the occupation of Tibeth (and Irac for that sake as well), but the Olympic flame does not have anything to do with this suppression, it actually symbolizes the good things in humanity and the ability for all to join in sports and cheering. Furthermore why attack innocent athletes and people that are given the huge opportunity to carry such a symbol? They have nothing to do with China’s occupation, and they have certainly not deserved to be at the receiving end of violent protest.
    I support protests, I support rallies, but why oh why, do everything have to end in violence. Why can nobody remember the words of Gandi anymore… that peaceful protests are often more effective…

    Thanks for a really great blog and podcast.

    Posted on 4.16.08 ·
  20. Meg wrote:

    After only very slightly dipping my toes into the deep waters of studying the current political climate in China (and finding myself deeply worried about multiple issues: the judicial system & its lack of separation from the central government, certain health policy decisions to deny the presence of HIV that endanger the Chinese people, and the tenuous positions the government put ethnic minorities to just name a few) I have to say that I am worried about Tibet’s situation. Do I think an Olympic torch protest is the most fitting setting to air grievances? No. It’s not exactly in spirit with the games. Do I call it hypocritical, though? No. it’s quite possible that each of those protesters highly disagrees with the US’s actions in Iraq. I do in most respects. I think they were taking advantage of media opportunities to bring the issue to a wider audience; which makes sense for their purposes. They didn’t want to protest athletes or the Olympic spirit from what I have heard and seen. They want to protest China’s policies and are making use of the world stage. You have to do something new to catch the public’s attention; holding yet another benefit concert doesn’t cut it.

    I think, as with most things, that if you become too fervent, then you can go overboard. Letting the situation devolve into violence wasn’t necessary. A peaceful protest with the proper setting is always to be desired. Unfortunately, the whole issue isn’t so simple. A lovely symbol can be perverted, as Hitler tried to do with the Olympics (thank goodness for Jesse Owens & company for showing him up.) , and this may well be somewhat similar in terms of how China views the games. The games are a potential public relations goldmine. Additionally, going ballistic with a protest about human rights & the freedom of Tibet wasn’t without its flaws. In the end, the place that needed to see the news of it most, China, never saw a thing on Chinese state television (though, perhaps they got wind on the internet).

    Sorry for being long-winded.. and Brenda, as ever, I wait with baited breath for your next podcast.

    Posted on 4.21.08 ·
  21. Evelyn wrote:

    And then we Americans could also take a look at our “occupation” of Hawaii, which is probably very comparable to China’s occupation of Tibet. http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080428/langer

    For that matter, probably the nearest parallel to what is happening to Tibetans in this century is what happened to Native Americans in the 19th century.

    I totally believe that Tibet is a separate country from China and deserves to be free. But the fact is that overrunning a less-technologically developed people and destroying their culture is hardly unique to China.

    Posted on 5.10.08 ·

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