Alison Tilley
Alison Tilley

Games over, free Tibet

‘Games over, Free Tibet’ is one of the really good slogans coming out of the Free Tibet campaign. The campaign has got a lot of press recently. Mostly, of course, because of the useful insistence of the Chinese on parading the Olympic flame through cities in which there are a bunch of Tibetan exiles and Free Tibet campaigners. People throwing themselves physically at Chinese security on camera will always make headline news.

Between the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, the Tibetan cause has had some good press over the last 10 years, during which time the cause went from obscure to cult fashionable to mainstream. These are the words of Patrick French, in his book Tibet, Tibet (Harper Perennial Publishers, 2003). I love the whole idea of Tibet. Most of my knowledge of Tibet comes from climbing books. (Books about climbing, not clambering up piles of books).

I don’t climb, but I love a well–written account of frostbite, fear, and brewing tea at 8000m. I think mostly this is because some days it seems brewing tea in my kitchen isn’t that different from 8000m, give or take a bit of oxygen.

Be that as it may, solemn Sherpas, burning juniper bushes, passing chortens clockwise, and prayer flags flapping are the backdrops to many of the high altitude accounts I have read. But it seems I may have been misled. The point made by French very poignantly is that this ‘Tibet of the mind’ is gone, and maybe never was. He subtitles the book ‘A personal history of a lost land’, and describes his travels through a place which is both a tourist attraction, and a place of death and suffering. He tries at one point to work out how many Tibetans died as a result of the Chinese invasion. He makes it 500 000. Apparently this is less than is sometimes said. It seems enough.

Even in exile, the Tibetans he describes are very far from the selfless other worldly stereotype. He writes with genuine awe of the Dalai Lama, whose kneeling and greeting of French’s five-year-old son he describes as deeply moving. But he also describes Tibetans in Dharamsala caught in a web of patronage to rich foreigners who try and buy their way into a way of life that is worthless as soon as it is for sale.

He doesn’t seem to think the Free Tibet campaign is going to work, partly because the Chinese will never accept it, and partly because you cannot free something that has been crushed to death already. I hate that idea. I want there to be somewhere in the world like Tibet, where people put yak butter in their tea, and prayer wheels spin and spin, and monks with saffron robes chant ceaselessly.

And if I can’t have that, then can’t I at least have a good campaign, where people climb the Golden Gate bridge, and hang up banners calling for freedom? French seems to feel that such a campaign may make me feel better, but not necessarily contribute to freedom in Tibet. It may only contribute to oppression and fear, and a further clampdown. He says the only realistic hope is to work within the Chinese system, and wait for reform in Beijing.

However, there are talks reported to be taking place between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama, or his representatives. He will apparently not be asking for a free Tibet, but more autonomy for Tibetans. He would, no doubt, say that we must treat the Chinese with compassion, and believe they are capable of good. As another icon said, in every speech I heard him give, “There are good men and women everywhere.”

The Chinese have yielded a little. I think they might yield more. There is place for people working within the system, but there is also place for pressure from the outside. So, on the premise that there are good men and women everywhere, I think I have joined the Free Tibet campaign.