A Message to Tibetans and supporters of our cause
By Lhadon Tethong
On January 11th of this year, Chinese Communist Party leaders urged fellow government officials to "make efforts to raise to a new high the standard of work to propagandize Tibet abroad." More than just this though, they stated that they must show the "nationality relationship in the Tibetan areas is harmonious, the religious order is normal, and the social situation is stable." They talked about showing "that the general and specific policies of the central authorities on Tibet work are totally correct." This was another in a series of recent meetings on Tibet propaganda held at the very highest levels of the Chinese government.
Considering the reality on the ground in Tibet, one can’t help but wonder why they even care. They have total control inside Tibet. In terms of military and economic strength, and of course population, Tibetans are no match for the Chinese. Why do they feel the need to do all this "external propaganda" work?
The truth is that the Chinese government is fundamentally insecure because they know that Tibetans do not want to be a part of China, and never will. They are worried about the power of Tibetans in exile as well as the strong support for the Tibetan cause amongst people all over the world. They have decided that the key to maintaining long-term control of Tibet is winning the “hearts and minds” of the global public.
Here, the Chinese leaders show us their weak side and show that indeed, they want badly to be liked, and want China to be admired the world over. Here we find the key to their unraveling, and also a battle that we must be willing to fight to the end.
The enemy has turned to fight us and is waging an all-out, yet subtle, assault. This battle is in the realm of public relations and propaganda— on a global level— and it’s all about how people perceive Tibet… and China. The Chinese leaders are cunning and know that perception is reality. If they can convince people that Tibetans are better off under Chinese rule, or just confuse the issue until it’s all murky shades of grey, we will lose critical support for our struggle to end the occupation.
The Chinese government knows that it cannot win an honest debate with the world over the right of Tibetans to once again control their own country, so they change the subject. This is why the Rubin Museum of Art's controversial display of objects from Tibet— loaned by the Chinese government— matters so much. The exhibit, called Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World, represents one skirmish in this new phase of battle. People are invited to simply appreciate the richness of Tibetan culture— without any discussion about how these precious artifacts came to be in the hands of the Chinese government. The Rubin Museum exhibit is not simply a display of artifacts held by Tibetan institutions. It is part of the Chinese government’s broad strategy to convince the world that its rule in Tibet is benevolent and long-established, or at least a foregone conclusion.
And it’s working.
Already, people who identify themselves as “Tibet supporters” have said to us, “Isn’t it better that the Chinese are taking care of these items, and sharing them with the world so we can appreciate and learn about Tibetan culture?”
This is exactly what the Chinese government wants to hear. It shows that they are having success portraying themselves in a new light, as protectors and promoters of Tibetan culture.
Then there are the researchers, experts, and enthusiasts who say, “Isn’t it worth it to make a deal with the Chinese government so these artifacts aren’t just locked up in Lhasa?”
To which we must answer firmly, “No.” The cost is too great. We must not allow the fundamental issue of Tibetan sovereignty to be pushed aside, confused, or suppressed so that people can view these items, no matter how precious.
No one viewing the sacred objects on display at the Rubin Museum will be able to ignore the beauty and value of the Tibetan culture that created them. But it simply isn’t true, as some have implied, that a person viewing this exhibit will automatically become a devoted supporter of the Tibetan cause. In the end, we must ask ourselves how much we gain by having a handful more people who appreciate our cultural heritage, but remain ignorant of or inactive in our cause.
But must we bring politics to everything— even a museum exhibition?
Unfortunately, the Chinese government is making the museum, and other institutions, a battleground in China’s ruthless fight against us. If we choose not to engage them there, we lose by default. And if we continue to allow the reality of the Chinese invasion and occupation of our country to be removed from discussions of Tibetan culture, Tibetan religion, the Tibetan environment, even Tibetan identity, then our struggle for Tibetan freedom will indeed become what the Chinese government and its apologists already claim it is: a lost cause.
Lhadon Tethong is Executive Director of Students for a Free Tibet (SFT). With 650 chapters on campuses and in communities worldwide, SFT uses education, grassroots organizing, and nonviolent direct action to campaign for Tibetan independence. This article was first printed in the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress of New York and New Jersey magazine.