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The price we pay when we ignore the meaning of “Free Tibet!”

By Precious Vida Yamaguchi


At the end of the summer of 2007, in México City, a weeklong celebration took place between México and China for their 35 years of diplomatic relations.  There were Chinese cultural shows organized by the embassy to celebrate the on-going relationship between México and China since 1972. 


China’s President Hu Jintao and México’s President Felipe Calderón marked the anniversary of partnership in trade and cooperative political and economic exchanges.  On the last day of the celebration, a small cluster of México’s Tibetan Support Group protested the square yelling “Free Tibet!” 


The United States and México have presently been engaging in close trade, cultural, and economic relations with China. Every once in a while, somewhere in the distant background or on a passing bumper sticker we see the phrase “Free Tibet!” 


Do we know what this phrase means and the ongoing struggle of Tibet’s freedom from China?  To get a better idea of the role China has played in the control of religious and cultural freedom, I visited Tibet to see for myself what lies behind this phrase that we hear occasionally but have little idea of what the people, land, and culture of Tibet actually looks like and why it is at stake.

The location of the Tibetan Autonomous Region is a mountainous land that borders China, India, and Nepal. China claims that Tibet is part of their country but it has a history of people, who live very different lives, speak their own language, and identify themselves as their own people.


As China undergoes a rapid development in becoming one of world’s largest manufacturers in exported goods ranging from clothing, electronics, plastics, and steel, its identity as a newly capitalist country is having an extreme effect on the culture of the local Tibetans. 


As published on the Government of Tibet in Exile’s website [www.tibet.com], the Chinese government has increased its authority in Tibet, “the manifest objective, however, is to strengthen political control and to make rural Tibet look modern and therefore more presentable to the outside world.” 

Even the government’s website is entitled “The Government of Tibet in Exile,” since the Dalai Lama is currently in exile and has relocated to India.  Along with the Dalai Lama, over 250,000 Tibetans, one-tenth of the population, has been relocated into new government housing at “their own expense and without their consent.


What “Free Tibet!” means is to give Tibet the support in regaining their freedom of religion, cultural practices, nomadic life, and the ability to identify their region as autonomous from China. Tibet and their challenge to regain control of their land and culture from China are ongoing struggles.  Many Tibetans walk on foot to India, where the Dalai Lama now resides in exile. 

I came to visit this location at a very critical time because the Chinese government has gained a lot of control of this region and is developing within it very quickly.  The changes are not just ones a person can see visually, such as new buildings, structures, and huge Chinese government buildings within the region, but this drastically changes the culture too.

The Chinese government has built roads and housing for the Tibetan locals, which has made a big change on their lifestyle. Many Tibetans are nomads who follow the animals and the seasons through the mountains and terrain.  Living in government housing is something very new to them.  The Chinese government’s perspective is that they are doing something beneficial for the Tibetans; however the Tibetans believe that the Chinese government is trying to control their region and their culture.


The presence of the Chinese government is very visible here and the main city of Tibet, Lhasa, is looking more and more like an ordinary Chinese city. The blue sky is a contrast to most coal-dust and smog-ridden cities that lie under heavy clouds of pollution. The Himalayas give a holy-presence that is now being crowded by buildings and Chinese shopping centers below.  Besides the numerous amounts of Chinese stores, restaurants, and hotels, which are transforming Tibet into what looks like another Chinese city, the presence of walls around government buildings and property convey the attendance of the Chinese government in Tibet.

As I drove past some new houses along the side of the road, I said to my local friend, Darje, “those houses look nice, are they new?”  He told me that the Chinese government paid for about 80% of these houses for people to live in and although the thought of it seems pleasant, most of the Tibetan farmers who are occupying the houses are actually nomads. 

The change from being a nomad to having to live in a house is a way in which the government can gain control of them and also the education of their children since now their children must go to school rather than follow the nomadic paths of their parents and ancestors. Darje expressed how this change of the residence affects their whole sub-culture because these nomads are used to following the animals and the seasons, and not having to live in one place throughout all seasons.


When I observed the struggles of the Tibetan people, I realize the superpowers of the world make it more difficult for local people of every land to continue on with their ways of life and maintain their culture. As the world becomes more modern, the walls to keep out immigrants seem to grow taller, wider, and more numerous, though in contrast, currency, products, and foreign labor for large corporations between countries seems to permeate with no problem.


In comparison to México, the U.S. plays an even larger role in the economic growth of China.  It is easy to point the finger and single-out a country or a politician without realizing, collectively, many of us are a part of the globalization that results in the trade of some of the diminishment of our world’s most beautiful land and people, in exchange for cheaper products, electronics, clothing, and more consumer wants. 

With the support of the consumers in our nations and other nations who continue to express the demand for products, which contributes to the growth of super power countries, we must keep in mind the value of what’s at stake for our material wants.


Editor’s Note: Precious Vida Yamaguchi is a Communication Studies doctoral student at Bowling Green State University. News Update: President George W. Bush and U.S. Congress have angered the Chinese government because the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet’s Buddhists, will be honored. While the Dalai Lama is lauded in much of the world as a figure of moral authority, the Chinese government reviles the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and claims the Dalai Lama seeks to destroy China’s sovereignty by pushing for independence for Tibet, which was seized by China after World War II. China warns the United States that a planned White House meeting Oct. 16, 2007 between Bush and the Dalai Lama and a public ceremony Oct. 17, 2007 to award the spiritual leader the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal are bad for U.S.-Chinese ties.










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