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Going for Broke
Unwavering Economic Action Against China

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Thursday, Aug 1, 1996
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I understand from a friend who has just returned from a Caribbean holiday that the manner in which turtle meat is sold in the markets there is not a sight for the faint of heart. The creature is not butchered outright. Instead it is flipped over on its shell and the amount of meat required by each customer is sliced off and sold, thus ensuring that the remaining meat stayed fresh. The wretched turtle grimly hangs on to life till practically every bit of his flesh has been removed. John Steinbeck and his marine biologist friend Ed Ricketts once removed a turtle’s heart and kept it in a jar of salt water. It went on beating for several hours.

The cause of Tibetan independence has for over forty years now evinced such a chelonian tenacity of survival. This is indeed a very fortuitous thing, since it has regularly had large slices of its ideals and aspirations removed in order to accommodate various political as well as personal conveniences and interests. The largest chunk of all was cut way back in 1951 with the signing of the 17-Point Agreement, but since then — especially since the early eighties — much has been sliced off for this, that or the other. There seems to be little meat left now, and with “Referendum”, “Middle Way Approach” and “Truth Insistence” we are cutting very close to the bone.

The latest carving job I’ve noticed was just a couple of months ago and appeared on the World Tibet Network News. In a release from the president of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), Lodi G. Gyari, dated 13 June and entitled “MFN for China Alert”, there were three points that struck me as strange, even bizarre, and which have since then bothered me like a bad tooth.

1. “ICT has been consistent in its position: while not calling for total revocation, we have supported bills to condition renewal of MFN.”

What on earth is wrong with calling for total revocation of MFN for China? After all, revocation of MFN merely means denying China certain trading privileges that it has with the USA. It does not mean cutting off trade with China or even imposing economic sanctions. India, the world’s largest democracy, has not been granted MFN status by the United States. I must also point out that ICT’s position on MFN has been anything but “consistent”. In May 1990, I was in Washington DC when a major Congressional hearing on MFN was taking place. At the time ICT was so gung-ho for “complete revocation” that even someone like myself was immediately drafted to fight the good fight. Michelle Bohana, then ICT’s leading lobbyist, took me around to the offices of a number of congressmen and senators where, as a “visiting Tibetan writer”, I had to articulate the non-official argument, as it were, for full revocation of MFN for China.

2. “Supporting complete revocation of MFN would not send a constructive message to China and would not give them a reason to improve their treatment of the Tibetan people.”

Why wouldn’t it? There is conclusive evidence, even in some of ICT’s own reports, that repression in Tibet has intensified to an appalling degree since China was extended MFN status. Furthermore, if the supposed representatives of the immediate victims of China’s oppression have watered down their position to an extent where they are now calling on the US government not to revoke China’s MFN status completely, then we certainly have no right to act indignant when Clinton de-links human rights and MFN. What is sauce for the ICT goose is sauce for the administration gander as well.

3. “In a way, ICT’s quiet diplomacy and consistent position on MFN has paid off in that we have come to be regarded as one of the voices of reason in the debate.”

I am really curious about who regards ICT as the “voice of reason” on the MFN debate? The US-China business lobby?

In 1992, the Kashag minister and brother of the Dalai Lama, Gyalo Thondup, visited North America. In a lecture hosted by the ICT he reprimanded Tibetans in the US and Canada for hurting the Chinese economy by organising boycotts of Chinese goods and by campaigning for revocation of MFN status for China. He voiced a personal concern that if China lost MFN status it would affect hundreds of thousands of jobs in Guangdong province alone. He succeeded in thoroughly confusing the issue among our supporters in Washington and in demoralising the US Tibet Committee and the Canada Tibet Committee who were then successfully organising a boycott of Chinese made toys. Also, for some years now, I have been hearing bitter complaints from some US Tibet Committee members that ICT sidelined their campaign to revoke MFN for China.

Right now the Students for a Free Tibet, the Milarepa Fund and the Tibet Freedom Movement in Bloomington, Indiana have launched a campaign to boycott Chinese products. It seems to have had a positive start and we are informed by the Tibetan Rights Campaign in Seattle, that a department store in that city has promised not to carry any goods made in China. The climate for such a campaign is just about right. Americans seem to have gotten over the initial euphoria for cheap Chinese goods, and are beginning to feel their damaging effect on American manufacturing, and with it the loss of decent jobs.

China’s increasing military threat in the Pacific region in the last few years is also a plus factor for the campaign. But however favourable the climate I am afraid that if the Tibetan side once again knuckles under to pressure from Beijing or the US-China Trade Lobby (or even ICT) then we are going to see a repetition of the same sorry situation we had a few years ago when the spirited campaign of the US Tibet Committee and the Canada Tibet Committee to boycott Chinese made toys and deny MFN status to China was effectively derailed.

What can be done to prevent another débâcle? To kick things off I will offer three suggestions. They are so commonplace that they certainly must have occurred to the reader at one time or the other. My rationale for offering them at all, is that their very ordinariness often causes them to be overlooked, and that is precisely when confusion and demoralisation could set in. I am aware that the headings sound like maxims out of a social worker’s training manual but the explanatory passages are reasonably simple and straightforward.

Role Recognition

This is stating the obvious, but in an age of power worship, victim bashing and revisionist historiography, there cannot be a surfeit of repeating such an obvious truth as that China invaded Tibet and not the other way around. Tibet is the victim and China the oppressor. It is Tibet, not China, that has been completely isolated and excluded from the family of nations.

China is not only in the UN but has a permanent seat in the Security Council. In fact, it has so much support from other nations that for five years now it has effectively managed to quash any discussion in the UN of its human rights’ abuses. Whatever little in the way of censure or pressure China gets from a few Western countries is entirely the result of its own blatant human rights abuses, its outrageous disregard for international conventions as copyright regulations, and its routine sabre-rattling and nuclear testing. In fact the international response to even the most atrocious of Chinese misdeeds has been extremely muted, no doubt conditioned by concerns of trade and fear of China’s retribution.

Tibetans leaders should not shy away from representing themselves in their true role as representatives of victims, even though their own personal circumstances in Dharamshala or Washington DC, may be infinitely more secure and comfortable than that of their unfortunate fellow-countrymen in Tibet. No doubt it is a far more attractive and dignified proposition to play the role of the “honest broker” or “the man of reason who can see both sides of the question”, but it is a dishonest pose. Our leaders must represent the victims, the Tibetan people.

Recognition of Historical Antecedents

Another factor to be borne in mind is the fact that economic sanctions and boycotts, though not immediately capable of results, are generally effective in the long run. Gandhi’s Swadeshi campaign to boycott English textiles was the first effective demonstration of the untenability of British rule in India. Gandhi’s campaign caused much suffering in Britain. A large number of mills in Lancashire were closed and many thousands rendered jobless. But the moral righteousness of Gandhi’s action was so evident that, when he visited Britain in 1931, he was given a rousing welcome in Lancashire by unemployed workers.

The power of economic sanctions was most clearly demonstrated in South Africa in the struggle against apartheid. The sanctions hurt the black community the most, since it was the poorest and had the least economic cushion against outright penury and hunger. Nevertheless, the resolve of South African blacks and their leaders never wavered. In fact, even after Nelson Mandela was released and a number of important reforms put into place by President de Klerk, the ANC called for the continuation of international sanctions till apartheid was completely dismantled and a transitional government was in place.

Pro-democracy forces in Burma have been unequivocal in calling on all countries of the world for the imposition of an overall “South Africa-style economic sanction against the ruling military government in Burma”. A worldwide campaign for consumer boycotts and shareholder pressure has forced companies like Amoco, Eddie Bauer, Liz Claiborne, Macy’s and Petro Canada to withdraw from Burma. Last year three cities in the United States, Berkeley, Madison, and Santa Monica, passed laws boycotting companies which were doing business in Burma. On 22 April this year Pepsico announced its plans to sell its fourty per cent stake in a joint venture in Burma. Of course, the way ahead is far from evident or easy, but at least the pro-democracy activists and their leader Aung San Suu Kyi have no doubt as to the soundness and integrity of their strategy.

Anticipating China’s Reaction

We must always bear in mind that even a fractional success of the boycott would translate into billions of dollars in losses for China. Therefore a strong Chinese reaction should definitely be expected; not just the usual direct and abusive one, but an indirect and almost certainly insidious one as well. Chinese efforts to subvert the integrity of the boycott campaign will probably best be countered by financial probity. It is vital that there be complete transparency in the workings of campaign organisers and in their raising and disbursement of funds.

A sound guide in this matter is Mahatma Gandhi. In his autobiography, he provides a detailed and very useful account of how the organisers of such public campaigns and movements ought to go about managing their finances, collect dues and so on. Based on his own experiences as the secretary of the Natal Indian Congress in South Africa, it not only reflects his high moral standards, but reveals a shrewd insight into people, and also a sound grasp of money matters, the last no doubt inherited from his Bania (merchant and banking caste) forebears.

Tibetan Review, August 1996

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