Why Armchair Revolutionaries Hate Tibet

This is an original feature by High Peaks Pure Earth in response to Brendan O’Neill’s article titled, ‘Why Liberals Love Tibet’, published in the American Conservative. Although the article appeared in a right wing magazine, Brendan O’Neill was the former editor of the now defunct magazine Living Marxism and is currently a columnist for the British paper The Guardian.
As Brendan O’Neill began his idiotic piece with a confession, let me begin with one of my own. I too have a long history of marching on the streets of London. In fact, longer then O’Neill. I first joined protests against Indira Gandhi’s imposition of emergency laws in India. Since then I have lost count. If O’Neill thinks people protest because they desire a pat on the back, he is sadly mistaken. We march because we are opposed to injustice.
As a political activist, I am familiar with all the adjectives that are dished out against us. When I marched against the Stop and Search laws that were imposed by the British police to intimidate Asians and Blacks; protested against the virginity tests imposed by the British immigration services, I remember being described as a wog and a social security scrounger, and, when marching with the CND, being described as an agent of the Communists. When marching against the Apartheid regime, I remember being told that I did not understand the blacks and had never lived amongst them. So there is nothing new in O’Neill’s criticism. He is part of the privileged class that he is supposed to despise, which fashions cliché as a novel and original insight.
The main point of O’Neill’s piece is to say that the pro-Tibetan protesters are disillusioned romantics and made up of the western middle class. All protest movements in the world have been accused of being romantic and composed of middle class do-gooders. So, there is nothing new in this kind of criticism and O’Neill is merely regurgitating criticism that is most commonly leveled against any protest movement. The environmentalists and animal rights protesters are often accused of being romantic as a result of being brought up watching Bambi and viewing too many National Geographic programs (in South Africa they are now called “white bunny huggers”). I guess O’Neill would have described anti-apartheid protesters as romantic middle class being brought up hugging “golliwogs” during childhood. The Israelis often describe the pro-Palestinian movement as imbued with romantic images of revolutionaries in colourful headgear. The Western powers often disparaged the CND movement as an agent of Soviet Union. Such attempt to denigrate protesters is a common strategy of oppressors and their allies.
The fact that the middle classes engage in protest movements speaks more of the nature of Western society and particularly of Britain’s class and caste ridden social structure. At one level we might criticize the class origin of protesters but the ability to recognize injustice is not bound by class. The most iconic of all revolutionaries, Che Guevara, came from a middle class background and was a doctor, the most bourgeois profession of all. Was he romanticising the lives of the Bolivian peasants or had he recognised the injustice that permeates South American societies? The fight for justice cannot be bonded by class loyalty; if this were the case, no revolution would ever have taken place. Let’s take the case of the remarkable Tony Benn in Britain, since his family originated from high echelons of British society and have never crawled into the mine pits and blackened their faces from carrying sacks of coal. Does this mean that his support for the working class of Britain is imbued with romantic visions of the green valleys of Wales?
Another point O’Neill makes is that the Tibetan cause serves the interest of Western governments. If one has a modicum of understanding of history, one would know that since Western Imperialist penetrations into Asia, the West has also been pro-China in its relations with Tibet. It is evident that through Western interaction with Tibet, China has been a valuable strategic ally of the West. In the 18th & 19th centuries, Western powers adopted a pro-China stance because of fears of Tsarist Russia. China was seen as a means of countering Tsarist expansion in Central Asia. If the West was so anti-China, why did the Western Governments not recognise the independence of Mongolia and Tibet? Mongolia declared independence in 1911 from the Qing Empire and it was only after the collapse of Soviet Union that the Americans recognised Mongolia. Similarly, when Tibet declared independence in 1911 it did not have the support of the British nor of other Western powers. During the Cold War period, China was the de-facto ally of Western powers against the Soviet Union. For many Western intellectuals, China was the acceptable face of Communism. Despite the fact there were people fleeing from China to Soviet Central Asia, because life was better in the Soviet Union.
Today, Western governments and businesses are enamoured by the success of China’s economy. Recently, Fiat the Italian car company made an apology to the Chinese government for using well-known pro-Tibet American actor Richard Gere in its commercials. What for? Who has heard of a multi-national company making an apology to an authoritarian regime? Imagine if a Western multi-national company made an apology to a Latin American dictator or the Apartheid regime for using well-known opponents of the regime in its commercials. Why is it that major Internet companies, such as Google and Yahoo are happy to oblige the Chinese censors and are willing to allow bloggers to be sent to jail? Do they represent anti-Chinese forces in the West or are they allies of the Chinese regime for profit?
Another point Mr. O’Neill makes is that the Tibetans and their allies are Luddites, opposed to development. What O’Neill fails to understand is the nature of the opposition. Tibetans are not opposed to development. The essence of Tibetan opposition is about colonial exploitation and resource extraction. If he read carefully and studied the pattern of development and resource extraction in Tibet, it is classic colonial exploitation, where the people of the land are left disadvantaged and the colonial authority usurps the profit. Take for example the building of the railway link between Tibet and China; no doubt this is a great technological accomplishment and required huge investment but the primary aim of the railway was for the accomplishment and consolidation of colonial conquest. So, why should Tibetans support developments that strengthen their own subjugation? Do you think the Chinese are grateful to the Japanese for building the railway in Manchuria? In fact many of my Tibetan friends are not even allowed to board the train to their homeland.
Armchair revolutionaries like O’Neill hate the Tibetans because we do not speak their language. We do not carry placards with faces they know, like Che Guevara. We do not adorn ourselves with Khaki revolutionary uniforms. Our leaders speak in a language they do not understand, we do not espouse textbook revolutionary speak, and bow down to figures like Marx, Engels and others god like figures that are familiar to them. Therefore, we are alien.
For Western armchair revolutionaries, we present a danger because we destabilize their image of the world, where everyone must conform to the old fashioned western image of progress and modernity. For them China is a perfect example of progress. Today, China has discarded its heritage and become a master at emulating all things that represent the west, from learning to play the piano or wearing suits. At a simple level, look at the mode of dress, no Chinese would be seen dead in anything resembling traditional Chinese attire, which to them indicates “backwardness”. Whilst, we Tibetans cling to wearing our traditional clothes which is seen as a sign of resisting modernity and progress. For us, it is a mark of our refusal to surrender.
The armchair revolutionary has inherent prejudice against anything to do with religion and so our protest movement stems from unfamiliar territory. He cannot accept that religious values can be a source of social change. Martin Luther King’s fight for justice for black people in America was impelled by his Christian values. Similarly, the staunch ally of Tibet, Desmond Tutu of South Africa lead his fight against Apartheid regime. The Catholic Liberationist theologians were the forefront of opposition to South American dictators. So, Tibetan Buddhism can also provide a basis for the fight for social justice. O’Neill quoted that the Dalai Lama is not elected and claims that the Dalai Lama is an obstacle for social change. Whilst it is true there is nothing democratic about the institution and authority of the Dalai Lama, in any struggle the people allow what is most conducive to their struggle. At present, the Dalai Lama provides a unifying strength for our cause and has been an able-spoken person. Why should we abandon him when he has served the Tibetan people well for the past five decades? There are masses of disposed Kings and pontiffs around the world, they have retired to the South of France or established themselves as new age gurus but the Dalai Lama has shouldered the responsibility for the people whom he represents, this is precisely the reason that he continues to have meaning for the Tibetan people.
Whatever labels armchair revolutionaries choose to inflict on Tibet protestors – tree huggers, Bambi lovers, woolly-hatted lesbians, romantic hippies – we know we are in a long line of protesters belittled by the powerful. Armchair revolutionaries can be idiots, but they are always useful court jesters to authoritarian regimes.


  1. Thank you for saying what needed to be said.

  2. Factual comment on Mongolia:

    It’s not strictly accurate to say that “it was only after the collapse of Soviet Union that the Americans recognised Mongolia.”

    Mongolia joined the United Nations in 1961 after the People’s Republic of China dropped its claim to sovereignty over Mongolia. (It was not the U.S. that had prevented it from joining ealier.)

    The U.S. and Mongolia established diplomatic relations in 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and four years before the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

  3. Tshering Chonzom

    It is a very good piece. I especially like the fact that this article attempts to tackle the one substantive issue that makes Tibet inconceivable and illusory to academics and students who are anti-west, anti-imperialist or anti- bourgeois and some of them, anti-religion. (The problem is they seem to be applying this realist understanding/logic that ‘my enemy’s friend is my enemy’ even in this age.) We have to understand that the Tibetans themselves are in a dilemma about what to do about international support. On the one hand the Dalai Lama wants to talk to the Chinese and not upset them. But unless the international society makes some noise, the Chinese have not been ready to talk (not negotiate). Therefore, when the Tibetans seek international support, they are caught in a trap from two sides – the Chinese get angry, and the anti-west and anti imperialist forces think Tibetans are stooges of the west. This is a tricky situation. Nor has international support proved substantial enough to change the situation of conflict. If we go look at the international response to the 2008 protests and its suppression by the Chinese government authorities, then seriously, international voice has been marginal and in effect minimal and hence, avoidable altogether.

    Additionally, the cultural and religious specificity of the Tibetans not only deter serious secular academics from venturing into Tibetan studies (at least in the Indian context), but also acts as a major barrier when the Tibetans sit down to negotiate with Chinese officials who are left oriented and decry religion as a ‘false consciousness’. That is why most allege (I don’t know if the Chinese actually believe so) that the Dalai Lama is basically attempting to restore ‘theocracy’ in Tibet and therefore they do not think he is reliable and good for Tibet. For one, I seriously doubt this consequence, and also the rationale for this speculation. In exile, in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama has tried all attempts at democratisation since 1961, in 1991 and 2001. Now the Tibetans even directly elect their Prime Minister. The exile parliament (of the Central Tibetan Administration) passed a charter in the 1990s whereby the exile administration would be dissolved once an agreement/solution was reached on the Tibet problem. So I am certain that Chinese belief that the Dalai Lama wants to restore theocracy in Tibet is something that seriously needs to be rethought by the Chinese.

    Interestingly, the ‘non-violent’ component of the Tibetan movement flows out of their religious ”false consciousness’.

    High Peaks Blue Earth – Pls keep writing. Your approach is young, vibrant and innovative, as well as, substantive. I’ll be sharing it with a lot of my young friends. 🙂

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