How We Changed Our Tune On Tibet


Tibet, for too long confined by China commentators to the "too hard basket", is back into the news this week following yet another tragic story from Ngaba in Eastern Tibet and Desmond Tutu’s very public anger at South Africa’s denial of a visa to the Dalai Lama.

A few years ago, I spent a few hours in the National Archives in Canberra reading de-classified cables on Tibet, trying to track how Australia’s position had morphed over the decades.

It came as little surprise to discover that when Tibet appealed for international assistance in the 1950s there was no debate over whether China had invaded its neighbour or was merely exerting control over its own territory. That Tibet was under occupation was a given, so readily apparent to foreign governments observing the situation and communicating among each other that to deny it would have made no sense. The only debate at the time was around whether countries, particularly India, could afford the backlash should they oppose China’s actions in Tibet.

A draft letter from then Prime Minister Robert Menzies to the Dalai Lama includes the following deleted paragraph:

"The Australian Government and people could not let pass in silence the brutality and the violence that was being done to the fundamental religious and civil rights of the Tibetan people … and wish to ensure Your Holiness of the continued concern and sympathy of the Australian Government and people in your troubles."

An internal memo from around the same time talks of the "essential justice" of the Dalai Lama’s case. A telegram from Australia’s High Commissioner in India to the Department of External Affairs (now Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, DFAT) notes that "as you will be aware, Tibet has enjoyed de facto independence from China for many years". Another telegram, this one from the Australian High Commissioner in London, outlines the British Government’s position, summarising that the "United Kingdom’s interpretation of the international status of Tibet is that Chinese have no rights in the country".

The sufferings of Tibetans aside, today we can’t help but wonder whether the international community made a strategic blunder in siding with China. So how much longer we will allow China to dictate the terms, even, as in the case of South Africa this week, nations are led to undermine the very values on which they were built?

In three years working as a Tibet campaigner I tended to avoid getting into debates over the historical status of Tibet. Not because I have any doubts over Tibet’s former independence but because such discussions tended to chew up the time and effort that I’d rather be spending explaining the reality of life in Tibet today and arguing for stronger support for Tibetans’ efforts toward a peaceful resolution. Furthermore, Chinese authorities like to nip any sensible discussion over Tibet in the bud by casting it solely as an issue of sovereignty and therefore somehow off limits to the wider world. Journalists, government advisors and even some of our most esteemed academics seem to lapse into this frame, whereafter they are incapable of looking at Tibet in simple, humanitarian terms.

Tibet provides a dramatic illustration of how the accepted "truth" can change over time, in this case skilfully remoulded over many decades by a patient and determined Chinese Communist Party.

Today almost all statements by Australian officials on Tibet are prefaced by an assurance that Australia adheres to a "one China policy". The line has become so routine that for a time Stephen Smith, then Foreign Minister, fell into the habit of saying "Australia has always adhered to a one China policy". Being demonstrably false, the statement was later replaced with "successive governments have adhered…"

While at first such statements may be made reluctantly, repeated enough times they become so engrained in our collective consciousness that we begin to accept them as true and change our behaviour accordingly.

How else could Malcolm Turnbull, usually one of our more informed and considered politicians, write recently and in apparent good faith that "China’s growth in power, economic and military, has not been matched by expansionist tendencies beyond reuniting Taiwan"?

While the world at large has "moved on", refocussed itself on getting a share of Asia’s economic miracle and decided that it may have no choice but to allow Tibet to become a casualty of "progress" and inalienable geopolitical realities, for Tibetans, the nightmare has never ended.

Seeing they were no match for China’s military might, from the early 1960s Tibet’s exiled government focussed on developing a strong community-in-exile while working to build support within the international community. The Dalai Lama’s far-sighted investment in education and cultural institutions has allowed Tibet’s unique linguistic, cultural and religious heritage to survive in exile, while giving the world at large access to its treasure trove of practical wisdom.

In the 1980s the Dalai Lama proposed his Middle Way policy, a compromise disdained by large numbers of Tibetans but to which he still holds. China responded eventually with a series of sham negotiations, all the time accelerating its colonisation of the Tibetan Plateau, ridiculing the Dalai Lama and working systematically to foster mistrust among its own citizens and the international community towards the Tibetan people.

In 2008 tensions boiled over and thousands across the entire Tibetan Plateau rose up to voice their discontent, many paying the ultimate price. For a short time the world seemed to notice. But China held its ground and threatened dire repercussions for any country that interfered.

Today, bedazzled by China’s economic prowess, financially challenged democracies are more reluctant than ever to challenge China over its behaviour in Tibet.

Over the decades the Tibetan Government-in-Exile has evolved into a modern democracy and a shining counterpoint to China’s authoritarian rule. Nonetheless, while our politicians pose for photos with the Dalai Lama and wax lyrical over Tibetans’ commitment to compassion and universal responsibility, our Government now refuses to meet formally with the Dalai Lama’s Australian representatives, Tibet’s de facto ambassadors. While the Dalai Lama’s envoy in Washington has access to the White House, his counterparts in Australia must put up with the indignity of meeting with low-level officials in a cafe outside the grounds of DFAT, lest Australia be accused by China of providing any form of official recognition to Tibet.

And so we come to the present. For Tibetans and other oppressed peoples, South Africa, just like India, is, for all its problems, living proof of the power of non-violent struggle. Today’s South Africa is also China’s second largest trading partner in Africa, after the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When the South African Government denied the Dalai Lama a visa for a weeklong visit that would have included helping mark fellow Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday, Bishop Tutu made no attempt to hide his outrage and issued a stark warning over the dangers that such a decision spelt for South Africa.

This week Tibetans woke to the shocking news that two more monks of Kirti Monastery in Ngaba had lost hope and set themselves on fire in a final act of defiance. This has happened five times in one Tibetan town in the space of 10 days.

Lobsang Konchok and Lobsang Kalsang were 18 years old. Youngsters, who in a just world would have had decades of happy life ahead of them. I found myself wondering what they said to each other as they conspired to carry out their desperate act. Tibetan Buddhism does not promote martyrdom. It does not accept violence against other beings or oneself. What would have gone through their minds as they made their secret preparations? How hopeless must a situation feel before someone can even contemplate such an act?

We have ignored the patient appeals of the Tibetan people, ignored the careful reasoning of commentators watching closely the shifting politics in our region, made decisions on short-term economic fears rather than long-term analyses, and showed cowardice in the face of bullying.

This week we are seeing once again the terrible consequences. Will we ever change?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.