Free Tibet and the West’s Struggle with China’s Growing Influence

For more than thirty years Free Tibet have led the west’s scrutiny of China’s human rights record. The organisation gained widespread international support in the 1990s, with governments and celebrities alike speaking out in support of Tibetan rights and independence. There are signs, however, that as Chinese influence and power grows on the world stage, high profile support for organisations like Free Tibet is getting harder to come by, as economic and strategic interests take precedence.

Free Tibet’s campaigns and advocacy manager John Jones said: “It was everywhere in popular culture. I think a lot of Hollywood stars are reluctant to speak out about it now. I think some films in Hollywood would be considered a flop if they didn’t break into the Chinese market, and the Chinese government has a say on what films get in.”

In a 2002 episode of The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson shouted “Free Tibet” after winning a spelling bee. A series of concerts in support of Tibet were held from 1996 through to 2008 throughout the west. By 2018, London’s Royal Court theatre was pulling a play about Tibet after the British Council advised it would coincide with “significant political meetings” in China and could stop the company from working there in the future.

Change coincides with an explosion in China’s economic prowess and global influence. In 2018, the UK received $4.8bn in foreign direct investment from Beijing. China is also being earmarked as a vital post-Brexit trading partner and the UK’s reluctance to outright oppose China has been displayed this year in its tentative approach to Huawei’s implementation of 5G networks throughout the country.

While Britain’s traditional allies the US, Australia, and New Zealand have banned the Chinese company from implementing its 5G networks, citing national security concerns, the UK has sat on the fence. Both the US and China have threatened the UK over the issue. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that the US may not trade diplomatic secrets with the UK if it has a Huawei-operated network. Meanwhile Chinese diplomat Chen Wen alluded to “substantial” repercussions for Chinese investment into Britain should the network’s implementation be hindered.

What the Huawei issue shows is that the UK is desperate not to antagonise China, even at the expense of its traditional diplomatic relationships. As Britain and the world struggles to come to terms with China’s ascent into superpower status, Beijing’s grasp on Tibet continues to tighten.


The Chinese military on the streets of Ngaba, Tibet, in 2011.

Mr Jones said: “Its hard for us to know just how bad Tibet is because its so closed. The information we get is sent in very convoluted ways. Its hard to get information out and it takes a while.” Restrictions on the flow of information in and out of Tibet increased following strong western condemnation of the Chinese response to the 2008 Tibetan Uprising, during which the Tibetan government-in-exile claim that 203 people were killed.

Beijing subsequently invested in increased security forces, surveillance, internet monitoring, and border checks. Journalists are restricted, and the UN must be accompanied by government minders. In 2014, hundreds of fake Twitter accounts which were found to be circulating Tibet-related pro-Chinese propaganda were shut down. While exploiting western social media for their own gains, Beijing strictly regulates use of the internet within its own borders.

These restrictions extend to giants such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia. Desperate to break into the Chinese market, Google began developing a Beijing-compliant search engine, Dragonfly. After heavy criticism, including a campaign led by Free Tibet, the programme was ostensibly pulled.

The information that does filter out typically tells of Beijing’s efforts to water-down Tibetan identity and autonomy. This is done by suppressing the use of the Tibetan language, and the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. Mr Jones said: “In order for [the Chinese] to cement this this state of affairs they want to eradicate or compromise aspects of Tibetan culture, you see that in the taking over of monasteries, in schools in Tibet which now revolve around the teaching of Mandarin Chinese, with Tibetan relegated to the status of just one class in the way that we might do French classes in a school in the UK.”

China has recently moved to demolish Larung Gar, a town famous for having the world’s largest Tibetan monastery, in an act some gave branded cultural whitewashing. Mandarin Chinese is now the standard language used in Tibetan secondary schools, and use of the language is increasingly common in the region’s cities, which are populated by a growing number of ethnic Han Chinese incentivised to move into the area.

The geopolitical significance of Tibet is undeniable, and Beijing’s desire for control is linked to the region’s rich mineral wealth and position in relation to the Himalayas. In turn, the Communist Party is keen to silence any pro-secessionist discourse, partly to protect these interests, as well as to protect Chinese soft-power on the international stage. “When Tibet is brought up, there is this real, defensiveness, probably because the government knows that some of the things its doing are reprehensible,” added Mr Jones.

Free Tibet continue to lobby governments and raise international awareness over these issues. One notable such campaign is on the disappearance of the Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. The Panchen Lama is the second highest authority in Tibetan Buddhism. Gedhun disappeared aged six, and six months later the Tibetan child of two Communist party members was named his replacement. The Beijing-based Lama is still in place and the whereabouts of Gedhun remain unknown.

There are further concerns that Beijing plans to appoint the successor to the Dalai Lama, the most influential figure in the region. Free Tibet campaign to locate the whereabouts of Gedhun, and the freedom of Tibetan Buddhism from Chinese influence. The organisation also works with the Tibetan diaspora , which stands at around 150,000 spread across 40 countries.

In February 2019, Tibetan-Canadian student Chemi Lhamo received a wave of online abuse and death threats after being elected president of the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus Student Union. A petition to prevent her from becoming president gained over 10,000 signatures, part of which stated that “she is very deep into a group called Free Tibet. We think she is irrational about this.”

The petition appears to have been set up and signed primarily by Chinese students. This supports claims that members of Confucius Institutes and Chinese student associations throughout the west report to the Communist Party.  This year has also seen Uyghur activist Rukiye Turdush filmed and shouted at while speaking at McMaster University in Ontario, also primarily by Chinese students.

The increasing difficulty with which Tibetan activists operate, both at home and abroad, is symptomatic of China’s growing power and influence.  Without organisations like Free Tibet, it is hard to know who, if anyone, would hold the Communist Party to account for his actions in Tibet, Xinjiang and beyond.

For more information about Free Tibet and the Tibetan cause in general visit 

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