Monday, April 21, 2008


My first ever act of a political nature took place during my Year 12 Chinese class, way back before the turn of the century, in the year of our Lord 1994. We were studying the various regions of China when we came across the Autonomous Region of Xīzàng. When I enquired of my Chinese teacher as to why Tibet formed an autonomous region within the People’s Republic of China, his usually placid features merged into a menacing snarl. “Xīzàng,” he snapped. “Not Tibet.” It was then that I pressed the point, explaining that by rights, Tibet should be referred to as Bod, which is the Tibetan word for the country, as attested by Ptolemy himself, who, in his Geography, referred to the Tibetans, as «βάται.» I then went on to concede that while the use of the word Tibet was probably inappropriate, given that it was ultimately derived from a Turkic word “tobad” meaning heights, that passed into Persian, Arabic and ultimately into English, to employ the word Xīzàng was totally unacceptable, given that this term was historically employed to denote only one of three of the traditional constituent regions of Tibet. The use of the word Xīzàng, I contended, legitimised Chinese imperialism and the forcible annexation of the Tibetan regions of Amdo and Kham into the Chinese provinces of Qīnghăi and Sìchuān. In order to drive the point further, I argued, oblivious to the meandering contortions of my teacher’s face, that at any rate, prior to the Qing dynasty, the term Tŭbó was commonly used in Chinese to denote the region and in fact, is made use of by the Dalai Lama this very day. And why, by the way, was Tibet not a sovereign, independent state? It was, I think the mention of the Dalai Lama that was the catalyst for my Chinese teacher, who had turned imperial purple, to explode. “Did they ask for independence?” He screamed. “Did they want independence?” Then pointing to the door imperiously, he commanded: “Get out!” As I popped my head around the door in order to expostulate with him about the severity of his stance on the issue, he landed a well-aimed piece of chalk upon my nose. “Youuuu… You watch your face,” he squealed, in a manner not unlike that of Bruce Lee in that engrossing scene in Way of the Dragon, where he is pulling off Chuck Norris’ chest hair in the Colosseum.
I didn’t watch my face. Later that year, I wrote my Chinese CAT, as the SAC was then called, on the liberation movement of the Uyghur Turks of East Turkestan/Xīnjiāng against the People’s Republic of China. As a result, I was banned from visiting China at the head of the school’s Chinese Orchestra, whose leader I was, consoling myself in the thought that by infuriating my microscopic Chinese teacher, who hailed from Taiwan and absolutely despised the communist regime, though not its nationalist trappings, I was doing my bit for the oppressed peoples of the world in the very best of the Hellenic tradition.
Had not the Greek revolutionaries of 1821 lit the flame of freedom against Ottoman oppression, a flame that enlightened all enslaved peoples of the Balkans, freeing them from the shadows of ignorance and despair? Was it not then the right of every person possessed of a national conscience to pick up that torch containing that flame and run with it, in order to set alight their own nation’s desire for dignity and self-determination? And should they not then in turn, hand it over to yet another oppressed people, creating a vast torch relay of liberty throughout the world? And when the immense pageant of freedom had spanned the globe, should it not come to rest at the feet of the great Statue of Liberty in the land of the free and the home of the brave and pay it homage as its protector?
Imagine then my surprise when I came to learn that in Ancient Olympia, the home of the Olympic Flame, the flame that enlightens mankind and sets them free of all their prejudices in order to participate in friendly competition, Tibetans were barred from being present at the Torch lighting ceremony. Indeed, during the Olympic Torch lighting ceremony, a French activist of the French based group Reporters Without Borders managed to breach the security and tried to unfurl a banner behind China's Olympic chief Liu Qi who was making his speech at the moment. The protester was quickly removed by security personnel. Later on, as the torch relay began, another Tibetan woman covered herself with red paint and lay on the ground, forcing torchbearers to weave around her as other protesters shouted “Flame of shame.” The Greek government actually condemned the incident as disruptive.
In response, Tibetans launched the Tibetan Freedom Torch Relay outside the sacred grove of Olympia under intense scrutiny and harassment from Greek security and 15 to 20 Chinese government officials. “Today, 8,700 kilometres from Beijing, we were watched and harassed by 20 Chinese government agents and dozens of Greek police,” commented Tenzin Dorjee, a Tibetan-American detained last April in Tibet for protesting China’s trial ascent of Mount Everest with the Olympic Torch. “The intense opposition to our peaceful torch ceremony underscores China’s constant repression of Tibetans’ undying determination to regain our freedom. Despite this opposition, the Tibetan Freedom Torch will carry the message of truth and resistance worldwide, exposing China’s Olympic lies. ”
Indeed, it seems that the arm of the government of the People’s Republic of China is quite long. In Thessaloniki, Falun Gong members were taken to the local police station for no apparent reason, save that it was felt that they may ‘disrupt’ the Olympic torch relay. In other cities, protesters were manhandled by the police. Interestingly enough, most of the pro-Tibet protesters during the torch relay around Greece were actually Greek.
Tibetans are rather sore at not being able to participate in the Olympic Games, given that they have no indepedent country, and no prospect of NATO carpet bombing China, occupying Tibet and then ‘giving’ it independence a la Kosovo, seems to be in the offing. As a result, Tibetan exiles in India are planning an unofficial Olympics from May 15-25, to be held in Dharamsala. They have even coined a counter-slogan, 'One World, Many Dreams', to the official Beijing Olympics slogan of 'One World, One Dream.’
The disruption of the relay and the utilisation of the Olympics for political purposes seems to have incensed the world community more than it has created sympathy for the plight of the down-trodden Tibetans. It appears then that a double-standard is being implemented. While the Western powers pay lip-service to concepts such as democracy and freedom of speech, their practice of Realpolitik suggests that we find ourselves in a Metternichian-like era that abjures all forms of national self-determination on principle, in favour of a finely balanced sphere of competing interests. In such an era, the use or rather abrogation of symbols that supposedly unite mankind under common values espoused by the powerful nations of the world, is off limits to the dispossessed. The Tibetans are thus paradoxically being told that they should not introduce politics into the Olympic Games and its ancillary ceremonies, despite the fact that the Olympic Games have, throughout most of their existence, been the arena where the Cold War was fought out. One cannot recall the US’ boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics being condemned as a politicisation of the invasion of Afghanistan.
The mainstream reaction in Australia, where sport is considered holy, and anything that disrupts it, tantamount to blasphemy is typical and reeks of rank colonialism. It becomes apparent that the national aspirations of non-Western European (and thus by implication inferior) peoples must be subordinated to the secular ceremonials of World Powers, lest the cultural hegemony of those Powers over the rest of the world be subverted.
The Greek stance is much more simple to explain. We are justifiably proud of our Olympic Games – as one of the few occasions where something of ours attracts the entire world’s unquestioned and total sympathy. Despite the fact that, given that our own national identity is constructed upon the concept of liberation, we are as a people, generally sympathetic to the plight of other aspirant peoples, we cannot tolerate anyone stealing our thunder. In the popular consciousness, the Tibetans had as much right to disrupt the Torch Relay as they would have had to disrupt the Good Friday Epitaphios Procession. Liberation is everyone’s right – but only if that doesn’t impinge on the limelight of unrelated parties.
Yet the ultimate irony of the whole Torch Relay seems to have been lost on all parties concerned. It is encapsulated in the singular fact that the Olympic Torch Relay has absolutely nothing to do with democracy, life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. The relay of the Olympic flame from Greece to the site of the modern games had no ancient precedent and was introduced by Carl Diem, with the support of Adolf Hitler, at the controversial Berlin Olympics, as a means to promote Nazi ideology.
The first relay, captured in Leni Riefenstahl's film Olympia, was heavily utilised by the Nazi propaganda machine in its attempt to add myth and mystique to Adolf Hitler’s regime. Hitler saw the link with the ancient Games as the perfect way to illustrate his belief that classical Greece was an Aryan forerunner of the modern German Reich. In a further twist, Nazi explorers and sympathisers, notably Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, speculated the origin of the Aryan race to stem from Tibet.
Therefore the Tibetan’s attempt to disrupt a relay that it fascist in origin assumes greater poignancy. It is a cry against all forms of racism and totalitarianism, long after these have been forgotten, ignored, or swept under the carpet. It is true that the issue of Tibet is a complex one and that there is much to be said on both sides as to the question of Chinese sovereignty over the region. Notably, China has laid claim and intermittedly exercised control over the region since the Qing dynasty and only relaxed that hold in the interregnum between its downfall and the resolution of the Chinese Civil War. While the consolidation of Chinese rule in Tibet since 1955, has crushed Tibetan nationalism and destroyed valuable aspects of Tibetan culture, living standards have increased markedly. Yet, impassioned pleas by smug, well-fed, filthy rich, self-satisfied Hollywood film-star Buddhists aside, it would be a sorry world indeed that would not permit the utilisation of any legal and inoffensive means by which one can lift their voice in righteous and peaceful protest. The Tibetan protesters have never before been able to publicise their cause to such a global extent. In doing so, they and their families are not without peril. The world owes such people a hearing at the least, and some understanding. To this effect, Prime Minister Rudd’s spirited representation to the Chinese government as to conditions in Tibet is praiseworthy. All governments must realise that they are accountable not only to themselves but to the entire world in matter that pertain to the upholding of human rights. To stand aside and condemn the cries of the suffering is tantamount to collaborating in their persecution.
Long before the golden age, when men were heroes and the gods walked among them, Prometheus stole fire from heaven and the world has been self-immolating ever since. Tibetan Buddhism holds that the five elemental processes of earth, water, fire, air and space are the essential stuff of all existent phenomena. In that process, fire is temperature. As things heat up and the flame of controversy threatens to cloud our humanity in smoke, let us be nice to each other, remembering the words of the Dalai Lama: “We can live without religion and mediation, but we cannot live without human affection.” Until next week, the jewel is in the lotus, not in the torch relay.


First published in NKEE on 21 April 2008