as published in The Hill – February 24, 2023
Who remembers “Free Tibet?”
In the 1990s, the movement for Tibet’s independence from China was a part of pop culture with entertainers like Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys and actor Richard Gere amongst the notable advocates. Much ink was spilled and many concerts were attended to shine a light on how ancient Tibetan culture was being cruelly swallowed up by China.
What happened? In some ways, China just outlasted the movement. China continued to grow rapidly and the attractions of its market overshadowed its abuses in Tibet. The events of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terrorism led most governments to focus on the threat of Islamic extremism and the idea of Tibetan independence — never really a top diplomatic priority — slipped ever further down the list of issues with China.
9/11 also deeply affected Tibet’s northern neighbor, Xinjiang. The region had experienced a low-level insurgency for years driven by Uighur resistance to the steady erosion of their culture over the decades of Chinese colonialism. After 9/11 the U.S. made something of a deal with China — we won’t press you on human rights abuses in Xinjiang if you work with us on Islamic terrorism. The Chinese loved the deal as it helped them justify the repression of the Uighurs.
That has led to the current moment in Xinjiang, which is now an Orwellian police state where surveillance cameras are ubiquitous, citizens are compelled to keep an app on their phones to facilitate government tracking, and “reeducation camps” incarcerating millions have proliferated. China is practicing cultural genocide in both Tibet and Xinjiang, but it is particularly acute in the latter, where severe restrictions on Uighurs practicing their Muslim faith have been enacted, mixed marriages are encouraged and teaching in the local language is restricted.
The world has objected to China’s draconian measures, but it hasn’t made much of a difference. The campaigns of businesses to divest themselves of cotton grown in Xinjiang and harvested by slave labor haven’t done much to dent this inhumane practice other than hurt their businesses in China due to nationalist backlashes. China stomps its feet and bellows about interference in its internal affairs when these human rights violations are mentioned, and the country is now so important economically and geopolitically that little more pressure is applied.
Make no mistake about it, both Tibet and Xinjiang are separate in many ways from China. Independent — or parts of other kingdoms for much of their history — they are simply different than the rest of China, which is overwhelmingly Han Chinese.
Then there is the Taiwan issue, which has set the world on edge of late. Taiwan has been independent or ruled by foreigners for much of its history, but that hasn’t stopped China from insisting that it is part of its territory. It seemingly doesn’t matter that for over 70 years Taiwan has run its own affairs and is now a vibrant democracy. China regularly menaces the small island nation with threats of invasion, which would cause economic and geopolitical ripples that would dwarf Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
These are not the only examples of China as an expansionist power. It is at odds with just about every southeast Asian neighbor about its claim to essentially all of the South China Sea. China has ignored numerous international legal findings stating that it doesn’t have a right to build the many military bases it is constructing on atolls in the South China Sea, daring anyone to hold them accountable.
China has a long-simmering border dispute with India in the mountainous area that borders both countries. They have fought a war over the demarcation of borders there and deadly skirmishes are not particularly rare. Similarly, China and Russia are currently authoritarian allies of convenience, but a border dispute has led to violence in the past, and some observers think that this could become a hot zone in the future as political alliances and demographic trends shift.
China has talked over the years about its “peaceful rise,” but it is built on the back of its own chauvinistic views about itself as The Middle Kingdom (at the center of the Earth, “surrounded by barbarians”) and its cultural supremacy gives them permission to oppress the Uighurs and Tibetans while bullying the Taiwanese, Indians and all of its neighbors in the South China Sea. Let’s also not forget how China has broken treaty obligations with the United Kingdom when it comes to Hong Kong and has now severely repressed freedom in that previously cosmopolitan and vibrant city.
As the rest of the world is awakening to the problems that a powerful and assertive China presents, we shouldn’t look away from those in China’s west who have already been seemingly swallowed up. Tibetans, Uighurs and Taiwanese deserve to chart their own future, and they all deserve to live in freedom.
Jeremy Hurewitz is a policy advisor on National Security at The Joseph Rainey Center, a strategic advisor to Interfor International, and the founder of Sell Like a Spy.