There comes a time in every man’s life when he has to accept that someone he’s admired from afar simply isn’t as magnificent as he believed. That for all their marvellous qualities, their all-too-human weaknesses render them so disappointing that he must turn his back on them, and pray silently for their redemption. That’s pretty much how I felt when I found out that Konnie Huq was going to carry the Olympic flame. How can one so pretty, and I’m sure in possession of other qualities, support the repressive Chinese regime? Needless to say, I was distraught, and felt I had to make a stand against attractive people being in favour of tyrants. So I braved the first snows of April and took to the streets along with thousands of others to protest the arrival of the Beijing Olympic Flame into London.

At Queensway the protesting bourgeois triplet of myself, Mark and Hannah got our first glimpse of the Olympic flame. Some poor young television presenter was separated from an angry crowd of Free Tibet protesters by a slender metal fence which did nothing to deflect the cruel barbs of, ‘Shame on you!’ and ‘What about human rights?’ that were flung her way. At one point she cowered away from the crowd while she waited for the relay team to arrive carrying the flame, hiding the torch between her legs to deflect the crowd’s ire. I nearly felt sorry for her, but this was tempered by the fact that she was supporting a dictatorship for self-promotional reasons and claiming it was all about the sport.

We pursued the flame via the Tube, with a brief pause for cappuccinos (one has to maintain appearances, even at a protest). It was much quicker than running while pursuing a torch, after all. However, I was somewhat caught out upon climbing onboard; a nice Christian gentleman had offered me his seat next to my companions and had started to move over. At that moment the train started with a jolt, and while my right hand futilely groped for a post that was several feet away I was thrown back into the gentleman’s lap.

While I extricated myself and apologised to the terrified looking chap who clearly thought he’d just been violated, the whole carriage burst into laughter, and Mark and Hannah reassured me that they would never let me forget this. I believe them.

At Bloomsbury Square, the torch was hidden from view and the athletes cowered inside the canopy of the official buses, as though that would stop us yelling out their shame. A special burst of shame was reserved for the float of the official sponsor, Samsung, who had cleverly decided to put dancing girls into the middle of a very angry crowd of protesters. The tone of the shouting changed to, ‘Shame! On so many levels!’

It was as the torch hit Whitehall, however, that the lack of organisation on behalf of the, well, organisers became apparent. The metal fences meant to separate the procession from the angry people hadn’t been brought in sufficient quantities to cover the route, and so we ran out into the street, pursuing the mob of sinister Chinese security forces surrounding the torch. The police reacted by linking their arms and forming a circle around the Chinese, like some Orwellian version of the Gay Gordons.

Running and dodging the police along Whitehall was exhilarating, and it spurred the previously peaceful crowd into new heights of non-violent protest. Banners were bashed on the sides of buses, and the screwed-up-coffee-cups that symbolised the angry bourgeois was thrown over the police line onto the torch bearers. This inspired a certain amount of brutality on the part of the police; Mark received a vicious kick from a copper wading into the mass of people, and one policeman forced his way into the crowd by driving a motorbike through it, nearly running Hannah over until she was yanked out of the way. The chap in front of us wasn’t so lucky, and had his leg crushed beneath the copper’s wheels.

When the police started manhandling people off the road, I urged us back before things got nasty. The torch was away, and Brown had demonstrated his cowardice in front of the Chinese by greeting it. So we did lunch.

However, when leaving the restaurant we found that the tables were turned. The imported Chinese demonstration had taken over the street, and five of us now stood alone in a Whitehall full of reds. So I started shouting ‘Shame!’. It seemed to be only the proper thing to do.

What with people still being shot in Tibet, it seemed only appropriate to attend another protest on Saturday. This time, instead of staying in one place and being angry, the cause was due to march from Park Crescent to Trafalgar Square whilst being righteously indignant.

I was feeling rather full of cold, but resolved to go along regardless in case I missed an interesting riot. I did manage to miss the start of the protest, and had to walk hurriedly after the riot vans to make sure I found it again, protests being surprisingly easy things to lose. I caught up with it on Regent Street, and attempted to sidle in.

It’s remarkably tricky to join a protest in midflight without looking suspicious. You start off on the edges and slowly saunter towards the centre as it marches along, all the while slowly increasing the volume of your chanting in order to fit in. One of the things I like about the Free Tibet movement is that it’s small enough for everyone to loosely know everyone else, and indeed I met someone I hadn’t seen for seven years in the middle of the four-hundred-strong throng.

There were speeches at the end, telling the marchers about all the terrible things that were happening in Tibet, exhorting them to write to their MP and indeed MPs saying we were all very good for coming out and doing this marching. I never thought I’d hear myself cheering on Kate Hoey, but some things do transcend party divisions.

At the end of the speeches, the Tibetans in the crowd started singing their national anthem, while the white people looked on in an encouraging and slightly mystified fashion. The sonorous sound of Tibetan singing filled the air, and in my mind I was back in the temple in Sonada at sunset, watching my monks spin the wheels of Dharma. Snow began to fall, and for a moment, Trafalgar Square became a little piece of the Roof of the World.


Anyway, why is all this happening? I think an analogy would be helpful here. Izzard teaches us that a more authoritarian Church of England would force its adherents to choose between tea and cake or death. In many ways, that’s a lot like the situation in Tibet.

Bear with me while I squeeze metaphors to make a mildly amusing analogy work. In the 1950’s in China, the Tea Party, fresh from victory in World War 2 and over the Kuomintea, turned their eyes to their mountainous neighbour to the south. Despising the Tibetan practice of making butter tea with yak’s milk, the Chinese invaded and imposed both the Tea Party and Collective Cake Baking on the Tibetans, believing them to superior. While previously most baking in Tibet had been very small scale and mostly on the back of a horse, it had, at least, been under the control of the Tibetans. Deprived of their tea and of their cake by the Chinese they chose death, which the Chinese gave to them in abundance.

Once the rebellion was over and the Tibetans’ Tea Master had fled, the Chinese continued to choose death on behalf of an awful lot of Tibetans, particularly during the Teabag Revolution. It eventually became apparent to the Chinese that Collective Baking wasn’t producing cake in enough quantities to satisfy their own people, let alone rival the mighty bakeries of the West. They began to gradually import the Western notion of Free Baking, while making sure demand for the typically associated idea of One Man, One Cup was repressed.

To facilitate this, across China and its conquered territories the ideal of having one’s cake and eating it was promoted. More and more Chinese began to bake for themselves, and the bakeries of the West started to eye China’s iced buns with relish.

In Tibet, the Tea Party still retained control, and any butter tea that was drunk was done so only under its auspices. The younger generation of Tibetans, knowing little of butter tea, lusted after the cake the Tea Party promoted. But there was a problem. The Chinese still considered all Tibetans to be fundamentally butter tea drinkers, and thus quite unsuitable for eating cake. They could help in its baking and perhaps even catch a whiff as it came out of the oven, but they would never be allowed to eat it.

The Tibetans were once again faced with a choice. They could not drink their tea, and they could not have any cake. Their only remaining option was ‘Or Death’. And so they chose it. But they chose it in different ways. The recent protests can be divided into two stages, in accordance with who took part. The ones that chose the tea, frequently the monks and the older Tibetans, took part in the initial peaceful protests. The Chinese very rapidly chose death for them, as this is the year of the Great Tea Dance, when the Chinese hope their bakery will be accepted amongst the great bakeries of the world. The younger Tibetans saw this, and in their anger at not having cake and, indeed, not having cake where their ancestors were once free to drink butter tea, took out their anger on those that did have cake. And so the Chinese chose death for those too.

To claim that all Tibetans seek a kind of Himalyan Arcadia, as many Westerners seem to, is to grossly oversimplify a nation of many different people with many different desires. Many young Tibetans seek economic success – and why should they not? We cannot keep an ideal of Tibet as a kind of spiritual playground, a last bastion of adventure – that sort of thinking led to our invasion of it. It is worth fighting for Tibetans to be able to have tea, certainly – but it is also worth fighting for them to have cake.

What happens next? The Chinese are still giving the Tibetans death, and I suspect that for a while yet the Tibetans will have chicken rather than choose the other. But the Chinese have still removed the other choices from the Tibetans, and the Tibetans will never be able to live peacefully without those choices – not for the all the tea in China.

Flag Waving

March 18, 2008

I had originally intended my first post on this to be a sweepingly epic analysis of Lib Dem campaigning strategy as viewed from a philosophical perspective, but events have forced me to write about something people might actually want to read instead. Lucky for you.

Yesterday I was driven to attend a protest outside the Chinese Embassy (or, given the police cordon around the embassy itself, outside the Royal Institute of British Architects) by my anger at the violence of the Chinese crackdown on the Tibetan protesters. For me, this is a very emotional issue – seeing people who look remarkably like some of my friends from Samdrub Darjay Choling being beaten up by the police brings the protests to life in very visceral way. This holds true for many members of Students for a Free Tibet, which I discovered at Edinburgh University to be a support group for people who’d spent their gap year with Tibetans.

This connection caused SFT to leap into action as soon as the scale of the Chinese crackdown became apparent, and many events are taking place over the next few days – more protests, hunger strikes and other arrows of the left-wing quiver. But there was a very real need to do something now, and so I dragged my intern to Portland Place.

Protesting, though, is very odd. You agree to meet a large number of people in a particular place to be angry about something. The anger isn’t going to lead to violence, but after a certain amount of milling around people feel the need to do something, and so the chanting begins. I’ve always been uncomfortable with chanting, partly because it makes me feel like I’m participating in Naziesque groupthink, but also because I feel a compulsion to analyse each chant to make sure I agree with it. This is the product of too many marches wherein the Palestinian group has started yelling, “Death to Israel!”, and I’ve begun to worry about our choice of protesting allies.

Luckily, the Tibetan chants tended to be quite nice, and mostly focused around telling the Chinese they should be ashamed of themselves. Inasmuch as one can measure the success of a peaceful protest by the amount of police presence it attracts, we scored six riot vans and one chopper on the Excessive Force scale. There were candles and Tibetan flags, women carrying small dogs and babies, and people in yellow vests. It wasn’t a threat to national security.

The Chinese thought differently though, and had stationed a black-clad photographer on the roof of the assembly to take stealthy photos of the individuals in the crowd for future visa-refusal reasons. Unfortunately for him he forgot to switch off his flash, making him look a bit silly.

I thought it went well. But what does it all mean? Protests don’t make a difference, do they? Not in absolute terms, no – our protest will not lead to the withdrawal of the Chinese from Tibet via a direct causal link. But to look for this is to really misunderstand the nature of this sort of campaigning. Like everything else in this managerial age, it’s about working the odds. This occurs in several ways:

1) Awareness Raising. Large protests generate media coverage, and attention from passers by. This small amount of knowledge about how people feel about a particular issue is unlikely to directly sway the judgement of a particular person, but will become a factor – no matter how small – in their feelings about which way they vote, or the stance they take in political discussions. If there was some way of measuring such things, I would anticipate a (very) small rise in the average positive feeling towards the Tibetan Human Rights movement across London over the next few days, which is directly attributable to the protest as separate from the media coverage of the events in Tibet.

2) Affecting the protested. Seeing many people opposed to what you’re doing has an unavoidable psychological effect on all but the most psychotic. A small wedge of doubt may over time build up in the minds of employees which, with other contributing factors may cause one or two to actually leave government employee and become trampolinists, or something similarly less repressive.

3) Maintaining campaign morale. The last may be the most important. Group activity encourages its members to continue to identify with the group, and thus carry out more actions related to its success, like letter-writing or petitioning. More people are likely to become active in the campaign as a consequence of the protest than would otherwise be the case if it hadn’t taken place.

So, in summary, protest good, Chinese government bad. I plan on analysing the latter in my next post, but in the mean time it largely speaks for itself.