China: A puppeteer controlling the strings of human rights

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No person of a sound mind can perceive the customary rules of international law as a list to be feared – governments obeying the rules to the tee, in terror of the catastrophic consequences. No, I can only regard them as words – guidelines, if you like – that states follow if they see fit. The economically advanced nations, will merely shake their heads when these ‘rules’ are bulldozed, or throw out the occasional half-hearted statement to satisfy their conscience. And yet, just by clicking on the home pages of Avaaz, or Amnesty International we see the denial of basic human rights occurring with ease on every continent, bar Antarctica – and that’s only because the are no people there. So I understand why many are bewildered upon hearing the UN’s purpose is: ‘to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace.’ [1] Unsurprisingly, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. The economic or political interests of governments easily triumph over the rights of an individual. This viewpoint is effortlessly reinforced by the actions of the People’s Republic of China , and their desecration of all things and people that are Tibetan.

I can barely scratch beneath the surface to sufficiently paint the life of a Tibetan. Nonetheless, certain features reflect why Tibet is in top ten of the ‘least free countries in the world.’ [2] To be unable to utter the words, ‘I am a Tibetan’ in your own country; robbed of your traditional nomadic way of life; forced into settlements that can only be referred to as prison camps; spending each day living amongst the spies of a plain clothed People’s Liberation Army; attending obligatory socialist seminars that proclaim the Tibetan way of life is defective, contrasting to the purity of the Chinese state; having rights to education placed beyond your fiscal reach; all available jobs given to the influx of Chinese migrants; and business lawed to be conducted in Mandarin… These stories come from the mouths of Tibetan refugees, and ex-political prisoners in McLeodganj, revealing only the echoes of an abysmal life. A Tibetan faces seven years imprisonment for possessing an image of the Dalai Lama, their national flag, or just sketching the words ‘Free Tibet’ in a novel and life imprisonment for partaking in a non-violent protest. Of course all prison sentences come with a delightful side plate of daily psychological torture, electrocution, and the treatment of a headache to lacerations with an ibuprofen. Using these means, Chinese authorities have systematically atomised Tibetan society to the extent that an individual is too frightened to share their hatred of the occupation with their own family, undermining any thoughts to collaborate and achieve freedom. This also shows the how effectively a government has single-handedly created a cycle of poverty. Thus, it is not surprising that many of these features will probably spark past or present memories of de jure and de facto discrimination in South Africa, and Palestine, for it is essentially a program of racist superiority. I would compare this situation to a chicken in a battery cage, one that can only be described as cultural genocide or Asian apartheid. It also causes me to wonder why we even haveinternational law, if it’s just there in theory, and not practice.

The occupation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China is one of the most violent occupations of the world, an occupation that we as citizens of the United Kingdom, no matter how hard we try to divert our eyes, are directly funding. Nowadays, China is referred to as the ‘indispensable economy’. Such a statement is easily comprehendible given that the UK has been in a trade deficit since 1955, whilst China remains one of the few economies in a trade surplus. In 2011, the UK exported £7.05 billion in trade to China, while importing £24.83 billion. While US Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein urges that with economic democracy comes social democracy, it is clear this is a ploy to ease one’s sleep at night. It is impossible to disentangle supporting the economy of China, without somehow assisting China’s illegal occupation of Tibet, and giving apartheid our nod of approval. As China’s economy becomes more successful, it is able to leverage its growing economic resources, gluing our mouths shut to injustice. No prime minister wants to make too bold a statement in fear of economic boycott.

What’s more, history shows us that if a foreign state does intervene, it probably should not be trusted. The issue of Tibetan independence epitomises how political interests govern our compliance towards acts against humanity. Governments will easily tolerate, even positively assist, a dictatorship in order to advance their own interests; they are prepared to sell out oppressed people to fulfil another objective. The US is a key example of this; it is a government that contaminates Gandhi’s ashes every time it congratulates itself on its democratic qualities. In 1957, the CIA began training Tibetans, to establish a pan-Tibetan resistance force. At face value we may think: ‘YES, the USA, stepping in to help a country in need’. But no, we would be naïve and forget the self-seeking nature of governments. Their hand crafted Tibetan army was used to spy on the ‘threat’ of Chinese communists. Though I could happily state a positive by-product of this was mobilising Tibetans, this hope was of course short-lived. The US government saw more advantages of having China as a powerful ally against the mounting USSR, than feeble Tibet. Bearing this and the reliance upon China’s economy in mind, it is no wonder that little was said when the Panchen Lama was kidnapped in Tibet by Chinese authorities in 1995, becoming the world’s youngest political prisoner at the age of six.

It really is simple: trade and commerce supersede human rights. I am by no means arguing economic interests are not important, but, when we seek to adhere to these interests, we should also address human rights, and the need for all governments to obey democratic principles. However, with attempts to find a balance between business and human rights being met by hurdles and the veto power of the amounting BRICs, this task is by no means easy. [3] It makes me understand why men like Kofi Annan feel demoralised by the “disunity of the international community,” so consequently resigned as the UN envoy to Syria. [4] Even those in power are admitting frustration, and walls of inequality they face. It is indisputable that as China’s power grows, those with dwindling economies become as silent as puppets on a string. So I think the lesson is to remember just how intertwined our world is. To say the rights of a Tibetan does not concern you or your government, because he or she is more than 15,000 kilometres away, is arrogant and wrong. Put eloquently by Alexsander Hescher: “to be silent in the face of a great social evil is to be an accessory to injustice.”

Article by Francine Nicholas. Edited by Marc Geddes


[1] Charter of the United Nations, Chapter 1, Article 1(1),

[2] Huffington Post, The Least Free Countries in the World,

[3] The Guardian, Russia and China veto of Syria sanctions condemned as ‘indefensible’,

[4] UN News Centre, Joint Special Envoy on Syrian crisis: Statements,