Free Tibet Interview

John Jones

1. What is Free Tibet and can you explain what your organization does?

Free Tibet is a non-profit campaigning organisation based in London. We have been going since 1987 and our core aim is to challenge the occupation in Tibet and the daily human rights abuses that underpin it. In the long term this means working towards a situation in which Tibetans are able to determine their own future and in which the human rights of everyone within Tibet are respected.

We work to raise awareness of the situation in Tibet through news stories, social media content, information on our website, and reports. We also carry out online campaigns to raise awareness of human rights abuses with the UK government, international bodies like the EU and UN, and sometimes the Chinese government directly. We also work with the Tibetan community in the UK and other groups around the world to organise demonstrations, events and direct actions.

The aim of this work is to push the UK and other governments to take stronger action for Tibet and to challenge governments and companies who are in any way complicit with human rights abuses or environmental damage in Tibet.

2. How valid is Tibet’s claim to sovereign nationhood?

Currently no other countries recognise Tibet as a sovereign nation and it has never had the opportunity to become a UN member state. Nevertheless, prior to the invasion in 1950, Tibet governed itself, with its own institutions, currency, and passports. It entered into formal relations with other countries through its own diplomats, free from outside authority. In summary, it had all the attributes of an independent state (most certainly between the years 1913 and 1950). This was later backed up by the International Commission of Jurists, who in a 1960 report on the legal status of Tibet, concluded that from 1913 to 1950 Tibet demonstrated the conditions of statehood as recognised under international law.

This is important to note because when China invaded in 1950, it did not base its claim of sovereignty over Tibet by the fact that it annexed its territory during the invasion, but instead on the notion that Tibet has always been an integral part of China (a claim that Tibetans vigorously oppose). They have long seen themselves as being distinct from China, and since 1950 there have been repeated demonstrations against Chinese rule. Tibetans who have the freedom to give their opinion have repeatedly stated that they do not accept Chinese authority and that they are concerned about the eradication of their unique culture (such as their language and Buddhist religion).

The Tibetan freedom struggle comprises a broad range of people and opinions, and many of them are not seeking full independence. For example, since the 1980s, the Dalai Lama has been advocating an approach known as the 'Middle Way', which would see Tibet remain part of China, but would grant genuine autonomy in a way that would give Tibetans control over their own affairs. The Dalai Lama has promoted this approach over the past three decades and has attempted to negotiate it with the Chinese authorities too (currently without success). The Tibetan government in exile, the Central Tibetan Administration, also follows this Middle Way approach.

Whether Tibet should be independent or an autonomous province is a debate among the Tibetan diaspora, and one that Free Tibet does not attempt to arbitrate. We simply believe that Tibetans need to be given the freedom to determine the future of their own homeland.

3. What impact was made during the 1990’s when the Free Tibet cause was taken up by many prominent celebrities?

The main impact of celebrities speaking about Tibet was to raise its profile and attract supporters to the Tibet movement. This can be seen with the Tibetan Freedom Concerts throughout the 1990s, which, at their peak, attracted crowds of tens of thousands of people. Many Tibet supporters found their way to the movement through an interest in Tibetan Buddhism, its unique culture, or because they travelled there, but an equally influential way was through bands like the Beastie Boys, Radiohead, and REM promoting the cause.

4. What is a realistic path Tibet could take to becoming a sovereign nation?

I would say at the moment this is a difficult prospect. The Chinese government under Xi has invested huge amounts of resources into surveillance technology and security forces inside Tibet, which makes large demonstrations like those that were last seen in 2008 extremely hard to organise. At the same time China has grown in international influence with many smaller countries that trade with China and are fearful of antagonising Beijing (and being punished). At the moment the focus of the movement appears to be making sure that Tibet is not further harmed through Chinise policies i.e. massive mining projects, which threaten its environment, or efforts to eradicate its culture, such as the trend in recent years of the Tibetan language disappearing from Tibetan schools at the expense of Mandarin Chinese.

Nevertheless, some countries do speak out, with several raising human rights concerns at China’s last Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council last November. The USA, EU, and other large trading partners should be more vigorous in pushing back at the current human rights abuses. They could also push Beijing to resume negotiations with the Central Tibetan Authority over Tibet’s future. These negotiations have been suspended since the ninth round of talks in January 2010.

5. How is the Chinese government responding to calls for Tibetan freedom in 2019 as opposed to the past?

Tibetans inside Tibet who protest, call for freedom or who even carry out small acts such as flying their flag, or holding birthday celebrations for the exiled Dalai Lama, are likely to be detained, held in an unknown location, tortured, and ultimately charged with state security crimes such as “inciting separatism” (which carries prison sentences of 5, 10, and 15 years). Internationally, the Chinese government has been very assertive in stating that Tibet is part of China and that criticism of its human rights record, or questions about Tibet’s status, constitute interference in the country’s internal affairs. As part of this policy Tibet is closed to international observers – independent journalists, diplomats, UN experts and human rights groups have all been denied access.

6. Can you describe some of the tactics the Chinese government has used to either discredit or suppress the movement?

The most famous piece of misinformation China pushes to discredit the Tibetan cause is the line that the Dalai Lama (the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism) is a 'splittist' (that he advocates Tibet declaring independence from China) - thus presenting him as extreme and unpractical. While some Tibetans do support independence, the Dalai Lama does not. He advocates the Middle Way approach, which would see an autonomous Tibet within the borders of a Chinese state. This however does not stop Beijing from deploying this line.

Therefore, individuals and organisations supporting Tibetan human rights may also be labelled splittist by supporters of the CCP. Other names used such as ‘China basher’ try to imply that those who support Tibet are motivated by a hatred of the Chinese people (rather than being critics of the government) or are agitating for confrontation (rather than being driven by human rights concerns). Another tactic would be to label such groups as ‘tools of Western imperialism’ which denies Tibetans and non-Tibetan activists their own agency and makes their activities seem like a sinister plot.

Lastly, suppression can be subtle. As mentioned above, with China’s increased economic power the CCP is able to use its money and ability to deny access to the country with greater effect abroad. These enticements and threats mean institutions (think tanks, universities, and press outlets) may avoid dealing with subjects deemed sensitive to the CCP government.

7. What role does the Dalai Lama play in the Tibetan freedom movement?

The 14th Dalai Lama has become a symbol of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule. His main role has been on the international stage where he has given lectures on non-violence, Tibetan Buddhism, and the need for understanding between different religions and cultures. This has been intagrel to raising Tibet’s profile and highlighting the largely non-violent form that Tibetan resistance has taken since 1950.

In the past the Dalai Lama would have had more of a formal political role. However, since 2011, when the Dalai Lama successfully proposed and implemented changes to renounce all of his political power, an elected official called the Sikyong (equivalent to a Prime Minister) has occupied the most senior position in Tibetan political life. The Sikyong works with an elected parliament, which is made up of several Tibetan political parties. Tibetans around the world participate in the elections for the Sikyong and Parliament through 'Offices of Tibet', institutions that function like embassies and which are located in several countries around the world (including the UK and the USA). The most recent elections took place in 2016.

8. Have you seen any significant developments recently that can be seen as pushing Tibetan freedom closer towards reality?

Among the most notable things has been the tenacity of the protests inside Tibet. Due to the massive levels of military deployment and surveillance, Tibet has become highly atomised with people facing huge difficulties in travelling around internally, sharing information, and communicating with the outside world. Despite these obstacles, communities will still gather to protest against environmental damage to their land and, in some cases, have scored victories. In 2015 Tibetans, in Dartsedo County, gathered to protest against nearby lithium extraction after chemicals used in the extraction process repeatedly leaked and mixed with the local water supply (killing fish and livestock). They managed to get a temporary halt on extraction in the county. This is a small victory but it showed that pressure can work. Were international governments to be more assertive in supporting Tibetans by raising such human rights concerns then there could be some hopeful signs in the near future.

9. What can people in the West do to support Tibetan independence?

They do not need to necessarily support Tibetan independence, but we do find that when people around the world learn about the situation in Tibet they become engaged and want to help. The problem is that in Tibet there is an information blackout, with testimonies and photo/video evidence only reaching the outside world with extreme difficulty and at great personal risk to those sending it. This has had an understandable effect on how often Tibet receives international media coverage. At Free Tibet we have tried to find ways around these barriers i.e. using satellite imagery to track the damage being down to Tibet:

It is hard for people new to the Tibetan question to get this information. The first step would be for those who know to tell others the evidence that is coming out of Tibet. The next is for them to contact their local and national governments and tell them about what is happening and call for action. People can write letters to newspapers and take actions on our website (

Support for Tibet requires concerted action by large numbers of people, but governments do listen.

10. Can you explain the ‘Confucius Classroom Campaign’ and what it is aimed to do?

The campaign aimed to raise awareness about CCP state funding in UK universities. While we believe students learning Mandarin, or those interested in Chinese culture, should be supported, our concern with the Confucius Institutes is that they are financed and controlled by the CCP (who themselves repress free expression within its borders). As a result various Confucius Institutes promote a distorted picture of Chinese history and life today (particularly in relation to issues such as Tibet which is either ignored or presented as an inalienable part of China, in line with Beijing’s rhetoric).

Furthermore, the problem is not just what is and what is not taught in Confucius Institute classrooms, but also the possibility that universities may alter their behaviour to avoid this funding being taken away in the future (see answer to question 6). This could result in events about Tibet, or featuring Tibetan activists, being avoided or cancelled.