In the early 1980s, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, I wore a «Free Tibet» patch on my backpack. Two summers ago, when I returned to my old Nepalese village with my 16-year-old daughter, she affixed the same words to her water bottle.
And still, Tibet is not free.
In fact, it’s less so. My Peace Corps years corresponded to a brief period of liberalization in Tibet, following the death of Chinese dictator Mao Zedong. But the Chinese cracked down in the late 1980s and early 1990s, restricting religious practice and Tibetan language instruction. Chinese authorities imposed martial law in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa after riots in 1989 and again in 2008, when hundreds of protesters were killed or detained by security forces.
And last month in New Delhi, to protest the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao, Tibetan exile Jamphel Yeshi died after setting himself on fire. «We demand freedom to practice our religion and culture,» Yeshi wrote, in a letter discovered after his death. «We demand the same right as other people living elsewhere in the world.»
But the world doesn’t seem to be listening. Fearful of upsetting Beijing, Indian authorities imposed their own crackdown on Tibetan exiles during the Hu visit. Nor has the death of Yeshi — or the 30-odd other Tibetan self-immolations over the past year — drawn much attention in the West, despite opinion polls showing widespread support for Tibetan autonomy and independence.
To be fair, President Barack Obama and other world leaders have periodically called upon China to loosen the reins in Tibet. They also have met with the Tibetans’ spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who was exiled along with 80,000 followers after a failed uprising in 1959.
But China continues to turn a deaf ear to the protests. So it’s time for a different tack, which is sure to make Beijing sit up and take notice: an international boycott on Chinese-made goods.
It’s happened before. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, activists in France and elsewhere pledged not to purchase products made in China. And the Chinese responded in kind, organizing their own boycott against French companies following pro-Tibetan demonstrations at the Olympic torch relay in Paris.
Let’s be clear: No matter what happens, the world will keep buying Chinese products.
Most electronic gadgets contain something that is produced in China. So do millions of clothing items, whether their labels say so or not.
But a boycott is a good idea anyway, precisely because of its unique symbolic power. Certainly the Chinese recognize that, to judge from their angry response to the Olympic protests.
Second, in this era of social networking, a boycott engages people in the real world instead of just the virtual one. Consider the «KONY 2012″video, documenting the depravities of Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony, which went viral earlier this year and urged viewers to sign Internet petitions. They did. And then the movement fizzled, because it was conducted almost entirely online.
By contrast, a boycott would affect our day-to-day decisions at the most prosaic level: Do I buy a product or not? That’s a much more promising formula for long-term change than a few clicks of the mouse.
Most of all, a boycott could help inform the world about Tibetans. The Chinese news media continually casts them as ignorant ingrates, so shrouded in Buddhist religious dogma that they can’t appreciate the economic benefits that China has brought to them. We need a global campaign to counter that myth, and a boycott has the best chance of sparking it.
Yes, Chinese resources and investment — especially in infrastructure — have helped develop Tibet. But every colonial power uses a similar gambit to justify its rule, as the Chinese should understand better than anyone else. After invading Manchuria in 1931, for example, Japan built a railway and spurred industrialization across the region. But that didn’t excuse Japanese torture and other human rights violations against the Chinese, any more than Chinese investments justify repression in Tibet.
Even a pledge to eschew Chinese products might make a difference, whether people actually alter their purchasing habits or not. Consider an April 2001 radio advertisement aired by an American plumbers’ union, after China detained 24 airmen from a downed U.S. surveillance plane.
«The crew of an American plane, forced to make an emergency landing in China, is held hostage by the Chinese government,» the advertisement declared. «Think about that. And vow to buy no Chinese products until the servicemen and women are released.»
A few days later, they were. But millions of Tibetans remain locked in subjugation. Think about that, the next time you go shopping. It won’t free Tibet, but it might change a few minds. Including yours.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.