Monday, August 19, 2013

Social Media Might be Killing THIS Revolution

I'm not a grouch, I'm really not.  I'm also not a Luddite. I love my twitter; love/hate the demands of this blog, and generally use the internet religiously--except for Facebook: I find it creepy.

Evgeny Morozov is a grouch; he also gives us a much needed perspective on the effects and future of our internet obsessions in his book: To Save Everything, Click Here. It's a bit of a screed,to be sure, but his approach forces us to take a hard look at how we view the world through the internet and social media.

He forwards the idea that today's societies are beginning to discount any human history that occurred prior to the inception of the internet and that, eventually, we'll come to believe that if something isn't on the internet, it doesn't exist. What we once believed as inalterable factual knowledge is now being re-imagined for "search optimization" or changed entirely through "Wiki" consensus. We are rapidly evolving towards a world where raw data is becoming more important than expertise, judgement and wisdom.

When it comes to that familiar 25 year old fossil: the "Free Tibet" movement, this changeover could be lethal. Right or wrong, decades of Tibetan activism and knowledge gained has now been effectively re-set to zero for upcoming generations looking for a cause to champion.  Unfortunately, the lag time that is created while everyone tweets their feelings on the subject and we wait for the Tibetan "data base" to refill, is killing the Tibetan movement.

blogdai has no way of telling twitter twits that comments like: "...let's really show our solidarity with Tibet.." are 20 years too late and that every online petition that "...calls on China to address the injustices in Tibet.." is headed straight for oblivion. It's all been said and done, and guess what? It hasn't worked.

Tibet doesn't have the time for us to re-invent the wheel and let social media re-build an activist history on its behalf. Events are happening in Tibet that are not waiting for the internet community to catch up and form it's chat-room majorities. Sadly, not only does all of this social media clucking fail to pass for activism when it comes to Tibet; it may also be the source of  the problem: social media has made the Tibetan movement into a simple coffee house discussion--a conversational choice.  It's no longer about picking up a project and starting a physical movement, it's about the good feeling one now seems to get by seeing ones self type "Free Tibet" on Twitter and Facebook. It is a delusion that is evolving still.  There is now, for example, a tangible belief that exists in the Twitter-sphere that if we send enough e-mails to China and really tweet our support, Tibet will eventually be free.  The disconnect inherent in this belief is startling.

Ironically, blogdai believes that China loves all of this.  What better way to neuter the ill effects of Tibetan activism than by placing the entire movement into the hands of those who will never do anything but Tweet, "like,"  "friend,"  discuss and comment on the issue.

blogdai must confess that these ideas of Morozov's have inspired a bit of a test.  I've been deliberately provoking the Tibetan "activist" community as it seems to exist on the internet and have found myself in a few good arguments--ok, one-sided arguments.  I argue, my opponents whine at me for being "negative." See below--and by the way, Morozov was right:

: I send E-mails to The Chinese Government and help by promoting FREE TIBET on the internet

Great, no one has told this person that Tibet is a "core" priority of the Chinese and any tweet, email or phone call to them that questions that position will be met by big international repressive displays that highlight just how much we can't tell China what to do.  This means, the more we shoot off our mouths, the more Tibetans get hurt.

being seen as activist or not is not important. We fight against Chinas propaganda in order to keep Tibetans struggle alive

So, actual assistance takes a back seat to screaming at Chinese propaganda?  Who do you think will win that little pissing contest?  Will it be handfuls of disjointed and scattered twitter account holders or the biggest and baddest propaganda machine since the Third Reich? Prepare to be hacked by experts, by the way.

Beware that Tweeter is slyly promoting Chinese Propaganda against Tibetan

I'm slyly trying to get people to think. The horror! Tweeting about Tibet is seen as comfortable, fun, and providing of a sense of community to these people; unfortunately it doesn't help one Tibetan. No wonder they go after blogdai for telling them their internet emperor has no clothes.

It's almost clubbish--a boutique sense of activism.  Unfortunately, again, Tibet doesn't have the time for everyone to feel good, form groups, and agree that they are suffering.  Tibet needs hands-on ideas and strategies that deal with the day to day realities of their suffering as it exists on the ground. blogdai has hinted at a few of these strategies in previous posts.  They're easy, "no brainers."   Why then have we not been working on such strategies?  Perhaps its because the actual business of saving Tibet has taken a back seat to our current practice of forming consensus on Tibet through social media--we'd rather talk about it than DO it.

People who feel they are accomplishing some great humanitarian deed simply by talking about it on the internet solve nothing but perhaps their own self-esteem issues. They may all form groups and disagree about some evil practice in the world, but they're not about to do a damn thing about it. Love it or hate it, Joel Stein's article in Time on the millennial generation hits the point squarely. As Stein says: "They are informed but inactive: they hate (warlord) Joseph Kony but aren't going to do anything about Joseph Kony." 

Wael Ghonim, author of "Revolution 2.0," in his NPR interview of February of 2012, just after the first dramatic demonstrations at Tahrir square were considered to be the result of social media efficacy, said that we still need boots on the ground and leaders to effect change--social media just isn't going to get it done by itself:

"We used all the available tools in order to communicate with each other, collaborate and agree on a date, a time and a location for the start of the revolution," he says. "Yet, starting Jan. 28, the revolution was on the streets. It was not on Facebook, it was not on Twitter. Those were tools to relay information, to tell people the truth about what's happening on the ground."

In the case of the Tibetan movement, the wrong turn down the dead-end road to social media prioritization has sucked the life out of actual activist efforts.  

"Free Tibet" is dead, and social media is keeping it that way.  


Thursday, August 15, 2013

"Free Tibet is Dead" A Reader Responds

blogdai breaks out the blue editor's pen for a response to a well-written comment on our controversial "Free Tibet is Dead" column.  Have a look:  

From Anonymous:  

While I agree the work of organizations such as the ICT fosters a retaliatory stance on the part of China, there may need to be a bit of "Middle Way' thinking in considering those issues can be addressed and assuaged versus those that cannot.

It is no surprise that 25 years of legislative posturing on the part of governments has done little to promote freedom, autonomy or cultural preservation within TIbet, however, I pose to all of you who read this thread, who outside the confines of Tibet and China can reach inside and work to facilitate and foster positive change? 

The last time I checked, China rebuffs anyone and everyone when it comes to human rights, environmental issues, economics, etc. Pick a topic, they do not listen.

What CAN outside organizations do? Is it time to focus on big business, corporate enterprise that seeks to profit from China's cheap labor, lack of environmental policies, and mega-mass production capabilities?

What about those companies that are complicit with the PRC? Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo? What about tech companies such as Cisco that provide resources which are used to repress information and education, or other foreign entities with facial and gait recognition systems? Canadian companies selling the PRC drilling equipment to rob the plateau of natural resources?

I posit the movement has stalled, through no fault of the TSGs. It is a matter of understanding what reach they have, what they've worked toward and can work to change in the future, and working toward that end. To say the external movement has failed to promote change inside Tibet is to assume, wrongly, that any movement outside the TAR has that much reach and power to alter the political and cultural situation. Context, it's all about context.

Only those who live within the turmoil can resolve to change it. All anyone else can do from the sidelines is support as best they are able.

Perhaps we need to re-define what we mean by "inside" Tibet. You're right, we can't get in and can't effect change; China will see to it that any admonishments from the West are rebuffed. One need only read Martin Jacques's When China Rules the World to find support for your "they do not listen" assertion. Unless there's an economic collapse or regime change, China will continue to roll over Tibet and assimilate it into "Greater China."  That's it, period. We're not going to stop it. So when I say that "inside" needs to be re-defined,  we need to work on the very issues that cause Tibetans to lose hope and  perhaps die in flames.  To me, for starters, these issues are:  Lack of self-determination, Statelessness, and cultural destruction.  We should have been working on these all along. 

Three quick strategies for this are as follows, and the good folks at ICT, I'm sure, will pick these up as talking points like all groups who lack imagination and need to pay the rent:

1. The US and the West need a "Tibet Forward" stance. Stop scolding China, start supporting Tibet. This takes the very basic form of not bowing to Chinese pressure on Tibetan issues outside of China. State level visits for the Dalai Lama, Pro-Tibetan, not anti China programs and legislation that enhances Tibet. We don't do this now.  We're scared shitless of jeopardizing access to China's "economic potential" and we're greedy. 

2.  Work the identity issue.  Residency cards in either Nepal or India go a long way in dealing with a Tibetans sense of Statelessness and dependency on the West.

3.  (I'll follow your lead on this one) Create incentives for the private sector to  make Tibet a condition for doing business in China. Tax breaks anyone?  Conversely you can do this passively by increasing incentives for investing in countries like India that actively support Tibet. 

There is a lot more here, but perhaps for another time.  Strategies like enhancement rather than supportive funding; and Tenzin Dorjee's "Lhakar" movement which I've augmented to "Lhakar Plus" with a few ideas.   So yes, there ARE things Westerners can do that are infinitely more effective than what we are doing now and that address Tibetan suffering directly and where it is needed most.

I Absolutely agree that serious debate must begin on what we CAN physically do now.  Our efforts to this point have helped no Tibetans and have boiled down to the West using Tibet as a tool to trumpet some moral superiority over China—a superpower rhetorical pissing contest, if you will.

Your point about business is spot on and may serve to best illustrate my point. The Intercontinental Hotel group is planning a large hotel in Lhasa. Twenty years ago, during the peak of the "Free Tibet" movement, such a thing would not have been considered; yet here we are today witnessing this incredibly tone-deaf business decision.  The fact that Intercontinental did not feel that the Tibetan issue would harm their business speaks volumes on how we've failed to keep the message of Tibet front, center and relevant. 

Combine this  with the fact that only a smattering of Tibet activist groups are considering a boycott of Intercontinental and that none of this seems to have gone beyond Twitter and it further speaks to our failure to construct and maintain an efficient and effective activism structure for the issue.

I take issue with you on your defense of the TSG's however. They have failed, in my opinion, and they may have been doomed to failure from the start.  We approach everything in the West through "business plan" style thinking.  The Tibet movement was no different.  It started with a vibrant, grass roots outreach and grew rapidly.  Instead of pausing right there and directing efforts towards the actual Tibetan issues of immediate relevance, we followed our model and built our institutions instead. The money continued to flow in and we became cautious about seeming "too activist" and jeopardizing some level of donor funding. Introduce, get everyone under the "big tent," become successful, build infrastructure and devolve into defending your territory. It's the Western business arc and totally unsuited for humanitarian efforts.   For me, this decline was best symbolized by Todd Stein of the ICT when he boasted to Foreign Policy that the Tibetan movement was now "institutionalized"—it also represented the final nail in the coffin of the Western Tibet movement, as far as I was concerned. 

I'm extremely pleased with your grasp of the issue. Feel free to submit your extended opinion on this and I'll post it as yours on blogdai.  I do get the feeling you may be Kate Saunders however, so I'll approach this offer with caution. 


Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Free Tibet is Dead

One hundred and twenty  one and counting:  The number of Tibetans that have, by their own hand, chosen to die in self-ignited flames. Regardless of their motivations, this demonstrates an unimaginable level of desperation.

 Those of us who support Tibetan causes are devastated by this horrific phenomenon—devastated and confused.  After 25 years of effort, we were beginning to believe that the end of Tibetan suffering was achievable.  We had donated millions of dollars to "Free Tibet" and successfully raised awareness of the Tibetan struggle through multiple media platforms.  We witnessed  Beasty Boys concerts; Martin Scorsese's "Kundun;" Brad Pitt in "Seven Years in Tibet;" the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize; Richard Gere's advocating face and the creation of countless Tibetan support groups and events.   We had put the issue on the map and, arguably, during the early part of the last decade, no human rights cause was more visible and received more funding than the Western-based Tibetan movement. 

Yet, here we are, shaking our heads in disbelief as one Tibetan after another self-immolates. Tibetans today seem more desperate than ever and Chinese repression of Tibetan culture seems to be increasing.  Even the Barkhor—the sacred heart of Tibet's capital city, Lhasa—is being flattened into a parking lot as we speak.   Ultimately, these events force us into the realization that, after all of our efforts, we are powerless to affect real change in Tibet, and have failed to curtail the type of desperation among Tibetans that leads them to a fiery demise.  The "Free Tibet" movement is dead.  How did we get it so wrong?

 Tibetan advocacy may have been in the wrong hands to begin with. 

In 1987, we in the West took Tibet under our wing and were determined to resolve their concerns our way and according to our perceptions.  Funds were raised, organizations formed and we proceeded to approach the issue from all angles at once.  We repeatedly threw money at Tibetans, whether they needed it or not; traded ideological barbs with China; enacted toothless and non-binding  resolutions; threatened small countries like Nepal for not doing enough, and basically treated Tibetans like pets in need of constant attention.  We offered scholarships and training for the lucky few who made it out of Tibet and proposed resettlement visas for those who wanted out.  For two decades, this patchwork of random programs and legislation provided small victories at best; and the perpetuation of Tibetan dependency on the West, at worst.  

Great energy has been spent in keeping our pro-Tibet institutions afloat, yet we've failed to build adequate mechanisms that give the Tibetans themselves a reason for optimism.  We never took the time to develop the specific expertise needed to reduce Tibetan suffering from the ground-up.  Our fundraising and organizational skills have matured, but our direct assistance efforts are still stuck in first gear.   Advocacy groups today still feel the need to "raise awareness" of the Tibetan issue as though it were new to everyone.  After 25 years, this "raising awareness" mantra now sounds like a code for: "we don't know what to do next." 

Is it any wonder that many Tibetans are now losing hope?  They've waited decades for the West to do something substantive on their behalf and all they've received in return was increased Chinese repression.  They've watched their concerns repeatedly take a back-seat to our various economic priorities while they remain in limbo with no sense of self-determination and no country of their own. While we dither, talk tough and buy furniture for our new Tibet offices, Tibetans look at us as hypocrites:  they now know we'll never jeopardize our access to China's great "economic potential" for their sake.

Perhaps our version of "Free Tibet" is better off dead.  The Western movement has been stuck in an unproductive malaise for years and the only time it comes to life is when Tibetans themselves bring the issue back into focus—now, unfortunately, through incremental mass suicide.

Our bloated, disjointed international effort needs to give way to a more focused regional strategy that assists Tibetans where they are most vulnerable.  A smaller, better organized campaign that addresses the specific ground-based, day to day, realities of the Tibetan struggle is needed now.

India is best positioned to lead such a new strategy.  She has sheltered Tibetans since the time of Nehru and the India-based Tibetan Government in Exile has seldom failed to show its gratitude in this regard.  India deeply ponders this relationship and knows that the Tibetans under their roof allow them to negotiate with an increasingly terse China from a position of strength.  Plus, they know that a Tibet-sympathetic West that aches for a solution (or for someone to take Tibet off its hands) could easily show innumerable forms of preference to an Asian nation that assumes the lead on Tibetan issues.

It's time for the West to get out of the way.  In light of current events, can Tibet afford to give us another 25 years to get it right?   One hundred and twenty  one dead Tibetans have given their definitive answer to that question—and perhaps their indictment.