John Jones is the campaign manager of Free Tibet, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation which pursues the vision of the Free Tibet Movement which advocates for the liberation of Tibet from Chinese occupation. With a Bachelor’s degree in History and Journalism at Staffordshire University and a postgraduate certificate in Conflict and Development at Open University, John’s passion and background in human rights has led him to become a leading figure in this movement. In this interview, John Jones talks about the dire situation of the Tibetan people and culture, what we should know about Tibet, and what we can do to help the movement.
Kristoffer Balintona: How does your organization, Free Tibet, relate to the Free Tibet Movement?
John Jones: The Free Tibet Movement has two elements to it which often confuse people: organizations and the movement itself. There’s an organization called Free Tibet, which I happen to work for, which was formed in 1987 in response to protests in Tibet. But there are also other organizations in the Free Tibet movement who also do a ton of great stuff, such as Students for Free Tibet, the International Campaign for Free Tibet, and the International Tibet Network. These organizations make the Free Tibet Movement. They’re all in one way or another trying to support Tibetans struggle to decide their own future, whether it’s campaigning, directing actions and protests out in the streets, or doing advocacy and lobbying with governments or other key decision makers like the United Nations.
How did you become involved in the Free Tibet Movement?
I have a human rights background and ended up working with several different peoples struggling for sovereignty and facing human rights abuses in Colombia, Palestine, Kurdistan, as well as several African countries. Tibet is something that I became aware of in the 90s when it was very much in the public consciousness. A lot of the music artists that I was listening to had some kind of mention of Tibet. So when the opportunity came to work at Free Tibet I was happy to take it and build on my human rights background. I’ve been working with Free Tibet for around five years now.
My understanding is that Tibet wants independence from China. Why has China been occupying Tibet?
What the Chinese government would say is that Tibet has been an integral part of China and its patterns are no different from that of the Chinese people. They’ll point to areas in history where Tibet was under Chinese rule. On the other hand, Tibetans will point to sizable parts of their history where they ran their own affairs. What certainly happened was that after the Chinese Revolution, the Chinese government decided that one of their objectives was to reincorporate Tibet into the People’s Republic of China. So they invaded and they’ve kept hold of it ever since. What they’ve gotten out of it, in addition to what they would call ‘territorial integrity’, is vast quantities of mineral resources. There are many different precious minerals such as gold, lithium, and molybdenum. There are also water resources from the glaciers in the Himalayas side of Tibet. It’s a useful source of hydro-power for the Chinese. So there’s sort of a mixture of strategic resources and nationalistic aims at play.
A prominent argument for the independence of Tibet is that Tibetan culture is vastly different from Chinese culture. Can you elaborate on this?
This can get really deep and there are Tibetan-ologists whose knowledge vastly outstrips mine and can identify cultural differences between the many different Tibetan peoples. There are many different languages and dialects in Tibet that someone at my level would simplify as just being Tibetan. There’s an array of different cultures within Tibet that are very distinct from China’s, whether it’s Tibetan Buddhism or Tibetan history. Even the language is completely different from Chinese. It’s not at all related, even down to having a different writing system. When you combine all of those things you can absolutely see how there is a separate identity.
I think that’s one of the reasons why one of China’s policies in Tibet is to try and undermine or eradicate aspects of what makes Tibetan culture unique. For example, Tibetans are allowed to practice their religion only under very tight guidelines. The language is being phased out of schools replaced by Mandarin Chinese. This is all an attempt by the government to break down those boundaries and say Tibetans are no different from Chinese people.
Do the Tibetan people have any desire for Tibetan independence or have they simply resigned to adapting to this situation?
Well, the best answer I can give you is that you’ve got to get in touch with a range of Tibetans. I’m happy to stand in and speak from my own experiences from discussing with Tibetans but you will always get a better answer from an actual Tibetan. You can see among Tibetans the appetite to be able to decide their own future. That encompasses everything from full-on independence to the Middle Way which the Dalai Lama talks advocates for. The Middle Way is the idea that Tibet should remain within the borders of the People’s Republic of China but have genuine autonomy which includes Tibetans having the right to protect, preserve, and also develop their own culture and language. There are a lot of debates among Tibetans about this that I try not to read into because I think it’s for them to decide.
Who the Dalai Lama and what is his significance to the Tibetan people?
Tibetans overwhelmingly practice Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is seen as the foremost authority because he’s basically a reincarnation of a religious teacher. The idea is that the Dalai Lama reincarnates to continue his teachings and to continue his work. The current Dalai Lama is the 14th one in the lineage. Tibetans are loyal and dedicated to him in a way that I struggle to put into words. As an outsider, I can see the importance he has but can’t fully convey it.
The current Dalai Lama used to be the Head of State for Tibet but he fled into exile in 1959 and has had to live in exile ever since. He has used this time to travel around the world and speak up for the Tibetan cause. He’s spoken up for understanding between people of different faiths of different nations, won awards including a Nobel Peace Prize, and built up a reputation as a proponent of nonviolent resistance on behalf of Tibet. Even though he’s not a political authority anymore, he is still the most synonymous person with Tibet’s struggle and remains someone that Tibetans continue to rally around because he’s integral to spreading a sense of national identity.
Could you explain the censorship that’s going on in Tibet and the impact it’s having?
Yes, it is quite a repressive place. There’s an organization called Freedom House which carries out a global survey of civil liberties and political rights in every country in the world. At the start of every year they publish every country’s rating out of one hundred, one hundred representing the most civil liberties and political rights. I think this year Tibet got a rating of one out of one hundred. The situation of freedom of expression is just utterly dire.
Tibetans struggle to get passports to leave their own country. Some of them have difficulties traveling around freely. There are millions of rural Tibetans that have been forcibly removed from their pastures where they’ve resided for centuries and are being relocated into urban settlements. You also have Tibetans who share pictures of the flag on their phone or who carry out solo protests and receive five to ten years in prison. They can even be held for indefinite periods of time in unknown locations where there’s a huge risk of torture. This creates a climate where Tibetans have to self-censor and be incredibly careful in how they communicate. This is China’s huge process to re-engineer what Tibet is.
Would you say that Tibetans outside Tibet understand the crimes being committed in Tibet or is it so obscure that even Tibents themselves aren’t aware?
For most it’s too risky so there is almost no communication at all. They get glimpses of what’s going on inside but I think it’s mainly through refugees that you get a complete picture. Otherwise it’s sort of like flashes of information. It’s not a complete picture at all. This situation is analogous to North Korea. People often understand that North Korea is cut off from the world. data science There are differences but that’s the level of restriction of information that we’re talking about.
In terms of human rights violations, how certain are we that these crimes are happening? Do we have indisputable evidence?
It’s indisputable that it’s happening but the details and records are lacking. There are a lot of different ways Tibetan researchers find out about human rights abuses. We continue to get reports of torture and arbitrary detention but perhaps the most comprehensive way is when refugees get to the outside world and talk about their experiences. Not only are they interviewed, but you check their testimony with what other refugees have said. With this you notice patterns of treatment and descriptions of procedures – that’s how you build up a case that “Okay, this is not a coincidence”. But this is harder to do now because there’s a crackdown on refugees escaping from Tibet so we have to go to the next level, which is to smuggle information out of Tibet or scan public information like Chinese media reports, new laws, and government announcements to build a picture of what they’re doing.
But, if anything, the problem is that it’s likely just the tip of the iceberg about what’s actually happening. There will be real cases that we do not hear about because they do not reach the outside world. This is a regular occurrence. For example, we could hear about a prisoner release that actually happened maybe six months prior. News travels very slowly out of Tibet so it’s a very tough job but it has to be done.
Could the reality in Tibet be even worse than what we know of right now?
It surely has to be worse because we don’t have access to every source. It’s hard to say how many degrees worse because we’re missing a handful of cases but we do know that arbitrary arrests, secret trials, protesters being shot is happening.
How can people stay up to date on the work of the Free Tibet organization and which issues do you recommend they prioritize?
Anyone can follow our website if they’re interested. There’s a tab called “Take Action“. You can follow the campaign and what we’re doing. There’s a focus at the moment in trying to get the UK government to impose sanctions on a particular senior Chinese official. We’re also doing a campaign on quite a strange phenomenon which is that the Chinese government runs several English language propaganda outlets that have been able to partner with some US and UK newspapers. They run paid features in these newspapers and will report things that Tibetans are really happy and they’re showing great scientific developments – but this is just their propaganda.
What is a good way for those new to the cause to get involved if they’re not sure where to start?
That’s a great question! It’s definitely true that you will struggle to advocate for something that you don’t know about. I think it comes down to education about the situation. I’m still learning a lot as well. I think at the very low levels it’s about reading news articles and finding out about organizations. It gives you a flavor of what’s going on and familiarizes you with the very broad history of the occupation and what occupation is like for Tibetans. There’s also a few good books on Tibet. A great book I read last year is Eat the Buddha by a journalist called Barbara Demick who has clearly spent a lot of time in eastern Tibet.
In terms of action, one that people can do any time is signing petitions – that’s the very basic level. More invested people might want to go to marches or all kinds of protests. You get to meet Tibetans and learn firsthand about their experiences. Then you can build up from there. If you feel you know a lot you can call your government representative and try to get a meeting with them. Write letters to them, publish letters in local newspapers, which spreads awareness. This way you can become a more and more confident advocate.
We all do best when we work closely together. No one who goes into the Tibetan struggle needs to feel that they’re on their own or that they’re useless because they don’t know everything. They’ll be part of a sort of wider family of people that are all pushing in the same direction.
What do you most want people to understand about Tibet?
One of the things I would say is that there are Tibetans out there living in exile. If they haven’t experienced occupation themselves then they will be related to people who have. It’s always good to listen to their thoughts and their experiences. That’s one of the ways that people become attuned to the struggle, especially since it’s not possible to freely visit Tibet. They don’t want the Tibetan language, Tibetan Buddhism, and Tibetan history to be destroyed in the name of the false unity China is engineering. This is what clears the way for the next stage. If we can just keep talking about Tibetans, spread awareness with the Tibet people themselves, then we can push for change.
What surprising fact do you find most effective in altering perceptions about Tibet?
That Tibetan culture is still evolving. There is a conception of Tibet that many people in the West have. Many see Tibet as this sort of untouched pristine land which is certainly true in some respects. But there’s also contemporary Tibetan writing, Tibetan poetry that’s coming out, Tibetan rock music, and Tibetan rap music. They aren’t cut off. It’s an incredibly interesting and diverse place. Whatever interests you have, be it nature, history, religion, current affairs, and geography, it can be related to Tibet. It is a very rich place. If it were independent, it would be the largest country in the world. It is huge but very sparsely populated.
This is where we orientalize Tibet. You’ll meet people in New York and London and Paris who are writing their own story right now. Just meet them, get to know them, hear what they have to say. They want the same things as us. Tibetans want to be able to write their own story.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.