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What Ever Happened to Hollywood’s ‘Free Tibet’ Rallying Cry?

Calls for Tibetan rights remain; they’re just hard to hear over the din of other mounting international rights concerns.
Richard Gere laughs with Tibetan protesters before giving a speech at a rally to free Tibet on July 1st, 2000.

Richard Gere laughs with Tibetan protesters before giving a speech at a rally to free Tibet on July 1st, 2000.

Pema Gyaltsen, a 24-year-old Tibetan man, reportedly set himself alight late last week — one of many such protests in recent years against what rights activists call brutal and repressive policies in China’s far West. Gyaltsen, who lived through his self-immolation, was promptly arrested by authorities; his whereabouts remain unknown.

The international advocacy group Free Tibet first reported Gyaltsen’s self-immolation Sunday on its website, basing the news on information obtained by research partners in northern India, says John Jones, an organizer with Free Tibet.

“The reasons for the self-immolation protests are the occupation and the accompanying human rights abuses,” Jones says. “Tibetans often leave notes or shout slogans during their self-immolation protests, calling for Tibet to be free, for an end to China’s repressive policies, for an end to the attacks on their culture and religion.” The incident was not widely reported in most Western outlets.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Chinese officials expressed outrage to their counterparts in India, after the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso — the Tibetan religious leader living in exile in Dharamsala, India — participated in an Indian state-sponsored Buddhism conference there.

New Delhi typically refrains from indicating any official support for the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing accuses of inciting Tibetan separatism from China. But it appeared this week the Dalai Lama was becoming involved in a long-standing deadlockbetween the two competing regional and world superpowers, entrenched in territorial disputes more than a half-century after the Sino-Indian War. Like Gyaltsen’s self-immolation, the news development received little attention in the Western media.

This trend is nothing new: With the exception of United States government-funded outlet Voice of America — which routinely reports on human rights violations in hard-to-reach parts of China and other deeply censored media environments — Americans and the international community have largely turned their attention away from Tibet.

And that worries some ethnic Tibetans.

“Not only does the New York Times mention Tibet less, and not only does the American public … not talk about the issue, and not only is it Hollywood sidestepping this issue,” says a Tibetan activist who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisal from authorities. “The whole world is doing this. It’s because the Chinese government’s influence is growing.”

“But I also believe that as in everything in this life, there is karma,” the activist adds. “So I don’t believe that the Chinese government can always have good luck.”

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1990s, Tibet was Hollywood’s cause célèbre. As a result, for about a decade, Americans often heard of human rights violations in Tibet.

In 1993, the Academy Awards imposed a ban on actor Richard Gere (he’s since been rehabilitated) in response to a speech he gave advocating for Tibetan rights while presenting the Oscar for Art Direction. In his speech, Gere expressed his wishes that “we could all kind of send love and truth and a kind of sanity to Deng Xiaoping right now in Beijing, that he will take his troops and take the Chinese away from Tibet and allow people to live as free independent people again.”

Four years after Gere’s controversy, two big-budget films set in Tibet were released: In October, there was Seven Years in Tibet,starring Brad Pitt, and, in December, there was Martin Scorsese’s Kundun. Both films featured appearances by the Dalai Lama. One year later, the Dalai Lama himself released his book of philosophy, The Art of Happiness. A favorite at the time, it has sold well over a million copies.

Taking Hollywood’s lead, Free Tibet student groups proliferated in high schools and colleges across the nation.

But these days, the website for the Gere Foundation, dedicated to Tibet and the fight against HIV/AIDS, appears not to have been updated in years. An attempt to reach the organization was not successful, and Gere’s agent did not respond to a request for comment on his recent work for Tibetan rights.

Gere is, however, still sticking up for Tibetans, even if his activism isn’t as loud or widely publicized as it once was. In February, he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel amid the Berlin release of his forthcoming film The Dinner. At the meeting, the two reportedly discussed Tibet, among other international affairs.

“For several years recently [Gere] was more engaged with his work on HIV/AIDS than on Tibet, so his return to the Tibet issue, let alone as a strategic player, is a new development,” says Robert Barnett, a Columbia University professor and preeminent scholar on Tibet. “Perhaps media coverage has finally become seen as of secondary importance?”

“As for the Dalai Lama’s popularity, there is a slight shift in his role in the West from being an advocate on the Tibet-China issues to being a leading figure on ethics and religious tolerance in general,” Barnett adds. “The latter position continues to give him a huge audience in universities and other sectors around the world. That’s a shift in the type of media focus he’s interested in, rather than a decline in his profile.”

Some activists for the Tibetan cause blame a more turbulent world for the decline in international awareness of Tibetan affairs.

“There are many conflicts taking place around the world and Tibet has to compete for news coverage with the frequently shocking news from Syria, Ukraine, Sub-Saharan Africa, and other areas where there are wars and natural disasters,” Jones says. “Tibet retains many of its supporters from the 1990s, but, given the suffocating level of control that China is imposing, it is hard for news to get out of Tibet and for people around the world to get a true sense of how repressive China’s rule there is.”

Many advocates for human rights in China have observed that, with the country’s rise in political and economic power, Washington has been less willing to comment on Beijing’s repression of civil liberties.

Moving forward, Jones says, “it is up to Tibetan groups and Tibet’s supporters, both celebrities and regular people, to keep reporting on Tibet, so that it remains in the public consciousness.”

As for China’s comments to India: Last week, the Dalai Lama was present at an Indian-government sponsored Buddhism conference in India’s eastern district of Nalanda.

“It does look as if Delhi is signaling a somewhat tougher stance to Beijing for the moment, and that’s something the Dalai Lama has long called for,” says Barnett, the Columbia professor.

But don’t expect to find the Dalai Lama at the center of any major conflagrations between New Delhi and Beijing in the near future, Barnett predicts. “Neither [the Dalai Lama] nor Delhi will want to push this too aggressively,” he says. “For both of them, it is an element within their larger negotiating strategies rather than a prelude to confrontation.”