Blog: What might Brexit mean for Tibet?

UK flag on EU flag
Image: La Republica
1st July 2016

Post by Alistair

In the UK, many of us are still in shock after the decision last week to leave the European Union. The narrow but decisive margin in favour of “Brexit” sets the UK on an uncharted course: no country has left the EU before. As a globally important story about national identity and political self-determination, last Thursday’s decision has clear relevance to Tibet. As the spark for profound changes in how the UK operates as a global force, it also has direct and practical implications.

Increasingly, the UK has worked through European institutions in foreign affairs, in regard to trade, of course, but also in less obvious areas, such as human rights. At Free Tibet we've frequently been told when raising cases of political prisoners with the UK’s foreign ministry - the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (or FCO) - that the most effective route to get action is through “working with our EU colleagues” and the UK’s views are often represented in public statements of concern issued by the EU, rather than the FCO. When that happens, it is one of 28 countries, meaning it is shielded from China’s direct anger. Now, it will have to find the principle and resilience to challenge China without the shelter of collective action. That would require a significant stiffening of backbone in Downing Street, which has been deeply unwilling to challenge China, as we have frequently reported.

The main reason for the government's reluctance is the priority it places on trade with China and investment from Chinese companies and the Chinese government. Outside the EU, the UK - for a few years at least - may be more reliant on trade with and investment from countries such as China. The City of London is an increasingly important centre for trade in Chinese currency, for instance, but the Chinese government can move that business elsewhere if it chooses. There is a strong chance any increased reliance on non-EU trade will further inhibit the government's willingness to push China’s buttons on human rights and Tibet.

As we reported on Tuesday, however, Lord Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong, just this week said the belief that “kowtowing” to China is needed to secure good trade relations is “demonstrable drivel”. I was also very pleased to hear him heap scorn on the idea that meeting the Dalai Lama has any significant impact on trade, however disliked it may be by the Chinese regime. Westminster, though, is risk-averse and we can only hope that voices like Lord Patten’s are listened to. Of course, if, as many “Leavers” believe, the UK becomes more prosperous and confident as a result of Brexit, it is possible that its government will become more willing to challenge China.

Another area of concern is simply the ability of the FCO to meet its existing commitments in regard to human rights in China and Tibet. The UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has warned that the FCO is desperately short of resources, a shortage which will now, in its view, become “a crisis”. With an emphasis on securing trade and good relations, and work that was previously done in Brussels now having to be done in London, resources ploughed into human rights work could be very vulnerable to cuts. Despite our clashes with ministers at Free Tibet, I've almost always found the civil servants at the Foreign Office to be well-informed, receptive and helpful. It would be very worrying if they were unable to continue doing the good work they do as effectively.

Nations and freedom

Looking at the bigger picture, it is hard to predict at present how the political and symbolic aspects of the decision will play out. As with the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the principle that the people of a country have the right to decide its national status has received a boost. If Scotland and the UK have that right, why shouldn’t Tibet? On the other side, many people are made uncomfortable by “nationalism” and see the erection of borders as a bad thing. Of course, there is a vast difference between countries which have freely chosen to be part of a bigger union and those which have been occupied by force. It’s important in this context that organisations like Free Tibet continue to ensure people understand what is actually happening in Tibet and how the freedom of Tibet as a country is intrinsically linked with the individual freedom of Tibetans themselves.

China’s position on Britain and the EU has been its usual mixture of political posturing and ruthless pragmatism. It made known its view that Scotland should not leave the UK during the Scottish referendum in 2014 and has taken the same position regarding Brexit. Unsurprisingly, given Beijing’s paranoia over the break-up of China, it has opposed the very principle of this kind of self-determination. Now that Brexit has happened, however, pragmatism kicks in.  While it has expressed concern about uncertainty in the world economy as a result of Brexit, the Chinese government has, as usual, claimed that the Chinese economy is doing fine and can handle any shocks.  However, many business commentators feel that a downturn in the Chinese economy is very possible. This is deeply important politically because any decline in prosperity in China threatens to generate public opposition to the government. It is likely that fundamental political change in China is going to be needed before Tibetans can seize the opportunity to freely decide their own political future. If Brexit leads to economic effects beyond our shores, perhaps it could bring those changes closer.

There are, of course, too many variables for any confident predictions about what will happen now - from me or anyone else. The UK is just one country in a big world, although it remains one of its oldest democracies and biggest economies. In the short term, unfortunately, I find it difficult to foresee Brexit leading to a stronger position on Tibet in the British government. In the longer term, though, it is just possible that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union might one day be seen to have worked in Tibet’s favour.


About the author: Alistair is our campaigns and media manager and has worked at Free Tibet since 2012. He trained and worked as a nurse for 15 years before taking up a campaigning career, initially in the animal protection field.  He lives with his wife, young son and two cats - who are the only non-vegan members of the family. He enjoys making and listening to music.

The views expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily represent Free Tibet's position on the UK's exit from the EU.