"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
Rock fans in China have good reason to be upset. In September, the Chinese government abruptly cancelled two shows by the band Bon Jovi that were set for Shanghai and Beijing. The performances had been eagerly anticipated by both the band and the Chinese public. In August, the group promoted the tour with a recorded video of a ballad sung in Mandarin.
Bon Jovi seems to be the latest casualty of Beijing’s unwelcome infringement on the rights of non-Chinese citizens - part of its ongoing tactics of intimidation and bullying.
According to a report in The Guardian newspaper, it is believed the concerts were cancelled because the band once projected an image of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, during a 2010 concert in Taiwan.
Chinese officials have long waged a campaign against the Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 after the occupation of Tibet. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his lifelong efforts to promote peace and compassion. But the Chinese continue to accuse him of provoking separatism and take every opportunity to punish those who have any contact with him.
China continues to flex its economic muscle and threaten retribution.
Bon Jovi is not the first to suffer the consequences of supporting the Dalai Lama in public. In July the band Maroon 5 had their Shanghai shows cancelled after one band member tweeted a happy birthday message to the Tibetan spiritual leader. In 2009, Oasis was forced to cancel shows because one member had taken part in a Free Tibet concert in New York.
Taking over-the-top offence at any politician in the West who would meet with the Dalai Lama, China continues to flex its economic muscle and threaten retribution. Now it appears that undue pressures and censorial demands are being used not only on democratically elected political leaders but also on Western artists.
In its drive to utterly control information at home, Chinese authorities would attempt to curtail the freedom of expression of artists from Western democracies. We are witnessing an increasing level of censorship along with economic reprisals being applied to artists outside China's national boundaries and outside its legal system.
Extending its repressive arm to jurisdictions not legally under its governance, Beijing is ever bolder. It is quick to strike at and penalize public figures who opt to meet with the Dalai Lama.
That the Chinese government is now infringing on the established rights of individuals and entities who are not under Chinese rule is evident to all concerned. However, the persistent public silence surrounding this bullying is what poses the greater risk.
Our continued silence will only have the effect of feeding China’s obstinate aggression.
The issue is not the ongoing repression in Tibet, the murder and imprisonment of its citizens or the denial of any form of political autonomy. The Bon Jovi case and others like it speak to a broader issue: freedom of artistic expression.
Meeting China's repressive moves with silence conveys the worst kind of compliance. It has a perverse effect, creating an illusion of consent among those living outside China's borders who are not answerable to this oppressive regime.
Our continued silence will only have the effect of feeding China’s obstinate aggression. The solution lies in giving the matter a clear and strong voice so that China is made to recognize its responsibilities in the global community.
The latest incident involving Bon Jovi offers an opportunity to rally members of the artistic community around the world, many of whom may be interested in making a public statement. It could bring about a collective voice that speaks in the safety and strength of numbers.
It is vital that those who believe in the cause of Tibet and human rights also support freedom of expression.
Artists and public figures are rightfully concerned with the measure of their own free expression. No one wants the music to be silenced. In making their concerns public, they can benefit other communities that wish to freely associate or express the views that their own consciences would dictate.
It is in claiming such rights to free expression that many other just causes also find a voice. Therefore, it is vital that those who believe in the cause of Tibet and human rights also support freedom of expression – a right hard won and constitutionally enshrined in many nations – and take this opportunity to speak-up in support of ‘artistic freedom’.
An effective counter-statement can assume many positive forms, including a massive concert that replaces those cancelled. In such a public campaign, artists can lead the way. The important thing is that we seize the moment. I believe we are in a position to rally a significant collective voice – one that would speak out against this unrelenting repression.
Working with artistic communities, we can call attention to China’s steady encroachment into our cultural fabric and its censorship from afar, its eerie watchful presence, its sabotage of our rights and freedoms.
If, in a globalized world, by a lack of vigilance, our own rights should be eroded, who would be left to uphold human freedom and speak for the voiceless in Tibet and elsewhere?
About the author: Thubten Samdup was born in Lhasa, Tibet, in 1951 and arrived in India as a refugee in 1959. He has worked with a number of Tibet-related organisations around the world, including as Director of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, as National President and co-founder of the Canada Tibet Committee, with the Central Tibetan Administration and with the International Tibet Network. He was the Dalai Lama's Representative for Northern Europe from 2009 to 2014. Follow Thubten Samdup on Twitter.