Blog: The Great October Kowtow - director's monthly update

Free Tibet's Director Eleanor
Free Tibet's Director Eleanor

12th November 2015
Post by Eleanor

For my first monthly update I get to look back on the exciting happenings of October.  For many people there was really only one event in October but, for me - as Director of Free Tibet and Tibet Watch - there were two.

The first was the Tibet Watch torture report.  It actually feels like much of this year has been about the Tibet Watch torture report, with our first submission sent to the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva in February and our follow up sent two weeks ago (read PDFs here).

I’m a researcher at heart and I love writing.  I have always felt a real sense of satisfaction and achievement – in a cheesy moment I might even say ‘joy’ – when I have the first printed and bound copy of a good report in my hand.  And it is a good report.  The team worked really hard and, through our partnership with Gu Chu Sum, we were able to access some strong testimony from torture survivors.  The UN adopted the case of every individual we named in the February report and I’m confident we can have a similar impact this time.  We’ll find out when the formal review takes place in Geneva (on 17 November).

And then there was the event that all of our UK supporters will associate with October – Chinese President Xi Jinping's UK State Visit. 

China can’t have taken away anything other than the overwhelming impression that the UK government will do whatever they ask.

Let’s deal with the negatives first.  The British government was just plain embarrassing.  I’m sure we can all marvel at the flexibility of David Cameron’s spine but there is a very real risk that all this bending over backwards will prove counter-productive, even from his perspective.  The Chinese have no respect for weakness and even before the great October kowtow some Chinese commentators were questioning Cameron’s leadership qualities.  Now?  They can’t have taken away anything other than the overwhelming impression that the UK government will do whatever they ask.

So what has the UK ended up with?  There is a highly unpopular nuclear deal, despite concerns raised by intelligence agencies and the military, never mind campaigners.  And there is a whole bunch of other seemingly lucrative trade deals.  And then, for those of us living in the UK, we have the secret cost of those deals. 

If the price of a friendly relationship with China is interference with the implementation of justice and human rights in the UK then the price is too high.

On Wednesday 21 October, during the middle of the visit, two Tibetan activists and a Chinese dissident were arrested for protesting too close to the Chinese president’s car.  The legal definition of a ‘breach of the peace’ is: “actions which harm another person, or harm their property in their presence, or actions which are likely to provoke such harm”.  I’m quite sure the Chinese president would prefer not to see any Tibetan flags but I am yet to be persuaded that the sight of one would really cause him any actual harm.

Then there was a new charge: suspicion of “conspiracy to commit threatening behaviour”.  Not exactly a well-known offence – but let’s leave that issue to one side for the moment.  The protesters were kept in custody overnight, their homes were searched, computers and other equipment seized, all while the police attempted to establish the existence of a completely fictional conspiracy.  I spent much of that Wednesday evening talking to lawyers and making sure the protesters were properly represented.  One of my lawyers called the police station a few times to find out what was going on and reported that they seemed quite flustered. 

Now, maybe there was no Chinese interference in this case.  Maybe the arresting officers honestly thought that a small flag and a couple of cardboard placards were quite dangerous and scary.  Maybe the police at the station were new and had no idea how to handle the arrest of a few peaceful protesters.  Or maybe something else was going on.  And if the price of a friendly relationship with China is interference with the implementation of justice and human rights in the UK then the price is too high.

A small team from Free Tibet forced the president of China to hide from Tibetan flags.

On a more positive note – in some ways the visit went really well.  The more the government refused to talk about human rights or Tibet, the more that became the main story.  All the mainstream UK media outlets were covering the protests and I was interviewed live on Sky News twice.  Our protest ad-van looked amazing and there was a Tibet presence at every key event.  By the third day Xi had gone from enjoying the ceremonial carriage to hiding under tarpaulin.  It was a quick visit to the Inmarsat office, just down the road from the Free Tibet office, and Xi’s entrance was a rather undignified attempt to squeeze from the car into a temporary tunnel under a shield of tarpaulin.

In any campaign there are good days and bad days and days when you wonder how much impact you’re making.  Thursday 22 October was a good day.  A small team from Free Tibet forced the president of China to hide from Tibetan flags.

Eleanor is Director of Free Tibet and also of our research partner Tibet Watch. She joined the movement professionally in April 2013, having previously been Director of Casework for legal charity Amicus, where her work focused on the death penalty in the US. With a law degree and an MA in human rights, Eleanor has worked for many other campaigns and projects, including One For Ten, PeaceBrigades International, the Burma Human Rights Documentation Unit and the British Institute of International & Comparative Law. She has been a supporter of Free Tibet since her student days and has supported the Tibetan cause for over 20 years. Read updates from her on Twitter and each month on our blog.