You don’t have to be around the Tibet movement for very long to hear the proposal that those who seek freedom for Tibet should boycott goods from its oppressor, and encourage others to do the same. I’m old enough to have boycotted South African oranges during the era of apartheid and when it comes to goods from China, it certainly feels like the right thing to do.
As human beings outraged by injustice, we always want to express our outrage and do something. Professional campaigners, though, should ask just one question when deciding what to do: how do we get the result? Campaigners are human too, however, and one of the challenges of the job we do is recognising that those two things don’t always fit well together. Whether or not to boycott Chinese goods is a classic example of that.
There is a point of view that engagement and trade with other countries actually helps a process of positive change and that boycotts may even hurt those they are meant to help by punishing a people for the actions of their government and making countries poorer. I think there are many reasons those arguments don’t apply to Tibet - not least that China’s economic development isn’t benefiting Tibetans - but there is a simpler reason Free Tibet doesn’t ask people to join a China boycott: too few people will do it for it to work.
We can and will gain more deeply committed, passionate activists.
China is such a manufacturing powerhouse and so deeply embedded in world trade that Chinese products, components and raw materials are ubiquitous in consumer products. Only those who feel the most deeply committed are likely ever to feel motivated to try to take on such a challenge – and we shouldn’t judge harshly those who aren’t. One of the key things people who fight for any cause must accept is that no matter how passionately we feel about an issue, only a small number of other, ‘ordinary’ people out there can ever be made to feel the same and will ever be willing to do the things we might do.
We can and will gain more deeply committed, passionate activists; those activists are essential to any campaign for change - but it’s very rare that they achieve it on their own. It’s a generalisation but politicians, companies, media and other decision-makers usually change when a large number of people do a little rather than when a small number of people do a lot. A China boycott asks a lot of people but sharing a Facebook graphic, signing a petition or even just talking to your friends is easier, and we know people want to do it.
At Free Tibet we’ve seen our Facebook support grow from 20,000 to 130,000 within two years and numbers of people taking our actions and joining our mailing list are going up. We work on the principle that when people know about Tibet, they want to support Tibet and the easier we make it for them, the more they’ll do it. And, of course, those deeply committed Tibet supporters I talked about before are some of the best advocates for Tibet and do an amazing job bringing people on side.
Not that numbers are all you need, of course, or even always needed. Last month’s blog by Tibet Watch’s research manager about her experiences lobbying the United Nations’ Committee Against torture in Geneva showed how important expertise, strong arguments and professional work are to the cause. At the other end of the scale, our director Eleanor wrote last month about how a handful of protesters a few hundred metres from this office made China’s mighty president hide his face.
We’ll keep fighting for the human rights of Tibetans in Tibet, to help give them the space and opportunity to strive even harder for Tibet’s freedom.
At Free Tibet, it’s our job to analyse the options and figure out what the most productive things we can do for Tibet are, within our resources and within the movement as a whole. That can be difficult but in this case it’s pretty clear to us that promoting a boycott just isn’t the most effective thing we can do, right now. Instead we’ll keep striving to get more support, we’ll keep putting Tibet in front of the politicians and media, we’ll keep challenging China wherever we can and we’ll keep fighting for the human rights of Tibetans in Tibet, to help give them the space and opportunity to strive even harder for Tibet’s freedom.
As our campaigns manager, I’m confident that’s the right thing for Free Tibet to do. As an individual Tibet supporter, though, I don’t personally boycott Chinese goods and that choice seems less clear cut. Boycotting South African oranges all those years ago felt right to me and it felt like I was contributing, in my small way, to an effective strategy. But like so much in life, things don’t seem quite so simple now.
About the author: Alistair has worked at Free Tibet for three years. He trained and worked as 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.