In 2008, China was hosting the Olympic Games and whilst making an international public show of beating its chest with self-congratulation, behind closed doors it was coming down on any voices of dissent all the more brutally. The situation in Tibet at the time was especially horrific.
A British institution with a certain reputation for pomp and backslapping, the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall that summer featured “Olympic Fire”, a work by Chinese composer Chen Yi commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Beijing Olympics. Passionate both about one of the other pieces of music being performed that night and as a supporter of the Tibetan cause, I wanted to go along and somehow raise a flag for Tibet at the event. This occasioned my first visit to the Free Tibet office – to get myself a ‘Free Tibet’ hat!
At the prom, after some hours queuing to ensure getting right to the front of the arena, there I was with that hat on, looking suitably deviant as I stood among the prommers right before the orchestra. Olympic Fire was performed, it proving to be a very bellicose, militaristic piece of music – galling to hear, in all the context of it. The sense of gross and ironic disconnection was complete with the what-ho enthusiastic response it received from the audience. The moment the applause had died down to a silence I seized the moment and yelled “Free Tibet!” at the top of my voice. I felt suitably washed in waves of scornful attention by the audience, but my shout wasn’t entirely taken badly. It was reassuring when a lady standing near me subsequently commended my daring “to say what many of us wanted to say”. And my shout made it into the Guardian write-up of the concert, albeit reported as “Remember Tibet”, in reviewing the Olympic Fire piece:
Its view of Chinese history is revisionist: a Tibetan folk tune is deployed at one point to evoke China's ‘ethnic minorities’. The shout from the arena of ‘remember Tibet’ at its close was nothing if not timely.
The incident got treated to some richly plum-voiced condescension in a blog article, which prompted some convoluted and feisty online discussion around the rights and wrongs of such an act of a political shout at a prom. This dug into the specifics of the context of the performance of this piece of music by Chen Yi, including note of how the privilege of hosting the Olympics was awarded to China “on the understanding that it would improve its stance and actions in respect of human rights. This it blatantly failed to do.”
Whereas Chen Yi’s Olympic Fire felt to me like a pugnacious celebration, the piece of music I was eager to hear that evening (Vaughan Williams’ 6th Symphony) rang more like a pungent warning – alarming, explosively brilliant, with a lingering eerie ending evocative of some desolated world. Safe as we all were in this place at this time, the atmosphere had a certain charge as if with energies of belligerence and spectres of war around the pieces performed that evening. Small as the ripples from my shout in the midst of it might have been, it did feel worth piping up against the grain of social approval in those circumstances. In retrospect this performance of Olympic Fire feels still more sickening in its dramatic irony, coming as it did around a time of Chinese repression and aggression stepping up the gears so much towards the people of Tibet as to soon be followed by the first in a wave of self-immolation protests. These protests, highlighting the desperate extremity Tibetan people feel driven to, continue to this day – with around 150 self-immolations since 2009.
Mal Mitchell has been a Free Tibet supporter for about 20 years and volunteering with our campaigns team since May 2016. His background is in independent research, diverse campaign initiatives and alternative education, with a key focus on holistic thinking. Author of “The Hog’s Wholey Wash” and co-author of “Lemurian Shunts”, he worked from 2000-2015 with a charity-NGO addressing community rights, development and environmental challenges in Madagascar.