Does the West still want to free Tibet?

By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating

Adam Yauch, who passed away last week at the age of 47, will of course be remembered primarily as MCA from the Beastie Boys. But his role as the music industry’s primary advocate for Tibetan independence may be a close second.
In addition to his career with the Beastie Boys, Yauch was heavily involved in the movement to free Tibet. A founder of the Milarepa Fund, Yauch was instrumental in the first Tibetan Freedom Concert in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park 1996, which drew 100,000 people — the largest US benefit concert since 1985’s Live Aid.

As Slate’s David Weigel recalls, the concerts “became punchlines, eventually, but they started as expressly political events intended to sign up new recruits to a human rights cause that the government (then the glorious Clinton-Gingrich cohabitation) didn’t want to touch.”
Yauch, a practicing Buddhist whose wife was Tibetan, was uniquely committed to that cause. But with his passing, it’s hard not to be struck by the degree to which Tibet has faded in prominence among politically committed Americans. With over 30 self-immolations in Tibet over the past year, it’s not as if the controversy has gone away.
Pro-Tibet activists are still there, witness the protests during Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Washington, including four activists who were arrested after unfurling a banner on the Arlington Memorial Bridge. But since the last US Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1999, the issue hasn’t really commanded the Kony 2012-level interest it once garnered from young Americans.
There are probably several reasons for this. The Dalai Lama, the most visible living symbol of Tibet’s national aspirations, has been gradually retreating from his political role. As Weigel notes, many of those involved in the Free Tibet movement, including the Beasties, turned their attention to issues closer to home during the Bush administration.
Then there’s the increasing allure of China for the entertainment industry. The prize of China’s $2-billion-a-year film market has made Hollywood studios a lot less likely to back projects like Kundun or Seven Years in Tibet. That’s true of musicians as well: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones have been on their best behaviour during recent tours of China, possibily for fear of getting the Bj√∂rk treatment.
I would imagine the MCA’s of tomorrow might prefer to attach themselves to global movements that don’t risk alienating a billion potential customers.

NOTE--Joshua Keating is the Associate Editor of Foreign Policy magazine. 

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