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Tibet called ‘training ground’ for more Chinese expansion

Brian Wright O’Connor | 12/19/2013, 6 a.m.
Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute, is a prominent spokesperson for Tibetan rights and critic of Chinese exploitation of natural resources in other Tibet, as well as other countries including several in Africa. Photo courtesy of Lhadon Tethong

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Photo courtesy of Lhadon Tethong

Tibetan Action Institute Director Lhadon Tethong frequently participates in demonstrations in Harvard Square with other Tibetan activists. She likens China’s actions in Tibet to its increasing expansion and harvesting of natural resources in Africa.

The Tibetan human rights activist, speaking to an audience of Harvard students, denounces the incursion of Chinese mining companies, citing their corrosive influence on the economy, the environment and the rule of law. But most of all, on the people.

“They’re simply not benefiting from the extraction interests,” says Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute. “They bring in Chinese workers, tear up the land and put local enterprises out of business because they can’t compete with cheap Chinese goods flooding into the market.”

When locals do get hired, “the wages are extremely low and the working conditions are horrible. And when they complain, the local government does nothing.”

Tethong, a prominent spokeswoman for Tibetan rights, is talking about Chinese exploitation of massive zinc, copper and lead deposits in Tibet. But she could also be talking about Zambia, where Chinese-owned companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in copper and coal mines. Strikes by Zambian workers in the impoverished African nation have been met by brutal reprisals, forcing even the usually compliant Zambian government to take action.

According to a number of activists, China’s interests in other developing countries follow a similar pattern, all modeled on China’s 50-year domination of its small and largely agrarian Buddhist neighbor.

“When you look at China’s presence in Zambia, Peru, the Congo and other nations, it comes down to one thing and one thing only – access to resources to feed the growing Chinese economy,” says Tethong, who lives in Somerville with her husband, who was also raised in the Tibetan exile community.

“Even when some of the companies are called into account, you see them continue to act with impunity. Just like in Tibet, there is no incentive for them to act better. The state-owned companies, with deep ties to Communist Party leaders in China, are interested only in making as much money as possible with little or no respect for environmental standards, working conditions or labor rights.”

Tibet, spread across a broad plateau tucked beneath the shoulders of the Himalayas, emerged as a unified empire in the seventh century and maintained a shaky autonomy for 1,300 years. Occupied at times by Mongol and Chinese overlords, Tibet’s independence ended in 1951, when a full-scale invasion by the People’s Republic of China crushed the government. Estimates of the number of Tibetans killed since Chinese troops entered the country range from 200,000 to one million.

About six million Tibetans live in China and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which is roughly twice the size of Texas, but at an average elevation of 13,000 feet. The provinces of the old Tibetan empire cover about one-third of China’s current land mass.

For most Americans, the beatific figure of the Dalai Lama captures the struggles of the Buddhist people for sovereignty. The 14th Dalai Lama has served as the nominal head of the government-in-exile since his escape from Lhasa’s fairyland Potala Palace in 1959.

The saffron-robed religious leader has repudiated the post-invasion government that accepted Tibet’s incorporation into China in exchange for limited autonomy. While actors and celebrities, most notably Richard Gere, have flocked to the side of the charismatic Dalai Lama, the grinding work at the grassroots level to build support for greater autonomy for Tibet has been carried out by organizations like Tethong’s.