Mountaineering in Tibet and China

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Open Letter to Mick Fowler, President of the Alpine Club (UK), regarding Mountaineering in China

Dear Mick Fowler,

I note with interest that The Alpine Club will shortly be hosting a symposium on mountaineering in China.

Initiatives that widen our horizons as mountaineers and human beings are always welcome. Initiatives that adjust our horizons for the sake of a quiet life are another matter. I fear that the Alpine Club may be setting out on the second of these courses.

You are quoted in Climb Magazine (September 2011) as saying that the symposium is being held "with the intention of sharing experiences and increasing awareness of the fantastic mountaineering potential of China outside Tibet." But a substantial part of the symposium is being given over to mountains that are inside Tibet. There's not much wrong with that, except that no-one reading the symposium programme without detailed knowledge of the region would know it.

Siguniang, the subject of Paul Ramsden's talk (and, of course, of your own ascent) is in the Aba (Ngawa, in Tibetan) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province. It was part of the Amdo region of Tibet until the Chinese invasion of the country in 1950.

Mount Edgar (E-Gongga), the subject of Bruce Normand's talk, is in the Ganzi (Kardze, in Tibetan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province. It was part of the Kham region of Tibet until the Chinese invasion of the country. Kham saw some of the fiercest popular resistance to the Chinese occupation.

Both these areas lie outside China's Tibet Autonomous Region. But they fall within the boundaries of Tibet asserted by the exiled Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala, India1. People across the whole of Tibet continue to dissent from Chinese rule, and continue to suffer serious human rights violations as a consequence of their dissent.

The 2008 unrest in the Tibet Autonomous Region was matched by protests in the Aba and Ganze prefectures of Sichuan. Figures from the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy reveal that in 2008/9 more Tibetans received sentences from courts in Sichuan than from courts in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

A young monk from Kirti Monastery near Ngawa town immolated himself in March this year. Kirti Monastery is about 120km north of the Siguniang mountains. The monastery was put under military lockdown for some time after the monk's death. Two more monks from Kirti set fire to themselves in September. Another monk from the monastery set fire to himself on 3 October. He survived, but is said to have been severely beaten by police and then taken away.

Parts of the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture were closed to foreigners this summer, presumably for political reasons. In August 40-50 Tibetans were reported to have been detained and tortured in Ganzi and a large security presence was reported in Ganzi town. The previous August (2010) three Tibetans were killed when police fired on protestors in Ganzi Prefecture.

It would probably be a tall order to ask climbers to boycott China now that Chinese goods and capital are on their way to being as globally ubiquitous as US goods and capital. But it isn't a tall order to insist that climbers must avoid misleading people about the places they travel to.

It won't do to give the label "China outside Tibet" to places that are barely outside Tibet even to the Chinese Government (or why would they have set up Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures?) and are firmly inside Tibet in the view of Tibetan people.

I am not suggesting that you should replace the clunky "China outside Tibet" with the clunkier "China outside the Tibet Autonomous Region." For most people that would be just as misleading. I am asking that you call a spade a spade and that you call Tibet, Tibet. To do otherwise is simply dishonest.

The media and clubs of the climbing sub-culture aren't very powerful in the wider world, but their reach is prodigious compared with the channels open to most Tibetans, especially those living under Chinese rule. Climbers with access to glossy magazines have no business allowing themselves to become vehicles, by omission, for tendentious propaganda.

A climbing article isn't a political treatise. But a passing reference to Tibetan lives belongs in climbing reports from Tibet as surely as references to snowfall and avalanches.

Instead, there isn't a single mention of Tibet in the published programme for your symposium. The Alpine Club isn’t alone in this omission. It scars much of the mountaineering literature dealing with Tibet outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. It's time for everyone to do better.

The Alpine Club needs young people. Young people care about human rights and honesty.

I hope that, despite its shaky start, the Alpine Club will use its forthcoming symposium to press for responsible reporting by climbers visiting Tibet.

Richard Haley
Scotland Against Criminalising Communities

This Open Letter to Mick Fowler, President of the Alpine Club (UK), may be reproduced and republished freely. Please include a link to this page.

Read the Response from Mick Fowler

  • 1. A bit of additional background not included in the letter sent to the Alpine Club: The official policy of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala has for some years not been directed towards independence but towards "a genuine autonomy for all Tibetans living in the three traditional provinces of Tibet within the framework of the People's Republic of China." This is called the Middle Way Approach and remains controversial amongst Tibetans - for example see Jamyang Norbu's article Not the Buddha's Middle Way. But the entity for which autonomy is sought is nevertheless the whole of Tibet, comprising its three traditional province of U-Tsang (now the Tibet Autonomous Region of China), Amdo (now largely the Qinghai Province of China, but with parts incorporated into neighbouring provinces of China) and Kham (now mostly incorporated into Sichuan).

    The Tibetan exile Adminstration in Dharamshala was until this year headed by the Dalai Lama. But the Dalai Lama has now retired from all formal political responsibilities and handed power over to the newly elected Prime Minister (Kalon Tripa, in Tibetan), Lobsang Sangay. The Adminstration has at the same time, and at the Dalai Lama's bidding, renounced its use of the title "Government in Exile," while not renouncing "the legitimacy of representing the voice and aspiration of the people of Tibet." The Dalai Lama remains the pre-eminent spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism.


Reaction from Fabian Hamilton MP

"I am grateful to you for writing to the British Alpine Club to make them aware of their false assumptions about Tibet and to inform them of the real situation which faces so many Tibetans inside China itself, " says Fabian Hamilton MP. The full text of Fabian Hamilton's message, and then of my earlier message to him, follows. Message from Fabian Hamilton MP (10 October 2011) Dear Mr Haley, Thank you for your email regarding the self-immolation of monks at Kirti Monastery in Tibet. I did lead the recent delegation of MPs from the House of Commons to Dharamsala last week and Simon Hughes kindly answered the question about the Kirti monks at our press conference on Friday, just before we left to return to the UK. His answer was one that we had all agreed the night before, so you are quite correct to assume that I agree with his sentiment. I expected the question to be addressed to me as well. I have been working to try and help the cause of a Free Tibet for the past few years since I visited Lhasa myself with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons in May of 2006. It was a truly moving experience and led me to join both the All-Party Group for Tibet, which I now chair, and the Tibet Society of which I am a Council Member. On Monday of last week we met the Abbot of the Kirti Monastery in Dharamsala to discuss what had happened that very day in Tibet. I am grateful to you for writing to the British Alpine Club to make them aware of their false assumptions about Tibet and to inform them of the real situation which faces so many Tibetans inside China itself. On Tuesday of last week, our delegation had a one hour audience with HH the Dalai Lama at which the tragedy of the self-immolation of monks was discussed. I, and the All-Party Parliamentary Group, will do all we can to continue to raise awareness of the plight of Tibetans inside China. I wholly agree with the last paragraph of your email to me. Keep up your excellent work on behalf of all Tibetans. With all my best wishes, Yours sincerely, Fabian Hamilton (Labour Member of Parliament for Leeds North East) My message to Fabian Hamilton MP (9 October 2011) Dear Fabian Hamilton, I am contacting you in connection with your recent participation in the delegation to Dharamshala. I believe that one of the issues raised during the visit was the tragic self immolation of monks from Kirti Monastery. Simon Hughes MP is quoted as saying "We have an obligation to work in every way possible to take action that would make it less likely that people were driven to take their own lives." I would imagine that you agree with that sentiment. One of the ways that I think this can be done is to work to ensure that people around the world understand that the monks of Kirti, and other Tibetans living in the same region, are, as a consequence of their Tibetan identity, being denied cultural and religious freedom and political self-determination. Young men should not need to set fire to themselves to put themselves on the world's map as Tibetans. As you will perhaps know, Kirti Monastery is situated in an area that was traditionally part of the Amdo province of Tibet and now falls in Aba (Ngawa, in Tibetan) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province, China. The prefecture includes mountain areas that are becoming increasingly popular as tourist destinations. Unfortunately, the area is often described, without qualification, as Sichuan - a term which I believe most people would understand as having nothing to do with Tibet. The result is that people in Britain and around the world are ill-equipped to understand that this area has for many years been a focus of struggles related to Tibetan identity. As a small step towards redressing this, I have written to Britain's Alpine Club regarding a symposium on mountaineering in China that they will be holding in Cumbria on 26-27 November ( Mountains in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture and and the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province feature prominently in the symposium, but the publicity for it makes no mention of Tibet. Indeed, the President of the Alpine Club is on the record as saying the symposium is being held "with the intention of sharing experiences and increasing awareness of the fantastic mountaineering potential of China outside Tibet." Mountaineering of the sort that will be discussed at the symposium necessarily involves very small numbers of people but it has considerable publicity value and is in some respects at the leading edge of the wider tourist industry in mountain areas like eastern Tibet /western Sichuan. Press coverage of mountaineering activities can either help to illuminate or to obscure the situation in these areas. My open letter to the President of the Alpine Club can be found at I hope you will do anything you can to spread awareness of the issue and to encourage people to refer to these regions of Tibet in a meaningful way. It would be pleasant to think that we could tell the young monks of Kirti - should we be able to communicate with them - that their difficulties are well-known around the world and they have no need to self-harm in order to gain a hearing. Richard Haley

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