Mountaineering in Tibet and China

Flag of Tibet

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.