It was ironic that a cinema in London's Chinatown was the setting for the screening of the film Tibetan Freedom Concert, a part mega-gig, part documentary that catalogues human rights abuses in Tibet. In it, China looks very bad, with footage of soldiers beating and kicking Tibetans in the streets and interrogation rooms. Bjork puts in an appearance, drawing an analogy with cowboys and indians.
One thing is clear: knocking the People's Republic, portraying it as a snarling monster threatening the whole world, is in vogue. Hostility hasn't been so fierce since the Tiananamen Square massacre in 1989. Thanks to my daily contacts with chinese people, I have learned not to lecture them about human rights. Decades of isolation have taken a heavy toll. They value freedom and personal liberty, but are highly sceptical of crude simplifications of their country by outsiders - in a poll of Chinese students earlier this year, 80 per cent believed America was trying to bully China.
They are suspicious of many Chinese experts, and the popularity of books such as Wild Swans which they believe tell foreigners what they want to hear. And while a lot of this is defensiveness, they have a point. The Chinese don't want to be defined by what their government does, or purely on its human rights calamities, anymore than Britain wants to be defined solely on its history in Ireland over the last 300 years. Now Hollywood is muscling in with films like Red Corner and Seven Years in Tibet; Western world, white man heroics provided by the likes of Brad Pitt and Richard Gere.
The business is messy enough without pop musicians stampeding in. Tibetan Freedom Concert is by Tibetan-orientated human rights group Milarepa, based in the US, of which Beastie Boy Adam Yauch is president. So, this tricky juggling act of pop and politics is being handled by a member of a band of erstwhile boorish, drunken Americans who yelled for American youth to fight for the right to party in the 80s. The likes of U2, Alanis Morisette, Bjork, Michael Stipe and Noel Gallagher took part in concerts, for which there is a triple album ready to be released via Grand Royal, the Beastie Boys label.
We buy the records, buy their clothes (a T-shirt from Mike D's X-Large range is a mere snip at pounds 22.95 in Slam City Skates in London), now we must buy the ideology.
Watching the concert, it is obvious why the Tibet cause has such flavour, attracting more attention than the independence movement of Tibet's neighbouring province, Xinjiang, where the people are muslim and militant. Black and white footage of heavenly Tibetan landscape and people going about their peaceful business to the soundtrack of haunting Buddhist chants, is intercut with clips from the 1996 concert: cue shots of thousands of teenagers whooping it up to headbanging guitar sounds. Message: the West likes to party, the East is mystical. An irresistible mix and match. US youth come across as noise obsessed, pierced and tattooed crazies who know litle about the cause they supprt, the Tibetans are nothing less than saintly, smiling people.
The film weighs heavily in favour of politics rather than endless music footage, which is a good thing, since the artists' performances are unremarkable. The likes of Beck, Smashing Pumpkins, Fugees and Sonic Youth only articulate a few half-hearted words about "raising awareness", if they offer a perspective at all. They might as well be at Glastonbury. Only Bjork and Rage Against The Machine bring a fresh edge to their appearances.
Identification with non-violent Buddhists adds dimension and adventurism to a once alternative rock industry which is now the mainstream, and had the individuality sucked out of it by MTV packaging and corporate record companies. To my surprise, at the press conference after the film, Adam Yauch readily admits that his involvement is about saving himself as well as Tibet.
Adam admits that Milatepa has had to pull back from advocating a full boycott of Chinese goods "because a lot of American Chinese people were taking personal offence to it".
But a man in the audience who turns out to be from the Tibetan Foundation, said: "Tibetans do not hate the Chinese - we have to solve our problems through resolution not conflict. We are not a racist country, but the rate at which the Chinese are coming to Tibet is really frightening. There are now over 7 million Chinese and under three million Tibetans. I speak on my own behalf here: those Chinese who came must go, but the people who were born there might be able to stay."
The image of the repatriation - perhaps forced - of millions of Chinese flashes before my eyes. Would the freeing of Tibet escalate tensions, rather than lessen them? Would it create a domino effect, with Xinjiang and Mongolia also departing. Perhaps Taiwan would go next, China would make threats, the US would support Taiwan and Europe would back the US. If the world is brought to the brink of disaster, it would take more than The Beastie Boys, Richard Gere and Brad Pitt to save the day.
`The Tibetan Freedom Concert' CD will be released next MondayReuse content