NEWS that the Saltire has gained official status as an emoji may sound like small change but the decision to allow the blue and white flag follows a significant, and passionate, online appeal. Inspired by the precedent, activists within Tibetan solidarity groups are now seeking similar social media status for their colourful flag: a pair of snow lions underneath a giant rising sun.

Campaigners, it would appear, are keen to utilise both the powerful political potency that national colours retain — and the opportunity social media offers to share that message.

As well as being beautifully designed, Tibet’s flag is rich with symbolism and has come to represent the country’s seven-decade struggle for freedom from Chinese military occupation. In fact, within Tibet itself, the flag remains so controversial that by simply displaying one in public, flag-flyers risk their own liberty: 20-year-old Lobsang Gyatso was imprisoned by the Chinese authorities for three years in 2014 after protesting with a Tibetan flag that he had drawn by hand.

The Scottish and Tibetan independence struggles are clearly very different for many reasons but the fact remains that both the Saltire and its Tibetan counterpart are magnetic symbols for respective national movements. The 2014 referendum and the flood of blue and white that washed across the country serves as a reminder of how critical a role Scotland’s colours played in galvanising Scottish independence sentiment. The reverence that Tibetans accord their flag — and the personal price they have often paid for doing so — demonstrates the flag’s ongoing power, even as a covert symbol.

Arguably it is the suggested potential that national flags possess that drove Chinese Olympic authorities to ban non-endorsed flags from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Largely designed to thwart Tibetan independence campaigners, the ban also covered the Saltire as well as the Catalan flag, the Senyera, among others. SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn condemned the action at the time: “China’s crackdown on any show of support for Tibet — including flags — is out of step with the Olympic spirit and will raise concerns about China’s commitment to free speech and expression ... That it will have this unfortunate side-effect for anyone wanting to fly a Saltire ... may focus people’s minds on dialogue between China and Tibet.”

Yet, controls on the public display of the Tibetan flag are not limited solely to that country nor greater China — in fact Chinese officials have gone to eyebrow-raising lengths to have the flag effectively banned overseas as well.

Despite their largely deserved reputation for encouraging free thought, many universities located in the western world are increasingly showing themselves to be acquiescent when faced with demands made by Chinese authorities to remove the Tibetan flag from official events.

At UMass in Boston, USA, 22-year-old Tibetan refugee Kalsang Nangpa was stopped from displaying the Tibetan colours during a formal ceremony at the university’s Amherst campus in early May this year. The university emailed the student explaining the action was due to “various political sensitivities.”

Closer to home the University of East Anglia Students’ Union also decided in early May to remove the Tibetan flag from its HQ following complaints from Chinese students that it was “inappropriate”.

The controversial decision was carried out despite widespread condemnation by many students at the Norwich-based higher education facility.

It is interesting to note that, according to the UK Council for International Student Affairs, in 2015-16 Chinese students numbered 91,215 — by far the single largest source of non-EU students to the UK. In tuition fees alone Chinese students annually contribute hundreds of millions of pounds to Britain’s higher education facilities. Is the willingness for institutes to toe the line simply a coincidence?

Once dubbed the world’s biggest Tibetan flag, a hot air balloon emblazoned with the country’s national colours took to the skies at the 2015 Bristol Hot Air Balloon Show. An email from a high-ranking diplomat at the Chinese embassy in the UK sought to puncture the party by urging the balloon extravaganza’s organising committee to ground the aircraft, stressing that Beijing did not want the event to be used as a platform for Tibetan separatist activities. The idea, luckily, never took off!

China’s political elite is clearly worried by any challenge that resistant populations pose to the control they wield. In that respect, Tibet is not alone. During the London-based 2012 Olympics Chinese officials raised concerns over the inclusion of the Taiwanese flag in a global flag display installed by the Regent Street Association (RSA) commercial group. After the RSA removed the offending flag, a UK Foreign Office spokesman stated: “We contacted the RSA and suggested they might want to talk to [the Olympics organisers] regarding the flag under which Taiwan participates in the Olympics.”

Flags have always been loaded with a semiotic power and that power can assist both those who resist and those who reinforce inequality and injustice. This year is the 30th anniversary of both the brutal suppression by the Chinese military of the October 1987 Tibetan Uprising as well as the creation of Free Tibet, an organisation founded in response to the blood-letting of that event. It is exactly because the Tibetan flag allows us to picture an alternative to years of Chinese state oppression (which has defined much of Tibet’s recent history) that it will be hung with pride at the London-based Tibetfest taking place in late October to mark this crucial calendar point.

Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren is the director of Free Tibet