The Tibetan flag is a patchwork quilt of color and spirit. Two green lions paw at an orange yin-yang, below a big yellow sun with rays of blue and red. For the Tibetan diaspora, thousands of people flung around the world, it flies as a symbol of hope, and unity, and identity.
It could fly across phones, too, if only it were an emoji. A group of activists has been trying to make the Tibetan flag emoji happen for more than a year, shrinking its colorful design down to the size of a thumbnail. They’ve petitioned the Unicode Consortium, the standards committee that decides which emoji become real digital icons. They’ve mocked up a design. And they’ve heard, according to proposal coauthor Andrew Myors, that they’re out of luck.
Unicode has been in the business of deciding what symbols merit international exposure since it adopted emoji in the early 2000s. Many of those decisions, which a small subcommittee votes on, teeter on identity politics: Yes, redheads deserve representation; no, marijuana does not. But when it comes to flags, emoji reflect geopolitics too. And proposals to add new flag emoji can get caught in the crosshairs of governments, Unicode, and the technology companies that implement emoji on their platforms.
The Tibetan flag comes with a powerful—or, in some places, controversial—history. It emerged as a symbol of Tibetan independence after Chinese troops flooded the region in the 1950s to enforce the young Communist government’s territorial claims; the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, fled to India, where he established a government in exile. Today the flag is banned in mainland China, and human rights groups have reported people getting arrested and imprisoned for displaying it.
Tibet’s not the only region where China’s sovereignty has been disputed, and two other territories, Taiwan and Hong Kong, both have their flags honored on the emoji keyboard. Myors and Pema Doma thought that offered good precedent for a Tibetan emoji flag, which they first proposed in March of 2018. At the time, Myors was working with Free Tibet, a nongovernmental organization based in the UK; Doma is a first-generation Tibetan-American who works with another advocacy group, Students for a Free Tibet. Their proposal made the case that, like many other flags on the emoji keyboard, the Tibetan flag was not just a symbol for a subregion—it marked an entire people.
“Tibet is ethnically distinct,” says Myors. “Tibet has its own written language, its own spoken language. Tibet has its own religion, which is specifically Tibetan Buddhism. There’s a real sense of identity around being Tibetan, both for people in Tibet and the many Tibetan refugees who live around the world.”
China has been aggressive about the subject of sovereignty—in politics, and in business. When Marriott listed Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as separate countries on a customer survey last year, China temporarily shut down the hotel chain’s website. (Marriott later apologized for the error to win back Beijing’s good graces.) The Gap also caught flack a few months later after it created a T-shirt with a map of China that didn’t include Taiwan and other territories. It also apologized.
More recently, the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have become a lightning rod for controversies between China and international corporations. The NBA faces continued fallout—including boycotts, dropped sponsorships, and coverage blackouts—after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the protest movement. Apple pulled an app called HKmap.live, which tracked police activity during the demonstrations.
Around the same time, the Taiwanese flag emoji disappeared from certain iPhones in Hong Kong and Macau. The emoji had never showed up in mainland China, but for the rest of the world, including those sub-regions, it had appeared since 2015. Apple’s decision to quietly remove it seemed like a signal of the tech company’s position on China, its fastest growing market and the country where many of its devices are built.
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Which brings us back to Unicode. Nearly a year after receiving the Tibetan flag proposal, in January 2019 the group changed its policy on encoding flag emoji, according to public minutes. Instead of recommending a set of emoji for tech companies to include on their platforms—the way Unicode handles all other emoji—the group decided that for flags, it would bring the ideas to the tech companies first and gauge whether or not there would be “sufficient support.”