By Nick Li
Last Tuesday, August 7th the Chinese authorities detained two Canadian students after they unfurled a banner on the Great Wall of China calling for a free Tibet. The banner, playing on the 2008 Beijing Olympic slogan, said "One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008." Another Canadian was detained for pro-Tibetan independence blogging. All three were released after 36 hours in detention without any charges. Now, as a firm believer in self-determination and non-violent methods, I applaud these brave activists for standing up to the Chinese. In this article, I by no means wish to diminish the plight of the Tibetan people. I simply wish to add some critical perspectives to an issue that is sometimes portrayed in black and white terms and to push for a broader and more realistic approach to human rights in China. I focus on three areas:
(1) would a free Tibet be so great for the inhabitants of Tibet (see below)? (2) is repression in Tibet any worse than in the rest of China (see next post) (3) Why are Westerners so obsessed with Tibet (final post)?
(1)Tibet in the past and the future When the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950, it was a semi-autonomous feudal kingdom that at various points in history had had stronger or weaker ties to Chinese and Mongolian empires. In fact, The United States recognized Tibet as a part of China as early as the 1940s. The first Grand Lama was created by the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan in the 13th century while the first ruler taking the name Dalai Lama was ironically imposed by the Chinese army several centuries later. Michael Parenti’s fascinating article argues that pre-1950 Tibet was far from an idyllic paradise ruled by a benevolent Dalai Lama – it was in every way much closer to medieval Europe with full-blown serfdom, wealthy monastic overlords, massive social and economic inequality, all supported by a hierarchical religious system. Indeed, the Chinese justification for the invasion and occupation of Tibet was the overthrow of this feudal system. While we should probably not take this justification purely at face value, the facts are not widely disputed. Parenti writes:
Mao Zedung and his Communist cadres did not simply want to occupy Tibet. They desired the Dalai Lama’s cooperation in transforming Tibet’s feudal economy in accordance with socialist goals. Even Melvyn Goldstein, who is sympathetic to the Dalai Lama and the cause of Tibetan independence, allows that "contrary to popular belief in the West," the Chinese "pursued a policy of moderation." They took care "to show respect for Tibetan culture and religion" and "allowed the old feudal and monastic systems to continue unchanged. Between 1951 and 1959, not only was no aristocratic or monastic property confiscated, but feudal lord were permitted to exercise continued judicial authority over their hereditarily bound peasants." As late as 1957, Mao Zedung was trying to salvage his gradualist policy. He reduced the number of Chinese cadre and troops in Tibet and promised the Dalai Lama in writing that China would not implement land reforms in Tibet for the next six years or even longer if conditions were not yet ripe. Nevertheless, Chinese rule over Tibet greatly discomforted the lords and lamas. What bothered them most was not that the intruders were Chinese. They had seen Chinese come and go over the centuries and had enjoyed good relations with Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek and his reactionary Kuomintang rule in China. Indeed the approval of the Kuomintang government was needed to validate the choice of the present-day Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. When the young Dalai Lama was installed in Lhasa, it was with an armed escort of Chiang Kaishek’s troops and an attending Chinese minister, in accordance with centuries-old tradition. What really bothered the Tibetan lords and lamas was that these latest Chinese were Communists. It would be only a matter of time, they were sure, before the Communists started imposing their egalitarian and collectivist solutions upon the highly privileged theocracy. In 1956-57, armed Tibetan bands ambushed convoys of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). The uprising received extensive material support from the CIA, including arms, supplies, and military training for Tibetan commando units. It is a matter of public knowledge that the CIA set up support camps in Nepal, carried out numerous airlifts, and conducted guerrilla operations inside Tibet. Meanwhile in the United States, the American Society for a Free Asia, a CIA front, energetically publicized the cause of Tibetan resistance. The Dalai Lama’s eldest brother, Thubtan Norbu, played an active role in that group. Many of the Tibetan commandos and agents whom the CIA dropped into the country were chiefs of aristocratic clans or the sons of chiefs. Ninety percent of them were never heard from again, according to a report from the CIA itself.The small and thinly spread PLA garrisons in Tibet could not have captured them all. The PLA must have received support from Tibetans who did not sympathize with the uprising. This suggests that the resistance had a rather narrow base within Tibet. "Many lamas and lay members of the elite and much of the Tibetan army joined the uprising, but in the main the populace did not, assuring its failure," writes Hugh Deane. In their book on Tibet, Ginsburg and Mathos reach a similar conclusion: "The Tibetan insurgents never succeeded in mustering into their ranks even a large fraction of the population at hand, to say nothing of a majority. As far as can be ascertained, the great bulk of the common people of Lhasa and of the adjoining countryside failed to join in the fighting against the Chinese both when it first began and as it progressed." Eventually the resistance crumbled.
Two points I find interesting about the resistance movement – (1) the parallels with Cuba, where the exile groups were also unable to find any support among the masses, who were loathe to return to the old order, and (2) the hypocrisy of the erstwhile non-violent Buddhist leaders of Tibet at this early juncture. Parenti also notes that
Whatever wrongs and new oppressions introduced by the Chinese in Tibet after 1959, they did abolish slavery and the serfdom system of unpaid labor. They eliminated the many crushing taxes, started work projects, and greatly reduced unemployment and beggary. They built the only hospitals that exist in the country, and established secular education, thereby breaking the educational monopoly of the monasteries. They constructed running water and electrical systems in Lhasa. They also put an end to floggings, mutilations, and amputations as a form of criminal punishment.
(For an opposing point of view, the official version from the Tibetan government-in-exile can be found here. As I am by no means an expert on this subject or an academic historian, I will not venture into the veracity of the two separate accounts of conditions and events, but as usual my feeling is the truth is somewhere in the middle.) Of course, it is unlikely that a free Tibet would restore all of the features of the old feudal system. An interesting question, though, which is also faced by a post-Castro Cuba, is what role the exile community will play in a new, free Tibet. We have seen in Iraq that, with the likes of Ahmed Chalabi, the exile community is often out of touch with needs and aspirations of the local populace. What forms of compensation will be offered to emigres who had their assets seized and reallocated? In Cuba many former mansions and estates have been turned into small family farms, sugar cooperatives, schools and hospitals. What sort of compensation should they receive, and who should pay it – the Chinese, or the Tibetans who benefited from the expropriations? Perhaps more importantly, what role will religion play in the new state? Will a free Tibet be a secular, non-denominational state open to religious freedom where the Dalai Lama is simply a religious leader, and where a democratic government and secular code of laws ensures no special status or rule for the monastic orders? Or will it be more of a Buddhist Taliban, and look more like that other enlightened buddhist kingdom, Bhutan? (I am only half-serious here.) Will preservation of Tibet’s unique cultural heritage mean oppression of Han Chinese and other immigrants and discrimination against them, thereby creating an ethno-nationalist state? This is a serious question, since one of the main charges leveled by supporters of Tibetan independence is "cultural genocide" being waged by the Chinese, partly through restrictions on religious worship and education/language policies, discrimination against ethnic Tibetans, but also through mass migration of Han Chinese into Tibet. Would a free Tibet look like a free Kosovo, with ethnic cleansing in reverse? I’m sure serious supporters of Tibetan independence have thought about these issues, but I think the debate has only just begun. Think, for example, about the new railway project that connected connected Lhasa, Tibet to the main Chinese railway network last summer. Now, as an economist and an advocate of economic mobility, free migration across borders, and economic integration, I am appalled that a group like the free Tibet campaign would call for an end to the railway project for its destructive cultural effects. This is hardly the first time Westerners with a romanticized or exoticized picture of another culture have supported economic isolation and stagnation in the name of preventing "cultural genocide." None of us can say for sure how the residents in Tibet really feel about this railway, but I am one of those people who will always say that a bridge or a railway to the outside world is a good thing. – Nick Part 1 of 3