Friday, March 21, 2008

The Tibetan Situation

Above is an ancient Mani stone defaced with Maoist graffiti in the Ganesh Himal region of Nepal.

Scour the message boards and video sites, and you'll find a very polarized take on the riots in Tibet. The Chinese government point of view is surprisingly well-represented in these nooks and crannies of the internet, possibly because of a PRC-organized spam campaign. When this viewpoint is expressed in video, it is generally accompanied by bombastic, militaristic music.

Given the polarization, it's difficult to discern any middle ground in these debates. There's an order of magnitude difference in death toll estimates between the sides. The Chinese cite the Qing Dynasty's presence in Tibet from 1600-1900; the Tibetans say the presence was minimal. The Chinese refer to pre-1950 Tibet as a society of slaves, but others describe the division of labor as broad and reasonably egalitarian. The "Free Tibet" crowd cites 1.2 million deaths and 6,000 destroyed temples in the initial invasions of Tibet; the Chinese government calls these figures gross exaggerations.


I'm trying to hear out the Chinese viewpoint. However, there is one series of arguments that continually strains credulity, and thus casts doubt on all the Chinese contentions: to quote China's communist party chief in Tibet, Zhang Qingli, the Dalai Lama is a "wolf in monk’s robe, a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast". He sat contentedly on his throne, overseeing a slave society that worshipped him as a god. Currently, he has no interest in practical solutions for Tibet, since the strife enables him to cavort with Hollywood darlings like Richard Gere. The CIA funds his operations in Dharamsala. Blah, blah, blah.

There is no evidence for these claims. Search YouTube and you'll find myriad videos of the Dalai Lama. He preaches only non-violence. Unbeknownst, apparently, to the Han Chinese who flood the message boards, the Dalai Lama has had harsh words for Tibetans who resort to violence. The violence instigated by monks demonstrates that these Tibetans certainly are lacking a traditional grounding in Buddhism, courtesy of the Chinese.

The argument that the Dalai Lama was a repressive God-King is absurd. He was a mere teenager when the Chinese army swept into Tibet. In fact, his early exposures to foreigners and his fascination with science/technology gave reasons to suspect that he might well have transformed Tibet, if given the chance.

As far as I can see, the arguments for CIA funding are real stretches. It's true that the CIA funded Tibetan paramilitary training more than 50 years ago. I've yet to see the scantest evidence that it's true today. One thing for sure: if some anti-Western politician in the Congo has a car accident, you can be certain that someone will accuse the CIA of masterminding it.

I'm hardly a fan of the Bush administration. But Condoleeza Rice expressed the current situation succinctly: "There has been a kind of missed opportunity here for the Chinese to engage the [Dalai Lama]”. The Chinese propensity to demonize the Dalai Lama is utterly out of touch with any evidence. The last Chinese leader who met with the Dalai Lama was Mao himself, who had some words of praise for the 15 year old. Since then, one has got to wonder if China's succession of leaders fear that the incarnation of Chenrezig will place a whammy on them if close physical proximity is allowed.


The Hans seem rather astonished that the Tibetans would revolt. They are allowed 2 or 3 children, unlike ordinary Chinese. University entrance requirements are lowered for Tibetans, and many other minorities. The Tibetans receive funds and medical care that they never saw 50 years ago. Roads and trains now access Tibet. Etc.

When debating the situation in Tibet, the Chinese are quick to invoke the historical treatment of American Indians (not to mention the English treatment of Scots!). One might be tempted to point out that these crimes were committed 150 years ago, that Americans can and do express regret at their government's actions in these realms, etc. This is sometimes a mistake, however. The Chinese, you see, are not necessarily arguing that American actions were criminal or regretful. They are arguing that the American actions were necessary for the progress of the Indian population. Why, then, should Americans criticize the Chinese for the advancement of the Tibetans? Stability, harmony, and "progress"...the Chinese find it nearly incomprehensible that some folks have other priorities.

I'd ask the Han to see things from the Tibetan point of view. Not only did the Chinese flush the Tibetan's revered leader into India, but they denounced him in the harshest terms. They still denounce him. Not only do they denounce him, but they attempt to redirect Tibetans' feelings of reverence to new authority figures (e.g. Mao) and doctrines (Maoism) in the most fustian manner imaginable. Witness the Chinese efforts to select and groom new, Maoist-friendly candidates for the positions of certain incarnate lamas. A new-generation Dalai Lama who promotes the view that religion is the opiate of the masses! Truly bizarre!

Until the Chinese adopt a reality-based attitude toward the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism, they should not be surprised at the Tibetan's lack of "gratitude".


In one online discussion, a defender of the Chinese approach did suggest that the venom directed at the Dalai Lama may be intended to focus Han Chinese anger off the Tibetan people, and onto a single scapegoat for the "good of the nation". Not entirely implausible. Oddly tantric. If so, however, the Chinese may be forgetting that the focus of their anger is the also the focus of Tibetans' aspirations.

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