Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Problem of Tibet 1

In the last couple of days, Tibet has erupted in violence, demonstrations, and international recriminations against the Chinese government for its heavy-handedness in repressing the faux uprising.

When one looks at Tibet, you wonder, why this place? Why is it such a part of the consciousness of people in the US and Western Europe? Back in the 1980s, West German Green Party leader Petra Kelly was able to get the German government to pass a ban on all weapons sales to China based on its treatment of the people of Tibet. Rock concerts are held throughout the West, extolling Tibetan independence. One of them, Icelandic singer Bjork, even went so far as to advocate such independence in a recent concert in Shanghai.



Tibet has long been a cause célèbre for Western liberals. Much of this is because there are more Tibetan monks in the West than Tibet itself. Moreover, Tibetan Buddhism, with its contemporary appeals to pacifism, peace, inner harmony, etc., are huge appeals for secularized Western liberals looking for a convenient faith that allows them to maintain the illusion of spirituality without the kind of restrictive rules and regulations that goes with following a religion like Christianity or Islam. This is not to impugn the character of human rights groups in the West, but it helps that the causes they hold most dear are correlates of the ones they advocate. Such is human nature.

What makes this so hypocritical is that no one in the West ever cries a tear for the Muslim Uyghurs, who have suffered every bit as much as the Tibetans. No one ever says anything about the fate of the Mongols, or the Manchurians, who suffered every bit as much under Communism as any of the other ethnic minorities of the PRC.

It is true that until 1950-51, Tibet was an independent country, sort of. It was given greater autonomy right after the collapse of the Empire of China, but neither the Republic of China nor the PRC surrendered their claims on Tibet, in spite of what the Tibetans may have thought, and they were never recognized as an independent country. In fact, European treaties only recognized Tibet as off limits to European imperialism, so long as the Chinese maintained claims to its territorial integrity.

Tibet’s Bloody Past

Before the magical year of 1950, what constituted the country was nothing short of a feudalistic theocracy. Historically, Tibet was a tributary state to the Chinese, but was allowed to develop its own institutions, religion, laws, etc. The beloved monks quickly established an absolute monarchy with its brand of Buddhism the official state religion, in which the monks controlled all political life, and the population mostly reduced to serfdom. When the current and 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was born in 1935, he was born into a country where voting was strictly forbidden, women were property of men, and his fellow priests, through their Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, owned almost all of the arable land in the countryside, subordinating the mostly-peasant population to servitude to Buddhist overlords. This was literally a slaveholding society and Tenzin Gaytso grew up with personal slaves and servants--this was on account that Tenzin was a product of a wealthy family, who maintained extensive land holdings, as well as serfs. This is the side of the Dalai Lama that the Bjorks and Heritage Foundations of the world do not like to talk about.

The Chinese government, under the republicans and later the Communists, had advised the Tibetans to abolish its system of serfdom and to modernize the country by eliminating the large landholdings of the monasteries, divvying up the land to the peasantry so they could work their own farms. Needless to say, the Dalai Lama, whose family would have been one of those who could have lost everything to such an order, resisted such reforms. It has been argued, by more than those from within the Chinese government, that this is what incited the PRC to invade and annex Tibet back in the 1950s (it certainly was not Tibet's minimal resources).

To be sure, the current Dalai Lama is hardly the same person he was fifty years ago. He has certainly changed in his view on democracy, human rights, etc., but how much of this is a product of the fact he has been exiled for all of these years? Oh, he has evolved. When he first entered exile, the Lama was a steadfast opponent of homosexuality and abortion (not unlike most religionists throughout the world). That did not win him any converts in the socially liberalizing West, especially all of those pro-choice/pro-gay rights liberals on the coasts who enjoy taking vacations at Buddhist retreats. By the 1990s, he began to change his views, to the point of accepting that gay people could actually be normal, and sounding much like a "new" Democrat when personally expressing his distaste for abortion. Credit must given in that Mr. Tenzin is a man who knows his audience.

But what of Chinese occupation of Tibet? There is no doubt that it has been terrible. The PRC formally annexed Tibet and began the process of destroying most of its monasteries, imprisoning and torturing the monks and anyone allied with them, and maintained policies of repression that are in keeping the authoritarian history of China. Most estimates are that a million Tibetans were killed by the Chinese invasion and subsequent policies. Probably out of all the arguments for Tibetan independence, it is the Chinese government's treatment of the Tibetan population after the invasion that exemplifies the foolishness of the central government. Instead of mollifying the local population, the PRC went about encouraging ethnic Han settlement and supplanting of the ethnic Tibetans as the dominant economic force in their own region, and established many of its prison colonies during the Maoist era in Tibet.

The problem with Tibetan independence is that it has never been an independent state. It may have the moral high ground compared to the Chinese government, which is not exactly an accomplishment, but the problem of Tibet is the same as with Kosovo. Where do we draw the line at subnational independence movements? If we are to create nation-states where none previously existed, is there a limit to this, so long as the movement has in its mind some historical grievance to justify the cause? I ask this because most nation-states have these kind of historical skeletons in their closet. What about the US and our treatment of Native Americans, never mind Hawaii (where we imprisoned its monarch, installed a friendly commonwealth government, before incorporating it into the union)? One could make a very compelling argument that the US committed genocide against its indigenous populations on a scale as unjust as the one the Tibetans were forced to incur.

....to be continued.

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