Sunday, March 30, 2008

On Tibet Riot/Uprising

Tibet is again in the news.

Difference in News Coverage and Reaction of People
In China, the government media coverage had emphasized the fact that victim of the riot being ordinary ethnic Han/Hui Chinese, and claim the violence was originated by Dalai Lama Clique. In Western media and public opinion pool, Chinese government is mostly blamed for the violent suppression of the protest, and you hear the voice of "Free Tibet" and "Boycott Olympics" often. Of course, Chinese government's decision not to allow journalists to visit Tibet freely doesn't help either.

Faced with the difference in news coverage, Chinese people mostly sided with their government and think that western media is biased in the coverage. Overseas Chinese who has access to "free" media joined in as well (see Several hundred Chinese rally in Toronto opposing Tibet independence). Meanwhile, western media and blogger are wondering if Chinese people, inside and outside China, are brain-washed by the Communist government and/or being nationalistic beyond redemption. Why is this chasm in government as well as public opinion? As a naturalized US citizen who grew up in China(Han ethnicity) and attended university in US, I feel compelled to start a blog to share my opinion in the hope that it may contribute a tiny-little-bit towards the mutual understanding. First let me state my position: first and foremost, I strongly sympathize with Tibetan people and disagree with Chinese government's policy on Tibet. Secondly, I consider Tibet as part of China unequivocally.

Historical Background
Even though I am not a history buff, I think Tibet issue needs to be put in the historical context. Here are some of the quotes from independent sources hopefully free of Chinese government's and Dalai Lama's propaganda and will provide some background reading for people who are interested in unbiased facts.

In Michael Parenti's Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth,

In the thirteenth century, Emperor Kublai Khan created the first Grand Lama, who was to preside over all the other lamas as might a pope over his bishops. Several centuries later, the Emperor of China sent an army into Tibet to support the Grand Lama, an ambitious 25-year-old man, who then gave himself the title of Dalai (Ocean) Lama, ruler of all Tibet. Here is a historical irony: the first Dalai Lama was installed by a Chinese army.
In BBC Radio 4's Tibet and Francis Younghusband,

At the start of the 20th century, the British still considered Tibetans as a mysterious Buddhist society high in the mountains and nominally, under the control of China.
In Melvyn Goldstein's The United States, Tibet, and the Cold War,

The first statement of U.S. policy toward Tibet appeared in July 1942 in a memorandum to the British government:
For its part, the Government of the United States has borne in mind the fact that the Chinese Government has long claimed suzerainty over Tibet and that the Chinese constitution lists Tibet among areas constituting the territory of the Republic of China. This Government has at no time raised a question regarding either of these claims.
In 1913's Atlantic Monthly A Plea for the Recognition of the Chinese Republic,

... We are thankful that the United States has taken the initiative from the beginning of our Revolution in preventing foreign powers from interfering, thus enabling us to be properly conceived and born; but since we are born we must now ask for recognition.
The only reason we have heard up to this time is that given by England and Russia, namely, that China must make a new treaty to give practical independence to Tibet and Mongolia before she can expect recognition from these two countries.
At end of Qing dynasty, China made concession after concession to foreign powers (HongKong, Macao, Opium War), which humiliated and infuriated many Chinese, and I think to some extend hastened Qing's demise. With the establishment of the Republic of China, Mongolia went independent at the insistence of Soviet. Tibet had de facto independence because China soon spin into civil war and was invaded by Japan. To this day, I have read anti-communist Chinese-language newspapers in US who blamed the communist government for recognizing Mongolia's independence, and for drawing "unfavorable" boarder agreement with Russia in recent years (ironically, the same newspaper supports Tibet independence now for ideological reason). So it's not communist party brain-washed its citizen on this subject. Rather, Chinese people demand their government, communist or not, to keep the country in one piece. The communist government would lose its legitimacy had they not.

Some people say, Chinese people's behavior is like an abused child growing up to be an abuser. I would rather say, it's like an abused child growing up saying no to their former abusers, i.e. telling western powers no more meddling/demands on their territory integrity. They also would be thankful to those who lend them support as expressed in last quotation back in 1913. In this light, hopefully one can understand Chinese netizen's anger towards west in recent events.

Western Media
I think western media's tendency to portrait Tibet under Dalai Lama as a lost utopia and as a living hell under communist rule is a disservice to everyone. Here are some readings that I find interesting and strongly recommend them to everyone.

  • Michael Parenti's Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth
    Earlier visitors to Tibet commented on the theocratic despotism. In 1895, an Englishman, Dr. A. L. Waddell, wrote that the populace was under the “intolerable tyranny of monks” and the devil superstitions they had fashioned to terrorize the people. In 1904 Perceval Landon described the Dalai Lama’s rule as “an engine of oppression.” At about that time, another English traveler, Captain W.F.T. O’Connor, observed that “the great landowners and the priests… exercise each in their own dominion a despotic power from which there is no appeal,” while the people are “oppressed by the most monstrous growth of monasticism and priest-craft.” Tibetan rulers “invented degrading legends and stimulated a spirit of superstition” among the common people. In 1937, another visitor, Spencer Chapman, wrote, “The Lamaist monk does not spend his time in ministering to the people or educating them. . . . The beggar beside the road is nothing to the monk. Knowledge is the jealously guarded prerogative of the monasteries and is used to increase their influence and wealth.” As much as we might wish otherwise, feudal theocratic Tibet was a far cry from the romanticized Shangri La so enthusiastically nurtured by Buddhism’s western proselytes.
  • Melvyn Goldstein's Serfdom and Mobility: An Examination of the Institution of "Human Lease" in Traditional Tibetan Society
    Tibet was characterized by a form of institutionalized inequility that can be called pervasive serfdom.
    There were no "free" peasants outside of the numerically small aristocratic stratum. All Tibetans were serfs in the sense that they were incumbents in statuses (or sub-statuses) which hereditarily linked them to lords through estates. However, as we have seen, there were several types of serf sub-statuses between which a degree of mobility existed.
  • Melvyn Goldstein's Reexamining Choice, Dependency and Command in the Tibetan Social System: "Tax Appendages" and Other Landless Serfs
    This paper will argue that while the traditional Tibetan society, clearly posessed opportunities for social and physical mobility, there was an intrinsic element of control by lords over the labor of their hereditary serfs.
    This situation clearly fits the definition of serfdom cited in the beginning of the paper, including those applied to European serfdom and it is difficult to see how the Tibetan system can be considered anything byt a variant of the same basic set of social and economic relations. To argue that Tibetan miser were not serfs but “commoners” or “tenants” distorts the reality of the Tibetan social system and flies in the face of the evidence.
  • Melvyn Goldstein and Cynthia Beall's The Impact of China's Reform Policy on the Nomads of Western Tibet
    The new Chinese economic and cultural policies implemented in Tibet following Hu Yaobang's investigation tour in May of 1980 have produced a major transformation in Phala. Following decollectivization, the nomads' economy immediately reverted to the traditional household system of production and management, which, enhanced by the concession on taxes, has led to an overall improvement in the standard of living even though local-level officials have not completely implemented an open (or negotiated) market system. The new policies have also led to increasing involvement in the market economy and dramatic social and economic differentiation. Equally important, the post-1980 policies have fostered a cultural and social revitalization that has allowed the nomads to resurrect basic components of their traditional culture. With no Han Chinese officials to deal with and using written and spoken Tibetan as their medium of interaction with the government, these nomadic pastoralists are in the process of reconstructing what Wallace called "a satisfying cultural system." Despite their lack of confidence in Beijing's long-term commitment to the new policies and their perception of vulnerability vis-à-vis the arbitrary and sometimes exploitive practices of the government's representatives, life in Phala today is closer to that of the traditional era than at any time since China assumed direct administrative control over Tibet in 1959. The post-1980 reforms created conditions whereby the nomadic pastoralists of Phala were able to regain control of their lives and recreate a matrix of values, norms, and beliefs that is psychologically and culturally meaningful. The new polices have, in essence, vindicated the nomads' belief in the worth of their nomadic way of life and their Tibetan ethnicity.
  • Peter Hessler's Tibet Through Chinese Eyes in Feb 1999 Atlantic Monthly
    Many Chinese working in Tibet regard themselves as idealistic missionaries of progress, rejecting the Western idea of them as agents of cultural imperialism. In truth, they are inescapably both
  • Why Tibet is sexy in 2003 Telegraph
    The struggle for freedom in Tibet has become a cause célèbre in recent years. It occupies a disproportionately large space in Western consciousness, jostling with the Aids awareness movement for the title of sexiest international campaign. Globetrotting Chinese communist premiers are routinely met with crowds of noisy Free Tibet protesters, woolly hats and sandals to the fore, wherever they go. The lamentable state of human rights within China proper seems to attract less comment.
  • Pankaj Mishra's Holy Man What does the Dalai Lama actually stand for? in March 2008 New Yorker
    Certainly, Arendt’s “solidarity of mankind,” enforced by capitalism and technology, has become, as she observed, “an unbearable burden,” provoking “political apathy, isolationist nationalism, or desperate rebellion against all powers that be.” There are few things that Tibetans lashing out at the Chinese presence in Lhasa today fear more than absorption into the ruthless new economy and culture of China. Iyer’s book makes it plausible that the boy from the Tibetan backwoods may be outlining, in his own frequently Forrest Gumpish way, “a process of mutual understanding and progressing self-clarification on a gigantic scale”—the process that Arendt believed necessary for halting the “tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody else.” It is hard to see the Dalai Lama bringing about mutual understanding in the world at large when he has failed to bring it about between China and Tibet. Such, however, are the advantages of being a simple Buddhist monk that he is less likely—indeed, less able—than most politicians to compromise his noble ends with dubious means, even as he, following the Buddha’s deathbed exhortation, diligently strives on.
  • The Shadow of the Dalai Lama Sexuality, Magic and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism by Victor und Victoria Trimondi
    It is not our task here to offer an assessment of the improvements much praised by the Chinese which they claim to have brought to the medieval country. We personally believe that in social terms the Tibetan people today live better than they did under the rule of Lamaism. But we in no sense mean by this that the current social situation in the Land of Snows is ideal. We hold many of the accusations and criticisms leveled at Beijing’s “minority politics” by the Tibetans in exile to be thoroughly relevant. It can also not be denied that resistance to China is today growing among the Tibetans and that it primarily makes use of religious arguments. Like everywhere in the world, there has also been a religious renaissance on “roof of the world” since the mid-eighties. We see a problem in this Lamaist revival, not in the Tibetan democracy movement. What is peculiar and confusing about the political situation is, however, that the clerical revival itself very successfully pretends to be the democracy movement, and manipulates the awareness of both the Tibetans and the West with this deception.
Western media also wonders why Chinese people equate media's anti-Chinese-government stance with anti-Chinese people. Here is my opinion.

  • Partly because on certain issues, people identify with the government. So anti-government translates directly to anti-people, especially when media does sloppy work or didn't do their homework.
  • Also probably because Chinese people are used to government propaganda saying western government blah, blah, blah bad. Then often in the same article, it says it's the government they are criticizing, not the people. You don't see that in western media coverage ... simplistic, but effective. [update: China Demands CNN Apologize for Commentary]
    Mr. Cafferty clarified his comments on Monday's broadcast of "The Situation Room," saying his phrase "goons and thugs" was intended to mean China's government, not its people.
  • Reporting like following (Bill Emmott's Tibet is one thing, but India and China tensions spell bigger disaster in March 30, 2008 Sunday Times) makes Chinese people wonder if western countries are anti-Chinese/anti-China. And if a country is anti-another country, it's media, no matter how free and independent, would be influenced to some degree. One doesn't need to look far: How did US media behave before Iraq war/invasion, how free/independent/critical was it towards US government policy at the time?
    That is why this month’s events in Tibet, as well as the purchase by India’s Tata Motors of Land Rover and Jaguar from Ford, need to be seen in a wider context.
    Bush, meanwhile, has managed to cast aside 40 years of hostility and suspicion between America and India – and even agreed to start collaborating over nuclear energy – in the hope of strengthening India and its economy. And all for a special reason: the rise of China.
    If a Chinese car maker had sought to buy Jaguar and Land Rover, it would almost certainly have encountered opposition in America’s Congress – but India, unlike China, is seen as an ally.
    India, however, needs help in financing the construction of its roads, airports and power plants and it needs help with technology. In fact, it is already being helped by Japan – egged on by America – with its infrastructure financing. And Bush’s civil nuclear deal was aimed at providing the technology that India desperately needs.
  • Last but not least, it's the omissions from media.
    • I see "Tibet is an independent state from fall of 1913-1951" over and over again in western media. But does it mention the fact that Tibet was never recognized as an independent state internationally, instead was always considered part of China (see Historical Background)?
    • It mentioned the 1959 Tibetan uprising and Dalai Lama's subsequent exile, but does it mention the uprising was sponsored by CIA and to some degree supported by India (The CIA Circus: Tibet's Forgotten Army)?
    • Do I see in-depth reporting that "American politics provided an important spark for the demonstrations" (He May Be a God, but He’s No Politician)?
    • The media emphasized Dalai Lama's peaceful approach, that he is willing to negotiate with Chinese government, but does it mention his unrealistic "claim to a so-called Greater Tibet, which demands territory that was never under the control of the Lhasa government" (He May Be a God, but He’s No Politician)?

Lost of Tibetan Culture
The western media's coverage on lost of Tibetan culture under Chinese rule is another sour point.

I think everyone agrees that culture is an evolving thing, otherwise we would all be living in stone ages. While the biggest exporter of culture is U.S./west, do I see western media bemoan the world being "polluted" by U.S./western culture?

Many years ago, I read a reporting on ugly Chinese block buildings popping up in Lhasa. In the same breath, it went on saying Han Chinese were spoiling Tibetan culture by setting up shops in Lhasa selling Coca-Cola and opening night clubs. Such irony!!! First of all, those ugly Chinese block buildings are not traditionally Chinese, they are the cheap/modern buildings popping up everywhere in third world countries. I guess you could say China is a victim itself. Secondly the Han shopkeepers were not selling Chinese product. For God's sake, it's Coke and night club!

There is an article in today's NYTimes on lost of Lao's culture (Tourism Saves a Laotian City but Saps Its Buddhist Spirit). Here is another article in LATimes on lost of Tibetan culture (The last of the Tibetans) with rather balanced view. Like it or not, we all feel the impact of globalization, and losing one's traditional culture is a world-wide phenomenon, including in China and U.S.(What does Obama's “Small Town” comment say to you?). But somehow when Tibet is concerned, it takes on the sinister notion that it's all China's evil doing.

The last thing I want to stress is that not all culture is worth preserving. I visited India recently and was congratulating myself that China didn't have caste system. When I read following in The Impact of China's Reform Policy on the Nomads of Western Tibet depicting return of traditional Tibetan culture after Cultural Revolution, my heart sank, especially on hereditary "unclean" social stratum.
...Hunting wild animals and butchering livestock, for example, are again taking on the stigma they had in the traditional society. Since Buddhism teaches that taking life is sinful, the nomads traditionally relegated slaughtering activities (as well as castrating and cutting ear marks on livestock) to a hereditary "unclean" social stratum, the very poor, or the irreligious. This custom has again emerged in Phala and throughout Tibet...

A former upung (poor class) nomad—who had been an official during the commune period—sold a lactating sheep to a trader before milking it, thereby breaking a traditional taboo. Nomads believe that such an act could affect negatively the milk production of the entire camp, and a man in the same camp—who had been persecuted as a class enemy—became incensed. He berated the seller and words soon turned into pushing and fighting. They took the case before the local xiang government, the poor class nomad arguing that the wealthy class nomad looked down on him and was trying to impose reactionary superstitions on him. The local and district level officials, however, were not impressed with what has become an anachronistic perspective and did not side with him. Instead they fined both men for fighting, in the process validating the acceptability of even this type of custom.
A side note, reporting of Tibet riot often mentioned that Hui people who control the meat market is targetted together with Han people. Without any background, anyone who "control market" would not conjure up a good image in western mind. An "unbiased" reporting would also mention that meat market is the domain of the unclean in Tibetan culture.

Tibetan People's Grievance
For all the Chinese who are angry at the 3.14 event and angry at western media coverage, it's also our duty to step back and put ourselves in Tibetan people's shoes and see what could we have done better. After all, 己所不欲,勿施与人 (Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself), 吾日三省吾身(I reflect on my behavior three times daily) is our tradition.

When I visited Tibet in 2005, it's obvious that big cities like Lhasa, Shigatze had become regular Chinese cities overwhelmed with Han people and Han language. While I am surprised and delighted at how nice the cities are, I am also saddened that native Tibetan appeared to be marginalized. For example, when I asked a young Tibetan who hardly spoke Han language to write down address so I can send him photos, he wrote it in Tibetan. Our guide rewrote it for me in Han just to ensure it won't get lost in the mail system. I don't think anyone disputes the fact that Tibet is a land inhabited by Tibetans. Now if they have to write address in Han to ensure mail delivery in their own land, there is definitely something wrong, isn't it? Can't we look, for example, at how Quebec is managed in Canada, and how various states in India are managed, and learn a few things from them?

I think some Han people still have cultural inferiority/superiority complex that doesn't help in the Tibet situation. In late 70's, my neighbors (also parents of friends) who are pediatrician, ob/gyn, got sent to Lhasa on 2 or 3-year assignment to help train doctors. As young children, we wanted to hear their Tibetan stories and got the impression of a mysterious and backward place with friendly and strange people. When I visited in 2005, Han people who had been there for 10/20 years spoke highly of Tibetan people, while some new comers (like some taxi drivers I had) were rather disparaging against Tibetans (luckily not everyone behaves so. The young masseuse girls praised Tibetan "aunties" treating them well with very generous tips and bringing them gifts/food on special occasions). In reporting related to 3.14 event, I came across someone making the remark that Han people bath regularly and cannot adopt to Tibetan's culture of twice/thrice-in-life bathing. Hey, Chinese people don't bath themselves more often than Americans, should we make frequency-of-bathing an yard-stick for culture? There should be some cultural sensitivity training! On the other hand, while walking into Peace Hotel in Shanghai in 2005, I asked the first receptionist encountered where the registration is. The Asian looking girl, Singaporean I think, replied so haughtily that she doesn't understand/speak Chinese! I complained to hotel management that one won't find non-English/French speaking receptionist as first point of contact in hotels in New York/London/Paris! So why do we Han Chinese go to a place like Tibet and not learn their language while in our own home like Shanghai, install someone who doesn't speak/understand Chinese in the front lobby of a famous historical hotel?

When I first came to US in the early 80s, I argued with everyone who wanted independent Tibet that whatever damage/suffering inflicted on Tibetans are not unique to Tibetans. Everyone suffered from Cultural revolution! More than 20 years had passed and it's time we don't use the same argument. Since then, Chinese society had improved by leaps and bounds, especially economically, and to some extent politically. One frequent comment relating to 3.14 event is that Tibetan had been ungrateful to the economic development aided by Chinese. But economic development is not everything!!! In China, there are lots of grievance/protests by people, they are not as "sexy" as the Tibet topic and are often ignored by western media/people. There is a very interesting episode in Reexamining Choice, Dependency and Command in the Tibetan Social System: "Tax Appendages" and Other Landless Serfs (pp.105-106) concerning serf's grievance against 14th Dalai Lama's father. As I read it, I couldn't help but to wonder what would be the ending had it occured in present day Tibet/China where corruption is rampant and channels to address grievance is often blocked? My fellow chinese, please read 《中国农民调查》 by 陈桂棣、春桃(1st prize winner of 2004 Lettre Ulysses Award) and ask yourself what you can do?! We should channel our collective energy into building a more free and equitable society for everyone, including Tibetans. And if we couldn't do that, don't blame Tibetan for wanting a free Tibet, but blame ourselves for not providing a free environment. Indeed, when I traveled in India a few months ago, I visited a couple of Tibetan temples in Sarnath and ate in a couple of Tibetan restaurants. I am impressed that Tibetan people I talked to, including the one originally from Tibet, seemed to be happy in a poorer country than China. Let's learn something and do better!

Last but not the least, what about "Several foreign journalists have received death threats and others have been inundated with angry e-mails" (China Demands CNN Apologize for Commentary)? Are we so barbaric and want to kill because we don't like someone's words or feel insulted? Do we have to act like religious extremists or like Chinese emperors who kill because of words, or going back to Cultural Revelution era when one can die for one's words? It's disheartening that some people behave so, and indicates the failure of Chinese education system. Have we not learned from our own distant and not so distant past or from present day world events? It would be far more constructive to be introspective and to improve oneself while carrying on a dialogue with your detractors, to engage and educate them while also learn from them, even to start a P.R. campaign (Tibet Backers Show China Value of P.R.).

Future of Tibet
I am happy to see that there are voices in China speaking up for Tibetan people (see China Dissidents Call for Dialogue with Dalai Lama ... if someone see the link to the original in Chinese, please let me know).

For the "Free Tibet" crowd, Patrick French, a former directory of Free Tibet Campaign in London, whose He May Be a God, but He’s No Politician would make an excellent reading.

Also worth reading is a thoughtful interview posted by Foreign Policy with Robert Barnett, a leading American Tibet specialist at Columnbia, titled Seven Questions: What Tibetans Want.
...We have to be very careful not to confuse exile politics, which is a demand for anti-China this and anti-China that, with internal politics, which is much more pragmatic, complex, and sophisticated.
And we have to put aside suggestions that the protests in Tibet are because people are unhappy about economic loss. That really is reductive. And I think we have to get over any suggestion that the Chinese are ill-intentioned or trying to wipe out Tibet. It’s obviously horrible that people are being savagely beaten up and killed. But crucially, this is a historic change in the profile of Tibetan politics. We’re looking at something much larger than any immediate anxiety about Olympics, or whether somebody planned one of these things, or whether people are upset about economic disadvantage. Historians are going to tell us that we missed the big picture if we didn’t notice that this is the big story here. All the party cadres are going to be sent to the countryside areas to listen to the Tibetans’ complaints and find out what has gone so wrong with the policy machine in China.

Appendix: Recent News Coverage on Tibet Riot

Thanks to The China Beat where I found a lot of useful information when writing this blog.

last updated April 24, 2008


Anonymous said...

Tt is such a nice and general piece on Tibet issue, I finally see some rational argument. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Very nice written.

Another argue point regarding "The western media's coverage on lost of Tibetan culture under Chinese rule is another sour point.
- Should Americans be blamed of lost of Indian culture under American rule???