Tibet – national liberation movement and occidentalist pet cause

Around 40% of China’s mineral resources are in Tibet, including gold, coal and what are estimated to be the world’s largest deposits of uranium. Tibet is huge, Western-Europe-sized, with space for an expanding Chinese population and, mostly grassland and high desert surrounded by the world’s highest mountains, plenty of out-of-the-way spots for disposing of nuclear waste. England attempted to take control of Tibet for a while in 1904, and Russia wanted it. China’s ‘peaceful liberation’ of Tibet began in 1949 and was complete by 1951 with the death of 10,000 Tibetans. Two eastern provinces were annexed, and the remainder became the Tibet Autonomous Region. Mao’s Cultural Revolution followed, sloganised as “Smash the Four Olds”- ideas, culture, customs and habits. For Tibetans this mean a reduction in the number of monasteries from 6000 to 6. Although there was some relaxation in the 1980s, Tibetan culture and religion – Tibet is of major importance for Buddhists – face discouragement. The incumbent Dalai Lama, identified as Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was detained in 1995 and vanished; the Chinese substitute, Gyaincain Norbu, has been rejected by the Tibetans. Han immigration is encouraged and rewarded by the Chinese government; the 7% of Han settlers in the 2.8m population have disproportionate influence and appropriate much of the increase in GDP witnessed since settlement began in earnest. Alongside the existing three airports, the opening of the Golmud-Lhasa railway is likely to intensify change and consolidate China’s control. Environmentalists are also concerned about the impact of development and tourism on the rare species of the region.

The recent demonstrations against Chinese occupation, marking the 49th anniversary of the uprising that led to the current Dalai Lama’s flight to Dharamsala, were begun peacefully by monks with a parallel protest by students and lay people. It’s not clear what triggered the firioting but the massed Chinese army appeared to have been expecting it. Its swift military crackdown resulted in a violent escalation.

What is happening? Like most people I’m very ignorant about Tibet. It’s interesting to observe that, as in the case of Palestinians, the reporting and support for Tibetan independence (which I also support) is occurring in a historial vaccuum. Going by the intense interest in Palestinians I thought Comment is Free bloggers would be supporting Tibet as a national liberation movement, but Tibet is completely missing from its front page this lunchtime. There’s one instance of China – it appears in the word ‘machinations’ in a post by Robert Norton-Taylor on the legacy of Iraq. A CiF search reveals Alex Stein on growing links between Jews and exiled Tibetans, arising from Tibetan interest in how Jews have survived exile as a people and regained their sovereignty. Also I’m getting Brendan O’Neill for once – as usual he’s playing moral police officer, more critical of the flavour of concern for Tibet than worried about Tibet itself. I have to grudgingly concede that as usual he makes a number of good points. One is that the fetishisation the Dalai Lama is not effective in campaigning for democracy in Tibet:

It would be like Britain being under occupation, and campaigners around the world hailing Prince Charles or, worse, Dr Rowan Williams as our true, brave, godlike spokesperson.

Another is about the anti-modern, occidentalist quality of support for Tibet:

In his 1991 book Sacred Tibet, Philip Rawson wrote: “Tibetan culture offers powerful, untarnished and coherent alternatives to Western egotistical lifestyles, our short attention span, our gradually more pointless pursuit of material satisfactions…” In other words, the driving force behind Tibetophilia today is not political solidarity with the Tibetans, and certainly not any positive argument for full democratic equality for Tibetans, but rather a sense of disgust with western life. It is a deeply narcissistic project, where “the west perceives some lack within itself” and seeks to find fulfilment in the always-preserved “pure east”.

This is why pro-Tibet campaigning can so easily slip into ugly China-bashing. In the morality tale constructed around Tibet, China comes to be seen as the evil representative of modernity, a faceless, smog-producing people who are ruining western activists’ spiritual backyard in Tibet. As Donald S Lopez Jnr argues in his fascinating book Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West:

“The invasion of Tibet by [China] was and still is represented as an undifferentiated mass of godless Communists overrunning a peaceful land devoted only to ethereal pursuits… Tibet embodies the spiritual and the ancient, China the material and the modern. Tibetans are superhuman, Chinese are subhuman.”

Too much of today’s pro-Tibet campaigning is underpinned by two things: self-loathing for our own, apparently over-modernised societies, and a semi-colonialist view of Tibetans as spiritual children and the Chinese as evil automatons. No wonder it can attract the support of such an archaic, illiberal figure as Prince Charles. Tibetophilia will do nothing whatsoever to increase the freedom of the people of Tibet, or the people of China.

By way of background on Tibet there’s a wide-ranging list of information sources and primary texts for Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Programme. There’s a very fresh piece by Mark Leonard in Prospect about China’s intellectuals and their search for alternatives to German or Nordic models of the state, “sophisticated techniques to prolong its survival and pre-empt discontent” resulting in a “deliberative dictatorship” which China hopes will prove the democratic world wrong. But despite evidence of much more debate and deliberation than those outside China are maybe used to assuming Amnesty International’s 2007 annual report informs us that China’s membership of the newish UN Human Rights Council has achieved little reduction in sales of arms to repressive regimes such as Burma and Sudan, or in harassment, suppression and detention of dissenters, restrictions on freedom of expression and religion, or a change in the death penalty for a number of non-violent crimes.

For news about now, 10×10 is a good snapshot of what is current, or has been at any given time since it started in November 2004. The Time China blog is keeping up with the ongoing demonstrations as best it can. Also The Guardian. There are press releases from the Free Tibet Campaign, the International Campaign for Tibet and the Tibet Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

Some recent accounts from around the web:

China’s Xinhua news agency said ten “innocent civilians” burnt to death in fires in an unverified report which said no foreigners were harmed.

The Tibetan government in exile, a group based in the north Indian town of Dharmsala, put the death toll much higher claiming that around 100 Tibetan demonstrators were killed and many more injured.

“The Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet’s Buddhists, urged China not to use violence to quell the protests, which he called “a manifestation of the deep-rooted resentment of the Tibetan people under the present governance”.

“I therefore appeal to the Chinese leadership to stop using force and address the long-simmering resentment of the Tibetan people through dialogue with the Tibetan people,” he said in a statement.

China offered a swift riposte, the official Xinhua news agency issuing a statement blaming the violence on the “Dalai clique”, Beijing’s usual term for the Dalai Lama’s supporters”

“Several buildings owned by Chinese immigrants and Chinese Muslim immigrants were set on fire,” the witness said. “All those shops owned by Chinese were ransacked and burned. Tibetan shop owners were told to mark their shops with scarves.”

“Tibetans attacked Han Chinese indiscriminately, hurling stones.”

“Tibetan sources in the city said the protesters were burning and smashing Chinese shops and anything Chinese as they moved through the city, leaving thick black smoke billowing over Lhasa.”

“The chanting mob beat up around five or six drivers who had to be carried away with blood on their faces … then they put a motorbike under the fire engine and set fire to it so the engine was burned.”

China has promised to punish the orchestrators of the uprising. The ultimatum from China is that in return for leniency the unrest must end by Monday. The Burmese were quickly resubmerged by Western forgetfulness but the Olympics will shine a light on Tibet until 24th August.


2 thoughts on “Tibet – national liberation movement and occidentalist pet cause

  1. Pingback: Fresh on Tibet « ModernityBlog

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