Thursday, February 18, 2010

This Week in Tibet

One of the cool parts about my job is that an unbelievable amount of Tibet-related information arrives in my inbox every day. Pretty much every article concerning life in Tibet, the 120,000 Tibetan exiles in India/Nepal, the Dalai Lama, a number of high-profile Tibetan political prisoners, and Chinese human rights in general gets shot my way. Time permitting I’ll probably a post a few of the most interesting things once a week.

First, a poll by CNN shows that “nearly three quarters of Americans think Tibet should be an independent country.” Whoa! The American people have actually taken a stronger stance than where I work, which instead advocates genuine Tibetan autonomy within China. The surprising thing from this poll is that “18 percent [have] an unfavorable impression” of the Dalai Lama. I can see how you might not be crazy about him, but how does someone end up with a specifically unfavorable impression of the guy? Too bad CNN didn’t give more details.

Next, a Newsweek article entitled “China Is Good for Tibet.” Uh oh, I smell colonial rhetoric ahead! Sure enough, after a dismissive reference to angry Tibetans and American activists, the author says:

“But that seems to be the only story about Tibet that is ever told. The other story is that, for China's many blunders in the mountainous region, it has erected a booming economy there. Looking at growth, standard of living, infrastructure, and GDP, one thing is clear: China has been good for Tibet.”

It must have been a challenge to pack so much bullshit into two short sentences. Let’s quickly review some of China’s ‘blunders’- the brutal initial invasion, a bloody pacification campaign which ended with the slaughter of 86,000 Tibetans in Lhasa in 1959, hundreds of thousands of Tibetan deaths caused by widespread famine due to Maoist policies during the Great Leap Forward, the near-destruction of the monastic system which was the centerpiece of Tibetan culture, education, and religious life prior to the Chinese invasion, the vicious suppression of peaceful protests in the late 80's, the abduction of the five year old 11th Panchen Lama and of thousands of dissident Tibetan scholars, monks, and writers, the relegation of Tibetans to second-class citizens within their own homeland, and the crackdown following the 2008 protests, in which an unknown number of Tibetans were killed and a much larger number were imprisoned without trial and tortured in prisons across Tibetan China. Are these the ‘blunders’ to which Newsweek refers? Ludicrously enough, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s entirely possible that the author was referring to an entirely different set of blunders. Either way you’ll have to excuse Tibetans if these ‘blunders’ have left them somewhat dissatisfied with Chinese rule.

Moving on, let’s talk about this ‘booming economy.’ The argument is taken straight from the old colonial-era Western playbook, which sought to justify occupations by waxing poetic about how much good was brought to colonial subjects. Now, as then, it falls apart under scrutiny. Beijing boasts about how much it invested in the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which surely is a feat of engineering. But if that railway brings yet more Chinese immigrants, and ferries in materials and weapons for the Chinese army, and was used to transport Tibetan prisoners to remote gulags en masse, is this really something that benefits the Tibetan people? If a mine opens in an ethnically Tibetan region, but the mining company is owned by Han Chinese, the workers are mostly Han, and the only effects it has on the local populace are ruined harvests and livestock killed by unchecked industrial pollution, is that really something that benefits the Tibetan people? Is a modest bump in GDP which falls in line with rises seen across Asia really worth imprisoned and tortured family members, murdered neighbors, and a life of oppression? I would say no but I guess if you’re a sociopath or something you can feel free to argue otherwise.

Newsweek continues-

Although Chinese statistics on Tibet, like Chinese statistics in general, are impossible to verify, it seems clear that material living standards among the 80 to 90 percent of the population living in rural Tibet are rising rapidly.

Oh right, I almost forgot- the statistics we’re basing this whole discussion on were generated by Beijing, which clearly has a motive to inflate growth numbers and restricts any attempt to verify them. I guess we just have to take their word for it that Tibetans are experiencing an unprecedented wave of prosperity. The author approvingly notes that:

“At the improved schools, students learn Mandarin, which gives Tibetans access to work opportunities in government offices in Tibet and in companies throughout China.”

Hold on, hold on- so you need to speak Mandarin to work in government offices in the Tibet Autonomous Region, and we’re actually supposed to give Beijing credit for marginalizing the Tibetan language inside Tibet?! How very kind of Beijing, to encourage Tibetans to abandon their mother tongue in favor of the language China has imposed on them.

“Beijing won't deal with the Dalai Lama, even though Tibetans revere him, nor will it let his monastic followers build any power or voice any nationalist sympathy. Instead, the government is offering Tibetans the same bargain it has offered the rest of the country: in exchange for an astronomical rise in living standards, the government requires citizens to relinquish the right to free worship and free speech. The Chinese government has kept its end of the deal. Even if Tibetan residents never signed the contract, they have benefited from its enforcement—a fact Obama might keep in mind when he meets the Dalai Lama.”

Slow down, Newsweek! That doesn’t make any sense. So when Newsweek says China has ‘offered’ a bargain to the Tibetans, they mean “compelled by force of arms on an unwilling populace that would declare independence in a heartbeat if it didn’t mean the death of every man, woman, and child in Tibet,” right? Because that doesn’t really sound like an ‘offer’ to me, but Newsweek authors are professionals so I’ll let it slide this time. But then we go on to the ‘astronomical rise in living standards,’ which we’ve already agreed was unverifiable, and before we can even readdress that talking point it’s stated that China has “kept its end of the deal.” Again, the deal that Tibetans didn’t want to make and which entails grievous loss of life and cultural destruction? That deal? Then it’s basically conceded that all this talk of ‘deals’ has been pretty silly because Tibetans never agreed to anything, but instead of accepting that as a refutation of the entire article we’re told that Obama should keep this all in mind when he meets the Dalai Lama.

If the author is saying that Obama should remain mindful of a nonexistent deal which includes death, imprisonment, torture, and the denial of the most basic human rights in exchange for dubious, unsubstantiated claims of development, much of the benefits of which would certainly fall to colonial occupiers instead of local Tibetans, then yes I think we are finally in agreement. Thanks a lot, Newsweek.

Finally, a lighter piece from Reuters. Tibetans listening to Radio Free Asia found out about the meeting which took place today between Obama and the Dalai Lama, and inhabitants of the town of Rebkong (Chinese: 同仁) shot off a round of fireworks to celebrate. A bunch of good quotes, and this from the end of the article:

China blamed the Dalai Lama for inspiring the unrest, and regularly condemns him for seeking Tibetan independence. He has repeatedly denied being a separatist or supporting violence.

"CCTV [China’s main state-run television network]is always saying this and that about him and about us Tibetans," said monk Tarkey. "The world will get a better idea about who he is once he meets Obama."

Think that includes the mysterious fifth of Americans who hold an unfavorable impression?


  1. the unfavorable impression might be due to the fact that he has not yet accepted the lord jesus christ as his personal savior. but it is not too late. act now by calling this toll free number: 1-800-555-TBAG.

  2. @ J.N. this just seems incredibly hypocritical of you condemn China for its actions. I am not at all in support of what China is doing. I believe it is wrong as well. However, I guess, what I mean is I wish that there was a simple analogy in the format of an SAT question that would convey my meaning. Oh wait:

    China : Tibetans
    The United States of America : ?

    Native Americans! I know you mention the comparison of tactics from the days of colonization in your article but how is the situation between the US and the Native American today different from that of Tibet and China? should I assume you mean the lack of direct violence against their people or the unfulfilled yet contractual made promises of our government. I mean we did promise them prosperity and we are only quieted subverting what is left of their culture. But you know what fuck it.

    @ China. Fuck you. You think can destroy another people just because you have better weapons and a larger army, and a culture based on violence and conquest instead of peace, understanding, and a reverence for nature. well, lesson learned over here China. you can only push a people so hard before those people give in, become stereotyped by political propaganda, and are lied to and left to fend for themselves in an unrelentingly arid area in the midwest. So enjoy the party while it lasts because when the Tibetans are gone who will cry on the side of the road at garbage thrown out of a passenger's window. No one! that's who!

  3. That newsweek article is absurdly bad. It reminds me of a lot of articles written about Iraq circa 2004-5. It's like everyone went to a "let's write like a 1890's Englishman" class or something.

    @nimsofa everything you say about our treatment of Native Americans is true.

    Just not sure how that makes JN a hypocrite though...

  4. @jj you are right. i am not using the word correctly. perhaps i should say that he is being extremely ironic with his outrage against china because he is asking for better treatment of Tibetans by the Chinese while Americans are doing the same thing to the Native Americans with little or no public outcry. i think it could be equally equated to asking for the nuclear disarmament of North Korea while we still have active nuclear weapons or maybe like being an animal rights activist who eats steak every night. I am not sure.

    What I do know is that the whole article, although I agree with its reasoning, just did not sit well with me. If you can understand how our government is not an evil empire in its oppression of a people then shouldn't you be able to transfer that reasoning to China and the actions it takes against the Tibetans. I mean, could you imagine a world in which today the Native Americans' culture had a figure-head with same kind of political influence as the Dalai lama. I think that would mean two words for the US right there: game changer.

  5. Niko- Thanks!

    Anon- Hahah I actually did wonder if that had something to do with it, I guess being an extremely likeable, articulate representative of a non-christian religion doesn't win you many points with some people. Still, he goes out of his way NOT to convert people, so... it is a mystery.

    JJ- like we were saying, this reads like a lot of the stuff we read in shafqat classes. i hope enough people are slamming it that the dude gets taken off the tibet beat in the future.

    nimsofa- i would say that one of the most analogous current situations to china/tibet that i'm familiar with is the israel/palestine conflict, actually. settler colonies... settler colonies never change.

    other modern colonial-tinged misadventures include the war in iraq, which I think we've fairly explicitly condemned on The Train.

    your comparison with the native american genocide is spot on, and i highly doubt that the 19th-century equivalent of the Train supported it. however, unless we invent a train time machine I don't think anyone here will get to play a role in that.

    clearly huge repercussions of that conflict echo on through today, but in our lifetime i'm not aware of anything that approaches what the chinese have done to tibetans.

    which brings me to the last thing- tibet/china is something i'm highly familiar with. i haven't worked with or studied native american issues since school. if any train writers (or you) want to write up a big effortpost on the modern situation, i'm sure it would be well-received here.