Response to Jim Luce on “Tibet: Polar Perspectives”

Over at the Huffington Post, Jim Luce has an interesting post up asking  “Can Both Sides Be Heard?”, in which he discusses what he’s learned in his attempt to get the Chinese perspective on Tibet.

This is an important topic and I applaud anyone’s efforts to learn about it. It seems that, all too often, we’re stuck with only one side of the story — here in the West we get one version, and people in China get basically the opposite. This is especially true for casual observers, who are often not even aware there is another side, but activists are not exempt, either. I remember, some years ago, when I was in college, I attended a meeting of my school’s “Students for a Free Tibet” chapter. It was the first meeting of the year, so most of the people present were newly involved and had a lot of questions about Tibet, which the club president answered at length and with passion. However, when a girl eventually asked him, “why does China want to rule Tibet?” he was stumped — he eventually just said, “I don’t know” and moved on to the next question. No matter how committed we are to a cause, if we can’t even take the time to understand what motivates the “other side”, how are we ever going to be savvy enough to do anything about it?

With the same curiosity that inspired Jim Luce’s article, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find out about the Chinese perspective on Tibet myself over the last few years. The funny thing about this experience is that, over time, I have not found that I grow much more sympathetic to the Chinese position, but I do feel less sympathetic to the Tibetan exiles on some points — in other words, on a bad day, both sides are full of ****. A good example is the issue of “Greater Tibet” and whether or not the Tibetans have become a minority in Tibet. The two sides are using “Tibet” to mean different things (either the entire Tibetan cultural region as a whole or just the Tibet Autonomous Region itself), and yet they continue to talk past each other without admitting that this is basically a semantic problem. To me, a definition of Tibet as the places where Tibetans live seems quite reasonable (it’s not as if Tibetans have been expanding into a lot of new territories in the last 500 years — the places where they live now are places where they have lived for a long time), but Chinese sources tend to act as if this was some sort of bizarre ahistorical innovation. In fact, the boundaries of the Tibet Autonomous Region are quite arbitrary, including all of central Tibet (Ü-Tsang) and sparsely populated western and southern Tibet plus the western part of the Kham region. This is basically the old line of actual control between Lhasa and China in the first half of the 20th century. Even the Chinese government has designated the traditionally Tibet areas outside of the TAR as Tibetan autonomous prefectures and counties. Now, then, is it true, looking at this larger Tibetan region, that the Tibetans have been made a minority in their own territory, as the exile government sometimes claims? Unfortunately, this claim is fairly misleading, because it is only true if you include a few peripheral areas with large Han populations, in particular Xining, a large Chinese urban area in northeastern Qinghai. But Xining has always been a Chinese city— it was there before the Tibetans arrived in the area 1200 years ago — so there’s no reason to count Xining as part of Tibet, even if the surrounding countryside is mostly Tibetan (the current Dalai Lama was born not far from there). According to statistics from the 2000 census, Tibetans still constitute a large majority in autonomous areas (including the TAR) totalling at least 1.8 million square km. Moreover, according to Andrew M. Fischer writing in Authenticating Tibet there has been no large increase in the Han or Hui population of the Tibetan regions recently, so there is no foreseeable danger of the Tibetans being swamped demographically in Tibet (although the demographic issue is much more serious if one looks at the Lhasa urban area specifically).

Jim Luce brings up a number of other interesting topics that I’d like to address. I do find it a bit hard in places, though, to distinguish between what he has written as his opinion vs. a description of popular Chinese opinions, so I apologise in advance if I sometimes get the one mixed up with other. On historical points, I see a number of not false but tendentious readings that are typical of Chinese sources. For instance, Mr. Luce writes, “China was once larger”: well, the Qing Empire — I see no reason to even mention the Yuan — had a somewhat larger land area than the PRC does now because it included outer Mongolia and Taiwan (and had Vietnam and Korea as vassals). However, it controlled this area much more loosely, and, more to the point, it is a matter of serious historical controversy whether all of this land can be considered “China”, or simply an assortment of territories united by only by the supremacy of the emperor. Certainly there was a clear social and political distinction between the core Chinese areas which were governed as provinces and the periphery outside the provinces. Similarly, Mr. Luce writes, “The British peeled away Hong Kong” — but Hong Kong as we know it did not exist then. The British peeled away a small island and peninsula with some fishing villages on them; a big deal to the people who lived there and a blow to national pride, but not a major land grab. Then, under British rule, the people of Hong Kong built a great and prosperous city. More worthy of mention might be the incident in which that city, having been built, was eventually peeled away from the British and added to the PRC without anyone asking the residents what they preferred. Continuing on the same note, Luce writes that the British then “tried to turn Tibet into a buffer zone between China and India”, which I’m afraid I don’t really understand. Historically, China and India were a long way away from each other. When Xuanzang wanted to go from China to India to get Buddhist scriptures, it took him years to get there. Tibet and, more importantly, the Himalayas simply always were a buffer between India and metropolitan China. Naturally, the British wanted to use this to their advantage, but they didn’t invent the situation any more than than they invented the Himalayas.

Judging by the wording, I think it’s safe to say that this is Luce’s own opinion: “I understand that the Chinese Kingdom, which controlled Tibet in some way through many centuries and dynasties, lessened its control during the war of resistance against Japan (1937-1945) and the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), peacefully reunited the region in 1951.”

This raises a few questions: what are these “many dynasties”? Tibet was politically unified with China during the Yuan and the Qing (both imperial dynasties founded by non-Chinese tribal groups) and now during the PRC period.

China “lessened its control” during 1937-1945? The Republic of China had no control over central Tibet, and little over eastern Tibet, at any point; that is not really very controverisal. You can’t lessen when you start at 0.

“Peacefully reunited”? Where does this sort of idea come from? PLA forces led by Zhang Guohua entered the Lhasa government’s territory in 1951 and attacked the Tibetan troops stationed at Chamdo. The Tibetans were badly routed, at which point the PLA was poised to march on Lhasa. How can that be called peaceful? This is all covered in Melvyn Goldstein’s History of Modern Tibet and Tsering Shakya’s Dragon in the Land of Snows.

Luce continues, “The Dalai Lama, like his predecessors, was approved and recognized by China’s central government. The title of Dalai Lama, by tradition, is conferred on an incarnate boy of a deceased Dalai Lama by an official decree of the Chinese central government.” This is very misleading. The title of “Dalai Lama” was originally offered by a Mongol chieftain who nothing to do with the Chinese, which is why it includes “Dalai”, a Mongolian word. The tradition is that reincarnated lamas are located by monks associated with the previous incarnation. Naturally, various governments, princes, emperors, and assorted doges and poobahs have at different times tried to insinuate themselves into the process and give a stamp of approval; the Qing emperors were no exception. However, the current Dalai Lama was born after the fall of the Qing. The Chinese government claims that a Chinese official presided at the Dalai Lama’s enthronement, but Melvyn Goldstein (not normally seen as an anti-Chinese source) says that this is incorrect and that the Tibetan government went out of its way to avoid giving the impression that the Chinese had made the selection. The Chinese government certainly ratified the selection of the Dalai Lama from 1,000 miles away, but they might just as well have ratified the election of FDR as president of the U.S.

“At the time of reunification, 5% of Tibetans — the Upper, or Priest, Class — owned everything. Some 95% of the Tibetan people were serfs, whom the Chinese viewed as ‘slaves.'” It’s certainly true that most people in Tibet in 1951 were not landowners and were not politically free. Sadly, this has been the condition of most people in most regimes since the rise of agriculture — including, but not limited to, feudal peasant societies and People’s Republics. It’s also true that central Tibet was a theocracy, since the Dalai Lama was its monarch. However, you seem to be confused about the details. There was a large secular aristocracy which controlled most of the land. The lamas did not “control everything”. The monasteries had a lot of land, but less than the aristocracy.

Mr. Luce procedes to cite the improvements in health and economic wellbeing that Tibet has seen since 1959. One of the commenters, Thugs-chen, makes a point that I quite agree with, that this is a bit of a post hoc, propter hoc fallacy. Many countries have improved their economic wellbeing since coming into close contact with the modern world; most of them didn’t have to be part of China to enjoy this benefit. Moreover, it isn’t as if there has been a continuous record of improvement since Tibet was incorporated into the PRC: there has been a lot of progress since the mid-to-late 1970s, but Tibet was a terrible place to live in the 1960s.

I do think that it’s worthwhile to make clear, as Luce does, that the Chinese government is no longer trying to stamp religion out of existence, since this is a common misconception among concerned Westerners. Except during the Cultural Revolution, the government’s usual policy has been to has been to cautiously try to co-opt religious leaders as allies. Luce describes the extent to which the government has subsidised Buddhist monasteries. Still, I’d like to point out that “subsidising religion” is not the same thing as “freedom of religion”. After all, Tibet in the “bad old days” was a theocracy, and the government subsidised their favored religion a lot, but no one would mistake this for freedom of religion. Unfortunately, Tibet has never really had a separation of church and state in the past. Today, the Chinese government supports monks and builds buildings, but they still try to impose an unpopular ersatz Panchen Lama on the believers, to take the most egregious example.

Mr. Luce concludes his comments by observing that “the truth about Tibet is perhaps more nuanced than it has been presented by either side of the highly polarized debate.” With this, I emphatically agree, and I salute his efforts to remind your readers about it, even though I have found it necessary to voice disagreement on several other points. Hopefully, exchanges like this can help us get to a deeper understanding of the nuances.


10 thoughts on “Response to Jim Luce on “Tibet: Polar Perspectives”

  1. Otto Kerner

    不是嘛。 我只是对西藏问题感兴趣的一个外国人, 把学习西藏历史做业余爱好。

  2. Dawud

    Hello, Otto and Jigme. This is an excellent analysis and I do agree that there is much reconciliation and understanding to be found between the two sides. I was once one of these people who was very ‘pro-China,’ at times for some very stupid reasons, but now that I have talked with some Tibetans and also read on the issue, I have some sympathy for the concerns of ethnic Tibetans in China and in exile.

    I want to add that the time during the Early Republic was not a very unified time for China. For example, it could be said that the central government during 1912 to 1928 held little real power. In any case, Ma Bufang, the ethnic Hui general, became the governor of Qinghai/Amdo from 1937 to 1949, under the supervision of the KMT. I think that we can agree that Tibet was certainly not peacefully re-united with China, but neither were many other parts of China during that time period.

  3. Religious Freedom from Dalai Lama!

    Dorje Shugden is major sect of Tibetan Bhudism, but Dalai lama banned it and persecuted the practise in India and around world.

    Dorje Shugden is freely practised in Tibet China today. Panchen Lama in CHina endorsed this practise.

  4. Otto Kerner

    I agree that people who want to disregard the Dalai Lama’s instructions and propitiate Dorje Shugden should be able to do so, free from official harrassment or violence from their neighbors. The same goes for people who are followers of the Chinese Panchen Lama. That’s simple. The disposition of properties is more complicated, but it can be dealt with.

    However, it does seem that your comment is unrelated to my original post.

  5. Otto Kerner


    Thanks for your comments! I agree with all of the points you made in your second paragraph. My main point in bringing it up was just to correct the more high-level inaccuracy of the initial description, that China “lessened its control during the war of resistance against Japan (1937-1945) and the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949)”. If anything, Chinese influence in Tibet increased in the late 1930s and 1940s, due to the absence of the 13th Dalai Lama.

    Although you are quite right that much of China was divided during the Republican period and that it was not out of the ordinary for the unification to be other than peaceful, I would also like to point out that there are respects in which Tibet was not comparable to other areas. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that after the success of the Northern Expedition, all of the Chinese-speaking warlords gave nominal allegiance to the Chiang Kai-shek government, even if they were independent in practice. This is certainly not the case for the Tibetan government — they did agree to explicitly accept Chinese supremacy in the 1919 Simla convention, in exchange for a guarantee of home rule, but that agreement was rejected by the Chinese government. It’s also worth noting that, structurally, the Tibetan government was not any kind of warlord government, but was continuous with the body that had ruled Tibet for hundreds of years under the Qing. In fact, the military was politically quite weak, which was part of the reason that they fared so poorly against the PLA in 1951 (it would be interesting to speculate how things would have turned out if Tsharong’s military clique had taken the lead in Lhasa during the 20s and 30s, but events happened otherwise).

  6. Hi Otto, found you through the link you left on Jim Luce’s post oh Huffington. You do try to be balanced in your observations here. This issue is not new to me, in fact I have been researching this since 1949.

    Here is a link to China Dynasty maps.

    One can get a copy of any very old geography books, and will find that before Free Tibet became an issue, none questioned that Tibet was part of China. The Brits were engaged with Russia in the Great Game, however, and they saw the Himmilais as part of that struggle.If one cannot understand this point, then one would surely have great difficulty understanding the Chinese point of view.

    The Chinese went to India, which is now Pakistan, along the silk road…so I do not see Tibet as a buffer, but even today, India does have this buffer mentality. And, oh by the way, many Himmilian kingdoms have been absorbed without notice by India.

    The Shugden controversy does seem to be relavent, because those that left Tibet with the Dalai Lama, were stanchly anti communist chinese then, but today, when they critize the Dalai Lama for his edict and ban, they are accused of being brainwashed by the Chinese, or even communist puppets!

    For myself, I find it difficult to discuss this with those on the Dalai Lama’s “side” due to the fact that they are wholly uninformed about the issues, and what they want is so different from what the people living in “Tibet” want.

    As for greater Tibet, and the idea that Tibet is anywhere Tibetans live, that makes no sence what so ever. I doubt that “ethnic” Tibetans are indgineous to any part of Tibet, and would welcome DNA studies to resolve this issue. In fact, the Tibetans in various parts of “greater Tibet” are ethnically different, have different customs, and speak different languages. What seems to “unite” them is Tibetan Buddhism. However, even that is problematic, as the 5, (now four) Tibettan Buddhist orders often are at serious odds with each other. Ethnic Tibetans even celebrate Tibetan New year at different times of the year. Bon and the people who brought animism into Tibet, happened long before there was “ethnic Tibetans” or “Tibetan Buddhism.”

    I find it difficult to blame China for emancipating the serfs and slaves, nor can I understand why China’s efforts to bring Tibet into a more democratic and “modern” world is seen as genocide or destroying Tibet’s culture.

    Few, if any, Europeans live today as they did in the middle ages, and I know of no one there who would want to. True, in Pennsylavania, the Amish continue with their traditions, but most Germans who migrated to pennsylavania learned English, and sent their kids to public schools. We still practice our traditions, and, living now in the Boston area, I can tell you it is very different from Irish and british traditions. However, I do not believe that my “culture” was wiped out.

    An even bigger issue for me is the failure to discuss the elephant in the room, the Dalai Lama, his two elder brothers, and their involvement with the CIA. If I were China, I would not agree to discuss Tibet with The Dalai Lama.

    The problem with discussing the challenges that the people in Tibet and the Chinese government face are never discussed here in the west, because we cannot get past the hyper emotional rhetoric, much of which is discussed above.

    As for the answer to why China wants to rule Tibet, aside from their view of geography and history, it really is about the people, social justice, freeing the serfs and slaves, equality for women, education for children. Szechuan was #1 on China’s list for help, because when Mao escaped Chiang Kai Shek’s forces on the long march, he came upon some of the worlds poorest people. Mao’s mother was Buddhist, and when Mao observed a young girl, about 16, how had only a shirt to wear, no pants of shoes, he was appalled, and resolved to deal with it as his first order of business. It wasn’t first, however, Soong Ching Ling prevailed, and the Marraige Act was passed first.

    I know dozens of Chinese who volunteered to go to Tibet for a year to help, sacrificing their own personal goals to bring relief to the desperate conditions the people in Tibet had endured under the rule of the Dalai lamas, and I can assure you that hurting or destroying Tibet or it;s people is not what is in their hearts and minds.

    The Dalai Lama and the Free Tibet movement can say this is brainwashing, or propaganda, but it is what it is, and they are either in severe self denial, or their pants are on fire.

  7. rob buffalo

    Dear Kathy,

    If you look at the map, Tibet/Tibetan Areas which is a Pleateu is very distinct from the Chinese Plains. Also, Tibetans are bonded together by religion, language, customs, traditions and a sense of loyalty/reverence to the Potala/Jokhang.

    I am a Tibetan and I live on the very edge of Tibetan Area. But since my grandfather’s grandfather’s time, we have been neighbors with the Chinese. Anybody, even a first time visitor to the area can tell the differece between Chinese and a Tibetan Family.

    If anything, the Chinese have more in common with the Vietnamese and Korean, in terms of language, culture, tradition and history.

    Although there was no concept of Free Tibet five decades ago, the world has changed since. New nations were formed based on several factors that combined to form a separate identity. By these standards Tibet is no doubt a nation as is France or Brazil or Japan.

    Chinese data showing liberation from serfdom and decreasing Infant Mortality Rate are non-relevant. Tibet being isolated as it was had many slaves and lived in Theocracy, but advent of globalization and recognition of basic Human Values and Rights help liberate the serfs. China has used and is still using forced labor. It is in the news all the time. Anyways Would you be my bitch if I gave you food, forever ?

  8. John

    rob buffalo:

    Geography and change of world situation are no excuse to set up a country. Whoever, even a Tibetan, is in power in China, Tibet will never be allowed to be independent. Please don’t get excited too much. The lesson to be learned from you is: don’t treat Tibetans any different from the Han, and don’t give them the privileges they now enjoy, because they or any other people for that matter are sometimes not grateful and don’t appreciate what you have done for them. Just be equal for everybody, which is fair. If anybody uses terrorist strategies, then just do what the Israelis do to the Palestinians and the Turks to the Kurds. Just be business like.

  9. Pingback: The Other Serf Liberation Day and the Appropriation of Chinese Symbolism « Tibet Talk

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