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.