72 year old Buddhist monk upsets Beijing…Nothing actually changes
By Chris Devonshire-Ellis
The headline of which, when presented in such a manner, betrays some of the absurdity of commentary concerning Tibet. So, we all know the Dalai Lama received a Congressional Gold Medal yesterday – even while, late at night, CNN broadcast footage of the ceremony – and much to my amazement it wasn’t blocked from my hotel in Shanghai (Maybe a tip: Chinese censors are tucked up in bed at 3 a.m.).
So the old chestnut about Tibet and its future drags on. But what of its past? China’s role has indeed been murky, and regrettably during the country’s Cultural Revolution, Tibet suffered greatly. So did the rest of the nation, although that doesn’t make Tibetans feel any better. The ongoing problem is that there are three Tibet realities, and not just one.
1) The Tibetans are a separate peoples, identifiable and different from the Han Chinese in almost every way. Religion, language, ethnic make up, culture…all different. Indeed, Tibet’s long held religious authority in the past gave it sway over the might of the all-conquering Mongolians (see the September issue of Mongolia Expat for the story of the fourth Dalai Lama) as well as the Chinese. Both would leave the Tibetans alone in return for “spiritual recognition” by the highest Tibetan Lamas. It worked well until China decided it didn’t need that any more. But yes, the Tibetans are different.
2) China in Tibet. For some historians it’s a contentious issue over “invitation” or “invasion.” However, what is not in doubt is that China – and not any of the bordering nations – gave Tibet and its people great assistance during the winter of 1961. In the throes of Communist utopia, what they saw upon arrival must have appalled them. Bluntly and simply – the Tibetan authorities at that time were not capable of running the country and were derelict in the duties in doing so. Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans died during that winter, with only the Chinese to try and help with the tragedy that was unfolding. However, the Chinese stayed, under the banner of “liberalization.” Again, it’s a contentious point – but it should be remembered that without China’s assistance – ongoing and otherwise – Tibet would have suffered a far worse human tragedy than it did.
I’d also like to touch on the so-called Sinofication of Tibet. I’ve traveled extensively in the country and sure, there are about the same amount of Chinese in Lhasa as there are Tibetans. But travel deeper around the country and it’s almost exclusively Tibetan. The Dalai Lama has opposed the Golmud-Lhasa train route – actually one of the more amazing technical achievements China has accomplished recently, on the grounds of it bringing a surge of Chinese into Tibet and “massively” diluting the Tibetan stock.
However, I should point out that while the Dalai Lama continues to support the recruitment of the first male born son into the monasteries, Tibet is losing its primary blood stock, as monks are celibate. Tibet’s population has in fact crashed over the past 100 years – all mainly due to this arcane policy. If the Dalai Lama wants more Tibetans, stop placing the first male children into monasteries.
Back to the train, I actually see this as assisting with the cultural development of Tibet. More tourists can go – and if well managed, can see for themselves the beauty of the country and its people. More Tibetans too, can travel, and they do – just on Nanjing Xi Lu today I see several Tibetans trading bangles and tribal art. It’s a scene played out in many Chinese cities.
3) Future government in Tibet. I asked a Nepali taxi driver in Delhi last week about whether or not Tibet should be independent. His reply was telling. “No sir!” he adamantly stated. “Tibet cannot manage itself. They never could. Always causing problems, fighting, and China keeps it under control. If China leaves and Tibet is independent it will be a disaster for Nepal, India and the Himalayas.” I was stunned, having expected a rather more Tibet friendly approach. But in thinking his words over, they ring true. What is done is done, and Tibetan swastikas usually run clockwise as you can’t turn back time.
An independent Tibet would be unsustainable. And although the circumstances are historically awkward, China has kept the peoples of Tibet out of trouble and invested in the country, at a time when no-one else has been able to. I subscribe to the religious and ethnic differences and some of what China says about Tibet, frankly grates a little. But for me, there is no alternative choice, and Tibet is part of China. The Dalai Lama, nice guy as he is, gave up his authority when he fled – China didn’t make those Tibetan problems, and running away is not the way to deal with them.
When someone looks after your house and makes improvements as sitting tenant after so many years, the property reverts to them. And with the Tibetans not being capable of running their country, we’re somewhat fortunate the Chinese do.
Because this piece does reference the Dalai Lama, congratulations on your medal sir – video of the ceremony can be found on C-SPAN – and keep up your promotion of Tibetan culture and religious doctrines. In the world we live in today, we all need sage words of wisdom and love. But while these things are priceless, someone has to get on with running your country. I hope one day you’ll be able to see it again.
For those of you wanting to research more about this complicated subject, the website The Free Library has an extensive selections of text which do not appear to have been blocked by China, so I guess they are OK to access from the mainland. A lot of historic accounts without delving into political or religious rhetoric.
Finally, thanks to Stan Abrams at China Hearsay, who has provided these links with commentary on the less popular from the Western perspective down side of the Dalai Lama’s position by Corey Flintoff at NPR and Christopher Hitchens of Vanity Fair, whose problems with the Dalai Lama date back to a 1998 opinion piece in Salon. I don’t know if Hitchens has commented specifically on the U.S. visit this week, although we could pretty much guess what he would say about it.