#40 - Tibet
Willner - 13 May 2002
TIBET) – I got into some whopping arguments in Tibet, with
Sally and Kathryn and a cool couple we met with their own Land Rover
Defender who are also driving around the world. My views on Tibet seem
to have become quite controversial. As with most countries I went in
with my share of biases and sketchy background information and as with
most countries the reality was somewhat different than my previous perception.
Most of the arguments, or should I say heated discussions, centred on
the Chinese occupation of Tibet - whether it was a good thing or bad
thing. Virtually any westerner would condemn it without even thinking,
but to my surprise after spending time in the country and doing some
research I found myself defending it. How could any informed person agree
with the armed occupation of country by another? One evening after a
great meal at Dunya Restaurant (the finest in Lhasa) I got locked
into a fierce debate and tried to explain...
is a foreign country that invaded Tibet and rules it, how can you begin
to defend that?
Well China does have a pretty solid historical claim to Tibet, more so
for example than Americans do with the native Indians. In the 18th century
after many centuries of back and forth battles alternately favouring Tibet
and then China, all of the country came under Chinese control. Tibet remained
a vassal state for almost two centuries though it became more and more
autonomous as the Chinese government weakened. With the fall of the Qing
Dynasty in 1911 Tibet reasserted independence and ejected Chinese officials,
though China refused to abandon its claim to all of Tibet. In October of
1950 the Communist government moved across Tibet's eastern border and in
1951 Tibet capitulated, signing a treaty that gave the Dalai Lama power
in domestic affairs but ceded control of foreign and military affairs to
the Chinese government. Basically Tibet was part of China for over two
hundred years, was nominally independent for about forty, and then came
back under Chinese control without a war - it was ceded in a treaty.
but China killed monks and burned monasteries!
I can't defend that, I can only try to explain it. There are two answers
to this. First of all, the Chinese government did it's share of oppression
and purging not only in Tibet but in the Western provinces and in the heartland
of China itself. Tibet was not the only victim of a misguided regime. Secondly,
most of the Tibetan crackdown was in response to internal rebellion. What
is not so well known is that the CIA supported internal rebellion in Tibet
as part of an overall program to undermine communist regimes in any way
possible, starting in 1954 until it flared into a full scale revolt in
Lhasa in 1959. The Chinese response to the revolt was brutal, though most
in mainland China viewed it as a response to outside sponsored terrorism
against the legal government.
reasons for the destruction of so many religious monasteries is that Tibet
had an unusual political system. In the 15th century the head of the Gelugpa
sect of Tibetan Buddhism allied with Mongol mercenaries (Genghis Khan conquered
Tibet in 1206 and Mongol control remained strong until the 15th century)
to overthrow the monarchy and combine spiritual authority with political
control. By the mid 1900's almost one third of all men in Tibet were monks
following the only path available to any power or riches - through the
politics of monasteries. To subdue the political unrest China targeted
it's source and the majority of monks were driven out of the monasteries
or killed. The legacy of this unrest was several decades of heavy military
presence and heavy handed security, though in 1980 China admitted Tibet
had been 'misgoverned' and began a very slow process of reforms punctuated
by occasional violent protests when the pace of change was too slow.
-Fine you can explain it but you don't defend it. Why then do you say
that Chinese occupation is a good thing?
Because since the late '80s the Chinese government has decided to use
the 'carrot' instead of the 'stick'. They have built hospitals and improved
mortality rates and average longevity, built schools and increased literacy,
built highways, airports, urban infrastructure, increased trade, and basically
improved the lives of Tibetans in general. It's hard to predict how the
Dalai Lama would have done if his country would not have been invaded.
But he recently admitted publicly that Tibet had been misgoverned under
his rule and that things should have been done differently.
As the leader of the Gelugpa sect the Dalai Lama was the single largest
landlord in the world, Tibet belonged to him. The farmers grew food for
the monks. Herders tended cattle for the monasteries. Women had no options
in Tibet, it was work from cradle to grave. Men had slightly more, they
could subsist on Tibet's barren high altitude plains - or join a monastery.
Many did so as young as eight. And in a practice that is coming to light,
some of these young boys served as passive sexual partners to older priests (source
National Geographic, March 2002). Communism certainly has its flaws,
but Tibet's system of government was even more repressive in it's own way.
All political, religious, and economic control was centered in a single
entity. Isolated by geography and mistrustful of any outside contact, it
is difficult to know how much change could have come to Tibet without outside
-But the people were happy! You can't apply your western standards
to this country.
How do you define happiness? What standards do you use? It's impossible
to know how Tibet would have done had it stayed independent but use Nepal
as a proxy for comparison - even though Nepal is arguably much better positioned
for outside trade and with it's monarchy a relatively more open society.
Compare Tibet today with Nepal today:
|Health & Education
|Persons per physician
|Persons per hospital
below poverty line
(source: Encarta Encyclopedia 2002, Statistics Center)
in Tibet was self perpetuating because misery was expected. Can you say
people were happy because they accepted their lot? There were no options.
Ultimately isn't the best rule of quality of life the number of options
a person has available, the freedom to work the farm or become... an orchestra
By building infrastructure, liberalizing education, and opening up trade
with the rest of China, a middle class has emerged in Tibet that doesn't
wish to return to the way things were. Ultimately what the Tibetans want
are the roads, the new house, heating, the luxuries of the middle class...
without a Chinese presence, but they can't have their cake and eat it too.
Without China the country would be an economic basket case, no history
of education, no savings, no entrepreneurial class, no infrastructure to
develop their natural resources, no geographic trading partners, and tourism
simply would not generate enough income (leaving aside the fact that most
of the money goes into the pockets of the very few). China is investing
billions of dollars into roads, the first train line into Lhasa (the largest
construction project in history), hospitals, schools, etc. They have wisely
decided to integrate Tibet into the rest of China so the people can share
in the benefits and hopefully decide that to stay with China is preferable
to leaving. The reality is that China is in Tibet to stay and even the
Dalai Lama seems reconciled to this.
-So you are ok with China being here?
On one hand - no. Morally their presence can't be justified. Tibet is
a cohesive culture with a different language and wish to be independent.
They are in most senses an occupied country. But on the other hand, economically,
China is Tibet's only hope. Even the locals agree that life under Chinese
rule is much better than it was before. The question is whether self determination
is worth throwing away the benefits of a very wealthy parent. In the short
term I think Tibet gains much more than it loses. For people escaping from
the misery of a subsistence life, luxuries like political self determination
aren't worth much. Besides, remember what they had! No political choice,
virtually no religious choice, and no economic choice. The people want
the Dalai Lama back and the Chinese gone - but that's it. They'd rather
not go back to the entire old system.
what is the end game?
I see two scenarios. China is betting that the next generation will be
seduced by materialism, enlightened by education, and folded into the mainstream
of the economy - and will therefore not care that they are part of China.
Alternately there is what I would call the Quebec scenario. A minority
culture is given special privileges, protected, the people earn enough
money and have enough options to begin thinking about the 'big issues'
like self determination and ethnic identity. Things they never had time
for when life was consumed with the daily grind of survival. And in that
situation, economic reasons don't matter and the logic of trade isn't worth
a tinker's curse, they will have the education and time to make a serious
press for independence. Either way, those scenarios are in the future.
Whether it can be morally justified or not, the ugly truth is that China
is good for Tibet today and for the next few decades at least.
-I don't agree!
Then let's agree to disagree.