Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What Is Going on in Tibet

Yesterday, a few writer friends asked me what I thought about what was going on in Tibet. I was at the Nieman Conference from Friday to Sunday, and had only heard sporadic mention of the situation in the car radio. Yesterday I spent hours digging around for more information, but the Western media lacks first-hand citations, while the cyber voices on the Chinese internet are ruthlessly, though not surprisingly, uniform ("Resolutely oppose separatism!"). One thing is clear though: there has been significant violence, as if this world has not gotten enough of that. Photos can be found on this Chinese website.

Probably the best place to start looking if you want to try to understand the situation yourself is Danwei.org, a website run by several level-headed Americans living in Beijing. I have been reading this site for quite some time and find its reporting objective and honest. For the Tibet situation, they summed it up with an apt quote:

"Today, information on Tîbet is duopolized by two different political propaganda machines. One machine is located in Beijing, and the other in Dhåramsala. ...

...Faced with this absurd situation, the solution is to choose your position first and decide which side you want to stand with, and then you treat the information from that side as true and everything from the other side as false."

The only Western eye-witness report appeared in The Economist: "Fire on the roof of the world," which contradicts both Dhåramsala and Beijing. Some readers commented that the reporter owed us an explanation as to why he was the only foreigner allowed to stay – a legitimate question that I hope the Economist will answer.

My main question is: What caused the violence in Tibet? Ethnic hatred seems the most likely answer. How to alleviate such hatred, on the other hand, is not easy to figure out.

For a deeper understanding of the Tibet issues, Danwei.org recommends an excellent 1999 article from The Atlantic, "Tîbet through Chinese Eyes" by Peter Hessler. It provides rich information and multiple points of view, and puts things in a historical perspective with objective, though not comprehensive, reporting. This is an anti-propaganda article in all senses. Propaganda works, as we all know, by allowing one and only one view to the audience. In China it is achieved through government censorship. In the United States it is propagated by people who pick a side first then choose to eschew any other point of view.

Peter Hessler's article reminds me a dear friend, a Sichuan writer, Gong Qiaoming, who died in a car accident during her volunteer service as an editor at Tibet Literature in the 1980s. An extremely kind and compassionate heart loved by both her Tibetan colleagues and Han friends, if Qiaoming saw today's violence, she would have died of heartache.

In my twenties, an idealist myself, I had also seriously considered doing volunteer service in Tibet. I can see the source of tragedy only now: what one side views as a cultural service, the other may see as cultural intrusion. Perhaps the best thing to do is to abandon the notion of "advanced" or "backward," and to leave every independent culture alone, to develop at its own pace. Globalization is not an absolutely benign concept.

Another writer friend, Qiu Shanshan, wrote a very moving novel I am Waiting for You in Heaven (in Chinese), after she visited Tibet eight times. The center story in the novel is how the Chinese soldiers built the highway from the inner cities to Tibet in the 1950s. Many died during the long road construction. While the idealism behind the sacrifices is a questionable one to my Americanized mind, the novel certainly provides a different perspective on the historical event, and different perspectives are the only way to counter propaganda. I wonder if any American publisher would dare to publish a translation of that novel; certainly it would offend those who wave "Free Tibet" banners. America is, after all, not completely free from fear of politics.

Hessler's article points out both good and bad things brought by the Chinese government to Tibetans: the former includes economic growth, medicine and education; the latter is mainly the suppression of religion and freedom of speech, things familiar to people throughout China be they Tibetan or Han.

Puzzlingly though, when Hu Yaobang, one of the few post-Mao leaders loved by the Chinese people, carried out a political reform to allow more religious freedom in Tibet, it ended with a series of riots in Lhasa in the late 1980s. Why? I wish Hessler's article had more explanations on this; I don't know myself and would like to find an answer.

Unfortunately, the Tibet problem is complex, and does not have as easy a solution as many Americans think. Certainly a "Free Tibet" banner won't bring peace and tranquility. When we take sides, we need to consider whether our shouting encourages more hatred and violence.


Stephen Prosapio said...

Oh boy. I "get" to be the first to comment?

Well written, Xujun. I don't know that I'm qualified to comment on the content of the debate. From what I know, Tibet did not ask for Chinese "help" in running their nation, so the "benefits" brought to them are somewhat a moot point. That said, Native Americans did not ask for us to take their land, and many other societies have expanded their territories before. I think what angers/concerns most Americans is the religious intollerance we perceive...again perceive. So that, is my admittedly ignorant comment on the situation over there.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Steve, thanks for the thoughtful comment. It is true that people can only base their views on perceptions. My hope in writing this was to provide a broader viewing angle for these perceptions.

You know, from the Chinese perspective, Tibet isn't another nation, it is part of China. This view has a historical origin tracing back several Dynasties. As Peter Hessler put it, "An unbiased arbiter … perhaps would find that the Chinese have a stronger historical claim to Tibet than the United States does to much of the American West."

Also, the current riot seems more an ethnic conflict than religious one, I get that sense from watching the YouTube videos. But, as I said, I really don't know what is actually happening. There is no clear report on the evolution of the violence. Form the Chinese internet, the tension now has spread to Chengdu, an inner city and capital of my home province Sichuan.

Anonymous said...

Agreed Xujun. When the Dahli Lama is threatening to resign if the violence doesn't stop, it's obviously not a religious conflict.

I'd hope in today's day and age the situation with the Native Americans would be handled differently. Considering it would all be covered on CNN, well...

Anonymous said...

Dear Xujun,

I would recommend that you read some tibetan history written by Tibetans and Han Chinese, rather than relying on the view of an american journalist regarding Tibet's sovereign status.

Tibet was a de facto independent country in 1950 when it was occupied by China's armed forces. It fulfilled the criteria for a sovereign country as defined in international law accepted by United Nations (which was established after WWII). The right to self-determination of the Tibetan people has been confirmed by United Nations resolution.

If you claim Tibet due to the tributary system in past chinese/mongolian dynasties, then you also must think that Vietnam. South Korea, Mongolia and other south-east Asian countries should be part of China?

At the time of the Natives and North American colonization in the 18th and 19th century, international law was not developed. Universal human rights and self-determination was not established and accepted by all countries. At these times, even more savage things happened in Asia.

I can recommend Wang Lixiongs classic book from 1997 as a good introduction to modern Tibetan history:


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your informative article! Since importing two white Tibetan Mastiffs into the US last year, I have been trying to learn about Tibet and its culture. This article really helped to deepen my understanding...
All the best to you!
Suzanne - www.SnowLionTibetanMastiffs.com