Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tibet Questions

The new Chinese holiday "Serf Emancipation Day in Tibet," celebrated on Saturday, got some very interesting discussion on Peking Duck, a blog I like very much. As usual, the comments there include opinions from different sides. Personally I agree with those who feel such a new holiday is a laughable propaganda scheme. Sometimes I do wonder why the Chinese government could be so smart at one time, while be so stupid other times. What is the point, and what benefit does it bring to the Chinese government, to publicly label the Dalai Lama the "chief representative of Tibetan serfdom" right now? Equally unwise was Premier Wen Jiabao claiming that "the Dalai Lama was a political exile rather than a religious figure," because in fact he is both. Whatever the Dalai Lama really is, the high-level public attacks bring the Chinese government lots of disadvantages and zero advantages.

When I was in Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago, the hotel delivered a local English newspaper every morning, and I remember reading a report written by a British journalist. Around the anniversary of last year's Tibet riot, the reporter interviewed many residents in Lhasa, both Hans and Tibetans. One Tibetan, who acknowledged the improvement in his material life, felt "very disappointed" by the Chinese government's continuing attacks against the Dalai Lama. I think that is a very telling testimony, and the government should listen to voices like that. There is material life and there is spiritual life; the latter might forsake the former but the former can't replace the latter.

Recently I had exchanges with a friend in China, an educated Han woman who lived in Lhasa for ten years as a volunteer teacher after graduating from university. Her opinion on the Tibet issues can be summarized roughly as follows:

  1. Tibetans in Tibet still worship the Dalai Lama in their hearts. This is the faith blended in their blood, and passed from generation to generation. It is something that can't be eliminated no matter what you do (so why even try?).
  2. Among the so-called "emancipated serfs," there is a small group of them who actually possess the "right to speak," and they are Tibet's new noblemen. This interest group of Tibetans would never want to hand over their power, therefore they support the CCP. Though they are a small portion from the serf class, they are a quite powerful and dependable force for the CCP.
  3. As a whole, the Tibetan race includes both noblemen and serfs. You can't say only serfs are Tibetan people, and claim the noblemen are not. It is wrong to impose the "class struggle" ideology on another race, to arouse part of the race to oppose another part of it.
  4. An early mistake the CCP made in its Tibet policy was not to stick to the "Peaceful Liberation Agreement" signed in 1951. Even though it was a treaty signed under duress, the Agreement did promise not to perform "democratic reform," that is, to keep the status quo of the noblemen, or the monks. However in 1959 the "democratic reform" started anyway, which resulted in the Dalai Lama's exile. This becomes the appendicitis that regularly acts up, and will continue to do so for a long time, painful to both sides.
  5. The Tibetan race is a very unique race. Now it is surrounded, permeated and assimilated by outside races, and especially because the Party leaders never knew how to respect others, the Tibetan race's uniqueness is gradually vanishing. The current unrest is largely the race's reaction to its own crisis.

I think my friend's opinion is quite insightful. There is one thing though: I'm not sure if she's aware of the CIA's deep involvement in the 1959's Tibetan uprising. The official starting date of the "democratic reform" in Tibet is given as March 28, 1959 (exactly 50 years ago yesterday), while the Dalai Lama departed on March 17 with the help of the CIA. According to the above link, the CIA's involvement actually began in 1956, with the purpose of

"supporting the Tibetans as part of a global anti-Communist campaign. If nothing else, their resistance would be one more way to create a ‘running sore for the reds,’ as one CIA man put it, even though at the top levels of the U.S. administration there was no pretense of commitment to Tibetan independence."

In other words, the CIA used the Tibetans for America's own political agenda. My question is, without the CIA's supply of weapons and trainers, its support, agitation, and mobilization, would the bloody fights in 1959 have happened? And if they hadn't happened, and the Dalai Lama hadn't gone into exile, would the "democratic reform" have come as fast and thoroughly? IMO, in any part of the world, armed conflicts based on ideological stances rarely have benign consequences. Not to make excuses for the problems in the Chinese government's Tibet policy, still I think there certainly is a foreign policy lesson that the US government could learn here. To say the least, the CIA was 帮倒忙 for the Tibetans.

Another interesting thing is how a Reuters article reports on the issues of Tibet's serfdom system and its termination. The article is actually pretty good, but it seems to take a spectator's position that "husband has husband's reasons, and wife has wife's." As my friend pointed out, the Tibetan people are made up of various classes, so there will always be some unhappy with the serfdom system, and others unhappy without it. A curious question is, suppose Tibet's serfdom system were still intact today, who would get the blame from the West on human rights issues, Beijing or the Dalai Lama? What I'm saying is, the Tibet issue is a really complex one and any propaganda, either Beijing's or the TGIE's, is not going to shed light on it. I think the Reuters article actually shows an improvement in the Western media's attitude by recognizing such complexity.

My friend also told me that a Han Chinese journalist, who worked in Lhasa's Radio Station for many years, wrote a long letter to Beijing making very thoughtful suggestions about policy changes on Tibet. But the letter fell on a deaf ear. I wish I could locate that letter, but it doesn't look hopeful.


Alfonso said...

I really think that an acceptable agreement could have been reached by both sides.
An agreement that would not against the strategic interest of CH while satisfying the aspirations of a majority of TB people

A window of opportunity was open last year, a time for greatness, but it was chosen to be otherwise

Specially for CH, it would have been a major PR coup.

But by some reasons the CH side is simply psychologically unable to take that step.

What is more, they maneuver themselves into a position that make extremely difficult to take advantage of any opportunity window that could really solve the problem.

When you demonize your opponent you are restricting your own strategic options. Not a wise thing to do.

Why is that so? What is the dynamic in the CH government that make them take such blind alleys? Hard to say.

It is strange.

In the end I fear that we will witness the death of the Tibetans as people, culture and religion.
They are being literally devoured alive. I do not wish that even to my worst enemy.

The last riots are just the death knell of a people and culture. What remains will be just for folkloric shows

A sad thing to see, and dirt stain on CH prestige.

bien said...

The Tibet issue is never a black-and-white issue, unfortunately that seem to be how many people view the issue. I really hope that both the CCP and the Dala Lama's exile group (Both sides have different opinions about how the future of Tibet should be. Even the definition of what consists of Tibet is not simple and clear) will engage in more constructive negotiations rather than smear each other and only interpret things benefit to their point of view and benefits.

pug ster said...

So when the American colony declared themselves independent from British rule at July 4, 1776, we should not celebrate that holiday because it would offend the British? Yeah, the nobles got the shorter end of the stick when the serfs are emancipated. Surely if we can celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday because he ended segregation, we can celebrate how China ended serfdom in Tibet, right? Maybe the Chinese government is not the best, but it surely beats the Tibet government in exile where it is run by Dalai Lama's family. Does that sound like a theocracy to you?

Xujun Eberlein said...

pug ster, the TGIE is a theocracy, but it is a theocracy of the Tibetans. While I am not a fan of theocracies, the CCP's forceful export of its own ideology onto Tibetans is also quite distasteful.

The more critical disconnect between "Serf Emancipation Day" in Tibet and July 4th in America is that, it was the successfully rebellious Americans themselves who declared July 4th a holiday. (Can you imagine for the British to declare such a holiday?) But for people in Tibet the new holiday is simply something proclaimed by the central government of China in Beijing, and that's why it's laughable.

The "democratic reform" in Tibet that started in the 1950s, while well motivated, had its own problems: it was too radical and rushed, and damaged much of the cultural and religious heritage of Tibet. It's like the land reform in the 1950s in the Han areas of China: on one hand, it was good to distribute land to the poor peasants/serfs; on the other hand, the CCP treated the landlords/nobles and their families with great cruelty. Unlike the Han area land reform, however, the radical treatment in Tibet planted not only class hatred but also ethnic hatred, and the latter, similar to our own nationalism, is a lot stronger than the former. Its ongoing consequences are very painful, not only to the Tibetans, but also to the Han people.

Therefore, IMO, it would benefit both sides to resolve the conflicts, rather than escalate them. The TGIE certainly is unreasonable to ask for inclusion of parts of Sichuan and Qinghai in their proposed area of autonomy, but Beijing could use more tactful strategies to negotiate than making offensive accusations.

pug ster said...

You and I agree that the TGIE is a theocracy, however, do you think that EVERY Tibetan would support the archaic form of government? Not every Tibetan supports the Dalai Lama as they suppress people who worship the Dorje Shugden. They also have conflicts with Black hats and Red Hat Tibetans.

I don't know what are you talking about "(Can you imagine for the British to declare such a holiday?)" Are you saying that China did a bad thing when they dismantled Dalai Lama's theocracy in 1959? Of course, there are going to be problems migrating from a theocracy government to a secular one. The nobles who used to own these serfs are unhappy that they don't have slaves anymore. As I said, the CCP government is not perfect and unfortunately, it damaged Tibet culturally and religiously at that time.

Ethnic and racial problems are not only happening with Tibetans and Hans as the people and not the government promote these problems. I was in Shanghai last week and there is racial problems how native people from Shanghai treats migrant workers. In the US we have racial problems with Whites, Blacks, Asians, and etc... and Democratic government didn't exactly fix these problems.

As the way I see it, the TGIE wants to extend its theocracy to the Tibetan region and the Dalai Lama is more than happy to use the Western governments to gain its sympathy. So the TGIE is certainly more than happy to use their PR campaign to paint China as the boogyman. The TGIE worked with the U of Toronto to make up the ghostnet spy network story. Why shouldn't China use their PR campaign to paint the Dalai Lama as a bad guy? All this talk of the Dalai Lama's 'middle way' is nothing less than wanting the Dalai Lama's theocracy to go back to Tibet area and this is something that China won't accept. Meanwhile, the TGIE and China will always throw mud pies at each other while Tibetans in the TAR region will suffer.

Xujun Eberlein said...

pug ster, I've no doubt you are right that not every Tibetan supports the TGIE, but then, it's also true that not every Tibetan supports the CCP. So if we argue along this line, we won't be able to go far (though I do wish to see a poll on this). Just to clarify a bit, when I say it's a theocracy of the Tibetans', I mean it's a theocracy with deep historical and cultural roots in Tibet.

I think I've already answered the question about what I think of the 1959 "democratic reform" in Tibet that terminated the serf system, but I'll take the opportunity to say a few more words. Dismantling the serf system certainly is a good concept, but in reality the implementation, and the timing of it, is a much more complicated issue. The serf system was bad, yet the continuing tension and violence in Tibet today is also terrible. It is unclear to me if the timing of the dismantling, and the way it was done, was better than a more gradual approach that might have been less culturally destructive. But now I begin to sound like a "afterward Zhuge Liang," so I'll stop here. :-) I just hope that the CCP leaders will admit the "imperfection" (using your word) of its past action and the consequences, and be less defensive about it.

This question of ethnic versus class conflict is an important one. The migrant workers you talk about in Shanghai are mostly Han Chinese I believe, but of a very different class. Class struggles rarely last out a generation or two, but ethnic divisions can go on for centuries.

I am not advocating that the CCP bow down to the demands of the TGIE, nor that the TGIE simply dismantle itself (because this won't happen). Instead, I am advocating a more constructive dialog between the two. The Chinese government should do something smarter than "use their PR campaign to paint the Dalai Lama as a bad guy," because that has not worked so far, and it's unlikely going to work in the future either.

Anonymous said...

A agree with you that your friend's comments regarding Tibet display a degree of thoughtfulness rarely (never?) heard from the Chinese media. It makes one wonder what suprising things we might hear from a China in which freedom of speech allowed for the kind of vigorous public debate we enjoy here in the U.S.

Your comment on "armed conflict based on ideological stances" confuses me. Is there any other kind?

pug ster said...

Xujun, by a 2003 estimate, more than 1,000 Tibetan refugees leave the TAR region every year. Unfortunately, there's no exact figure that China or the TGIE has to prove the fact. However, in saying that, if there is a perception that many Tibetans who want to flock to Dharmsala, I think more refugees should be leaving TAR region, no?

Michael Turton said...

Xujun, don't waste your time arguing with pugster. He's one of the million fengqing trolls that posts on Tibet attract like flies. From moderating thousands of comments on my Taiwan blog, the simplest thing to do is just delete them. Specious arguments like "Shouldn't there be more refugees?" should be given the back of the hand. I get this crap on my Taiwan blog a lot. Fortunately the fengqing are even more ignorant about Taiwan than they are about Tibet.

My question is, without the CIA's supply of weapons and trainers, its support, agitation, and mobilization, would the bloody fights in 1959 have happened?

Yes, for armed resistance had broken out much earlier, in 1955, among the Khams. Tibet was already seething from PRC brutality and misrule by that time.

The CIA may have supplied arms and carried out agitation, but opposition to colonialism, in whatever form colonialism takes, is always the right stance to take. Is Europe really better for having done nothing about Tibet?

Michael Turton

pug ster said...

Michael Turton,

First of all, I don't frequent to your blog site and I certainly have never posted anything there. Second, it is certainly easy to dismiss me as a fengqung troll and delete my post, but it sounds like some kind of censorship when if you don't like the message, kill the messager.

The CIA haven't given their support the the Tibetan Rebels, I doubt that we would have this type of conflict today. In this type of conflict, the war has been won until one of the sides has been put down or both parties settled on a compromise. Unfortunately, the Dalai Lama and their supporters are still in Dharmsala and China still has control over the TAR region. As Xujun mentions, that both parties don't want to compromise on what they want. Until then, we will certainly see much mud slinging between the 2.

Anonymous said...

pugster: Firstly, I've met worse fenqing than you :). Secondly, could you explain why you say both parties won't compromise. From where we're sitting (outside the Chinese media sphere) it certainly looks on paper as if the Dalai Lama has compromised fundamentally in NOT asking for complete independence anymore, since, I believe, the seventies. Why do we keep on seeing the Chinese government accusing him of being a splittist, when he keeps on repeating again and again that he doesn't want to get independence?

From outside this seems the biggest disconnect: China says "we will only talk to him when he renounces independence". The DL says "I renounce independence" China says "He just proved that he doesn't renounce independence"... In all the "negotiations" of the past few years that was the same story over and over. At some point the DL will be completely justified in suspecting that China is never sincere in their talks. China has never presented any evidence that the DL instigated last years violence, nor that he actually advocates independence, but the keep on accusing him of doing so. What gives?

pug ster said...

aityt, I rather look at the views from both countries on why they acted that way. China's government is basically a control freak and cares about instability. Now the Dalai Lama wants to exert its influence over the TAR region by telling China how they should govern by telling the Hans to get out of the TAR region and telling China that they shouldn't deploy their troops in the TAR region and such. All this talk about the Dalai Lama doesn't want independence and such has nothing to do with it.

China does have the upper hand in the negations and they don't have to do anything. The Western Countries already recognize China's sovereignty over Tibetan region and the best they can do is to ask China to have more talks with the Dalai Lama.

Rocking Offkey said...

Frankly all these Tibet talk slowly become a waste of energy. Getting rid of serfdom or not, Tibet issue would have been exactly like today, which is largely a none-issue in the grand scheme of things. I don't for a second believe Tibet issue would have gone if Dala Lama was somehow still serfdom-in-chief in Tibet today.

And let's not forget Lincoln freed the slaves. It took a long time, I mean, Loooong time, before blacks truly gained freedom in the south. Mind you, the confederate was practically another country also. And at the time slaves were freed, not everyone was happy about the new gained freedom. Some were actually sentimental about the old system. IMO, CCP should promote more equal rights, not switching back the clock.

The rest is history.

Rocking Offkey said...

The only real problem I have with this discussion is that Fengqing word is painted. I'd duly leave if a debater use a hat to paint someone in a corner, which I shall do right now.

Michael Turton said...

First of all, I don't frequent to your blog site and I certainly have never posted anything there. Second, it is certainly easy to dismiss me as a fengqung troll and delete my post, but it sounds like some kind of censorship when if you don't like the message, kill the messager.

It's the context of Chinese nationalist idiots running around the internet attempting to break up conversations on China's behavior, not "not liking the message, kill the messenger." There is no "message" except "China can do no wrong". It's like arguing with Christian Fundamentalists about Jesus; no worse, because at least with a Fundy nutjob you can meaningfully discuss the Biblical texts. Fengqing like you are simply a waste of time, neither teaching anything useful nor learning. I can get the same "message" from people who actually know something and can teach, and are willing to have a give and take.

Typical fengqing remark: "I never posted on your website." I never said you did, either. Sheer misdirection and waste.

The CIA haven't given their support the the Tibetan Rebels, I doubt that we would have this type of conflict today.

See? The kind of trivial truth that means nothing. Why yes, the conflict might be different. But there would still be a conflict. You can't engage colonialism and expect that no conflicts will arise between the colonialist and the subject population.

Really, the whole mention/discussion of the CIA is a red flag designed to be an emotionally-charged provocation to divert attention from the real issue: China's colonial activity in Tibet. What's remarkable to me is the complete lack of any empathy and sympathy for the Tibetans among the Chinese, the complete lack of any great opposition to China's expansion among the Chinese themselves. You only have to look at the powerful opposition to US colonialism or European colonialism in the west during the 19th century to get a sense of what I mean.

Michael Turton

pug ster said...

Michael Turton,

You know, this discussion that Xujun started is about Tibet and somehow you turned it into a Fengqing discussion. Your obvious personal attacks against me shows your obvious lack of maturity to have an adult discussion in this forum.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Everyone, thanks for the comments, as always they are food for thought.

Michael, I would give some latitude to others for their gracefulness of expression in English. I welcome diverse opinions and thoughtful expression of views contrary to my own. I do not welcome personal attacks or other forms of denigration. So everyone, please try to refrain from using rhetoric and absolute statements instead of reason.

Xujun Eberlein said...

@Rocking, I totally agree with you that "the CCP should promote more equal rights." That would be a smarter move than creating a meaningless holiday. As to "the rest is history," I take it to mean that the Chinese government should try to avoid repeating its past mistakes.

@Anon: actually, the fact that my friend is able to express her opinion freely itself reflects improvement in freedom of speech in China, so there is hope, and maybe more than we thought.

Speaking of motivations for starting an armed conflict, there can be many in addition to ideological reasons, for example territorial expansion and resource plundering. It is true there is no such a thing as a benign war, however many people who could readily oppose other wars nonetheless find wars based on their own ideology to be righteous kind. I find that very dangerous.

Mark Anthony Jones said...

Xujun - I agree that the Tibetan Issue is a very complex one, and many Tibetans do indeed have some legitimate grievances against their Chinese governors. That said, a have little time for the Dalai Lama, who as far as I am concerned, is little more than a political chameleon.

Earlier this month, as you know, the Dalai Lama, speaking from his headquarters in Dharamsala, repeated his well worn claim that the Chinese over the past fifty years, ‘have brought untold suffering and destruction to the land and people of Tibet,’ arguing that Tibet’s ‘religion, culture, language and identity – which successive generations of Tibetans have considered more precious than their lives – are nearing extinction.’ The Chinese, he added, have at times turned Tibet into a ‘hell on earth.’

Empirical studies carried out by many of the world’s leading academic specialists on contemporary Tibet do not, however, lend support to any of the Dalai Lama’s claims. Rather than suffering ‘cultural genocide’, the inhabitants of China’s Tibetan regions have, since the 1980s, enjoyed a cultural renaissance, with more Tibetans now able to read and write in their own language than at any time in their long history. Living standards have improved significantly according to most indicators, and violations carried out against the personal integrity rights of individual Tibetans by China’s law enforcement agencies simply have not occurred to date on the scale often claimed by the pro-Tibetan lobby.

I refer you here to studies by Professor A. Tom Grunfeld, Professor Melvyn Goldstein and Professor Barry Sautman - all of whom, along with numerous others, have produced empirically-based studies that refute the Dalai Lama's claims.

pug ster said...

Going back to China's history, I think you will only have to look at the Taiping rebellion as an excuse of why China would react to the Dalai Lama as they would. When reading about Serf's Emancipation Day, I bumped into another thread made by a Tibetan who wrote about this subject.

The provocative thing in this blog is not this person's opinion, but a look for some of the people's comments. This in my opinion leads me to think are all Tibetans are truly peace loving as many think they do.

In speaking of violence towards the Han like the Lhasa incident last March, the Dalai Lama should not not be supporting pro-independence groups like the Tibetan Youth Congress. Meanwhile, China is skeptical towards the Dalai Lama's sincerity to want to have constructive talks with them.

TS said...

Xujun - I think your article (or at least your friend's comment) is simplifying things a little too much. In particular, Michael Turton does make one important point in his first message: a lot of things happened between 1951 and 1959 in Tibet, and the Kham issue is a very important one.

My understanding (as a non-expert) is also that the 1951 agreement was limited to the core areas of Tibet, and that particularly in the Tibetan populated parts of Sichuan there was significant pressure by the CCP that resulted in refugee streams into Tibet proper and that played a big part in destabilizing the whole situation. The CIA did no start this, but joined once it was underway, and my feeling is that they did not (manage to) play a big role in the end.

Xujun Eberlein said...

TS, thanks for the comment. You and Michael are certainly right that many things had already been going on before 1959 (and before the CIA's involvement). I wasn't arguing about that, though I did have the question whether the CIA should have been involved, and whether that involvement made the situation worse.

Michael, you made some good points in your comments. However I feel your statement about "the complete lack of any empathy and sympathy for the Tibetans among the Chinese" is way too broad a strike and simply untrue. A poignant irony about the early 1950s, when the Chinese army marched into Tibet, is that the soldiers and officers had viewed their mission as that of liberating the Tibetan serfs, and thus they were willing to (and many did) sacrifice their own lives for it. A few years ago, a writer friend of mine, Qiu Shanshan, interviewed many army people who participated in the 1950s march-to-Tibet in order to write a novel, and she told me a lot of true stories about their sacrifices. I have no doubt that the CIA men who were involved in the Tibetan uprising felt equally righteous and lofty about their mission, and I was touched when I read about the "unusually strong bonds formed between many CIA men and the Tibetans" (see the link I gave in the post). Unfortunately, both the Chinese government's cultural intrusion on Tibet and the CIA's support of armed conflict there turned out to be more destructive than the participants could see then. Sadly, the individual acts of heroism from both the CIA men and the PLA soldiers did not lead to any broad lasting benefits.

As recent as the 1980s, after my college graduation, there was another call for volunteers from the government to help the Tibetan people. Many of my friends in Sichuan responded to the call and went to work in Lhasa for the best years of their youth. I almost did it myself. This was not unlike American volunteers joining the Peace Corp. A well-known Sichuan writer and close friend of mine, Gong Qiaoming, gave her life for this cause and died in Lhasa when she was working as an editor of the Tibet Literature magazine. She was the most compassionate person I've known in my life. You can argue that those volunteers might have wasted their enthusiasm and effort because the government's Tibet policy was problematic, but you certainly can't blame them for the "lack of any empathy and sympathy for the Tibetans."

And that is actually a very interesting and important topic: how should we asses such a discrepancy between misguided government policies and righteous individual spirit in their execution?

Anonymous said...

A most recent report from NYT interviewing Dalai Lama (
"Tibet materially is very, very backward," he said. "And every Tibetan wants to modernize Tibet. So for that reason, remaining within the People's Repbulic of China is in our own interest as far as economic development is concerned, provided we have full gurantee to preserve our own culture, our own lanugage, our own sprituality and full protection of environment."

Shane said...


I support the idea of reaching an amicable solution between exile Tibetan community and China. But I am not very sure whether it will involve the 14th DL and his core supporters, because they are too ideological and demand a very broad political solution, even though they don't have a strong position for negotiation.

On the ethnicity side, yes, Tibetans is a unique group of population. But Tibetans are also a diverse group of people on race origins. Tibetan population includes several branches of ancient Qiang people. As you may also know, ancient Qiang people were also important sources of Han ethnicity as well as several other minority in China. In Chinese mythology, YangDi (the Flaming Emperor, one of the two ancient Chinese tribe chiefs) was a Qiang, so were DaYu who saved the world from the ancient Great Flood, and Qing Dynasty Emporers who first united China. The links below offers more information.

Article on the origin of Huazhui Tibetan by Tibetan scholar Doushi (also a senior Lama)

Research by Ethonolog Professor Wang Ming-Ke (from Taiwan) on Blackwater Tibetan in Sichuan