Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Main Road to Tibet, Nepal, 1987. Photo by Reijo Sulonen.
What with everybody's favorite contemplative's 75:th birthday and all, Tibet is in the news. It's also provoking a quite a bit of heated discussion, especially among Buddhist bloggers, which must make the apparatchiks in Beijing quake in their boots. I've gotten somewhat caught up in it myself.
Trouble is, the discussion is awfully one-dimensional. The overwhelmingly dominant discourse is a pretty simplistic one, where the Dalai Lama and his group are seen as pure capital-G Good, and the People's Republic of China is seen as pure capital-E Evil. Any dissenting voices tend to be branded as lackeys of the Communist imperialist atheist anti-Buddhist Chinese… and some of said voices do appear to cleave awfully close to the Xinhua News Agency version of the story. Whether that's out of conviction or just due to the dynamics of the debate I honestly don't know; after all, in a polarized debate like this, it's very, very difficult to stake out a position that isn't pigeonholed as 'pro-Tibetan' or 'pro-Chinese,' and once that's happened, it's even more difficult not to find yourself defending one discourse or the other. That's quite likely to happen to this attempt, too, in fact.
First off, let's get a few historical facts straight.
Pre-1950 Tibet was no mountain paradise of peaceful monks harmoniously engaged in contemplation. It was a thoroughly nasty feudal theocracy; one that would make, say, the Islamic Republic of Iran look like a paragon of liberty, equality and justice. Most of the population was living in abject poverty and lacked even the most elementary liberties.
Nor was it particularly peaceful—the theocracy did not shirk from use of force in keeping the population under control, and over the course of its long history, Tibet fought many wars with China, sometimes as the defender, at other times as the aggressor.
Nor is the question of Tibetan independence as clear-cut as either party of the dispute makes it out to be. For much of its history, Tibet was either an organic part of the Chinese empire, or a vassal state. For much of the time, it was a genuinely independent state, and for a few periods, the current roles were reversed—the Tibetans were calling the shots as the Chinese were in eclipse. Nor is there a clear-cut division between good and evil: ethnic cleansing and other horrors have been perpetrated by both parties over the centuries. Sino-Tibetan relations are an extremely complex tangle of conflict, competition, and occasional cooperation.
This makes any arguments based on historical legitimacy—whether it is for an independent Tibet or Chinese control of it—highly problematic. Neither the 'pro-Tibetan' discourse, nor the 'pro-Chinese' one really stands up to close scrutiny. Tibet is neither an independent country under occupation by a foreign overlord, nor an organic part of China. Or perhaps it's something of both. There are many similar territories on the peripheries of great empires, both past and present. Some of them are currently independent, others not. Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Buryatia, Chechnya, Ossetia (South and North), Moldova, Transnistria, Xinjiang, East Timor, Kurdistan...
The concept of the nation-state—an independent political and territorial entity that 'belongs' to a particular 'nation'—is a relatively recent innovation. In my opinion, it is also a wholly pernicious one. The marriage of national identity with political power has led to the most intractable conflicts, worst crimes and injustices, and bloodiest wars in human history. People refuse to stay put within neatly delineated borders. This leaves minorities on the 'wrong' side of the border, even as the myth of the nation-state designates them as 'aliens.' It's even worse if the 'foreigners' belong to a 'nation' that has a 'nation-state' that is politically in conflict with the state 'hosting' them. The ideal of national—or, better, cultural—self-determination is a fine one, but the nation-state is not the only political framework in which it can be practiced, and it is certainly not the best one.
A politically independent Tibetan nation-state would just cause a raft of new problems, with Han minorities on the Tibetan side of the border and Tibetan minorities on the Chinese side of the border paying the price, and the two states inherently at odds with each other. Experience teaches us that these kinds of problems are really, really difficult to solve, and can result in centuries of bloodshed and acrimony. In Tibet, we would simply see a reversal of roles, as has happened in Estonia and the Baltic states, which are now repaying 50 years of oppression at the hands of the Russians by, in turn, denying rights to their Russian minorities.
States have a range of possible approaches to deal with national or religious minorities. At one end of the scale is the American ideal of assimilation, where new immigrants are expected to leave most of their national identity behind and become Americans, adopting the English language and the free-market capitalist ethos. At the other end is the ideal of the genuinely multinational state, where no ethnic group has special privileges. The European Union is theoretically organized according to this principle. At a smaller scale, states that have made partial attempts at this include New Zealand, post-apartheid South Africa, and Switzerland. Quite often, these attempts still involve a set of 'recognized' groups (e.g. in Switzerland the German-speakers, French-speakers, Rumantsch-speakers, and Italian-speakers) with 'other' groups having a less-favored status (e.g. Turkish-speakers).
China is pursuing a policy somewhere between these two extremes. It's a very old and very well-established one. Almost every long-lived empire has settled on something more or less like it, all the way from the great empires of the ancient world to Russia and China in our days.
In the imperial model, one ethnic-cultural group dominates. It determines the language, draws the limits between the public and private spheres, determines the basis of the legal system and public morality, and usually supplies the dominant religion. Other ethnic-cultural groups are allowed to—and even expected—to retain their particular identities, within the limits set by the dominant group.
In practice, this means carefully disassociating cultural and political identity for the subordinate groups—but not the majority one. Individuals belonging to one of the subordinate groups may be able to adopt double identities—they can become fluent in the discourse of the dominant culture while retaining a private or semi-public practice of their subordinate one. Sometimes this even becomes embedded in language—in Russian, for example, Russkii designates the Russian ethnic/national identity, but Rossiiskii the political/national one. Depending on how the limits are set, members of minorities may be able to prosper or even pursue successful careers in the imperial structures, sometimes to the very summit, as long as they remember who is in charge and who makes the rules. Many Jews, Christians, and Arabs made brilliant careers in the Ottoman empire. Josef Stalin was Georgian. Tito was a Croat, and made it to the top of the Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia. The emperor Hadrian was Iberian. Zheng He was Muslim.
Nevertheless, the imperial model is created and maintained by violence. However benign the overlordship of the dominant group may be, the rights of the subordinate groups are anything but inalienable. The imperial group will extend or rescind them at its discretion. Since the overriding concern of the imperial group is maintaining the integrity and cohesiveness of the empire, it will keep a very close eye on any sign of cultural identity sliding into political identity, and will react very harshly to stop any such development in its tracks.
This dynamic creates two mutually incompatible discourses about the same story.
The way the 'imperial' group sees it, they're magnanimously granting and guaranteeing a broad range of rights to the 'subordinate' group. They're often investing massively in infrastructure, public order, education, and general welfare. They're giving wealth, stability, and career opportunities in the imperial administration. All they're asking in return is that the subordinate groups stay loyal to the empire and not rock the boat.
The 'subordinate' group, on the other hand, sees an overwhelmingly powerful imperial overlord that unilaterally imposes a foreign legal order on it. The laws may violate cultural norms that are considered sacred or otherwise deeply embedded. The liberties it enjoys, it enjoys at the pleasure of the imperial order, with no guarantees that they won't be rescinded at any time. It sees an influx of arrogant foreigners with their strange ways. It sees old forms of economic livelihood be violently displaced by new ones.
The 'imperial' group is usually entirely and honestly blind to this second reality. I have talked to smart, well-traveled, polyglot Russians who honestly cannot understand what the Estonians have against them—in Soviet times, they rebuilt Estonia with Russian resources, Estonians enjoyed a higher standard of living than Russians; they went out of their way to print schoolbooks in Estonian. So what was the problem? I've seen this exact same mentality among Turks with regard to the Kurds, and among Israelis with regards to Israeli Arabs. It's an honest puzzlement that easily leads to anger. "The ingrates—everything we do for them, and what do they do? What more do they want from us, blood?" This, naturally, leads to a whole new set of discourses, usually describing the subordinate culture as inferior, barbaric, superstitious, inherently violent, and so on. They just don't get it.
This leads to resentment from the side of the subordinate group. If expressed, it can lead to a further tightening of the imperial grip. If this dynamic gets out of control, it can result in a spiral that only ends up with the disintegration of the empire, or the wholesale suppression—ethnic cleansing, even genocide—of the rebellious subordinate group. Neither of these outcomes is pretty. Imperial break-ups tend to involve severe reprisals on the minorities on both sides, and smoldering conflicts around the edges of the former empire, as well as economic collapses and everything that entails.
So as political arrangements go, the imperial model is far from ideal—even if it is far better (for the minorities) than the nation-state. It might not be all that much fun to be a dhimmi—protected, subordinated minority—but it's far less fun to be an undesirable alien, foreigner, or enemy.
This brings us to the political realities. They boil down to this: China calls the shots. No external power is in a position to dictate anything to Beijing. China is able to create and maintain a unilateral, imperial arrangement in Tibet, and they can and will restrict Tibetan national and cultural rights to any extent they deem necessary to keep their empire going. They are powerful and numerous enough to as good as eradicate Tibetan culture, should there be a death-spiral like the one described above. There is nothing to physically stop them from doing to the Tibetans what the USA did to the Iroquois Confederation.
Nor, as argued above, would a break-up of China into an independent Tibet necessarily make things any better, even if it was realistic—it would only lead to reprisals on both Han on the Tibetan side and Tibetans on the Chinese side. Besides which, land-locked countries rarely do very well, and then only if they happen to have friendly and stable neighbors (see Switzerland again).
However, while we aren't in a position to dictate anything to China, and attempting to do so will certainly only irritate them and make things worse for everybody concerned, that does not mean that we should wash our hands of the Tibetan dispute and treat it as a purely internal Chinese matter.
While China is doing most of the good things empires usually do in their provinces—investment, maintenance of public order, and so on—it is also doing more than an acceptable amount of the evil things. China is not playing nice, even if we forgive and forget what happened subsequent to the 1959 uprising. They are seizing and imprisoning, and very likely torturing and killing, "politicals" secretly and without trial. They are severely restricting freedoms of assembly and expression. They are pursuing a well-documented and active policy of Sinicization. Last but not least, they are actively attempting to co-opt Tibetan Buddhism, in order to turn its established methods of political and social control to their own uses, of which their infamous law forbidding reincarnation without official permission.
This is not cool, and we can and should put pressure on Beijing to stop. Amnesty International has a pretty good set of reports and recommendations to start with. Beijing should also just talk to the Dalai Lama, and his folks in Dharamsala, something that they have obdurately refused to do.
However, if we treat the Dharamsala Tibetans as the unilateral good guys and the Chinese as the irredeemable villains, we are feeding the cycle, not defeating it.
One of the most difficult structural problems about Tibet is the theocratic character of Tibetan Buddhism. In old Tibet, the lamas were not just spiritual leaders; they were also feudal lords. The current Dalai Lama is not just the highest-ranking monk in the Tibetan hierarchies; he is also the political leader of and spokesman for the Tibetans in exile. This theocratic dimension is precisely why Beijing finds it necessary to co-opt Tibetan Buddhism, such as by taking control of the process of recognizing tulkus.
This theocratic dimension must go. Tibetan Buddhism must find a way to continue its traditions without being poisoned by political power. Theocracy is a terrible system in the best of times: however enlightened, wise, and well-meaning the theocrats who get it started, the system itself invariably ends up as the worst of tyrannies, with its horrors justified by divine right (or, as the case may be, the unassailable wisdom of a living Buddha). They brook no opposition, and concentrate a terrifying amount of power among very few individuals. Despite some democratic features in its constitution, the Tibetan government-in-exile is still organized along theocratic lines. Even viewing the Dalai Lama or the other lamas as enlightened and therefore possessed of wisdom us ordinary folks don't have makes things much more difficult. Even the Roman Catholic Church—as authoritarian a structure as any you're likely to find—had to resolve this issue by strictly delimiting Papal inerrancy to matters of doctrine when spoken ex cathedra. Whatever their role as spiritual guides, we cannot treat the lamas as inerrant in their role as political leaders.
A just and fair solution of the Tibetan problem is possible. It would require that China stops being so obdurate about refusing to negotiate with the Tibetan exiles, as well as ceasing its continuing violations of human rights and active suppression of Tibetan culture in Tibet. It would also certainly require that the lamas in the Tibetan government-in-exile give up their temporal power. We can do something to help that, but it does mean that we have to stop viewing the dispute in black and white. The reality is more complex than the simplified pictures we want to paint of it.
My ideal would be a world where every cultural, ethnic, and religious group enjoys equal rights, delimited only to the extent necessary to keep their infringing on each other's rights to a minimum, and to keep the whole functioning.
Even the imperial model gets closer to this ideal than the nation-state, and we could certainly nudge China toward a more liberal application of that model. Yet I believe we can do even better than that. Attempting to revolutionize or dismantle existing polities to get there will only lead to greater tragedy. It is far better to encourage existing structures towards greater freedom. The discourse of 'rights' is the wrong one to pursue. We should pursue a discourse of justice. That is not limited only to Tibet, but is something we have to do everywhere.