Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tibet


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.

28 comments:

  1. "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." - Why pontificate on something tht you know will never happen?

    I don't believe anyone was saying either side was either all evil or all good, that in itself is a high exaggeration(if you are talking about the talk Mumon and I had). But it is certainly easy to say that when you want to show you are trying to find the enlightened middle path.

    "This is not cool, and we can and should put pressure on Beijing to stop" As we've seen, change can only come from within; all the screaming in the world won't effect China's policies.

    However much good the Chinese government is doing for its people, the negatives far out weigh the positives. This is precisely why a one party totalitarian regime can never succeed as an acceptable form of government. I'm sorry, I don't see how you could seperate rights and justice, it makes no sense.

    Anyway, sorry to see you removed me from your blog roll. I guess you didn't want to be reading a crazy person. :-) Take care.

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  2. @Kyle, the Chinese government isn't anywhere *near* totalitarian. Not since Mao kicked the bucket and Deng Xiaoping took over anyway. It's an old-style, highly centralized, authoritarian imperial government. While it is a far cry from ideal, or even near the top of the pack among really existing governments, it's also a far cry from the worst—and IMO it *is* heading in the right direction, overall.

    I also think we can and should do something to encourage those trends. Condemning it as "unacceptable" and "totalitarian" will have exactly the same effect as applauding its every move—i.e., none at all, except perhaps to make it even more obdurate. It's a reality, with good things and bad things, and if we want to change it for the better, we should encourage the good and discourage the bad.

    And no, that's not the reason I dropped your blog from my public blogroll.

    I try to keep that list short, so that it reflects the small handful of blogs that hold a high percentage of posts that currently hold my interest. I don't just follow them; I read all or most posts in them carefully and with attention.

    That attention depends on my interests, which shift over time. The list reflects those shifts, and the ones among the bloggers in and out of it.

    If it's any consolation, I also dropped Brad Warner, Nathan, and Mumon from that list. All of you are still on my "follow" list, and I do still check up on you regularly. I may well add some or all of you right back, if your and my interests shift.

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  3. Oh I don't really care, I'm just giving you shit.

    And sorry to disagree, but the Chinese government, while maybe not the worst in the world, really does stand for repression and control.

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  4. The question is, what can we do about it? Yammering "Repression and control! Totalitarian! Communist! Unacceptable!" won't help, although it does give you a nice warm feeling of righteousness.

    Some governments really are beyond being influenced. The North Korean one, for example. However, the PRC isn't one of them. They've proven remarkably accommodating about Hong Kong and Macao. They just will not tolerate condescension, lecturing, or hectoring.

    By the way, I think recent Russian history serves as a pretty good alternative history. Right now, it's a corrupt, semi-authoritarian kleptocracy. This is far better than what it was under Brezhnev and before, namely, a corrupt, authoritarian-to-totalitarian dictatorship.

    However, I think it would have been possible to get from there to here by a process of gradual reform. The collapse of the USSR could have been avoidable, and had it been avoided, we could also have avoided the lost decade of collapse, rapine, and near-anarchy that followed. Right now, one reason Russia is becoming more rather than less authoritarian is that the Yeltsin years discredited the very idea of democracy in the eyes of most Russians. It's very easy for Putin and Medvedev to play on that, and sell them a benevolent autocracy instead. That sucks.

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  5. Some of the situations you describe remind me of events that have happened in Canada. The French speaking province of Quebec has a special status, French is our second language and a fair number of the population speak it outside of Quebec, all official activities have to be conducted in both languages, even the safety demonstrations on airplanes are in both and Quebec has laws that limit English in order to preserve the culture of Quebec. Many other minority groups in the country also speak their languages and follow their own traditions. (translators for Chinese, Hindi, Spanish and other languages are provided in courts for example)
    This multi-culturalism has worked out fairly well so far. Some people don't like it and would prefer the American style but most don't.
    There are times however when this has gone too far. Quebec separatists got people very nervous a few decades back. A terrorist group, the FLQ, sprung up and bombed and kidnapped. The then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, himself a Quebecois, invoked the War Measures Act, basically martial law. It was ugly but stopped that movement in it's tracks. The separatists then used political means and had a referendum on separation in Quebec. The population turned it down. So a new balance was struck.

    It seems to me that when the minority group's agitation reaches a certain point there will be violence if they are not heard and if negotiations don't take place at that time. Continued oppression, or what is viewed as oppression by the minority, will not contain it. China seems to think otherwise. I think they are wrong even just going by what has occurred historically. If they don't negotiate with the Dalai Lama now, after his death there will be civil unrest that makes what has gone on so far look like a picnic. Call it a prediction if you want.
    Young Tibetans I know are getting impatient. Were it not for the Dalai Lama advocating patience and non-violence to the Tibetan population many of those young people would be actively engaging in means to attempt to oust the Chinese. They are getting their lessons in India-home of more terrorist groups than anyone can count. Chinese intractability in negotiations is fueling this. Most of the refugees want to go home. They have refused Indian citizenship, which is available to them, in order to maintain refugee status, which isn't any picnic in itself as it renders them essentially stateless and without any voice in any international body whatsoever.

    The usual Chinese methods will not work in this instance. It won't work with the Tibetans nor with the Uyghurs (a Muslim minority). Unless they are willing to go towards an isolated totalitarian state, in the style of North Korea, the minority ideologies will remain. As will the friction.

    The only way around it is to negotiate.

    The stumbling block to negotiation is international "face". The escape of the Dalai Lama and many refugees including the Karmapa has made them look bad. There is resentment about that. You can read it in any government approved statement regarding the Tibetans. To be seen to capitulate to these escapees could undermine state authority. They would then also have to negotiate with the pro-democracy forces. That would be the end of the party in more ways than one.

    So the Chinese are in a trap of their own design.

    The solution will have to be creative in order to prevent civil war. Negotiation is the answer but terms have to suit the maintenance of Chinese authority. That is where the stumbling block lies.

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  6. That describes the situation pretty well, I think. Apart from the face-saving thing, I think the big sticking point is the pro-democracy activist thing. The overarching concern for Beijing is to keep the Chinese polity together. I don't think their hold on China is quite as strong as it appears; the risk of centrifugal forces tearing the whole thing apart, as happened in Russia after the collapse of the USSR, is real. That's why I think the process has to happen gradually.

    I won't make any guesses about what happens after the Dalai Lama goes; I'm really not close enough to stuff on the ground there. It all depends on how the Tibetans within the PRC react, and it's very difficult to tell what their real feelings are re the Dalai Lama and the (Chinese-appointed) Panchen Lama, and how strong those feelings are. I'm certainly not in a position to even guess.

    IOW, it could very well turn out as you describe, in which case I'm pretty sure that full-on totalitarian control of Tibet, including a repeat of the post-1959 repression and cultural destruction, will follow. There will be an international backlash to that, I'm sure, but the world needs China at least as much as China needs the world, so I'm inclined to think they will get away with it, Realpolitik being what it is.

    OTOH it could be that the Tibetans in Tibet are more docile than it looks like in Dharamsala, in which case things would go very differently. Either way, China is missing a huge opportunity by refusing to talk to the Dalai Lama.

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  7. "They've proven remarkably accommodating about Hong Kong and Macao. They just will not tolerate condescension, lecturing, or hectoring."

    This is mostly true. I'm in Hong Kong 4 times a year and notice in the newspaper editorials and in public speech people are pretty forthright with criticism. However the tone is one of rational, almost Confucian style debate and not often with people screaming in the streets and hurling abusive slogans. This would accord with the praxis element that exists in communist, particularly Marxist theory. The party is not immune to criticism but the terms of criticism generally follow a dialectical approach. Polemical positions are stated and synthesis of thesis/anti-thesis sought. A kind of practical theoretical evolution.

    There is some caveat I've noticed though. People will hide when you try to take pictures-even tourist pictures. No one wants to be photographed. So there is more going on than meets the eye. Perhaps those who are critical are elites and therefore have both the knowledge of the limits of criticism as well as connections and supporters. Individuals do critique but is seems to be very context dependent, meaning that foreigners might hear a different critique than a person's fellow citizens would. There is a huge amount of subtle undercurrent going on all the time.

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  8. Well yeah, it *is* an imperial system after all—there's no guarantee whatsoever that Beijing couldn't suddenly become... less accommodating. It's also a police state, with informers placed pretty much everywhere. That means that you can't trust anybody, because they could be anybody. I've spent a quite a bit of time in Lebanon, and it's the same thing there, albeit for rather different reasons—the state itself isn't particularly authoritarian, but many factions in it are, and there are plenty of foreign organizations doing their dirty work there too.

    The funny thing is that if you live in it, it becomes the new normal. Those dissidents and pro-democracy types must be at least as distant for your average Shanghai guy or girl as they are to us.

    This is getting to be a quite a tangent, and certainly isn't related to anything in particular you said, but what the hell.

    It's really easy to forget how important a functioning government—even a really bad functioning government—is, if you're living in a part of the world that hasn't experienced a lack of such a thing in living memory. Many—perhaps even most—Russians I know would take Stalin over Yeltsin any day of the week, and I've met a few—normal people, not nomenklatura or apparatchiks—who are genuinely nostalgic for him, and for perfectly rational reasons. A government has to be really, really bad to make a overthrowing it worthwhile. I can only think of a handful of contemporary candidates, and the PRC isn't even close. It's way too easy to smugly pronounce that a government's negatives outweigh its positives, if you're safely cocooned in a well-functioning, peaceful, free, and prosperous country of your own.

    Okay, that was preachy, but hey, everybody does it sometimes.

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  9. Functioning government is something to consider when there are places like Sierra Leone, Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge, Afghanistan. I've met people who thought Saddam Hussein was OK because at least they knew who to pay baksheesh to in order to just get on with their lives.

    There's a lot that can be taken for granted. None of it is either/or. There is a whole continuum of repression. And rarely is repression the result of revolution or the like. It's step by step removing people's rights-to privacy, to travel, to congregate, to speak freely. And it's usually though not always done in the name of national security.

    Many people in so-called free countries don't recognize that a line has to be held or that freedom is impinged. Not only by government (which the libertarians denounce) but also by corporations (Apple just deleted any messages on all it's discussion boards about the Consumer Reports denial of recommendation for the new iphone) , vocal interest groups (tea partiers) and so on.

    I'm not in favor of Tibet just being "released" to go back to the old theocratic ways-though I don't think that is likely now but am also not in favor of Chinese communist hegemony.

    I would like to see the Tibetans draw up a plan for a "new" Tibet and answer some questions such as What will the form of government be? How will the people be represented? Will religion and politics be separate areas? What will the distribution of wealth look like? What are the government's priorities? Will there be a constitution or Bill of Rights? What will be included in that? What of transparency? How will resources-both natural and human be handled?

    In short what is the plan?

    The Chinese seem to have a plan that they are carrying out.

    If both sides put forward some kind of comprehensive plan then perhaps there are points to begin negotiations. But if "freedom" is the only thing the Tibetan government in exile is offering that doesn't stack up well.

    While both sides embrace ideology-the idealistic Buddhist vs the materialist communist only one side seems to be dealing with the situation of material life.

    I think I'd better write this up in a blog post. I'm trying for the synthesis here and it will take more space than is available in this comment.

    I will probably quote your statements about functioning government as that's a principle point.

    Thanks for stimulating this discussion.

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  11. I have to say that for the most part, I've stayed far, far away from this discussion. It seems to be as much of a powder keg as discussions about Sokka Gakkai (SGI). I also couldn't hold my end in any forum because I just don't know the details well. I appreciate that you've made an effort to point out the flaws contained within both extreme sides of the discussion. And I appreciate Nella Lou's points and clarifications.

    It's interesting - the issue about having a functioning government and how that's "better" than having a void in that department. In some ways, this depends totally on the group being asked. Majority groups usually benefit from most any government, unless it's become totally deranged. However, minority groups are often in a dire situation if the government has shifted towards a totalitarian/fascist approach. People waxing nostalgic for Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or whomever are rarely from minority groups because they are almost always the first to be targeted for elimination and/or suppression.

    On the other hand, having had a fair number of students from Somalia, it's clear that having no functioning government is pretty much a disaster. No one is really safe, or benefiting, other than a small number of rouge leaders controlling bits and pieces of the former country.

    When it comes to China, I think it's terribly hard to pin things down. There's definitely repression. There are people being imprisoned and executed for minimal crimes. There's censorship and information control all over the place. At the same time, the government's structure and stated direction aren't really keeping up with all the changes on the ground. Communist? Fascist capitalist? Bungling unnameable government crumbling as we speak?

    I have to say I'm not terribly sympathetic towards China's leadership, nor their presence in Tibet, however complex it is. At the same time, I've seen enough about Tibet's history to know that it wasn't the amazing, spiritually elite place that some make it out to have been.

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  13. (Cleaned up Nathan's triple post; what is it with Blogger these days that it does this all the time? Happened to me too lately.)

    Actually, Saddam's Iraq (like other Ba'ath based Arab dictatorships) is another pretty good example of the "imperial" approach to minorities. The central government's policy depended entirely on the attitude of the minority towards it, and shifted with those attitudes. For example, Christians had it a lot better during Saddam. For one thing, they had centuries of experience at being dhimmis and knew where the lines went. They could worship freely (although not hugely noisily in public), they were physically safe, and their religion was not an impediment at making careers. The Kurds, OTOH, had/have a strong streak of nationalism in their identity, so Saddam gassed them. The Shi'ites were somewhere between the two, again for political reasons.

    IOW, it depends on which minority you ask. An Uyghur would give you a very different answer than a Miao.

    I think the way a government treats its minorities is a pretty good acid test of its "goodness," for want of a better word. At one end are states that are openly genocidal. At the other, there are states that genuinely aspire to treating all of their component ethnies equally. Most are somewhere along the continuum in the middle.

    And most of our nice liberal Western democracies aren't anywhere as near the "good" end of the scale as we like to think. Just ask a Navajo, Roma, German of Turkish origin, Frenchman of Algerian origin, or Finn of Somali origin.

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  14. Petteri:

    Thanks for this great post; I agree with most of it.

    Your description of China as not totalitarian at all is on the mark. It can be brutally over-reactive (e.g., Tiananmen Square), but the reality even then - perhaps even then more so was the nation's closer proximity to total anarchy than totalitarianism.

    Maybe it's the fact that I'm part German...but the only country in which I've been with greater degree of disregard for order is Greece. It's why, in China, even today, guanxi, connections, are important.

    This is no well-oiled precisely crafted state machine of total control we're talking about. So sometimes rampant repression and corruption exists at the local levels, but is really not controlled at all from above. Sometimes this goes on for decades unchecked; sometimes, all of the sudden the government summarily executes all involved. Many times people observe the latter and think it's a brutal totalitarian regime.

    Even the famed internet censorship has had a cartoonish quality to it: for the longest time (maybe even now), you could use proxy web adddreses to see anything you damn well please in China. And even today, there is no censorship at all ....for those with VPNs.

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  15. P.S.

    That reminds me: I have a post I'd like to write about North Korea and China and the US and peace...

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  16. Oh, one more thing @NellaLou and others: I don't know how accurate it is to call China Communist anymore. It's kinda hard to reconcile "To Get Rich Is Glorious" with "To Each According To Their Needs, From Each According To Their Abilities." Like Russia, China has reverted to the long-time historical norm, minus the emperor.

    (Not that the distinction matters much in this context; it's just that "Communist" is such a loaded term that it often makes reasonable discourse impossible.)

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  17. "It's really easy to forget how important a functioning government—even a really bad functioning government—is, if you're living in a part of the world that hasn't experienced a lack of such a thing in living memory. Many—perhaps even most—Russians I know would take Stalin over Yeltsin any day of the week, and I've met a few—normal people, not nomenklatura or apparatchiks—who are genuinely nostalgic for him, and for perfectly rational reasons. A government has to be really, really bad to make a overthrowing it worthwhile. I can only think of a handful of contemporary candidates, and the PRC isn't even close. It's way too easy to smugly pronounce that a government's negatives outweigh its positives, if you're safely cocooned in a well-functioning, peaceful, free, and prosperous country of your own."

    Yes, indeed, I have heard this before, that being from a rich Western nation makes one's negative opinions of foreign entities as smug, self-righteous or pompous. Shall we keep our negative opinions to ourselves then?

    Now, the evidence, from people that I know that are from China and those that have visited it, tell me that the Chinese control is as bad, if not worse than is sometimes reported. And even though I am anti-communist, this is about totalitarianism, not about communism. Hell, I'd be all for a Communist China that didn't reach so far and wide to control and to eliminate anything that speaks against the state apparatus.

    Overthrow the Chinese regime, no, of course not. I think what many critics are asking for is a simple loosening of the tight reigns it imposes over its people in regards to speech, media, elections and religion. But they show no signs of heading in this direction, in fact when in the face of opposition and critics, it usually tightens its grip. By ending its censorship and political death coil over the population, do you somehow think this will lead to the downfall of the government? Hardly.

    This conversation, that all of us are having right here, could not exist inside the borders of China without great risk and peril to all those involved. This is a deadly serious problem, and one that can not be glossed over as only a minor negative. No one, not even the Dalai Lama is calling for an overthrow of the Chinese government, just transparency and open dialogue.

    If China continues on this path,(speaking of Tibet) it will eventually end very badly for all parties involved. China can try to eliminate the Tibetan culture, but I highly doubt that will happen without a very bloody and costly fight.

    While I understand I enjoy great rights, that has come at great expense, I also know there are over a billion people who exist without even the most basic ones. Please tell me where the positives of the Chinese government outweigh the negative.

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  18. "I think what many critics are asking for is a simple loosening of the tight reigns it imposes over its people in regards to speech, media, elections and religion."

    Me, for example, in the very article you're commenting.

    "But they show no signs of heading in this direction, in fact when in the face of opposition and critics, it usually tightens its grip."

    This is just plain factually incorrect. If you compare conditions in China now to what they were ten years ago, let alone during Mao, there's no comparison. Seriously. Just ask any Chinese who lived through the period.

    "By ending its censorship and political death coil over the population, do you somehow think this will lead to the downfall of the government? Hardly."

    It happened in the USSR. In fact, it's a quite a common occurrence. Why do you think China would be immune to this?

    "Please tell me where the positives of the Chinese government outweigh the negative."

    You really have no idea what it's like to live without a government, do you?

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  19. I just re-read this thread, and something struck me. There seems to be actually precious little disagreement about substance here—all of us agree that China should stop its human rights violations, talk to the Dalai Lama, and try to find a solution to the Tibetan question that allows the refugees to return to Tibet. The only substantive difference I can identify are related to time—Kyle appears to feel that China should liberalize very quickly, whereas I and (probably) Mumon feel that too-fast liberalization may risk disintegrating the Chinese polity, so it's better to proceed with care.

    The big disagreement appears to be about symbols and rhetoric—specifically, Kyle is adamant that we issue a Strongly Worded Condemnation of China, and Express Our Unshakeable Support for the Dalai Lama, whereas I (and clearly Mumon) feel that this kind of rhetoric is (a) ineffective and (b) only serves to inflame emotions on both sides of the divide, rather than actually helping find a solution. Even if we were in a position to make any difference, that is.

    And @Kyle, I think I may be misunderstanding you when you say that the negatives of the Chinese government outweigh the positives. I parse that as meaning that the Chinese would be better-off with no government at all, which strikes me as patently absurd. Do you mean that, or do you mean something else? If so, could you clarify?

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  20. Interesting article on BBC about the situation in Tibet. China is clearly keeping a very tight grip on things there. Worth reading carefully IMO.

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  21. "This is just plain factually incorrect. If you compare conditions in China now to what they were ten years ago, let alone during Mao, there's no comparison. Seriously. Just ask any Chinese who lived through the period."

    This is a very relative statement. Yes, of course these aren't the conditions as they were under Mao, nor the culture revolution nor even during the cold war. However, all of the common binds that suppress basic freedoms are still strongly in place. A longer leash is still a leash.

    "It happened in the USSR. In fact, it's a quite a common occurrence. Why do you think China would be immune to this?"

    The USSR's big nasty problem was a complete systemic metal down of its economic structure. In 1991, Yeltsin pushed Russia in a swift market economy, which quickly caused extreme hyperinflation and massive shortages. The cold war simply bankrupted them. However, the Russian federation, and later Russia did not institute such drastic measures in regards to social freedoms. Indeed, many eastern block countries did not suffer as Russia did, because while they did cut the binds of political suppression, and instituted swift social liberalization, their economy's transitioned more gradual, and of course they weren't all burdened as Russia was by 50 years of militarization.(I could make an entire post about this) Perhaps you are confusing social liberties and a market economy, which while both are loosely connected, are very much different sets of cause and effect.

    "You really have no idea what it's like to live without a government, do you? "

    You keep equating social reform with extreme governmental collapse. Saying it over and over again doesn't make it more true. This is just some slippery slope argument that does not hold basis in fact. Unless, of course you are arguing that the Chinese need to maintain its strict control over social liberties in order to keep a stable government. In which case I would find your stance more of an apologetic of the Chinese polices, rather than a critic.

    "Kyle is adamant that we issue a Strongly Worded Condemnation of China"

    Yes, true. But may I add that a copious amount of such strongly worded condemnations have been issued by a multitude of entities, with no effect. Really, making everyone's lip flapping in the world fairly innocuous.

    "and Express Our Unshakeable Support for the Dalai Lama"

    No, where did I say that? It would be more enjoyable to debate if you didn't put words in my mouth. It's rather a Straw man tactic, no? I mean representing someone's opinion in the extreme, then comparing it your own modest and rational approach is somewhat unsavory, and displays a lack of confidence in your own position.

    "And @Kyle, I think I may be misunderstanding you when you say that the negatives of the Chinese government outweigh the positives. I parse that as meaning that the Chinese would be better-off with no government at all, which strikes me as patently absurd."

    Again, just in my last comment as this one, which I said several times over, that removal of the Chinese government is not part of my argument. Under Bush, I felt that at times, the US government had more negatives than positives. But this does not equate to annihilation, and would obviously be severely counter productive to any populace. It is interesting why you read into others statements and assume such extremes.

    Don't get me wrong, I very much enjoy this kind of debate, and love to go back and forth with people that are very knowledgeable.

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  24. "This is a very relative statement. Yes, of course these aren't the conditions as they were under Mao, nor the culture revolution nor even during the cold war. However, all of the common binds that suppress basic freedoms are still strongly in place. A longer leash is still a leash."

    Of course it's a relative statement. Yours was too—you were saying that conditions in China are getting worse rather than better. What's more, it's always a relative matter—you and I are also on a leash; ours is just even longer.

    Re Russia, that would be a bit of a long tangent, so I won't go into it here. However, in a nutshell, that's not quite how it went—the economy only collapsed after the political edifice went. It had been stagnating for a quite a long time. Gorbachev attempted to liberalize politics first, and the economy later; this led to the whole thing unraveling. China went the other way—liberalizing the economy first, while keeping a tight grip on politics. This has worked out much better, and they have greatly loosened the political grip as well since.

    Yes, I am arguing precisely that the Chinese need to maintain their control over social liberties in order to keep a stable government. I believe that if they suddenly relaxed their grip, like Gorbachev did in the USSR, the whole edifice would collapse. That doesn't make me an apologist; it's just recognizing a reality. I believe that China should be, and is, in the process of gradually building stabler institutions; it's these institutions that will eventually let it relax the violent forms of social control it's employing. What we should be doing is encouraging this institution-building, as well as its integration in the world economy and political structures.

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  25. "Again, just in my last comment as this one, which I said several times over, that removal of the Chinese government is not part of my argument. Under Bush, I felt that at times, the US government had more negatives than positives. But this does not equate to annihilation, and would obviously be severely counter productive to any populace. It is interesting why you read into others statements and assume such extremes."

    Okay, then, what do you mean when you say that the Chinese government's negatives outweigh its positives? I don't get it.

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  26. "Of course it's a relative statement. Yours was too—you were saying that conditions in China are getting worse rather than better. What's more, it's always a relative matter—you and I are also on a leash; ours is just even longer."

    In many ways they are getting worse, by just the sheer amount of holes in the damn the Chinese are having to plug to keep their population in the dark. The amount of lies and propaganda has exploded, where as before the Chinese were much more insular, where today they are actively engaging the world. And while I am not sure of Finland's basis of government, here in the US we have guaranteed rights under the constitution. Majority rules, with minority rights. To even try and compare our personal freedoms to that of the average Chinese is silly.

    RE: Your version of the Soviet collapse I feel is pretty off the mark. While Gorbachev did relax some institutions of social restraint, the state apparatus never fully relinquished its grip on such things as surveillance, political arrests and censorship. The catalyst for the dire straits Russia found herself in was an economic melt down because of Yeltsin shoving market reform down the country when it wasn't ready for it. You also had ex-authoritarian party members bitter about the Soviet collapse, such as Putin is, doing as much in their power to undermine the new government. I'm sorry, to blame the collapse of Russia on its relaxation of social controls, and not economic ones is misguided. If that were true (with the exception of the Balkans for very different reasons) many more Eastern European countries would have met with similar results.

    ie Political structure, now how exactly would stopping the arrest and torture of political opponents, allowing a free press and giving its citizens the right to practice free speech and religion equal the downfall of the Chinese government? Is it that you have no faith in the Chinese people? Do they need "re-education" before being given these freedoms? What do you mean by this?

    Yes, I do agree that reform should not be overnight...but the thing is, we have heard the same song and dance from the Chinese government for 30 years now. And I bet you in 30 more years, people will still be hostage to the whim of the state.

    "Okay, then, what do you mean when you say that the Chinese government's negatives outweigh its positives? I don't get it."

    I don't get that I have to explain to you how having more negatives than positives does not equal throw it away. My car has more shit wrong with it than it has good things. But that doesn't mean I'm going to trash it.

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  27. "In many ways they are getting worse, by just the sheer amount of holes in the damn the Chinese are having to plug to keep their population in the dark. The amount of lies and propaganda has exploded, where as before the Chinese were much more insular, where today they are actively engaging the world."

    Could you be more specific? Also, could you explain a bit where you get this information from? I'm asking because it doesn't agree with the information I'm getting. I get mine mostly from a Chinese colleague of mine, her friends, and my colleagues and family members who have traveled extensively in China over a long period of time. They're all saying that conditions in China are improving at a rapid clip, not only economically but also in terms of personal freedom.

    To pick a very basic and obvious example, nowadays ordinary Chinese can travel—not too long ago, only apparatchiks were allowed to do so. They also have far more access to information, even with the Internet controls in place. (For another trivial example, google.cn just links to google.hk, which is completely accessible and completely uncensored.)

    "To even try and compare our personal freedoms to that of the average Chinese is silly."

    Why?

    "I'm sorry, to blame the collapse of Russia on its relaxation of social controls, and not economic ones is misguided. If that were true (with the exception of the Balkans for very different reasons) many more Eastern European countries would have met with similar results."

    None of the other Eastern European countries were multinational empires, so you can hardly expect the dynamics of an empire to apply there—IOW, they're a pretty poor parallel to start with. What's more, I don't think the real events there really support your thesis. Yugoslavia disintegrated into civil war, Czechoslovakia fell apart amicably, Romania went through a period that was awfully close to a wholesale collapse of civil society and then came very close to war with Hungary over Transylvania.

    Poland did OK, of course, and the GDR fell into the lap of West Germany. There were certainly success stories there too, but it's by no means the rosy picture you seem to imply.

    "ie Political structure, now how exactly would stopping the arrest and torture of political opponents, allowing a free press and giving its citizens the right to practice free speech and religion equal the downfall of the Chinese government?"

    I already answered that: the same way the USSR unraveled. Or Iraq, after Saddam was forcibly removed, for that matter.

    "Is it that you have no faith in the Chinese people? Do they need "re-education" before being given these freedoms? What do you mean by this?"

    Liberal democracies require a whole invisible framework of values, practices, institutions, and traditions to survive. These don't appear overnight. Look at European history—we had to go through two incredibly bloody wars, a collapse of open society followed by the worst dictatorships the planet has seen before we learned to make democracy function. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Chinese, but I don't believe they're so much smarter and more adaptable than we are that they could pull it off overnight.

    So yeah, other than your highly offensive and paternalistic phrasing, that is what I mean—China is not ready for democracy.

    And no, I still don't get what you mean with the "more negatives than positives" thing. If it doesn't mean that it's a net negative, and if a net negative isn't something you'd be better off without, what DOES it mean? Is it just a synonym for "I think it kinda sucks?" If so, cool, we can chalk it down to differences about semantics and rhetoric again.

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  28. Another opinion piece worth reading re Tibet (via Nate of Precious Metal).

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