The Chinese View of Tibet - Is Dialogue Possible?


During my first trip to China, in the summer of 1978, I was often surprised by how profoundly what the individual sees is influenced by the circle of meaning through which he or she unconsciously interprets events. As a student of rural China and its recent process of collectivization, I was, for instance, enthralled by my first sight of the Chinese countryside. But as our Japanese-made bus wended its way through tiny hamlet after tiny hamlet, what I saw was not the socialist countryside extolled by the Chinese press but immutable China, a China as changeless as the hills in which the villages were nestled. Needing to share my thrill at that first sight, I turned to the young - enthusiastically socialist - Ohio steelworker with whom I happened to be sharing my seat. "I think I could sit like this, looking out the window, watching the peasants and the countryside, for weeks," I exaggerated, by way of opening. "Yes," he agreed, no less excited. "We're watching millions of Chinese peasants working together to build socialism."

Nowhere could the contrast in pictures be great than when the window frames Tibet and the viewers are the representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile on the one hand and the government representatives of the People's Republic of China on the other.

For a third party to attempt a new and different version of the truth would be rash indeed, not only because we, too, bring our own images and values to bear but because the facts, in truth, are very difficult to know. What the following pages attempt to do is not to present a new truth about Tibet but rather to present both my understanding of the basic positions and the rationale behind them of the Chinese view-point and then to attempt to explain - as much for the Chinese as for ourselves - what about the Chinese position is so often so disquieting to interested Americans.

"Tibet Is an Inalienable Part of China"

The fundamental Chinese position with respect to Tibet is that Tibet is not and never really has been an independent country but has for many centuries been an "inseparable part of multinational China" (PRC 1987). The Chinese turn to history to legitimize their position. The use of history is important because China by both experience and current ideology is profoundly anticolonial and would therefore not wish to be perceived as colonial itself. It is common in China to blame many of its own ills on the effects of Western imperialism, which began with China's defeat at the hands of Britain in the Opium War in 1841 and continued through the Japanese invasion in 1937. Not only does China not recognize the right of governments to acquire territory by conquest but the Chinese Communist Party has long been on record as supporting the rights of nations to self-determination. For the Chinese position to be based on other than historic right would risk the accusation that the Chinese themselves are colonialists. The justice of the Chinese position requires the cooperation of history.

But the historic argument the Chinese make is a difficult one, mixing as it seems to do the apples of China's traditional conception of itself with the oranges of a modern nation-state. Traditionally, the Chinese have viewed themselves as the "Middle Kingdom," the seat of all culture - less a physical, national entity than an idea, a civilization. In the process of expanding the Middle Kingdom, those who had yet to be sinocized were drawn into relations with the Middle Kingdom as vassal states and were expected to pay periodic tribute to the imperial court in recognition of the inferior status of the vassal and the munificence of the rulers of the Middle Kingdom.

The historical arguments adduced by China to support its claim to Tibet derive from a period prior to best, may have been a vassal of the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese view of that history, quite naturally, is an ethnocentric one that denies Tibet its own independent, complex, rich and idiosyncratic history. Admittedly, many of the basic facts of that history. Admittedly, many of the basic facts of that history as the Chinese tell it would be recognizable to both sides. How the Chinese tell the tale, however, is where the historical difference lies. The history of Chinese-Tibetan relations is covered in more detail in van Walt's article (this issue), but a few examples of the difference in telling will help understanding here.

The Chinese history, as it is currently and officially proclaimed, begins with the marriage, in 641 A.D. during the Tang dynasty, of Chinese Princess Wen Cheng to the then ruler of a newly unified Tibet, Songzain Gambo. One of her presents to her husband and the people of Tibet was the huge statue of Sakyamuni, still enshrined in Lhasa's Jokhang Cathedral, Tibet's most sacred shrine. Thus, Princess When Cheng, and therefore China, is credited with having introduced Buddhism into Tibet. Their marital alliance is seen as the first step in the later incorporation of Tibet into the Middle Kingdom.

But from the Tibetan perspective, Songzain Gambo is to their country what Qin Shi Huangdi is to China - the unifier and founding father, the codifier and introducer (from India) of a Tibetan script, the initiator of written history. The Tibetan history would note that Songzain Gambo married not only China's Princes Wen Cheng but Nepal's Princess Bhrikuti, whose role in the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet is considered no less important than that of the Chinese princess. More importantly, Princess Wen Cheng was given in marriage most reluctantly and under threat of force. The Chinese at the time recognized the Kingdom of Tibet as a "Strong, independent, and expansionist power...a serious rival to China in Central Asia". The marriage, in short, was a political balance of power act by Songzain Gambo, an expression of Tibetan independence and a victory for Tibet rather than China.

The Chinese interpretation of the China-Tibet treaty of 821, the text of which still stands inscribed in stone in front of the Jokhang, reveals a similar ethnocentricity, emphasizing the "uncle-nephew" nature of the alliance and therefore China's superiority. It ignores that part of the treaty that states that both Tibet and China shall keep the country and frontiers of which they now are in possession. The whole region to the east of that being the country of Great China and the whole region to the west being assuredly the country of Great Tibet, from either side of that frontier there shall be no warfare, no hostile invasions, and no seizure of territory.

Similarly, the actual "incorporation" of Tibet into China is strangely attributed to Genghis Khan and his later successor, Kublai Khan. Strangely, because Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan were not Chinese but Mongolian, and the dynasty they established - the Yuan - incorporated not only China but, for a brief period, the largest empire the world has ever seen. Moreover, the Mongolian Khans turned for their legitimacy not to the Chinese past but to the Buddhist universal emperors of Tibet and India. To be sure, the cho-yon relationship, whereby the Mongolian prince protected the Tibetan lama and his teachings in return for the lama's ministering to the religious needs of the Mongolian patron, began during this period and would later become the basis of the relationship between Tibet and China under the Manchu dynasty. But the fundamental relationship of Tibet during the Yuan dynasty, and for centuries thereafter, was with the Mongols rather than the Chinese, and the nature of the relationship was not incorporation but military protection in return for spiritual autonomy. Out of this relationship grew the institution of the Dalai Lama; a Mongolian Khan first conferred the title of Tala (Dalai).

It was really only during the Manchu dynasty, and particularly during the reign of Kang Xi, that Tibetan-Chinese relations developed to the point that the independence of Tibet became an issue of abiding ambiguity. The Qing dynasty saw the beginning of the power struggles between Great Britain, Russia and China for dominance in Central Asia. Tibet turned for protection to China, sacrificing - at the height of Manchu power - the right to an independent foreign policy while maintaining de facto control over internal, domestic Tibetan affairs. Tibet's perspective on these events never abrogates its conception of itself as an independent state; China's view increasingly argues otherwise. Indeed, although the basis for the argument has differed, with Chiang Kaishek asserting that Tibetans were part of a single Chinese race and the Communists recognizing them as a "national minority," both the Nationalists of Chiang and the Communists of Mao Zedong have agreed that Tibet is an inalienable and inseparable part of China.

"Chinese Rule Has Been Good"

A second fundamental position of the Chinese today is that Communist rule in Tibet, whatever mistakes may have been made, has been good for Tibet and far better than rule under the Dalai Lama. The argument relies on a felicitous blend of the ideology of Marxist-Leninist Mao Zedong Thought on the one hand and traditional Chinese prejudices toward the Tibetan people on the other. In placing Tibet with the Marxist stages of historical development that trace from primitive communal society, to slave society, to feudalism, capitalism, socialism and ultimately to communism, the Chinese determined that Tibet at the time of the Communist takeover in 1950 was a theocratic, feudal serfdom, therefore considerably more backward than Han China proper. Moreover, it was regarded as a particularly "cruel and barbaric" system with the three estate holders (the nobility, monasteries and the officials), who accounted for less than 5 percent of the population, owning all of Tibet's cultivated land and subjecting the vast majority of the population - the serfs - quite literally to slavery. The evils wrought by this oppressive system have formed the subject of many a Chinese movie and photo exhibit (usually in the Minorities Cultural Palace in Beijing), convincing even the most educated Chinese of the Tibetans' barbarity by presenting evidence of the mutilations that were a regular form of punishment in Tibet - the gouged-out eyes and hacked-off noses and hands, the bones of murdered slaves that the monks carved into flutes, the scorpion pit where criminals were slowly eaten alive by deadly insects, the human skin used to make drums and the bizarre and unsavory sexual practices of the Tibetan people in which one wife serves several brothers.

Thus, although the Communists initially agreed (on paper, at least) to grant substantial autonomy to Tibet and to neither challenge the status of the Dalai Lama nor interfere in the area's religious practices, the Communists, no doubt quite genuinely, saw their takeover as a "liberation" of the Tibetan people (though it is more difficult to understand why, given the fighting in the far eastern part of Tibet, that liberation is also described as "peaceful") and assumed that the Tibetans themselves would soon come to share that point of view as well. Such resistance as continued may have puzzled the Chinese but could easily be interpreted as the efforts of a small handful of the Tibetan feudal ruling class who had not resigned themselves to the reforms that the new, "democratic" era would bring.

Although the "democratic" reforms that began after the departure of the Dalai Lama in 1959 brought Tibet one step further in the Marxian progression toward socialism and ultimately to communism, Tibet remains in Chinese eyes more backward than Han China proper and, therefore, in need of fraternal help. The Chinese are fond of statistics, and the array that have been gathered to support the extent of aid given and therefore of progress made in Tibet is impressive, however difficult such statistics may be to evaluate. State subsidies (10,000 yuan between 1952 and 1986), capital construction (40 new projects since 1984), goods (378 million yuan worth sent since 1983), roads (21,500 km of highways) and schools (three institutions of higher learning, 14 secondary technical schools, 64 middle schools, 3,280 primary schools) are but a few of the benefits said to have come to Tibet in recent years. The government does admit to "mistakes" with respect to its handling of Tibet, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, when" 'leftist' thinking disrupted production and construction, the people's living standards did not improve, and many monasteries were damaged or destroyed." But the government points out that the problems of the Cultural Revolution were not peculiar to Tibet but were nationwide in impact and that the leftist influences have been eliminated and the policy of free religious belief has been "better" implemented.

The most sophisticated Chinese - those not speaking publicly in official capacities - would note the irony of Americans who, in supporting the Dalai Lama and therefore an independent Tibet, seem also to be supporting a social and political system (a theocratic state) both greatly at odds with our own ethical and political values and so demonstrably inferior to the system introduced by the Chinese. Indeed, however unseemly and unsettling the Chinese use of worst-case examples to buttress their propaganda on Tibet, there is sufficient evidence from the few Westerners who visited pre-1949 Tibet of widespread corruption among lamas and cruelly primitive forms of punishment that few (the Dalai Lama included) would want to argue for a return to the old system.

But the substitution of one form of oppression for another can hardly be considered progress; to oppose the second form does not necessarily represent a call for a return to the first. The evidence from Tibetan refugees and from recent travelers in Tibet (detailed elsewhere in this issue) of massive Chinese abuse of human rights and widespread death through execution, neglect and abuse of prisoners and starvation; of wholesale destruction of the nation's monasteries and assault on its religious traditions; and of the gross misuse of power by Han Chinese cadres is over-whelming. Outsiders who know of such abuse and remain silent are morally irresponsible.

"Interference in China's Internal Affairs Is Unacceptable"

The third Chinese position with respect to Tibet is that public disagreement with the Chinese position, particularly with respect to the question of independence, represents to the question of independence, represents interference in the internal affairs of China and hence is unacceptable. Thus, the Dalai Lama is seen as leading a very small "separatist clique," representative not of the Tibetan people as a whole but of the illegitimate 5 percent of the aristocratic upper classes. The goal of the Dalai Lama and his separatist clique is to "stage a comeback," to restore the cruel and barbaric serf system that prevailed until his departure in 1959, at which time the people of Tibet were unexpectedly liberated sooner than originally planned. On the record, the Chinese oppose the Dalai Lama's political activities in other countries and any of his statements that are detrimental to the unification of the motherland and unity among all its nationalities. The Chinese government also opposes meetings between the Dalai Lama or his representatives and officials of any other country.

Indications of support for the Dalai Lama by the US Congress or any of its members are also therefore seen as interfering in China's internal affairs - as "unbridled actions," "sinister slander" and serious incidents "engineered by a small number of people." The continuation of such support is said to threaten the friendly relations between China and the US and to "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people."

Is Dialogue Possible?

Given the dramatically different ways in which Chinese, Tibetans and interested Americans view Tibet, is there any room for dialogue? Can the issues be reformulated so they are easier to discuss? Given a certain degree of willingness on both sides, and with time and patience, the answer may be yes. Several delegations representing the Dalai Lama have visited Tibet in recent years, and however disgruntled the Chinese may have been with their ensuing reports, the willingness to receive such delegations is an important opportunity for dialogue. Several concessions would be useful for furthering that dialogue.

First, it would help merely for the Chinese to acknowledges that distinctive cultures and histories result in distinctively different points of view. It is simply not true, as the Chinese claim, that "Every honest foreigner who has been to Tibet can see that the Tibetan people are enjoying religious freedom and democracy." To the contrary, many honest foreigners see a land ravaged by the destruction of its religious edifices, one in which Tibetans are often dominated by condescending Chinese.

Second, the issue of Tibetan independence needs to be recast. The historical argument that Tibet has "always been an inalienable part of Chinese territory" is unconvincing. Tibet has maintained a unique, autonomous and distinctive culture, religion and political system for centuries. But it is also true that Tibet is completely idiosyncratic, that it never became a nation-state in the modern sense of the word. The Chinese properly recognize and stress that Tibet has never been recognized by other nations as in independent nation. (Nor, given history since 1950, is this likely to happen now.) The US government's position, that Tibet is a part of China, is not based on history. Rather, it is a position that is simply self-consciously stated without further articulation. If the question of Tibetan independence were recast in terms of the necessity of granting genuine autonomy to Tibet - autonomy that respects the uniqueness of Tibet's history, culture and religion and permits the Tibetan people to develop along lines that they themselves freely choose - considerable room is left for both sides to negotiate the precise details of constructing that autonomy without undue threat to China. The Chinese may argue that they have already granted autonomy to Tibet, that Tibet, after all, is an "autonomous region." But the promise of China to maintain "one country, two systems" in Hong Kong and Taiwan and the need to convince both places - but Taiwan in particular - that they will be allowed to maintain their distinctive systems, would gain substantial credence were major concessions made in Tibet.

Third, the Chinese must understand not only that the Western belief in human rights is deeply held but those beliefs transcend government - both our own and others. Similarly, they must understand the very high regard with which the leading international human rights organizations are held - not just in the US but in the West in general. To raise the issues of other governments but rather to act on behalf of our common humanity, regardless of government. Only years after the Cultural Revolution has the full extent of its turmoil, destruction and violence come to be understood in the West. Few would be willing to make the same mistake again by not believing the stories of refugees from Tibet. Scholars of China made a terrible mistake during the Cultural Revolution. Many did not believe or did not give proper credence to the stories of violence and world disintegration being told by the refugees who had risked their lives to flee to Hong Kong. So long as those stories continue to tell of human rights abuse in Tibet, the international human rights abuse in Tibet, the international human rights organization will continue to bring those abuses to the attention of the world public and to demand redress from the Chinese government. Chinese claims to have ended those abuses and their assertions that there are no (or only 27) political prisoners in Tibet would be greatly enhanced by cooperating with such international human rights groups and inviting them to learn more about recent reforms in Tibet.

Fourth, the Chinese must how profoundly different their picture of the Dalai Lama is from that American public. The Dalai Lama is viewed in the West as the quintessential man of peace. The Chinese separatist clique that seeks to restore the self system to Tibet is at glaring odds with the image the Dalai Lama himself projects. The contrast between the man who claims "my message is always the same: to cultivate and practice love, kindness, compassion and tolerance" with those who claim the Dalia Lama is "Openly" trumpeting for the independence of Tibet" and "splitting the motherland, sabotaging the national unity and jeopardizing the interests of the people of the Tibetan nationality" is not designed to win much support for the Chinese side. However bad the organization of Tibetan life may have been prior to 1949, the Dalai Lama himself has always been revered, and he has introduced major democratic reforms into the refugee population at Dharamsala.

The Chinese have said that they are willing to "forgive" the Dalai Lama and let bygones by bygones, forgetting what happened with the uprising and his escape in 1959. The Dalai Lama, so long as he is willing to "safeguard the unification of the motherland," is welcome to return to China, neither living nor holding political position in Tibet but residing rather in Beijing and holding the posts of vice-chairman of both the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress. The Chinese will have to go well beyond that position, but that at least is a start.

A resolution of these issues would require concessions on the part of the Tibetan side as well, and ample evidence exists of a willingness to make them. In recent years, as China has emerged from its decades of isolation and hostility to the West and has joined the international system, it, too, has been willing to make major concessions on a wide variety of important issues. The campaign against "spiritual pollution" from the West in 1983 came to a rapid halt when Western businesses expressed their concern about future investment in so unpredictable and potentially unstable a policy. Recriminations against student demonstrators early last year may have been milder because of a watchful and openly concerned Western public. No longer does the Chinese government speak of "liberating" Taiwan but rather of "reunification" with Taiwan; the formula of "one country, two systems" for Hong Kong is a major change of view. Our different values and historical pasts mean that we will forever look out the same window and see very different scenes. But by discussing our values and our views with a minimum of recrimination, keeping the variety of channels of communication open, we at least stand a chance that the differences are in the shades and the hues rather than in the very picture itself.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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