Tibet: An Introduction

The foreword of the recent Highlights of Tibetan History, a history of Tibet written by Wang Furen and Suo Wenqing and published in Beijing with a view to convincing the world that Tibet has always been part of China, shows in the first line the confusion that is causing so much trouble: "The Tibetans, a nationality of the Chinese nation." How can a people be "one of the nationalities of a nation"? How can a category be a subcategory of itself? The Tibetans could be a "tribe" or "people" belonging to a "nation", or a "nation" belonging to an "empire" (a "multinational state," as some might prefer to call it). But one of the nations (plural) belonging to a (singular) nation? This is grammatically and semantically impossible. In psychoanalysis, the presence of such an irrational anomaly in someone's surface discourse indicates the repression of an underlying truth the patient is afraid to confront. Unfortunately, its repression does not eliminate it, but it gives it the power to make the patient sick. Health comes when the truth is confronted, and then integrated in a new, more realistic approach to life.

Why worry about this confusion, anyway? Because this confusion, with its underlying repressed realities, is driving the leaders of the big three military world powers into policies and actions that are enormously costly in both human and economic terms and ultimately self-defeating. Some of China's leaders are traveling further and further down the road to genocide, and some of the leaders of the USSR and the US (and even India, to some extent) are falling deeper into China's conspiracy of silence. US citizens have the responsibility not to follow them like sheep, but to look into the facts and then take action to see that our representatives do whatever they can to improve the Tibetan situation.

This issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly, featuring the endangered Tibetan nation and culture, presents articles focusing on the repressed realities of Tibet's history, culture and people, with a view to helping us confront them squarely. The Ackerly and Kerr article (and the Klein feature accompanying it) reflects recent experiences of the sufferings of the Tibetans, and transforms abstract statistics into personal realties. The Thurston essay also comes from personal fact finding; its reflection on the polarization of Chinese and Tibetan perspectives promotes better understanding of the issues at stake. Lantos' piece details the US position on the Tibet affair, outlining the history of US-Tibet and US-China relations. Lope's piece combines his years of scholarly research on Tibetan monastic education, including lengthy field trips in the monasteries thriving in the Tibetan exile communities, with his travels to the few monasteries left standing in Tibet; he gives a good view of these institutions so important to preserving Tibetan culture. Lowry's article presents a lucid picture of the Chinese officials' reluctance to give pertinent information on Tibet to the international press. Thurman's essay analyzes the historical and cultural foundations of any possible sense of common identity shared by Tibetans and Chinese, finding them very shaky indeed. Van Walt's article is a concise and lucid presentation of the detailed historical/legal investigation, the subject of his milestone book. Avedon's summary of the current factual situation represents an accurate journalistic update on his well-known book on the recent history of Tibet. Numerous short quotes and prominent facts illustrate the presentations. The intention of this section in CSQ is to provide the reader disturbed enough to be curious about the problem, coming from any set of preconceptions, with an accurate and realistic appraisal of the situation.

The goal is humanly ecological, to help to preserve the unique civilizational human strain we call "Tibetan." This is keeping with His Holiness The Dalai Lama's "Five Point Peace Plan" presented to the US Congress in October 1987. In that plan, His Holiness showed the primarily ecological thrust of his spiritual politics by calling for an end to (1) the militarization of Tibet by massive Chinese troop concentrations, (2) the colonization of Tibet by the Chinese policy of population transfer, (3) the dehumanization of Tibetans by deprivation of basic individual and social rights, (4) the devastation and pollution of Tibet's of Tibet's environment by clearcutting forests, annihilating wildlife and dumping nuclear wastes and (5) the genocidal repression of the Tibetans' very existence by the Chinese refusal to open negotiations between Tibetans and Chinese, maintaining the pretense that there are no such distinct persons as "Tibetans." His Holiness showed that the need is for peace, physical living space, decency in social conditions, environmental reconstruction and protection and face-to-face mutual human acceptance. By not even mentioning Tibetan independence, His Holiness put these immediate human and environmental needs foremost. The implication is that if these human needs can be secured by the Tibetan nation's continuing participation in the Chinese "empire" or "union", then even that status quo could be tolerated. But if (as seems more realistic) they can only be secured by a return to Tibetan independence (the heartfelt wish of almost every Tibetan), then that goal becomes a necessity.

When the world empires of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries began to break up in the beginning of the twentieth, Tibet emerged in the shadows between to collapsing Manchu, Russian and British empires as a Buddhist civilization that refused to join the dream of "modernity" and lacked the Western to join the League of Nation's but did not want to join anyone's commonwealth or build railroads and road systems. It stayed neutral in World War II, seeing it as a collision of empires rather than as a struggle between light and darkness, or democracy and tyranny. Because Tibetans were no one's ally in that conflict, they were given the cold shoulder when they tried to join the United Nations in 1947. Despite the cold war and the Korean War, when Tibet was invaded in 1949 no one would take up its cause for fear of embarrassing allies in Taiwan and of eventually angering the faceless giant of mainland China. We all shrugged off Tibet, thinking she was paying the price of a spiritualistic isolation, another small victim of the inevitable tidal wave of history and modernity.

But now Tibet returns to our awareness again and again. Now we have arrived at "post-modernity", having realized the fragility of the ecosystem, the extreme danger of nuclear holocaust, the fundamental error of blind faith in material progress and the inestimable loss of even the most miniscule varieties of life forms. Only now are we beginning to understand the great sophistication of the Buddhist civilizations, especially in terms of their understanding of the human psyche. And Tibet has astonished us no less then China, refusing overall to resist with violence and terror, and yet refusing to quietly disappear.

Those who know Tibet well and therefore see her continuing survival as a top planetary priority are based dismissed as simply being "anti-Chinese." This is based on the erroneous assumptions that (1) the other great powers are less responsible than China for the destruction of Tibet and (2) the Chinese themselves are ultimately any less the victims of the tragedy than the Tibetans.

In regard to the first assumption, if the Chinese government was now ruling in Seoul, the US, the UK, Japan and India would tell each other about their shared failure in not mounting an effective UN defense. The Chinese revolutionary government has developed its worst habits during its 40 years in Tibet, its one major colonial acquisition, because the other world powers have continued in a conspiracy of silence, in effect condoning the Tibetan holocaust. In regard to the second assumption, those who know and care for Tibet tend to have a somewhat spiritual perspective on history and society, tending, like Gandhi, to see the ethical path as the practical way for individual or nation. The Chinese people have suffered unimaginably over the last 40 years from the confused whims of individual leaders intoxicated with imperial power. Their fantastic pretensions, unlimited interventions and whimsical resort to violence and terror caused countless agonies and deaths, smothered the joy and beauty essential for creativity and crippled individual initiative, causing China's continuing economic crisis. It is any wonder that such leaders, so busy making their own home unhappy, would bother the only neighbors they could bother, the Tibetans, the Mongols, the Uighurs and the Manchus? Tibet is the largest territory conquered by the Red Army, which failed in Korea and had no other outside success. Annexation of Tibet put the Red Army up against India, for another major distraction, and extended the border with the USSR. So Chinese bad behavior in Tibet keeps militarism energetic and directly contributes to the continuing oppressive police state atmosphere at home.

So to discover the Tibetan cause as crucially important is to recognize the key to the welfare of the whole region, especially the welfare of that individually most cheerless land of post-Cultural Revolution China. The warlike nations of Europe - Germany, France and Italy - eventually realized the need for a neutral zone, and Switzerland remained a haven through both recent world wars. The old empires were wise enough to understand that Tibet served such a role, and Mughal, Manchu, British and Russian left her alone except to keep each other out from time to time.

The three so-called "big powers" - the US, USSR and PRC - spend huge sums in public relations campaigns to convince their imperialist conquests that they are their benefactors, true and good and trust-worthy. But actions speak louder than even the most expensive words. The US destroyed the Native Americans and Vietnam and is working on Central America. The USSR conquered numerous native nations and now is wrecking Afghanistan. The PRC finished the Manchus, swamped Uighurs and Mongols and totally destroyed Tibet. They all work together on Cambodia, Africa and the Middle East. So naturally the smaller states have come to distrust the larger powers. This distrust can cause worldwide depression, as people stop investing, stop playing debts and opt out of the economic system. And depression can lead to cataclysmic wars, as it empowers the lunatic fringe. So trust is not a frill, not an idle. Its lack is fatal; its cultivation is critical.

So now and then we in the US manage to settle a major Native American land case. We gave up in Vietnam at the end. Gorbachev and Reagan manage to scrap a few missiles. The USSR appears to be abandoning the Afghan adventure. The PRC is trying to shelve impractical ideology and return to business. Its partners are eager, lured by vast profit potential, but the fact remains that no one but the most euphoric can really trust the deals of a government that still acts as a law unto itself. The PRC leaders still are trying to sell their new nice pragmatic image to the many "little people" and their governments, without actually changing their "big power" ideological, hard-line ways, where they think no one will notice. It is understandable. How long did we blast away on the Vietnamese jungle, shouting freedom while the world looked at pictures of napalmed children? How long have USSR leaders been blasting the opposition in Afghanistan shouting about liberation? We quit at last. Gorbachev certainly seems to want out.

So the cost-benefit analysis factor is the good reason for hope. It is not a matter of ethical idealism. When you treat people badly, the cost of propaganda or advertising to pretend that you are not doing so rises in proportion to the gravity of the deeds you pay to misrepresent. The PRC leaders are daily weighing the benefits they receive from occupying Tibet and suppressing her resilient people against the costs of loss of credibility with the larger world. Our US (and undoubtedly the USSR's) leaders likewise weigh the benefits of consenting to the PRC behavior in that case against the costs of the loss of credibility with their own constituents and the costs of encouraging self-defeating behavior on the part of an ally. If the analysis is tracked out on a scale that is long term enough (if the analysts have an educated sense of history), then the amazing thing is that the ethical path works out to be most cost-effective. It is finally cheaper to be trustworthy, that is good and kind, let the press report the facts openly to the public, and bid good-bye to the advertising/propaganda budget! It is a Tibetan Buddhist adage that Truth is more powerful than falsehood, because in the long run it is far more economical.

Coming back to our individual selves, our informing ourselves therefore directly affects the cost of the continuing oppression of the Tibetans. The better we known the facts of the situation, the more costly it becomes for those who seek to misrepresent them. Studying these essays and then going on to find out more is itself a great help to the poor monks now suffering "re-education" in Lhasa's Trapchi prison, and to the weather-beaten Tibetan lady who circumambualtes Lhasa's holy spots weeping and praying for her country's rebirth from its ashes.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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