After nearly half a century of Chine occupation of Tibet, riots on an unprecedented scale occurred not only in the Tibetan Administrative Region (TAR), but also in parts of China with substantial Tibetan populations. Prior to what has come to be known as the March Incident of 2008, Tibetan protests had largely been limited to areas within TAR proper. How can we explain the spontaneous — and violent — uprising that shocked the world months before the Beijing Olympics and invited an ironfisted crackdown by the Chinese authorities?
The answer is the culminating achievement of The Struggle for Tibet, a collection of articles written by Tibetan academic Tsering Shakya and the Chinese intellectual Wang Lixiong (王力雄). In what often reads like a dialogue between the two authors,
the book explores the question of Tibetan identity, religion, assimilation and resistance from the perspective
Wang’s opening article, Reflections on Tibet, which first appeared in the New Left Review in 2002, provides an anthropological assessment of the Tibetan experience that, though it strives to comprehend Tibetan reality from a local perspective, is far more successful in highlighting the shortcomings and biases of the observer as colonizer.
Wang, who has a commendable record of publicly denouncing Beijing over its treatment of ethnic minorities (and served jail time as a result), is well-intentioned, but his facile explanations for Tibetan acquiescence during the Cultural Revolution and alleged substitution of Buddhism for Maoism are quickly dispatched in Blood in the Snows, Shakya’s response to Wang’s article, also published in the New Left Review.
Shakya convincingly shows us that the Chinese (and Wang’s) perspective on Tibet is strikingly similar to Western colonialism in its mission civilisatrice, condescension toward the simple-minded “native” and co-optation of the elite to manage the colony. Here Shakya is largely influenced by Palestinian academic Edward Said, whose work on how colonial powers interpret the “other” and justify the modernizing endeavor remains essential reading. Even well-meaning Chinese dissidents like Wang, Shakya argues, perpetuate the colonial mind-set, mostly by virtue of their being the product of the society in which they evolve. This leads to the conclusion that democratization in China wouldn’t necessarily result in improvements in terms of the rights of ethnic minorities there.
Interestingly, Wang’s tone makes a notable shift in the following chapter, Two Imperialisms in Tibet, published two years later. Part of that
reassessment is likely the result of his marrying the famous Tibetan dissident Tsering Woeser (程文薩), who suffered the direct consequences of intellectual resistance to Chinese colonialism in Tibet. To limit this progression to his relationship with Woeser, however, would do Wang great injustice, as his intellectual development on the question of Tibet also stems from his efforts to understand its people. His discussion of Tibetan intellectuals using the Chinese language, rather than Tibetan, to oppose the Chinese authorities makes some good points, especially when he contrasts the benefits of doing so with the Uighurs’ failure to communicate their plight with both the Chinese and the outside world. We also learn that rather than being uprooted, Tibetans who receive an education in China often return as the harshest critics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).