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).
In the next chapter, The End of Tibetan Buddhism, Wang continues on his journey of discovery and turns to the destruction of the monastic class by Chinese authorities. The consequences are far-reaching not only for the Tibetan religion and culture, but also in terms of criminality and environmental protection. Beijing has thrown the monastic class into disarray by ridding itself (sometimes by execution) of independent-minded monks and co-opting those who toe the party line, often via appointments to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), as it did with a low-ranking lama from Nachu, TAR, who publicly condemned the Dalai Lama on several occasions. Rather than provide dharma teachings to the community, many lamas nowadays are more interested in mingling with wealthy devotees from China, rich businessmen and government officials. Some have even attempted to make it into the movie business, Wang laments.
Beijing may claim that Tibetans are allowed to practice their religion, but by corrupting age-old monastic practices and limiting religious acts to superficial traditions, the “freedom” Tibetans experience is “only a freedom to proceed on a downhill secular path,” Wang writes. Out of the ashes of religion are emerging patterns of violent behavior that are uncharacteristic of Buddhism, he argues, which surely wasn’t what the authorities expected.
This assault on religion (such as Beijing’s insistence on imposing its own selection for the 10th Panchen Lama), added to the authorities’ inability, following the demise of reform efforts by premier Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) in the 1980s, to distinguish between those who actively oppose Chinese policies and the rest, Shakya argues, is what gave rise to the mass unrest in TAR and China that caught Beijing unawares in March 2008. Cellphones and a shared anger at a common enemy, rather than an external plot by Western governments and the “Dalai clique,” as Beijing alleges, are the reasons why the violent protests appeared synchronized and coordinated, he says.
Discussing the incident, Wang posits that the system, rather than top CCP leaders, was to blame for the violence. With 13 institutions at the provincial and ministerial level dealing directly with the question of Tibet, and 11 overseeing “anti-separatism,” decision-making has fallen into the hands of bureaucracies that seek to maximize their resources, even when their actions go against central policies or the common good. If Wang is right, even if they had sought to restrain the security crackdown on Tibetans, leaders like President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) would have been unable to do so. The validity of this argument may be questionable, but it nevertheless raises interesting questions about changes in the CCP leadership from the era of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), who often sidelined government institutions to implement his policies, until today, when the state apparatus has become thoroughly institutionalized.
The authors’ conclusions intersect: Tibet as part of China is a construct of Chinese nationalism, and absent radical change in how China manages its empire, its obsession with “anti-separatism” will inexorably turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Wang concludes that the March Incident was the birth of true Tibetan nationalism; Shakya maintains that given full autonomy over their affairs (which is highly unlikely), Tibetans could be amenable to the “one country, two systems” formula.
The Struggle for Tibet is a valuable addition to the ongoing debate on Tibet and sheds much needed light on China as empire and colonial power.
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