Thanks to twitterer niuB for pointing us in the direction of this excellent piece in Foreign Policy on myths and truths about Tibet, and the strange collective nostalgia many Westerners seem to have for a place they’ve never been and a people they’ve never been among. The entire article is worth a read, but I’ll be excerpting a few bits here with my commentary.
Larson first characterizes Western pereceptions of Tibet and the Dalai Lama:
Tibet is a land of snow-capped mountains and sweeping vistas, fluttering prayer flags, crystal blue skies, saffron-robed monks spinning prayer wheels, and, perhaps most of all, timelessness. And likewise, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet and its chief emissary to the West, is a man of abiding wisdom and compassion, an inspiration and moral compass, a beacon of calm in a frenetic modern world. Set aside the fraught politics of this contested region. If one word sums up what Tibet means to the West it is this: purity.
The Dalai Lama is an especially beloved figure — something I have always found baffling, not because he is unworthy of it but because many of the people who speak so highly of him know little about him or his religion. Doubtless, the man has done many things worthy of praise. But Larson wonders if you were aware that he is opposed to abortion, in favor of nuclear weapons, has accepted large financial donations from terrorists, and believes that using anything other than your genitals during sex is improper (no masturbation, oral, or anal sex allowed, although curiously, he is OK with prostitution). Christopher Hitchens has also written on this topic in this Salon article, but his ignorance of Buddhism and the vicious tone of the piece make it much less worthy reading than Foreign Policy’s piece.
Larson goes on to note that Tibetans are not as “pure” or “spiritual” as some imagine them. They are, in point of fact, regular people. While she notes that they do tend to be more religious than the average Chinese, and they hold a strong sense of ethnic unity, for the most part Tibetan youngsters like Adidas and cigarettes just as much as their Han counterparts. Surprising? It shouldn’t be, but for some people it still is.
On the topic of religion, Larson notes:
Many versions of Buddhism are practiced in China, some with tacit consent of the authorities, but Tibetan Buddhism has proved particularly difficult to integrate because, as with the Islam practiced by Uighurs, it invests authority in local religious leaders who rival the authority of local officials. On issues ranging from property rights to marriage customs, sparks may fly.
Countless times I have heard people in the US espouse the idea that the Chinese government wants to repress Tibetan buddhism because ‘they are afraid of so many people organized in one group’. No one ever mentions that, in all fairness, the religion does not match particularly well with secular governance. That doesn’t mean that Tibetan buddhism should be repressed, or even that Tibetans shouldn’t have the right to elect their own religious leaders to political positions if they so choose, but regardless, it’s worth noting that (as usual) there is more behind the official Chinese government position than just “pure evil”.
Later, Larson is describing some time spent with Tibetan youths from both inside and outside Tibet proper who have gathered in Yunnan province for a friend’s wedding:
What they resent, they told me, is three things: when government actions benefit new Han settlers more than locals; when government makes incorrect assumptions about what Tibetans really want (for instance, the railroad into Tibet and greater development in general); and when government restricts their culture and practice of religion. (To learn about traditional Tibetan culture and heritage, many families in China who can afford to do so send their children to study in India, where there is a large Tibetan exile community. Some say it is near impossible to learn about real Tibetan culture within China.) These young Tibetans did, not, however, say their concerns necessarily added up to wanting independence, but they did think that something in the system would eventually have to give.
And therein lies my biggest problem with the Western discourse on Tibet: it generally ignores the opinions of actual Tibetan people. To be fair, there are some good reasons for this. It is expensive and difficult to travel to Tibet, and even once there, the government certainly does not encourage independent opinion polling or canvassing the locals about whether or not Tibet should be free. But that doesn’t excuse making assumptions or presuming that the Tibetan you talked to once is representative of an entire ethnic group.
The fact is, certainly some native Tibetans want Tibet to be an independent country. Just as certainly, others do not. My guess — and this is just a guess — is that one would be hard pressed to find Tibetans who wouldn’t say that Chinese policy in Tibet is in need to serious reform at the very least, but if we’re going to have that discussion at all, it needs to be one that Tibetans and Chinese are involved in, rather than one that’s occurring in some useless three-way echo chamber between the Tibetan exiles in India, Free Tibet groups in the West, and the central Chinese leadership in Beijing.
And, as the Foreign Policy article points out, the first step towards a more productive discussion is abandoning our orientalist, black-and-white ideas about Tibet.
Thoughts? (This is the part where half of you hurl abuse at me for not siding with Free Tibet groups, while the other half of you hurl abuse at me for being an anti-CCP splittist!)