Confusion in the direction of the Freedom Struggle
Whatever is lacking in the debate on "What must be done about the Tibetan question?" brain-numbing contributions are certainly not one of them. One such, from Chinese dissidents in the West, is that Tibetans should work towards promoting democracy in China, the realisation of which will create the positive conditions for "real" Tibetan autonomy - or better yet make Tibetan independence seem quite unnecessary. Another, from a more pious direction, is that the Dalai-Lama and other Tibetan religious heads work towards converting the Chinese to Tibetan Buddhism. What seems to have been forgotten here is that the "Tibetan Buddhist" Manchus had no compunction about cutting off Tibetan heads, burning down Tibetan monasteries and even sending troops to hunt down the13th Dalai-Lama (the Emperor's spiritual preceptor) like a common criminal. In similar vein, someone who is regarded as the leading legal advisor to the Tibetan Government, has insisted that the solution lies in the resuscitation of the patron-priest relationship (presumably with Jiang Zemin playing the role of the incarnation of Manjushri, the Manchu emperor). Left-leaning Western academics professing concern for the Tibetan issue have offered less colourful, but no less original solutions. One is that Tibetans work towards (or at least pin their hopes on) the inevitable rise of "moderates" or "reformists" in the Chinese Communist Party.
A variation of the "moderates" versus "hard-liners" scenario was effectively used by the Nazis in their bid to undermine the resolution of the democracies before the War. The usual method of a shrewd manipulator like Hermann Goering, when eliciting a concession from the English or the French was to stress that the concession was necessary for the "moderates" in the Nazi party to gain the upper hand against the "hard-liners", in order to convince Hitler not to go to war.
Such terms as "reformers" or "hard-liners" are as equally fluid, often even meaningless, in the Chinese context. In China the track record of "reformists" once ensconced in power, is far from reassuring. No less a China expert than the great John King Fairbank himself once pronounced Mao Zedong an "agrarian reformer". This was, of course, before Mao's Great Leap, the complete failure of his lunatic agrarian reforms and the greatest famine in human history. Deng Xiaopeng's reputation as a "outspoken reformer" was highlighted when he was removed from office in disgrace after the Tiananmen incident of April 1976, when "tens of thousands of police and militiamen" violently cracked down on a peaceful crowd paying homage to the dead Zhou Enlai. Deng had expressed solidarity with the crowd. But thirteen years later, and then in the top position of power himself, Deng cracked down with far more deadly force on another crowd of peaceful demonstrators at Tiananmen. He also removed from office a new "outspoken reformist", Zhao Ziyang, who had supported the student demonstrators.
But no tears should be wasted on Zhao Ziyang either. Though he wept with the demonstrators, it is fairly certain that had he been in power and challenged in the same way by demonstrators, he would have reacted in like manner. The massacre in Lhasa in March 1989 was directly ordered by Zhao Ziyang himself, then Party Secretary. After the killings he sent a message to Lhasa praising the Armed Police as "brave and persistent".
Friends of China, and indeed the Chinese people themselves, looking for reformers, should bear in mind what the great modern Chinese writer Lu Xun said about such types in China's power circles: "Whoever was in power wishes for a restoration. Whoever is now in power is in favour of the status quo. Whoever is not yet in power calls for reforms. The situation is generally such."
The new nationalism
The global issue of this decade is the struggle for nationhood of such peoples as the Kosovars, Palestinians, Kurds, Bosnians, Croats, Chechens, the East Timorese and quite a few others. Some of these conflicts are seeing resolution of a kind, while others drag on, sometimes even forcing superpower involvement, the latest being the bombing of Serbia by NATO. Yet, with or without violence, nation states are proliferating at an amazing rate. In ten years UN membership has gone up from 156 to 185.1 Even in stable Western countries like Britain and Canada, ethnic minorities - Scottish, Welsh, French Canadians - pursue dreams of a United Nations' seat of their own.
A common assumption is that the lifting of authoritarian and cold war strictures has released ancient ethnic ambitions and hatreds, potentially leading to a world far more complex and dangerous than the familiar bipolar East and West. But is it so? An article in the New York Times (Sunday February 21, 1999. Section 4, "What's Wrong With This Picture of Nationalism") by Serge Schmemann questions this perception:
Could it be that this supposedly new nationalism is neither so new, so surprising, nor so uniformly dangerous? Many students of world affairs who have taken a closer look at the nationalisms and conflicts have found that most of the causes and histories long predate the collapse of Communism. What is new, they argue, is not nationalism and ethnicity as such but the world's perception of these in a complex new universe, and the political uses of them in a world of porous borders and interconnected economies... The rise of globalism, they find, has paradoxically made statehood more necessary for small nations hoping to compete for resources, investment and aid.
... What has prompted the proliferation of states and liberation movements, the experts find, is less a flowering of nationalism than the very forces that were expected to make nationalism obsolete. In a world increasingly united by air travel, the Internet, multinational business and international organisations, ethnic minorities have come to see no reason why they should not participate directly. If the Olympic Games during the cold war, for example, were an ersatz competition between two ideologies and superpowers, there is little reason any more why every nation large and Lilliputian, should not field its own athletes and gather its own laurels.
Even an organisation like the European Union, first conceived in 1949 by Jean Monnet, to prevent the reversion of European states to the destructive nationalism of the past, in fact encourages this new nationalism, by forming the economic umbrella that buttresses the sovereignty of small, weaker nations within it like Ireland and Luxembourg; hence creating the conditions for possibly even the eventual independence of such non-sovereign entities within it as the Scots, Welsh, Catalans and Basques.
Susan Woodward, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, finds a strong economic component in the new nationalism as small nationalities, stripped of ideological patrons, conclude that independence is critical in the struggle for international resources. "Globalization leads to fragmentation, as the state becomes more important as a way to catch fewer resources, to get access to international loans, trade agreements." So what appears to be regionalism is really a way of recognising the greater interconnectedness of the larger world.
The moral case for the Tibetan Freedom Struggle
Admittedly, in many such ethnic and national conflicts the issues are not all black and white. Although we should have no hesitation in condemning Serb "ethnic cleansing", we must not altogether forget the atrocities of the Croats and Bosnians during World War II, when they sided with Nazi Germany against Tito's partisans. While in places like Rwanda and Burundi ethnic passions seem to have gone so haywire that despite the appalling numbers of dead bodies and starving children, one is often hard put to distinguish victims from aggressors.
The moral positions of the opposing groups (including the British) in Northern Ireland are no less grey than the winter skies there. On the Palestinian/Israeli question, I think it was the President of Israel, Chaim Weitzman, who said that the tragedy of the conflict was not that one side was right and the other wrong, but that both were right.
But if there is one clear-cut, black and white issue in the world, I think it is the Tibetan one. Certainly, I must admit to an enormous bias in the matter and I definitely risk sounding like a self-righteous prig, but let me explain. I am not going to bother with the usual arguments, especially the refutation of Chinese "historical" claims over Tibet. To anyone with the least knowledge of China's history, the same Chinese "historical" arguments could, with little or no modifications, equally well apply to Burma, Bhutan, Vietnam, Korea (North and South), parts of Japan and probably the Philippines, Nepal and Indonesia as well. And there is no telling that China might not just do exactly that in the future, if it ever became strong enough.
What I want to put forward is the moral case for the Tibetan struggle, especially our conduct in violent conflicts against the Chinese. I am not touching on our "non-violent" struggle, which is really not a struggle or a movement in the Gandhian sense, but more an exercise in diplomacy. I want to discuss the behaviour of Tibetans who not only were capable of violence, but were sufficiently powerful or skilled at it to gain an advantage over the enemy. In 1918 the Great 13th Dalai-Lama's modern army defeated Chinese forces in Eastern Tibet and was intending to drive them out of Kham altogether. The English, who were our sole arms-supplier (we paid in silver for everything), forced us to the negotiation table. The English mediator, Erich Teichman, had this to say of the conduct of our officers and men:
The Tibetans have undoubtedly behaved very well at Chamdo, treating their Chinese military prisoners with humanity and kindness, judging by oriental standards,2 except for a little mild looting when the victorious Tibetan soldiery first entered the town. Although many Chinese were shot during the actual siege, I have not heard of a single instance of a Chinese being killed since the surrender. The soldier prisoners were all properly fed, and even provided with a little rice and few rupees apiece before being sent into Tibet. The civilian Chinese are at present moving freely about the town carrying on their usual business, each with a ticket on his arm, showing that he has been registered at the Tibetan headquarters.3
An old Tibetan scholar who had lived in Kham in his childhood told me that the commander of the Tibetan forces, Chamba Tendar, had ordered a Tibetan soldier shot for looting a Chinese business. Chamba Tendar also talked kindly to the Chinese prisoners and gave them a sort of Buddhist discourse (he was a monk, who had earlier set aside his vows to take up his military duties) on the illusory nature of either victory or defeat, and gave each prisoner a few rupees apiece from his personal funds.
General P'eng Jih-sheng, the Chinese commander at Chamdo, requested he not be returned to China. He was given an allowance and settled in Dowa dzong in southern Tibet. He had, in fact, started the war and when Chamba Tendar had written to him seeking an explanation for his violating the cease-fire, General P'eng had returned his letters filled with excrement. General P'eng was notorious for his intolerance and cruelty to the Tibetans, and was responsible for the destruction of the great monasteries of Chamdo, Drayak and Yemdo in previous campaigns, yet he was not harmed and allowed to live out his life in Tibet, with a government pension.
More recently, when the Chinese army attacked Tibetan forces in 1950, there was a relatively sizeable Chinese business community in Lhasa that was defenceless. But no one even bothered throwing a stone at them. It must be borne in mind that the classic Lhasa mob was not necessarily a peaceful one, and earlier on in history (1750), had even burned down the Chinese legation and killed the Manchu commissioner (who had murdered the Tibetan ruler Gyurmey Namgyal). In March 1959 when the people of Lhasa battled against Chinese troops for three days, there is not a single report of a Chinese civilian in the city being shot or having his or her throat cut or whatever. When World War I broke out, German-owned stores and businesses all over England were smashed and looted. Immediately after America's declaration of war in 1941, the US government rounded up all its citizens of Japanese descent and locked them up in vast concentration camps.
At the height of Mongol military power in Asia, when Tibetan lamas were being patronised by the Great Khans, there is no evidence of Tibetans using their position to wreak vengeance on the Chinese. On the contrary, the biographies of the Sakya lamas do not fail to mention the problems they faced in trying to dissuade Mongol princes from massacring hundreds of thousands, even millions of Chinese every year. Besides this, there is record of even 100,000 Korean soldiers whose lives were saved by Drongon Chogyal Phagpa, who, in order to allay Mongol apprehension, made the Koreans into Buddhist monks. Which leads me to this strange story.
After the Mongol conquest of China the life of the last Sung claimant to the throne was saved by the intervention of Phagpa. The Mongols were loath to let such a potential focus of insurrection survive, but on Phagpa's repeated importunities, were reluctantly persuaded not to kill the boy. To reassure the Mongols, Phagpa took the prince back with him to Tibet and made him a monk.4 But the prince most probably found monastic life tedious. The minor aristocratic family of Meru Gyalpo, of Shang district in south-western Tibet, still claims descent from the last of the Sung dynasty.
Even earlier in antiquity, during a fiercely militaristic age in Tibetan history our warriors observed basic codes of conduct that find expression in these traditional sayings: "Do not ride roughshod over a corpse" and "Do not step on a fallen man"; which would be the English equivalent of "Don't hit a man when he's down."
In 659 AD the Tibetan imperial army, under the great minister Tridring of the Gar clan, clashed with a larger Chinese army in probably what is now the area of Do-nyida in Amdo. The Tibetan force "in the manner of a greedy tiger leaping upon meat" swept down on the Chinese "like a storm filling the air with bloodthirsty cries... They showered spears, arrows and swords (?) upon their enemies, and ten thousand Chinese soldiers were killed and wounded.
"The Chinese general Wong ker-zhang-she (Wang Hsiao-Chie?) along with about a hundred thousand troops were captured and threatened with death. But the great minister Tridring (Khri'-bring) said, 'It is completely unheard of for a Tibetan to kill an unarmed soldier in his custody or to flay the skin of a bound horse.' So they lifted up a Chinese corpse and everybody pierced it with his weapon as a gesture symbolic of killing a hundred thousand Chinese soldiers. The battlefield became a burial ground for the many Chinese troops killed there, and became known as Stag-la Chinese cemetery and Rma Chinese cemetery."5
I have not recounted these events in order to demonstrate how wonderful Tibetans were or are, in the manner of certain misguided promoters of Tibet in the West. I am all too aware that we have, in our recent past, been backward-looking and self-defeating, but I think it can be honestly said that we have never been wilfully wicked or inhuman. There is an understandable tendency for young Tibetans (and even non-Tibetan friends and supporters), when becoming disillusioned with the idealised official representation of old Tibet, to sometimes veer towards the proctological viewpoint of Tibetan history as retailed by certain sinophile "Tibet experts" in the West. It does not require analytical expertise of a high order (as it did to find out about famines, gulags, and mass killings in China) to point out the many things wrong with Tibet in the past: the conservatism, inequality, corruption and complacency. It was all there on the surface, like the dirt and the beggars in front of the Jokhang in Lhasa - still there, by the way, in modern socialist Tibet. What needs to be stressed is that though our history reveals the compelling need for reform in our church and society, it does not call for guilt or shame6. Indeed there is much that we can legitimately be proud of. In the conduct of hostilities against our oppressors we may have lacked numbers and resources, but not courage, and never honour and humanity. If there is a pure cause in this world worth fighting and dying for, it is surely the Tibetan struggle for independence.
A Chinese perspective on Tibetan independence
As I write this, NATO bombs are still dropping on Serbia and the Chinese embassy has been hit by a cruise missile. However debatable all-out bombing may be as a strategy to defeat, or at least frustrate, murderous dictators like Slobodan Milosevic, there is no denying that it has highlighted the Kosovo issue and by extension raised discussion on such other issues of nationhood as the Kurds, Palestinians and also Tibet ("Tibet: China's Kosovo?" Newsweek April 19, 1999). It also seems to have made Chinese official views on the likelihood of Tibetan independence less dismissive or sanguine. Before his tour of the United States and Canada, the Chinese premier, Zhu Rongji, made a back-handed admission of this in an interview with the Globe and Mail (Toronto). He roundly denounced NATO and American intervention in Kosovo, and declared that: " the Kosovo question is an ethnic problem... Questions like this exist in many countries. You in Canada have the question of Quebec; the UK has the Northern Ireland question; and for China, there is the question of Tibet."
It is entirely possible that Zhu may have earlier read an article that came out this Jan 2nd in the Beijing Zhanlue Yu Guanli, by a Wang Lixiong. Wang predicted that a likely worst case scenario after the death of the present Dalai-Lama would be the domination of the exile society by violent elements "to put Tibet in danger of becoming a Palestine or even a Chechnya".
Wang's "Tibet: China's 21st-Century Underbelly", is a well-researched, surprisingly unrancorous and, as far as any Chinese can be about Tibet, an objective thesis on the impossibility of a peaceful or mutually satisfactory settlement of the Tibetan issue. Wang concedes that the Dalai-Lama could be sincere in his acceptance of autonomy, but explains at length the unbridgeable chasm between the Dalai-Lama's stand and the Chinese one. Citing an interview of the Dalai-Lama's brother Danzeng Qujia (Tenzin Choegyal) by the French reporter Pierre-Antoine Donnet (where Choegyal declared that autonomy was only a first step to gain independence), Wang assertss that 90% of the Tibetans in exile hold strongly to independence, in spite of the Dalai-Lama's declared position.
While the Dalai-Lama per se might be sincere, as to whether he can control coming developments and as to how those who come after him will act, he has no control. So when considering the future prospects of the Tibet matter, we have to see Tibetan independence as a possibility that will always exist, rather than holding simplistically that just because the Dalai-Lama says that he is not seeking independence, there will be no further Tibetan independence matter... In the world's political shifts anything will happen.
Wang does not overlook India's role in the matter and surprisingly admits how much closer Tibetans are spiritually, culturally and even physically to India than China. He describes how Qing or Guomindang Chinese officials often travelled via India to Lhasa because it was so much more convenient.7 Wang sees great danger in this proximity between the two nations, as he recognises that India's military capability has vastly improved since 1962, with its defence spending jumping up to nearly twice that of China's in the 1980s, and even now exceeding China's, though China has sharply increased spending. He cites foreign military experts who "hold that India now has the world's best mountain troops, that they can withstand the most hardships and have the best equipment, and can successfully withstand any attack by China".
Wang makes it clear that China cannot rely on the loyalty of its Tibetan cadres, whom he considers mostly "believers or (covert believers). With belief meaning worshipping their god, and the Dalai-Lama being the god of the Tibetan religion but also the enemy of the Chinese regime, the believing officials have a dual identity, with whether they will worship their god first or fight the enemy first always being a delicate matter." Running through Wang's thesis is the observation that China's grip on Tibet is not only a limited one but possibly even tenuous:
Of course, the current situation is that it is only the military stationed in Tibet that keeps the separatists from shaking Chinese sovereignty. The military role in sovereignty is only like a rope, which can tie Tibet to China, but cannot keep our bloodlines together over the long term. In peacetime, the rope is firm and unbreakable, but once a special juncture is reached, the rope can become unbearably weak. The exploitation of China's 1911 revolution to "run out the Han Chinese" by the Dalai-Lama's predecessor, the 13th Dalai-Lama, is a case in point. The Qing dynasty also had a particularly strong armed force in Tibet in relation to the Tibetans. The 13th Dalai-Lama was also in exile in India, pursuing a line of striving to get the great powers (Britain and Russia) to support Tibetan independence. The Qing government had also completely given up on the Dalai-Lama (even declaring that it had stripped the 13th Dalai-Lama of his title), and had the strongest control over Tibet in history. So while the initiative seemed to be almost completely with the Qing government, just at the moment when the 13th Dalai-Lama was almost in despair, China's 1911 revolution came like a godsend.
A review of history shows that whenever Chinese sovereignty over Tibet gets out of control, the prerequisite is nothing but instability in China. Today's Tibetan separatists are also undoubtedly waiting day and night for such a prerequisite to reoccur. Once Chinese society becomes riotous and out of control, the political nature of the Chinese military and the high dependence on logistics of a modern army would make our troops stationed in Tibet lose morale and logistics support, which two inevitable factors would quickly cause them to collapse (or at least cause their combat effectiveness to plummet). At that time, many variables would occur simultaneously: what would happen in Tibet? What would the Dalai-Lama and the exiled Tibetans do? What would India do? What would the great powers do? ... But with the only tens of thousands of Han Chinese in Tibet being unstable, with their families in China, which leaves them rootless and likely to leave at any sign of trouble, our sovereignty by that time would largely lose its backing.
Wang's sees no other viable solution to the problem except a massive population transfer of Chinese to Tibet. But he is discouraged by what he regards as the decrease in Chinese population in Tibet from the peak in 1980. He points out that the apparent visibility of the Chinese presence in Tibet comes from the concentration of that population in central cities, particularly Lhasa. Even these permanent residents of Lhasa do not seem to have the will to stay there, especially the current generation. "Many young Han Chinese have already left Tibet on their own and returned to China to start new lives, essentially disregarding their lack of residence registration (in China)."
Wang does not even regard the apparent weakening of traditional beliefs among young Tibetans as advantageous to China, as he sees it being replaced by a more modern and dangerous faith, nationalism:
A trip to Lhasa today leaves a strong impression that the once ancient "sacred city" is being secularised. But while economic development is downplaying the impact of religion, the space left by traditional religion is being filled up by another quasi-religion of modern society: nationalism. The weakening of religion is even probably becoming a term and catalyst for the spread of nationalism... The facts show that the most secularized urban Tibetan youth are characterised by the strongest centrifugal force and nationalist sentiment. They have been the major force in the resistance and street riots in Tibet in recent years. On the other hand, no matter how urban religion is undermined by materialism, in Tibet's vast pastoral and rural areas, the harsh plateau life keeps the Tibetans in an inseparable relationship with religion.
Tibetans in exile, functioning in an unhealthy solipsistic atmosphere where passivity, self-pity and victim mentality are the norm, often find it difficult, if not impossible to see that China, no matter how powerful, has unimaginably complex and crippling problems of its own. This is why these extracts from the writings of a Chinese "Tibet expert8" as it were, may have a remedial effect on such readers and demonstrate that the contention "Tibetan independence is possible" is not just the slogan of fanatics and dreamers. Wang is, of course, someone bitterly opposed to the idea of Tibetan independence and his article is essentially a warning to the Chinese authorities not to become complacent about the Tibetan issue. Yet his analysis unequivocally reveals that China's control of Tibet cannot be taken for granted and there is every chance, given some instability in China, that Tibet could be an independent country again.
1. Since the UN's inception in 1945, more than 80 nations whose peoples were formerly under colonial rule have joined as sovereign independent states. 1990-2000 has been declared the International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism. Tibetans should never feel that their cause alone has no chance of succeeding.
2. Some years earlier, after the British victory at Omdurman, numerous atrocities were committed on the defeated dervish soldiers, while the tomb of their leader, the Mahdi, was desecrated on the orders of the British commander, General Kitchener.
3. Eric Teichman, Travels of a Consular Officer in Eastern Tibet, Cambridge University Press, 1922, p.118.
4. A slightly different account of this event is mentioned by Herbert Franke in "Tibetans in Yuan China" in China Under Mongol Rule edited by John D.Langlois, Jr., Princeton University Press, p. 303.
5. Pelliot Tibetan 1287, Ariane Spanien et Yoshiro Imaeda, Choix de Documents Tibetans, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, 1979, Vol.II, pl.557-558; from A Brief Survey of Fourteen Centuries of Sino-Tibetan Relations by Tashi Tsering, Office of Information and International Relations, Dharamsala, 1988.
6. The one event in our recent history that is unquestionably dishonourable is our denial of refuge to Kazakh tribesmen fleeing Stalin's persecution (1939-42). Only Tsarong Dasang Dadul stood up in the tsongdu to plead the case for the Kazakhs, but a fearful assembly and government forced them to leave Tibet.
7. Even with extensive road-building and efforts to link Lhasa by rail from China this problem has not been overcome. In the Far Eastern Economic Review of April 8, 1999 there was a report that Beijing had proposed to India the opening of a land route for Tibetan imports and exports through the port of Calcutta. This would require a transit agreement for Tibet similar to those which the independent kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan have already. India is interested only if the border question can be settled first.
8. Wang Lixiong has the reputation of being a liberal, relatively speaking, in China and knowledgeable about Tibet. He is the author of Sky Burial: Fate of Tibet, his major work on Tibet, and a prophetic novel Yellow Peril, which predicted civil war and the collapse of the Communist Party of China, and which was banned in China. He has been detained since 4 February, 1999, for "revealing state secrets".