Letter from China: Separating fact from image on Tibet

By Howard W. French
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Published: October 26, 2007
SHANGHAI: As a Congressional Gold Medal was bestowed upon him in Washington recently, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California called him “a shining light for all those fighting for freedom around the world.”
For an angry Zhang Qingli, the Communist Party boss of the Tibet Autonomous Region, he was “a person who seeks to split up his country, and doesn’t even recognize his country.”
The man, of course, is the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, who has lived in exile for nearly 50 years now, since fleeing his homeland in 1959.
One is tempted to ask how, after all these years, such divergent views persist. Zhang, sputtering in indignation over Washington’s reception of the Tibetan spiritual leader, even went so far as to assert: “If the Dalai Lama can receive such an award, there must be no justice or good people in the world.”
One suspects that “the world outside of China,” where the state is able to maintain perfectly rigid orthodoxy on the Tibet question, is what he really meant to say. Here, the view on Tibet and the Dalai Lama is clear and leaves no room for discussion: Tibet has always been China’s, period. And anyone who says differently is a vile “splittist.”
Compared to this, the common American view of Tibet is toxin-free, which is not to say unproblematic. For outsiders, Tibet is reduced to a magical kingdom, and the red-robed Dalai Lama, with his ever-smiling countenance and his wise and gentle homilies, fits perfectly.
Hollywood, which did much to create this image, has summarized it better than anyone, as in the opening words of Martin Scorcese’s 1997 film “Kundun,” which claims: “Tibetans have practiced nonviolence for over a thousand years.”
Tibet was heaven on earth until the Chinese Army stormed the place and took it over in 1950, in a campaign mapped out by Deng Xiaoping himself, according to this view, which conveys more hagiography than geography.
With the possible exception of China’s insistent claim that it has always controlled the place, nothing could be further from the truth.
As with most long-running disputes, the facts that underpin the Tibetan question are full of nuance and subject to competing interpretations. That no major party to this situation has been particularly generous in acknowledging this has only reinforced the overall air of intractability.
China’s rulers, accustomed to controlling the flow of information and ideas, and hence how history is taught, skim over – or edit out – parts of Tibet’s past that are inconvenient to their narrative.
Tibet’s formation as a recognizable nation began as far back as the fourth century. In the early seventh century, Tibetans, under Songtsen Gampo, converted to Buddhism and adopted a written language based on the Ranjana script – both imported from India, it is worth noting.
Tibetans came to control much of their region, including parts of Nepal, Burma, India and present-day Xinjiang (China), and they did it the old-fashioned way, through warfare. They pointedly refused to defer to Tang Dynasty emperors, and in the late eighth century even briefly captured Changan, the Chinese capital, leading to the negotiation of borders between the two states.
Effective Chinese control over Tibet didn’t come until the late 18th century and even then was mostly supervisory. Early in the last century, even that began to fall apart, as did China’s hold on other parts of its periphery.
To enhance their position in India, the British worked intermittently to reinforce the de facto Tibetan state, which China wiped out in 1950 amid since-flouted promises of “broad autonomy,” and an understanding of this leads to the second important acknowledgement.
Chinese insecurity is driven, and understandably so, by the involvement of Western powers on its periphery. Even as the People’s Liberation Army marched into Tibet, Chinese troops were girding to repulse the United States from the Korean peninsula.
Where President Truman saw Communism on the march, China’s eyes were fixed on another prize: ending a so-called century of humiliation, which required establishing buffers of its own. The Dalai Lama’s popularity in the West arouses Chinese suspicions for much the same reason.
The third unpleasant fact is the ugly record of feudal rule by Tibetan lamas, which China naturally enjoys highlighting.
“Do you know how cruel the lamaism was?” asked Lu Xiuzhang, Tibet’s former deputy chief of propaganda. “People were dismembered to be served up in ceremonies, and ordinary people were slaves.” The characterization may not be the fairest, but the man has a point.
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