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Op-Ed: Trivializing Tibet: China's rhetoric of non-action

June 7, 2008

By Josh Fouse
Stanford Daily (USA)
June 5, 2008

Millions of people around the world are demonstrating for the Tibetan
cause, while millions of others have hit the streets to champion
China and the Olympic Games. While on tour, the Olympic Torch has
faced protesters, been escorted by police phalanxes, been
extinguished five times while in Paris and inspired the international
tours of alternate torches (i.e. the Human Rights Torch Relay and the
Tibetan Freedom Torch Relay). The Tibet-China issue has been thrust
to the forefront of contemporary politics.

The main conflict zone between the Tibetans and the Chinese
Government lies in public opinion. Official sources from Beijing will
tell you that Tibet's Exile Government is telling lies in an effort
to rally Western support, win independence for Tibet and reinstate a
system of feudalism. However, official sources from Dharamsala deny
these claims and state that Beijing is responsible for the
information war, the Dalai Lama is asking for nothing more than
meaningful autonomy and there is no desire to reinstate feudalism.
Whom should you trust?

Recently, The Daily published an op-ed ["The truth about Tibet," May
30] that gives a short acknowledgment to "China's track record on
human rights" and seems, overall, to be very well-intentioned.

The article contains three statements that I adamantly support. I
agree that Westerners, for a variety of reasons, tend to romanticize
the Tibetan people and their struggle. I agree that "with the
appropriate reforms, there is no reason that Chinese and Tibetans
cannot coexist peacefully in a unified China." And, I agree that the
Chinese people deserve the opportunity to celebrate the positive
aspects of their nation's progress as it hosts the Olympic Games this August.

In addition to these three reasonable and agreeable statements, the
op-ed presents several "larger truths," which I have condensed into
the following six points. My responses follow In parentheses.

(1) Tibet has been a part of China since the thirteenth century (for
a concise, comprehensive description of Tibet's historical status see
Eliot Sperling's "Don't know Much About Tibetan History" at nytimes.com).

(2) The institution of the Dalai Lama as Tibet's political and
spiritual leader was not legitimized until the Chinese emperor of
1751 made it so (in the 1640's, with the help of the Mongol prince,
Gushi Khan, the 5th Dalai Lama united the eastern and western
provinces of Tibet and spiritually unified it under the Gelug school
of Tibetan Buddhism).

(3) The Tibetan language is the closest relative to the Chinese
language from the Sino-Tibetan language family (classical Tibetan is
classified under the Tibeto-Burman family; derived from Sanskrit; it
is not tonal, though there are tonal dialects).

(4) China abolished Tibet's oppressive socio-political system of
feudalism and slavery and has brought widespread "economic prosperity
and social welfare" (the positives and negatives of both systems need
to be considered and weighed; Tibet would have modernized on its own
due to globalization).

(5) Tibetans actually have it better than Han Chinese, because the
Communist system offers them economic and social favoring (are the
costs of China's rule worth these benefits?).

(6) And, last but not least, Tibetan Buddhism has been widely
practiced and tolerated. (Practiced? Not as freely as it could be.
Tolerated? Increasingly so, but still insufficiently: Tibetans cannot
openly revere the Dalai Lama, most active monasteries have a Chinese
police station, monastery populations are restricted, monks and nuns
have been imprisoned and tortured for being outspoken and the Dalai
Lama's choice for Panchen Lama is 19 years old and has been in
Chinese custody for 13 years).

If these six points are blended together, they become quite
suggestive. Without any intellectual discourse, the "truths" of this
op-ed help to construct an image of acceptability that invests too
much faith in the official Chinese side. An image that says,
"Tibetans have it good and are free enough, so why is everyone making
such a fuss? Yes, there are some human rights abuses, but Tibet is a
part of China and China will solve its own problems. Heck! Tibetan
and Chinese are so linguistically similar, so what's this nonsense
about cultural genocide?"

Why is this image a problem? It is a problem because it works. It
serves a purpose. From this perspective, it seems illogical to
support the Tibetan cause. However, real truths do not act as
functioning agents. Real truths tend to make decisions difficult, not easier.

While the West may be guilty of romantic exaggeration, pro-China
sources are guilty of downplaying the importance of the Tibet issue.
In a world where non-action is the default, Beijing holds the upper
hand if the informative, bite-sized "truths" it propagates can
convince a significant number of people that the Tibetan cause is not
a worthy one.

Josh Fouse is President of Stanford Friends of Tibet. If you have
questions, comments or would like to learn more, email him at jfouse
"at" stanford.edu.
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