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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Barefoot Experts

June 13, 2008

Jamyang Norbu
June 11, 2008

"Where facts are few, experts are many" -- Donald R. Gannon

Among the many half-cocked (and often disastrous) schemes dreamed up
during the Cultural Revolution, the institution of "barefoot doctors"
(Chin: chijiao yisheng; Tib: amchi kangjema) was one much admired by
Western Maoists and celebrity pilgrims to the middle kingdom as
Shirley MacLaine.

Only after the PRC opened up in the late 70s did Chinese authorities
admit to the system's deep flaws. It was abolished in 1981. In too
many cases these "doctors," often illiterate peasants with little or
no training (and even less medical supplies and equipment),
frequently inflicted more harm and suffering on their patients than
they did any good. Jasper Becker, Beijing Bureau Chief for the South
China Morning Post, noted that even in the 90s rural Chinese had been
so turned-off by such official health-care that they were reverting
to treatment by traditional "witch doctors."

Following the revolutionary events of this March, the international
media found itself unable to obtain detailed information on what was
going on inside Tibet, and unable to rely on its usual stable of
talking-heads and pundits. So it had to reach out to the small (and
scattered) number of scholars and writers on Tibet, activists, NGO
personnel, and Tibetan political and community leaders, to explain
and elaborate upon what was going on. Some among these, whether for
reasons of personal pique, political convenience or academic conceit
seemed to me to have been intent on creating doubt and
misunderstanding about an issue that, if you have even a basic grasp
the fundamentals, is unquestionably straightforward. They were doing
more harm than good; hence the designation "barefoot experts."

This is not a detailed analysis of these specialists and their
statements but rather an initial overview of some of their more
extreme statements and a cursory attempt to figure out why they made them.

Kate Saunders, spokesperson for the International Campaign for Tibet
(ICT), stated on the BBC World Service (March 14th) that Tibetans
wanted "meaningful autonomy." This was on the fourth day of the
protests in Lhasa, the day when monk and lay demonstrators in Lhasa
and in Labrang were shouting slogans calling for Tibetan
independence, waving the Tibetan national flag -- and were being
savagely beaten by People's Armed Police (wujing) and also fired upon
by "army units" (jundui) according to Woeser's Tibet Update 1.

Robert Barnett of Columbia University in an interview in Foreign
Policy (March 31, 2008) also offered an unusual explanation of what
protesters in Tibet were demanding in their slogans. "A huge sector
of the rural population has said, 'Tibet was independent in the past.
We reassert that belief. That doesn't mean we demand that it be
independent again.'"

Did Barnett conduct a survey of political opinions in rural Tibet?
Does he seriously think that Tibetans put themselves in the way of
being shot in the back or incarcerated and tortured, to deliver such
a delicately nuanced message to Chinese security forces? Are rural
Tibetans capable of such Clinton style triangulation and parsing?

Barnett further advises us "we have to get over any suggestion that
the Chinese are ill-intentioned or trying to wipe out Tibet." This,
he implies, is the kind of propaganda that exile Tibetans are
spreading, and he analyzes the situation further "We have to be very
careful not to confuse exile politics, which is a demand for
anti-China this and anti-China that, with internal politics, which is
much more pragmatic, complex, and sophisticated."

Andrew Fischer (of the London School of Economics) in his article for
the Guardian "Hard Lines Helps No One." makes a remark similar to
Barnett's: "In the ensuing propaganda battle, Tibet itself is again
being lost between the two extremes of hardcore Tibetan nationalists
in exile and hardliners in Beijing."

Note that both men make no bones about representing exile Tibetans as
anti-Chinese and hardcore nationalists (on par with hardliners in
Beijing) while those Tibetans living inside Tibet are represented as
hapless victims squeezed between the intransigence of both exile
Tibetans and Chinese authorities.

But where on earth are the "hardcore nationalists" the uncompromising
"anti-China" Tibetans in exile? The Dalai Lama and his exile
government have absolutely conceded Tibetan sovereignty to China. The
Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated that it was an advantage for Tibet
to be a part of China because of China's booming economy. Prime
Minister Samdong Rimpoche has even welcomed the new railway to Tibet
saying that it would bring economic prosperity to the Tibetan people.
Recently His Holiness, in a May 18th interview with the Times
(London), even said "I can't wait to be a Chinese citizen."

It must also be made clear that the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan
government-in-exile (TGIE) control all the institutions and
organizations in the exile world: political, administrative, cultural
and religious, including most Western support groups. Many of the
organizations that claim to be autonomous are in fact not so. The
TGIE is a highly centralized structure that has near exclusive
control of all funding that comes into exile society from Western aid
and governmental sources. The Tibetan government has in the last four
or five years actively discouraged exile Tibetans from not only
voicing their feelings about Tibetan independence, but even prevented
them from conducting peaceful demonstrations and protests in India and abroad.

Only a few organizations are in practice independent and have goals
in variance with the Dalai Lama's. The largest of these is the
Tibetan Youth Congress. The most visible, at least in the west, is
the Students For a Free Tibet. Both have absolutely no say in the
making of Tibetan government policies and no influence on the Dalai
Lama's decisions. These organizations are declaredly non-violent and
not anti-Chinese in any sort of racist or xenophobic way. They are
merely against Chinese rule in Tibet. To anyone who has been in
demonstrations organized by them and Tibetan communities in exile
will have noted the quaint and marked mildness of most of their
slogans: "Shame on China" "China go Home." Shame Shame, China Shame.
Stop the Killings" in Tibet. Free the People In Tibet. Long Live the
Dalai Lama.

There is none of the "Death to the Zionist Pigs" or "Wipe the Jews of
the Face of the Earth" kind of thing that you would hear in similar
gatherings in Gaza. There are also, of course, no suicide bombers or
terrorists. I would be interested to know if Fischer and Barnett
support an "independent homeland" for the Palestinians -- and why.

To call these Tibetans "hardcore nationalists" is not only a
perversion of the truth but raises concerns whether an underlying, a
subliminal sort of suggestion is being disseminated. For anyone with
memories of the 90's such terms as "hardcore nationalism" immediately
brings up images of the Yugoslav Civil War: Milosevic', Serbian
nationalism, ethnic cleansing and murdered babies. Fischer also
attempts to represent the Olympic torch protests as a kind of
sinister Dick Cheney/Neocon style maneuver by Tibetan hardliners that
turned what should have been a protest about China's policies in
Tibet "into an attack on China and the Chinese" in much the same way
that the Iraq war was turned into a question of patriotism in the US."

All this is of course classic victim bashing. China was on the
receiving end of it once. When Japan invaded China in 1937, US
ambassador Joseph Grew ridiculed the idea that Japan was a great
oppressor and the Chinese were the "downtrodden victims." Many in the
West, especially in Britain, felt that a backward, corrupt country
like China needed to be "taught a lesson" by a vigorous, modern and
progressive Japan.

Another barefoot expert Patrick French wrote in The New York Times
(March 22) that Tibetans inside Tibet were instigated to demonstrate
because they fondly imagined that America was supporting them, a
delusion that was reinforced by the awarding of the Congressional
Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama. French claims that he was told this by
a Tibetan informant -- whom he does not name. If that were actually
the case why didn't Tibetans demonstrate immediately after that Gold
Medal event? The Dalai Lama was awarded the Gold Medal on September
14, 2006. He received the actual award on October 17, 2007. Why did
Tibetans wait seventeen months, or at least five months before doing
anything? Surely public excitement about the award would have
dissipated by then. French deliberately overlooks the fact that the
protests started on March 10th – a day powerfully symbolic of the
assertion of Tibetan sovereignty, and having nothing to do with gold
medals or American support. But a little inconsistency like this
doesn't get in the way of French wanting to establish that Western
instigation and encouragement caused the unrest in Tibet. That if
left alone Tibetans would accept Chinese rule -- which would be the
best thing for everyone concerned.

Andrew Fischer also thinks that the political manipulation of
Tibetans originates from the West and claims "there is a very real
danger that Tibetans in Tibet are being put at risk by the
uncompromising political agendas set in the West."

Patrick French attempts to narrow the sources of this manipulation in
the West to specific organizations -- the various groups that make
Chinese leaders lose face each time they visit a Western country. The
International Campaign for Tibet, based in Washington, is now a more
powerful and effective force on global opinion than the Dalai Lama's
outfit in northern India. The European and American pro-Tibet
organizations are the tail that wags the dog of the Tibetan

When French was involved in the Tibet movement in the late 80s,
Western support groups and the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT)
were involved in activism against China. But since the Dalai Lama
ratcheted up his Middle Way policy nearly all of that has stopped.
After Bill Clinton's de-linking of human-rights and trade and his
policy of "constructive engagement" with China, which ICT director
Lodi Gyari enthusiastically embraced, all boycott campaigns and
economic activism against China came to a crashing halt (see the
article "Going For Broke" in my book Shadow Tibet). These days the
TGIE and the ICT far from organizing demonstrations or protests have
been doing their best to stop such activities and discourage and
control the organizations carrying them out. (See Don't Stop the Revolution).

And most Western support groups, or what's left of them, now
carefully observe Samdong Rimpoche's injunctions against protest
marches and demonstration. Tenth March rallies in New York City have
now become near exclusively Tibetan events. At the anti-Olympic Torch
rally in San Francisco this year there were many non-Tibetan
supporters but none of them were from any of the old support groups.
In fact at the rally I met just one inji activist from the old days,
Fred Shepardson of the Committee of 100 for Tibet -- and he pointed
this out to me.

The fact is that French and the others are completely out of touch
with the current realities of Tibetan activism. If they just stepped
down from their intellectual perches and observed or (heaven forbid)
participated in a demonstration or two they would clearly see that
the ICT and support groups don't call the shots anymore. Tibetan and
Tibetan led organizations, including community associations have
taken over. There is also a growing change in the make up of
activists with new arrivals from Tibet not only filling in the ranks
and beginning to assume leadership positions in the various groups
(and also starting new ones) so that the exile/Tibet
(sarjor/nyingjor) divide, is fast disappearing.

Our barefoot experts are largely unanimous in giving Chinese
authorities the benefit of the doubt in nearly all instances. Andrew
Fischer goes one step further and tells us why this should be done.
"We need to understand that the Chinese Communist party includes many
differences of opinion, including some powerful voices in favour of
negotiating with the Dalai Lama and genuine autonomy for Tibet. We
must support these voices. However, they could be easily scared or
forced into silence if nationalist anger were turned against them."

This is a variation of the "reformers vs hardliners" or "moderates vs
hardliners" scenario within the CCP that never seems to lose its
fascination for practitioners of infantile Sinology. By the very fact
of it being made up of human beings, one would expect any political
organization, even a totalitarian one like the Nazi Party or the CCP,
to register some differences in ideology or policy within its ranks.
The question is whether these small differences mean anything in such
closed non-democratic structures as the CCP, or whether they are
merely illustrative of Lu Xun remark about the hard reality of
perceived doctrinal or policy differences among the power elite in
China: "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."

Anyway, who are the moderate pro-Dalai Lama, pro-autonomy party
leaders in China? I am sure Fischer cannot give us names. The same
sort of argument was raised in the 30s by pro-Nazi Englishmen in
Britain, that attacking Hitler or criticizing German rearmament was
counterproductive. That it weakened the arguments of "moderate" Nazis
who wanted to negotiate with Britain and played into the hands of
hardliners in Berlin.

This leads us to another of Fischer's theories of "the rarely
mentioned reality that the Dalai Lama, and Tibetan Buddhism more
generally, is in fact very popular in China. As far as I understand
it, the Dalai Lama is keenly aware of this influence and realizes
that this channel is crucial for resolving the Tibet issue
"Effectively, the Dalai Lama is waging a public opinion battle with
Beijing within China itself, not within the west. Current Olympic
demonstrations are not helping him in this battle." This is
pernicious rubbish of the most delusional kind. But we do not have
space here to discuss Fischer's theory at length. Those wanting to
know more could check out the latter half of my article "Looking Back
 From Nangpala," where I have attempted to lay this fallacy to rest.

One underlying message that the barefoot experts, in one way or the
other, are all attempting to get across is that by the very fact of
protesting and kicking up a fuss internationally, Tibetans are
bringing upon themselves and their countrymen the very oppression and
suffering that they are protesting against in the first place. The
sensible thing to do, the experts appear to be advising us, is to
keep quiet, to give up. China's rise is inevitable, they seem to be
saying. Just look at what the cover stories of Newsweek or Time and
other popular news magazines are telling us : China is the next
superpower, the 21st century is China's century, The Future Belongs
to China and so on. You my Tibetan friends are getting in the way of
free trade, globalization, and more personally my research project,
my tenure track, and visas for my students for their next study tour
of Amdo. For why the experts should behave in this manner read "Have
China Scholars All Been Bought" by Carlson Holtz (of Hong Kong
University) in the Far Eastern Economic Review, and also "The
Anaconda in the Chandelier" by leading American sinologist, Perry
Link, of Princeton University in the New York Review of Books.

I want to make clear that I am not just singling out these few people
for criticism. I have a follow up piece where I will discuss another
group of Tibet/China "experts" in the free world who are outright
propagandists for Communist China and who have built successful
careers largely regurgitating propaganda from the Ministry of Truth
in Beijing and whitewashing China's crimes in Tibet. Compared with
them our barefoot experts, even if not exactly epitomizing objective
scholarship, have at least more complex reasons for their failings.

Patrick French was a friend of mine, before I reviewed his book
Tibet, "Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land" (See my review "The
Incredible Weariness of Hope").

He was an enthusiastic Tibet supporter once and director of the UK
based Free Tibet Campaign in the early nineties. With the exception
of his Tibet book he is a gifted writer and I think his Liberty or
Death: India's Journey to Independence and Divisionis one of the more
perceptive histories of modern India. I am looking forward to his
biography of VS Naipaul.

If there was one person, who could claim to be the linchpin of the
Tibet support movement in the 80s and 90's it was Robbie Barnett. He
founded the Tibet Information Network, TIN in 1989, which quickly
became a valuable source of well-researched factual material relating
to Tibet. Having created a standing for accuracy, independence, and
quality, TIN acquired, for a time, an almost iconic status within the
Tibetan movement.

I don't know Andrew Fischer, but someone whose opinion I respect told
me that his research work on development in Tibet was substantive and useful.

So what happened to these experts and friends of Tibet? There is the
broader explanation. Not only China's rise as an economic powerhouse,
as I mentioned earlier, but also America and the West's retreat on
human rights, the weakening of democracies world over, and most
critically of all of the complete political and moral capitulation by
the Dalai Lama the Tibetan leadership, and the collapse of the Free
Tibet movement. How can you expect steadfastness in the ranks when
leaders are falling over themselves in their eagerness to submit to China?

Then there is the intellectual failure, which is perhaps more
relevant in this case. The inability of so called experts and
scholars to sufficiently understand what is really happening in China
has been a long-standing and fairly notorious one. To give just one
example: in the 60s and 70's all the big name Sinologists who
regularly traveled to the PRC and even resident diplomats in Beijing
were all blissfully unaware of the Great Famine that was wiping out
many tens of millions in China. Among the small handful of experts
who discovered this catastrophe was a husband and wife team, Miriam
and Ivan London, who were originally researchers on the Soviet Union.
In 1971 the two established themselves in Hong Kong and with the aid
of translators interviewed recent refugees from the mainland. They
came out with the first accurate reports of mass starvation in China.
Of course, they were roundly criticized by professional Sinologists world over.

I always thought the Londons saw China clearly because they had
critical distance. They had no ideological, academic, financial,
sentimental or even romantic ties to China -- all that baggage that
Sinologists seem to lug around like long suffering Bactrian camels.

That's why I think the best analysis of what happened in Tibet this
year was written by someone with a similar distance. Someone not
involved in Tibet or China studies, but a specialist on Eastern
Europe and Communism, and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book
Gulag, A History. I have mentioned this in a previous article but I
think it bears repeating. Anne Applebaum in her March 18 article in
the Washington Post discerned that the events in Tibet represented
one manifestation of a wider reaction of "captive nations," Uighurs,
Mongols, Tibetans, rising up against the tyrannical rule of an old
imperial and foreign power that has long oppressed smaller countries
and societies surrounding it. Applebaum included even such
independent nations as North Korea and Burma in this category, hence,
quite accurately, relegating Kim Jong Il and the Burmese military
junta to the role of Beijing's surrogate dictators. As if in
confirmation of Applebaum's broad theory, Reuters reported, shortly
after, that major demonstrations had broken out in East Turkistan
(Xinjiang). When the Olympic torch passed through Seoul, North Korean
refugees staged a protest and one even attempted to set himself on
fire as a protest against China.

Applebaum concluded that if Chinese leaders -- aren't worried, they
should be. After all, the past two centuries were filled with tales
of strong, stable empires brought down by their subjects, undermined
by their client states, overwhelmed by the national aspirations of
small, subordinate countries. Why should the 21st century be any
different? Watching a blurry cell phone video of tear gas rolling
over the streets of Lhasa yesterday, I couldn't help but wonder when
-- maybe not in this decade, this generation or even this century --
Tibet and its monks will have their revenge."

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the
publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect
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