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Books Reviews: Why Care about Tibet?

June 20, 2008

The absolutism of China's stance has stifled debate; but Tibetan
culture produces its own leadership
George FitzHerbert
The Times Literary Supplement
Times (UK)

Dibyesh Anand argues that there are two related parts to the Tibetan
problem, one political, the other imaginative. The first has arisen
from the "forceful interpretation of Sino-Tibetan relations in the
language of nation states and sovereignty". This is the language of
the Westphalian international order, a set of European concepts
exported to the East with European imperialism and sustained by the
continuing Eurocentrism of international relations discourse. In
response to a century of aggressive Western encroachment, China under
Mao finally succeeded in making the tortuous leap from an imperial
order to an unambiguously sovereign nation on the Western model.
Whereas in the past China's subjects were considered before territory
– power extended over people more than over land – and the imperial
centre exercised a loose and often only nominal overlordship over the
political elites of its peripheries (Tibet being the loosest and most
inaccessible of such peripheries), in the modern zero-sum nation
state paradigm, boundaries became of primary importance.

The dominance (and inadequacy) of the essentially Western political
concept of sovereign independent nations as the indissoluble building
blocks of the international order stands at the heart of the current
impasse between Chinese and Tibetan nationalist claims and
counterclaims. But Anand tries, in Geopolitical Exotica, to say more
than this. In an approach borrowed directly from Edward Said's
Orientalism, he sees the sinister hand of Western "strategies of
representation" at the core of the Tibetan problem, still persistent
because popular opinion is a primary player in political dealings
with Tibet. Western ways of thinking about Tibet, which have their
foundation in colonial encounters in Asia, have fostered fantasies of
"Tibetanness", which have in turn been adopted and used by Tibetans,
and thereby (it is implied) distorted the issue and played a
"constitutive role" in the ongoing conflict over Tibet. Among the
Western "imaginings" of Tibetans Anand discusses are Rudyard
Kipling's Teshoo Lama in Kim, Lobsang Rampa's fraudulent
autobiography of a Tibetan monk in The Third Eye (Rampa was in fact
the son of a Cornish plumber and had never been to Tibet) and James
Hilton's Lost Horizon, an adventure story which first coined the term
"Shangri-La" – a monastery high in the Himalaya peopled by
enlightened Europeans who never grow old. These have combined to
create what Anand calls "Exotica Tibet" – the projection of Tibet as
unique, spiritualized and utopian, which has nurtured the Tibetan
issue as an international dispute.

Anand's arguments are engaging, provocative and at times
entertaining, but his book falls well short of its claims. As a
post-colonial critique of the Tibetan geopolitical issue, it is both
premature and glaringly incomplete. It fails to engage with or even
to notice the elephant in the room: contemporary Chinese colonialism
in Tibet. For Tibet, says Robert Barnett in Volume Eleven of Tibetan
Modernities, a collection of recent essays by Western and Tibetan
scholars, is "an unusually sharp example of colonial modernity". All
areas of cultural life are circumscribed by state intervention (to be
sure much less intrusive than thirty years ago but nevertheless
pervasive). Tibetans on internet forums and on mobile phones must
discuss the pressing issues of the time in a kind of code, never
addressing politics directly, and never uttering the name of the one
cherished leader who unites them. The spoken Tibetan language is
being eroded by Chinese as the language of administration and higher
education, and traditional Tibetan livelihoods are under threat from
mass resettlement programmes and the influx of Chinese traders and
goods. China depicts Tibetans as backward, colourful, childish and
imprisoned by superstition. It casts itself in a paternal, caring
role, helping Tibet to develop and progress. Tibetan consent to this
development is an irrelevance in a country where consent has no place
in the political process. But Dibyesh Anand fails to consider the
subtle and covert Tibetan strategies of cultural resistance which are
also defining the contours of modern Tibetan identity.

The political contestation of Tibet is pervasive and multifaceted,
and it infects the discussion of Tibetan culture at every level. On
the one hand, Tibet is an "inalienable and integral" part of the
"multi-ethnic Chinese nation" according to the Chinese government and
the millions of Chinese nationalists who swamp internet forums and
university lecture rooms across the globe. On the other hand,
according to most Tibetan voices, it is a country with centuries of
independent history, intellectual and religious traditions, and
literary culture, which has been forcibly annexed by China in the
modern period. The two views are hard to reconcile because of the
absolutism of the Chinese stance. To engage with China's arguments
concerning Tibet is to be subjected to a kind of intellectual
entrapment, familiar in the Palestinian conflict, whereby the dispute
is corralled into questions which the plaintiff had never sought to
dispute. Tibetans complain of being robbed of their dignity in their
homeland by having their genuinely loved leader incessantly
denounced, and of being swamped by Chinese immigration to the point
of becoming a minority in their own country. But China insistently
condemns such complaints as separatism, an offence in China under the
crime of "undermining national unity", and pulls the debate back to
one about Tibet's historical status. Foreigners raise questions about
human rights and the environment, but China again denounces this as a
foreign intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation,
and pulls the debate back to Tibet's historical status.

The question of Tibet's historical status is a closed book in China.
Tibet, according to the official narrative, has been a part of China
since the Mongol Empire of Kublai Khan in the thirteenth century.
This is proved by the official titles and seals bestowed by the
rulers of China on the rulers of Tibet since that time. Only in the
nineteenth century, when China was weakened and dismembered by
European encroachment, did Tibet, egged on by the British, who
invaded in 1904, begin to foster the historical fantasy of
independence. When China was finally able to "stand up" with the
victory of the Chinese Communists in 1949, Tibet was "reunited with
the motherland", since which time it has been given support and
special treatment ("autonomy") by the central government in
recognition of its unique and distinct cultural life. What mistakes
the government has made in Tibet, such as the devastations of the
Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, were not problems with the
basic policies of the Chinese Communist Party, but with their implementation.

One of the clearest and most detailed statements of China's position
on Tibet is a booklet first published in Beijing in English in 1989,
and reissued without major changes in 2001, called 100 Questions
About Tibet, which in 120-odd pages covers everything from Tibetan
history, population, human rights, the Dalai Lama, religion, culture,
autonomy and economy. In response to this, two scholars from the
renowned Tibetan Studies faculty at the École pratique des hautes
études in Paris, Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille, assembled
an international group of distinguished specialists in Tibetan
history, language, religion, economics and politics from universities
across Europe and the Americas. Each scholar was assigned a number of
the Chinese questions and asked to write their own clear, concise and
accurate answers. This project resulted in a book, Le Tibet est-il
chinois? (2002), which has now been revised and translated into
English as Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China's 100 questions.
What the answers in this book serve to show is that China's arguments
concerning Tibet are misleading, not in what they address, but in
what they fail to show. In terms of history, those centuries when
Tibet enjoyed independence (during the Ming dynasty, for example, or
the late Qing and Republican periods) are glossed in a few lines,
while those periods during which Tibet was more integrated with the
Chinese Empire (for example, the Mongol-Yuan dynasty and the
mid-eighteenth century) are given special attention. Authenticating
Tibet is therefore a valuable resource for filling in the gaps that
China's official narrative of Tibet's history blatantly omits. Fault
is similarly found with the Chinese answers concerning Tibet's
cultural, political and economic life, and its misleading use of
statistics; for example, to cover up the shortfall in the Tibetan
population during the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. For the
most part, however, the answers in Authenticating Tibet are
nitpicking, and simply serve to illustrate a fundamental point: that
China's narrative on Tibet is constrained by an absolutist
nationalism which allows for no ambiguity and no criticism of
government policies.

One of the main strategies of the Chinese narrative is the depiction
of Tibetan society before the 1950s as a cruel, oppressive feudal
tyranny. New publications continue to be published in China and Tibet
to back this perspective and counteract the utopian depictions of
traditional Tibetan society propagated by the exile community. Eye
Witnesses to 100 Years in Tibet, published in 2005, contains several
articles by elderly Tibetan and Chinese Communists, describing the
class oppression of the old society and giving glowing accounts of
the "peaceful liberation" of Tibet in 1950–51; the heroic efforts of
Democratic Reform in the early 1960s; and the glorious construction
of a new electrified and industrialized urban Tibet since the 1980s.
Articles also celebrate the success of village self-government and
improvements in rural livelihoods, while the text is littered with
photographs of smiling Tibetan peasants.

There is no doubt that in material terms Tibetans have benefited from
China's boom during the past twenty-five years, and indeed that China
has also liberalized its cultural policies in Tibet. It has even
allocated considerable funds to the rebuilding of monasteries.
However, the insistence on denouncing the Dalai Lama, and the refusal
to respect Tibetan linguistic autonomy, have failed to win the
Communist Party the popular legitimacy that it has clearly achieved
throughout mainland China. A lesson from history might be
appropriate: Tibetan culture produces its own leadership. The Chinese
would do well to recognize that in Tibet they do not bestow power,
they can only acknowledge it.

Dibyesh Anand
GEOPOLITICAL EXOTICA
Tibet in Western imagination
190pp. University of Minnesota Press. $25; distributed in the UK by
NBN. £15.50.
978 0 8166 4766 8

Robert Barnett and Ronald Schwartz, editors
TIBETAN MODERNITIES
Volume Eleven
456pp. Brill. ¤89 (US $121).
978 90 04 15522 0

Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille, editors
AUTHENTICATING TIBET
Answers to China's 100 questions
364pp. Berkeley: University of California Press. $24.95; distributed
in the UK by Wiley. £14.95.
978 0 520 24928 8

George FitzHerbert has a DPhil in Tibetan Studies from Oxford
University. His first book, on the Tibetan national epic of Gesar, is
soon to be published
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