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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."

China, Tibet, and the Olympics

August 10, 2008

Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman explains the Dalai Lama's political
wisdom, the myopia of the chinese, and the essence of the Olympics
By PETER KADZIS
The Boston Phoenix
August 6, 2008

Thanks to the Olympics, the world's attention is trained as it never
has been before on China, the superpower that many believe will
economically and politically dominate the 21st century, just as the
United States dominated the 20th. For those, such as myself, with
deep misgivings about what this international transformation of power
and influence will entail, the plight of Tibet -- its people, its
environment, its religious and cultural traditions -- provides a
sobering lesson in reality.

It is difficult to imagine an American -- perhaps any Westerner --
with a greater sympathy for, and understanding of, Tibet than
scholar-activist Robert Thurman, a Columbia University professor who
also happens to be the first American ever to be ordained a Buddhist
monk. Presiding over Thurman's ordination was the Dalai Lama, then as
now the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet, who has lived in exile
for the past 49 years, following a failed uprising against the
Chinese, who entered the nation in the 1950s.

Thurman's most recent book, Why the Dalai Lama Matters (Atria/Beyond
Words), is the fruit of a 45-year-long friendship between the two
men. A week before the beginning of the Olympics, I spent an hour on
the phone with Thurman discussing intersecting issues that concern
China, Tibet, and the world. What follows is an edited transcript of
that conversation.

When you speak, can readers assume that you are speaking for the Dalai Lama?
Not precisely. I quote the Dalai Lama frequently to support many of
my points. I also have other inspirations. I want him to have
plausible deniability in terms of his formal relations with the
Chinese. The Chinese, however, do not seem interested in negotiation.
They like to preach and to scold -- it is hard to get a word in
edgewise. My aim is to explain to people what the Dalai Lama wants
without making the Dalai Lama responsible for my explanation. For
example, take the case of [the Paramount Leader of the People's
Republic of China] Hu Jintao. When I say that the Dalai Lama and
Desmond Tutu would nominate Hu Jintao for a Nobel Peace Prize if he
or any other Chinese leader had the balls to stop acting like a
19th-century imperial power or a 20th-century superpower wannabe, I
am explaining a course of action that would quite naturally result if
the Chinese began acting in a humane way and granted the Tibetan
people autonomy. I'm suggesting what the Dalai Lama might do, could
do, and what would follow.

While the Dalai Lama is widely revered in the west, he is seen as
ineffective by some younger, more militant elements among tibetan
exiles and resisters.

The press, I think, is hyping that. At times, the press takes too
narrow a view of many things. Americans and the Europeans support the
Dalai Lama. The Japanese also support the Dalai Lama. The Indian
people, too, support the Dalai Lama, as do all the Buddhists in
Southeast Asia. (Although it is true that Southeast Asian governments
like the military junta in Burma or the more militant new government
in Sri Lanka — both funded by the Chinese — don't support the Dalai
Lama. But governments do not always represent their people.)

Support in the East and the West is wide and deep, because the Dalai
Lama is a peace teacher. There is impatience among his own people
because his best efforts have produced no change in behavior in the
Chinese. In fact, since the Soviet Union deconstructed, the Chinese
have become more frightened, more determined to hold on to real
estate that is not theirs. Not just Tibet, but also Mongolia,
Xinjiang, even Manchuria. These are really just colonies. They do not
belong to China.

So, the young people, are just saying, "Look, we can't be like this
forever. We're going to get tougher. The Dalai Lama is being too
nice. He's a Buddhist, we love him, but he's a Buddhist." The fact of
the matter is that, if the Chinese persist in their violent and
repressive behavior, there will be real and serious danger when the
Dalai Lama passes away. Once the Dalai Lama is a child again [meaning
the child successor to the current Dalai Lama], he will not be able
to exercise his authority and his charisma for maybe 15 or 20 years.
Then, anything could happen with the Tibetans. They once did fight in
a guerilla war against the Chinese. The next interim period could
become very dangerous to China. People might do well to worry more
about long-term Tibetan resentment of the Chinese rather than any
short-term Tibetan frustration with the current state of affairs.

Some political figures who call themselves realists say that China is
doing in tibet what stronger nations always do to weaker ones. Those
efforts to re-settle tibet with Chinese nationals are akin to the
settlement of the Americas with the descendents of Europeans.

Those are the same realists who brought us the Iraq quagmire. Those
are the realists who brought us all kinds of stupid behavior, such as
Vietnam. Those are the same kind of realists as in Russia who brought
the Russian people Afghanistan and Chechnya.

The old realism, the old ideology of the big fishes eating the little
fishes, what in Indian political philosophy is called Matsyanyaya,
has had terrible consequences throughout the 20th century, which was
a time of holocaust and terrible violence.

You can't win wars the old way and you can't suppress colonies
anymore. Therefore, you have to negotiate, to engage in dialogue. You
have to give others some of what they want while you take some of
what you want. You take it more slowly, because you have the power of
weapons on one side and the power of interconnection on the other side.

Not everyone who is critical of China is an unqualified supporter of
the Dalai Lama. Some say that he represents a feudal tradition that
has seen its day.

Tibet started to work out of its own feudalism in the 17th century.
But then, so did a lot of other countries. Russia, after all, did not
get rid of its serfs until the 19th century. Feudalism, as understood
by Marx and as used in leftist propaganda, is highly inappropriate
relating to Tibet. The fundamental reason being that your Tibetan
peasant was a freeholder with a land title. His obligation on his
land was a tax obligation. It is very similar to the mortgage I pay
to my bank and the taxes I pay to my town.

The presence of monasteries and small regional royalty sometimes
confuses the situation. But the big thing is that Tibet did not have
an industrial revolution or modernize its infrastructure. It didn't
grow the European way, or do what the Japanese did in the 19th
century to catch up. Therefore, people can get away, as the Chinese
propagandists do, with saying that Tibet is feudal. That is misplaced
Marxist propaganda. The Chinese use it, and pro-Chinese people around
the world use it, without understanding the true nature of Tibetan
society. China has tried to colonize Tibet, as any old-fashioned
imperialist would do, and mask its actions under the guise of
liberation. And Western sympathizers more interested in getting their
visas to China renewed, or their careers as Sinologists going, tend
to play along.

Is it wrong to assume that Tibet must industrialize and modernize?

Absolutely. When the British went up to Tibet, they got all uptight
because the Tibetans, they thought, didn't have the wheel. Meanwhile,
every Tibetan was sitting there doing their prayer wheel by hand.
Tibetans had a unique invention called a prayer wheel where you spin
prayers clockwise and they have the fantasy that these mantras then
stream out into the world and you get millions of mantra credits on
your karmic evolutionary merit badge. They also had mill wheels and
so forth. But they didn't use the wheel in transportation because of
the very difficult Tibetan terrain. Sure-footed Yaks work better than
trucks. Yaks could carry large burdens over long distances and they
didn't need petroleum. Yaks also keep the tax burden off of peasants
because they obviate the need to build mountain roads. So it was
actually an intermediate technology decision made in Tibet three or
four centuries ago not to go into roads and carts and wheeled
vehicles because of the high altitude and up-and-down terrain. The
Chinese have been there 60 years using the Tibetans very often as
slave labor to build roads. All of the Chinese roads fall down in
places every year because of those slides and the very unstable
Tibetan mountains. Tibet is very mountainous, you know.

Now, of course, there are roads and there are cars. And the Tibetans
will go in for a certain degree of industry. But in [the neighboring,
independent nation of] Bhutan, actually, they have a concept called
Gross National Happiness, which is a concept meant to be critical of
the Western idea of Gross Domestic Product. GDP is sacrificing
everything just to produce things and create pollution and tremendous
unhappiness. In Bhutan, when they make a development decision, they
think about what is being lost along with what is being gained. The
idea is to balance their decisions in a very careful way, to slowly
adopt select technologies. They don't allow themselves to be enslaved
to the machine the way the Chinese have.

According to a study in Mother Jones, every 10 percent or 11 percent
of the so-called miracle growth of the Chinese economy (producing
things for Wal-Mart and for export and so on), involves a 15 percent
destruction of China's environment. This includes pollution of the
water, pollution of the air, pollution of the food chain, and
disruption of the water chain. As a result, they're having terrible
drought-like conditions in North China. This uncontrolled
laissez-faire capitalist economic takeoff that the Chinese have done
has huge costs. This supposed big miracle — and [one] that is also
masterminding in Thailand, Burma, and Malaysia and other places where
there is a lot of Chinese investment — will turn out to be an
environmental disaster. In Indonesia, this is actually ruining all
those countries and destroying their forests and destroying their
environment. Tibet should not be subjected to this.

Tibet is the water tower [meaning "source"] of all of Asia, not just
China. Although in China the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers both come out
of Tibet, so do the Mekong, Salween, Ayeyarwady, Brahmaputra, Ganges,
and Indus rivers. Messing up Tibet's environment, as the Chinese are
now doing, is going to ruin the water, the glacier water, for all of
those Asian countries [through which those rivers run, including
Laos, Vietnam, Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Bangladesh,
and Pakistan]. This is a real human disaster. It will be of
unprecedented proportions. It will affect billions of people.

When considering the plight of the Tibetan people, is it possible to
uncouple their situation from the internal realities of China?

Yes, absolutely. It is uncoupled. It has always been uncoupled. Not a
single Chinese person lived lifelong in Tibet before 1950. This is a
very key point. So many experts are hesitant to say so because they
are so scared of China and their access. Therefore, how can they say
they owned it? They would sometimes send some ambassador someplace or
some administrator or some tradesperson who would come and go. But
the Chinese never lived in Tibet.

Studies by China's own scientists show that the 14,000-foot average
altitude of the high plateau of Tibet makes it very difficult for
non-Tibetans to live there for any length of time. You have to have
special blood chemistry with a weird way of producing nitric oxide
that makes the oxygen stretch through your extremities and makes your
organs function with low oxygen. Let the Chinese have their oxygen at
sea level. The Chinese will not be able to live in Tibet for long.
They are intensively colonizing, they will be there for a few years,
and then they will start getting heart disease. You can import
infrastructure, but you can't import more oxygen. Non-Tibetan women
have miscarriages in very high numbers because the placenta won't
form properly due to the lack of oxygen. . . . Decoupling China from
Tibet is a natural eventuality. It's not pie in the sky.

How do the Olympics figure into the complicated equation? Do the
games represent a potentially dangerous flashpoint? Are they an
opportunity for dialogue and understanding?

The Olympics are a good thing. The Dalai Lama supported China's
efforts to get the Olympics from the very beginning. He never talked
about boycotts, never talked about preconditions. He's totally
pro-China. But the Dalai Lama favors a free country that is an
intelligent and responsible actor in the world. As a great nation,
China should have the Olympics. But the Dalai Lama believes that
great nations tolerate dissent and protest. When the public eye is on
China, the government should allow people to express themselves.
Nobody is going to freak out. In fact, the world will think China is
moderate and mature. Do not pretend that dissent is terrorism. To
paint dissenting Tibetans and Chinese as terrorists is foolishness.

On a more sociological note, do you think it is possible to
de-contextualize the Olympics, to view them as a pure example of sport?

No, I don't think so. It's impossible to de-contextualize. There is
always the PR element for the country or for the city doing the
Games. The Olympics always will be a magnet for people with
grievances. The Palestinians are the only ones who were foolish
enough to do terrorism at the Olympics. . . . It's just a matter of
peaceful protest. Governments have been either reasonable of those
protests, allowing them, or they have been ridiculous, like the
Mexicans shooting people in '68.

There are sporting questions, such as doping and all. And it is
interesting to note that the Chinese have imported coaches such as
the East Germans. It does become a national propaganda thing, with
the athletes being used as a form of publicity porn.

There were some articles recently about some poor Chinese kayaker who
won a medal a couple Olympics ago. Officials won't let him stop
kayaking and they threatened his family. The government will take
away their privileges as a star athlete's family, kick them out of
their condo unless he competes again in this one. There is too much
using athletes like soldiers. The United States is not immune. But
the situation in the US is not as gross as it gets when a whole
government makes it almost a military priority to win medals. That
violates the spirit of the Games, but not totally. . . . Anything
human is flawed, acknowledging those flaws are the first step toward
improving them.

 From a Buddhist perspective, what value do "pure" sports have?

  It is, I suppose, a substitute for war; to have "your" champions
"compete" with "their" champions. The Olympics were undoubtedly a way
for the city states in ancient Greece to pit heroes against each
other without killing. It was a way to avoid the conflict between
Hector and Achilles that Homer called the Trojan War. . . . The
Greeks didn't just defeat Hector — they genocided the Trojans. They
killed and burned the whole city. War had become so professionalized
that it became genocidal. There are parallel things in India and
other countries. The idea was to put your warriors into sporting
competitions where they would have fights and show superiority over
each other without actually having to kill off every member of the
other society. Genocide is always counterproductive. Depopulating
your neighbor's land and laying it to waste and wilderness is
ultimately self-limiting, self-defeating, because it limits your own
opportunities.

When everything becomes militarized, it becomes destructive. Look at
two former military powers, Germany and Japan. Germany and Japan won
the economic war of the last 40 or 50 years over the US and Russia
and China because they were not spending all their money on
militarism as the others were. They put all their genius and
technology into consumer products and they made better products and
they won the economic war and we all went bankrupt. We always like to
say stupidly and proudly that we drove the Soviets bankrupt because
Ronald Reagan was such a macho hero. Today, it looks as if we are the
ones going bankrupt, joining the ranks of debtor nations. Militarism
bankrupts. Peace industries create prosperity and that's what we have
to get back to now. Certainly, in the 21st century, the planet's own
sustainability quotient demands we get back to peace industries, and
rebuilding the environment, and rebuilding the agriculture and the
economy, and getting the chemicals out of the food chain and out of
the water and out of the air, and getting back to a better life for everyone.
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