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Misty-eyed westerners need a Tibetan history lesson

January 28, 2009

By Brian Hennessy

On Line opinion  Australia

( Brian is an Australian author, commercial consultant, and 
psychologist who has lived in China for the last five years. He has 
published on the topics of Vietnam, behaviour, stress, anxiety, 
depression, and Chinese culture. He is married to a Chinese citizen, 
has four adult children, and his home is in Chongqing, a booming 
municipality on the Yangtze River above the Three Gorges Dam.)



Responses and feedback here: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=8439


Posted Tuesday, 27 January 2009


Recent commentary in the international media on the pre-Olympics riots 
in Tibet is typical of most western reporting in this part of the 
world: surface-level observations which do not do justice to a complex 
historico-political situation. In the long run, such facile commentary 
will do nothing to help Tibetan people achieve their goal of autonomy.


So here is some gratuitous advice for westerners who care for Tibet: 
First, understand where China is coming from. Without this 
understanding, western criticism of China?s policy in Tibet will 
continue to be an exercise in useless self-righteousness.


Let?s put ourselves in China?s shoes for a moment. China shares land-
borders with 14 other nations. Some of these neighbours are militarily 
and politically unstable (e.g. Afghanistan, North Korea, and 
Pakistan), some have close relations with great and powerful friends 
(e.g. India with the USA, Mongolia with Russia), and others are 
struggling to develop economically and politically (e.g. Burma, 
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan).


Furthermore, China?s long history justifies its fear of invasion (e.g. 
the Japanese, the Mongols and the Manchus), political and territorial 
disintegration (e.g. War-lords, and the Western countries carve-up of 
a weak China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), and social 
disorder (e.g. the Boxer revolution, and the Taiping revolution).


Now, if we put aside our moral outrage over Tibet for one moment and 
consider the scale of China?s current political concerns, surely we 
should have some sympathy for her geopolitical position.


If the West hopes to have any influence on China?s handling of what it 
regards as an internal matter, then perhaps it would be more helpful 
if our western media adopted a different approach to reporting on 
Tibet: i.e., a little less moral outrage, and a lot more analysis. 
Surely, there are readers out there who would like to be better 
informed on the China-Tibet issue. A little myth-busting would be a 
helpful start.


For example: although today's exiled Dalai Lama is respected worldwide 
for his religious leadership of Tibetan Buddhists (both inside and 
outside Tibet proper), his doctrine of compassion is an historically 
more recent phenomenon. Further, the West is unaware of the reality of 
Tibetan society as it was when the young Dalai Lama fled to India 
after the People's Liberation Army ?liberated? his homeland in the 
1950s.


Armed resistance had failed. The crazy-brave Khamba Tibetans on the 
eastern third of the Tibetan plateau had been slaughtered by a modern, 
disciplined Chinese Army. Closer to home near Lhasa, the Dalai Lama's 
soldier-monks experienced a similar fate. The seeds of a modern myth 
of Tibetan sainthood and Chinese brutality were sown by that heroic 
defeat. A myth which has been exploited by western propaganda for years.


But myths are stories for those who refuse to think things through for 
themselves. In contrast, it can be intellectually taxing to look for 
the truth among the complexities of history.


But it is worth the effort. History can be full of irony and surprise. 
For example, Tibetan culture was never one giant monastic society 
whose members lived in harmony with each other. In fact, Tibet's 
neighbours to the east used to live in fear of Tibetan brigandage. The 
Khamba tribesmen who inhabited the eastern third of the Tibetan 
Plateau were a ruthless lot, who were also feared by their more 
peaceful Lhasa countrymen to the west. Their brother tribes further 
north had a similar reputation. No caravan was safe, and no 
neighbouring tribe could match them for ferocity.


The surprising thing for westerners to learn, is that in those days 
the Tibetan Lamas in their monasteries were involved in commerce and 
benefited from the brutal rampages of the Khamba hotheads.


It is a fact that early last century, one monastery near Daocheng in 
southwestern Sichuan was a haven for local bandits. As incredible as 
this may seem to western sensibilities, the head Lama of that 
monastery used to lead his bandit-monks on raids into the surrounding 
countryside. Up to 400 of them at one time. And after plundering their 
neighbours, they would retire to their monastery to continue the 
practice of their Buddhist faith. History records other examples of 
Lama-led commerce, avarice, and brutality.


Perhaps a comparison can be drawn between the behaviour of these 
bandit-monks and the behaviour of some Christian medieval European 
soldier-monks and their crusades.


The uncomfortable truth for us westerners is that Tibetan buddhism in 
1950 was a religious/political theocracy which was intolerant of other 
religions, and which ruled in a manner not dissimilar to autocratic 
dictatorships elsewhere around the planet. Serfs, slaves, and 
superstition were a feature of this society as well as the well-known 
pathway to spiritual enlightenment. It was a cruel, unjust, feudal 
society.


Having said all this, and having experienced life among Tibetans first 
hand, I know how deeply embedded Buddhism is in their hearts. These 
people live their faith today. Nobody could live among these folk and 
not be moved by their piety. Even the Han Chinese themselves are in 
awe of such deep spirituality.


But know this: Tibet has always been politically linked to China. It 
is also a historical fact that during the last days of the Qing 
Dynasty, western powers (e.g., Russia and Britain) conspired to 
acquire Tibet for themselves. Misty-eyed, sentimental westerners 
should read their history. This is not to say, however, that the 
Tibetan people should accept the political status quo.


To reiterate; if we want to understand the Tibetan issue, we must 
first understand China. China is different, and one has to live here 
for many years before this fact really sinks in. I am not talking  
about observable cultural phenomena which are easy to identify. 
Rather, I am referring to the internal intellectual templates which 
guide Chinese thinking and behaviour.


China is a proud nation. A nation which remembers the humiliations of 
the last two centuries, and which is determined never again to allow 
foreign influence over domestic matters. And that includes the broader 
issue of human rights inside China as well as Tibet. Lecturing China 
on human rights is not the way to go. Long-term political, economic, 
cultural, and social engagement is the way to go. In the end, change 
will come from within, not from without.


The heart of the matter in Tibet today is what some people describe 
as, "cultural repression". The violence we have witnessed recently 
(both sides) is culturally motivated on the one hand, and reactionary 
on the other. Two sides thinking differently.


Until this matter is addressed rather than repressed, there will never 
be peace in Tibet.
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