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Dharamsala: Forging Tibetans' Future

May 1, 2009

The capital of the Tibetan exile community is a
crucible where national and political identity is
being remade. The process also makes apparent the
flaws in China's official policy and thinking towards Tibet, says Temtsel Hao.
Written by Temtsel Hao
April 29, 2009

The attitude of the authorities in the People's
Republic of China (PRC) to the Dalai Lama and
exiled Tibetans is reminiscent of the response of
Joseph Stalin when the Soviet dictator was
advised to avoid conflict with the Catholic
church: "How many divisions does the pope have?"

Beijing's routine contempt is echoed in Unhappy
China, a bestselling work by a group of
self-styled spokespersons for Chinese
nationalism. One of the authors says that China
has no need to argue with the west about whether
Tibet was part of China historically or is part
of present-day China legitimately: China just
needs to make the fact clear that China occupied
Tibet in 1959. What can the west do? The case for
brutal realism and "hard power", in which actual
control matters more than any moral or historical
justifications, reveals a significant current of
thought in contemporary China (see Song Xiaojun,
Wang Xiaodong, Huang Jisu, Song Qiang & Liu Yang,
Unhappy China [Jiangsu, People's Press, 2009]).

The answer to the updated version of Joseph
Stalin's question is clear from a visit to
Dharamsala in the northern Indian state of
Himachal Pradesh, where the Dalai Lama and the
Tibetan government-in-exile have been based since
their flight from Tibet fifty years ago. Tibet's
spiritual leader has not a single division,
except for some (unarmed) bodyguards in his
residence. Along the mountain road leading to
Dharamsala, a visitor can see many soldiers - but
they are Gurkha, and belong to Indian army
garrisons stationed nearby. Indeed, many come
here precisely because Dharamsala represents the
values preached by the Dalai Lama and embodied by
the Tibetan exile communities: the harmony of
Tibetan and Indian cultures, the quiet inspiration of the spirit, "soft power".

A Gurkha wood-sculptor told me that when Tibetans
arrived in McLeod Ganj (the upper part of
Dharamsala, site of the Dalai Lama's temple and
residence) in 1960, the tiny British-built
mountain-station had just three households. The
presence of the Tibetans has brought tourism and
economic prosperity to the region, and all locals
have benefited. He worries that a settlement of
the Tibet issue that led to Tibetan lamas leaving
for their homeland would be bad for the local
economy and jobs. Saransh, a Hindu writer in the
area who grew up alongside the Tibetan community
in Dharamsala, is also pessimistic about the
Tibetans' possible return to their homeland; but
he praises the ethnic harmony and cultural richness they have brought here.

The other side

The Tibetan presence in Dharamsala - "Little
Lhasa" - has made it a global attraction for
pilgrims, tourists and mountaineers. On the other
side of the Himalaya, the closure of Lhasa itself
to foreign tourists and journalists since the
protests and ensuing crackdown in March 2008 has
accentuated this trend. In the streets, cafes and
restaurants of McLeod Ganj, Tibetan monks mingle
with international tourists and "localised"
foreigners who have spent many years in the
monasteries and voluntary organisations here.
Many of the latter wear Tibetan or Indian dress.

In the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and
elsewhere in China, the views of exiled Tibetans
and portraits of the Dalai Lama are political
taboos. But in Dharamsala everything from the
"other side" is available: TV news and propaganda
on several different Tibetan-language Chinese
channels, dramas and (again) propaganda
programmes dubbed into Tibetan. Their original
target audience is ethnic Tibetans living in the
TAR and in neighbouring regions of the PRC where
many Tibetans live (Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan -
or in Tibetan, U-Tsang, Amdo and Kham).

Tibetan government-in-exile officials express
confidence that Tibetans in Dharamsala won't be
brainwashed by these Chinese TV channels, even
that it is good for Tibetan communities to
encounter Chinese arguments. Indeed, some young
Tibetans in Dharamsala laughingly pointed out to
me some absurdities in the propaganda TV
programmes. The Tibetan officials, asked how they
are going to deal with the Chinese government's
heightened international PR offensive, expressed
the belief that being open and honest is all they need to do.

Their resources may be puny compared to
Beijing's, but they are confident that truth is
on their side and that the Chinese government's
campaign won't achieve the desired result. In
evidence, the exile-government official Thubten
Samphel cited a twelve-page advertisement
extolling China's policies in Tibet that appeared
in the Malawian newspaper the Daily Times in
March 2009. Thubten Samphel said that the feature
- paid for by the Chinese embassy in Lilongwe -
had actually helped the Tibetan cause by
"internationalising" the issue in distant Malawi,
where only a few people were likely to have heard of Tibet.

The Tibetan equanimity is striking. Dharamsala is
smaller than an average county town in China and
possesses modest economic resources, yet there is
a notable calm in face of the third largest
economy and (probably) military power in the
world. Some of this may derive from the regular
stream of new arrivals from Tibet. The Chinese
government has used a variety of means (from
information-control to heavy investment in
infrastructure and housing projects) to convince
Tibetans that they are better off under its care.
This has not stopped Tibetans from risking their
lives on tough journeys across the Himalaya to
begin the next phase of their lives as refugees.
I met some of these Tibetans in a refugee
reception-centre. Some wanted better education,
some wanted to become monks in monasteries, some
just wanted a better life; none wanted to return
to their homeland while it was under Chinese control.

Many of the recent Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala
speak Chinese. A favourite pastime of the younger
ones is spending time in internet cafés, watching
Chinese video-clips and taking advantage of the
online chatting software popular among young
Chinese that has been installed on the PCs. A
visitor quickly gathers that Tibetans making
international calls to their relatives and
friends on the other side of Himalaya often talk in Chinese.

The young Tibetans in China who have been brought
up in the Chinese educational system, including
those who make their way to Dharamsala, are
fluent in Chinese. Tsegyam, the Dalai Lama's
secretary, told me that since the 1980s the
Chinese authorities had pursued a large-scale
programme intended to produce a new generation of
pro-Chinese Tibetans. This has involved selecting
numerous Tibetan children for teaching in special
boarding schools in various Chinese provinces.
The first Tibetan graduates of these schools are
now in their 20s; many are very active in
expressing their pro-Tibet nationalist feelings in Chinese online forums.

A world of difference

The senior Singaporean politician Lee Kuan Yew
has suggested that the Chinese need only one
thing to solve the Tibetan problem: time. "(The
Chinese) need time to bring up a new generation
(of Tibetans): speaking Chinese, thinking like
Chinese and integrating...into China", said the
former prime minister in an interview in April
2009. The evidence of the constant anti-Chinese
protests in Tibetan regions of China, the
continued flow of Tibetans into Dharamsala, and
the social behaviour and attitudes of young
Tibetans is that even those who "speak Chinese"
do not necessarily "think like Chinese".

The assumptions in Lee Kuan Yew's words - that
Chinese think alike, and that Tibetans can be
assimilated - may be related to his longstanding
faith in "Asian values". The view of the Hong
Kong action-movie star Jackie Chan, who told a
conference of business leaders that "Chinese
people need to be controlled", reflects a similar
belief. But many Chinese dispute the idea that
authoritarianism is beneficial and that they
should be expected to subdue their voices and
accept infringement of their rights. To "think
like Chinese", in their view, means thinking as free people.

Even the leftwing Chinese nationalists who
produced Unhappy China combined their call for a
greater assertion of China's national rights in
the international arena with an emphasis that
China needs "to improve human rights internally".
In this they at least avoid the conceit of many
of their western counterparts who negate human
rights and civic rights for Chinese (and for
others) just because it is Americans or other
westerners who are making the call.

A separate conceit afflicts those outsiders who
do support human rights and civil rights for
Chinese, but who tend to associate the issue with
an outward-oriented politics of anti-colonialism
and anti-west nationalism. In this they refuse to
recognise that Tibetans - as well as other
non-Chinese ethnic minorities - might have
legitimate grievances in their own terms,
independent of the geopolitics of China vs the west.

Some liberal intellectuals and writers in China
share this blindspot, in that they too deny the
autonomous existence of ethnic issues and
minority rights. They argue that the Tibetan
problem is the product of the Chinese communists'
ideological folly in copying VI Lenin and Joseph
Stalin's theories and policies on nationality. By
recognising the reality of ethnic difference and
promising a degree of self-determination and
autonomy to the various "nationalities", Chinese
communists created impossible problems of
political management and control for themselves
(see Li Datong, "China's Tibet: question with no answer", 16 April 2009).

The flaw in this view is that by loading
responsibility for ethnic problems exclusively on
the Chinese communists, it is unable to
understand ethnic identities (except those of the
Han Chinese) in terms of actual territorial,
social and cultural differences. The implication
is that a change of policy under a central
government of another stripe would solve the Tibetan or other "problem".

But the experience of earlier Chinese regimes
suggests that there is a large element of evasion
here. Sun Yat-sen, "the founding father" of the
Republic of China, believed that integration
should be achieved by "assimilating all different
peoples in China into one single nation".  He
recommended "copying the United States" so that
"Chinese, Manchus, Mongols, and Tibetans will be
assimilated into one Chinese nation and form a
nation-state." His successor Chiang Kai-shek did
not even recognise the existence of distinct
nationalities and said that all the different
peoples within China were of the same stock.

This avoidance of the reality of difference, the
legitimacy of ethnic identities, and the
existence of collective grievances and
aspirations thus has deeper roots in Chinese
history. Many people inside and outside China of
apparently different, leftwing or liberal,
political views, have come to share it. This
gives the agenda pursued by Chinese authorities
in Tibet and other non-Chinese minority regions a free ride.

A Chinese vacuum

Chinese leaders across four decades - from Deng
Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao and Wen
Jiabao - have all at times expressed very similar
thoughts on ethnic problems, which reflect a
mindset of what might be called economic and
political reductionism. The idea that economic
development in the minority regions, backed by a
powerful state committed to an assimilationist
agenda, would be enough to dissolve the problems
there has not worked in Tibet or elsewhere.

The contrast between Chinese authorities'
failures of understanding here and the mindset of
the Tibetans in Dharamsala highlights the limits
of Beijing's approach. Hu Jintao may have told
the seventeenth congress of the Chinese Communist
Party in October 2007 that China needed to
increase its soft power, but this does not extend
to the Tibetan issue. The designation of the 1959
events on 28 March 2009 as "Serf Emancipation
Day" recycled the view of pre-1949 Tibetan
society as trapped in theocratic slavery, several
"stages" behind Chinese society itself in the
Marxian "ladder" of social development. But the
abandonment of Marxist ideology by the Chinese
ruling party only emphasises its intellectual
vacuity, the lack of a persuasive belief system
that can compete with the one promoted by the
Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Again, the striking imbalance of power is no
comfort to a Chinese authority that sees the
Dalai Lama as the source of the problem. For it
is the Tibetans in Dharamsala who have completed
the democratic reform of their model of
government, including a separation of powers.
This has even achieved some wider effect; the
speaker of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, Penpa
Tsering, told me that Bhutan had learned from the
Dharamsala constitution in its own democratic
experiment. China has bet the future of the Tibet
issue heavily on the Dalai Lama's succession, but
the Dalai Lama himself has put the succession
issue in a more impersonal and democratic
framework. "The question of Tibet is not a
question of the future of the Dalai Lama", he
says. In a global comparative democratic framework, who is "ahead" of who?

The shifting star

Dharamsala has a certain affinity with a Chinese
location that similarly became a site of cultural
attraction, political ideals and personal
inspiration - and training of cadres to prepare
them for the moment of transformation. This is
the Yanan of the Sino-Japanese war era (1931-45).
Edgar Snow's visit of 1936, recorded in Red Star
Over China, inspired the pilgrimage of countless
idealistic young Chinese to the Chinese
communists' sanctuary in the Yanan caves.

The fifty years of communist rule in Tibet have
seen thousands of mainly young Tibetans escape to
Dharamsala, in many cases finding the sanctuary
also a means of personal progress; Dharamsala has
turned people from poor, rural Tibetan areas with
little education and few career prospects in
China into professionals (editors, scholars,
government officials) whose horizons extend around the world.

Dharamsala today, like Yanan in the 1930-40s,
faces its own "problem" of a powerful and
unbending Chinese government. It has accumulated
many assets during this fifty-year road
(including the credit that accrues from the
equivalents of Edgar Snow, which has contributed
immensely to its soft power).  Perhaps the most
important is the experience of generations of
Tibetans who have helped to create and renew
Tibetan identity and political institutions. They
will be part of the future of Tibet. China's
recognition of this, as Lee Kwan Yew might say, is but a matter of time.
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