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The Struggle for Tibet & The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity

April 6, 2010

John Gittings welcomes two books that articulate China's internal debates

John Gittings
The Guardian, Saturday 3 April 2010

Few will have heard of Tibet's Joan of Arc, the young Trinley Chodron, who
believed that a bird sent by the Dalai Lama had given her magic powers and
led a troop of "warrior-heroes" against the Chinese. Chodron was executed in
1969 during the cultural revolution.

And before reading The Struggle for Tibet I, too, was unaware of the Tibetan
monks who, more recently, were ordered to write down that the Dalai Lama "is
the biggest obstacle to Tibetan Buddhism". By adding a barely visible dot to
the script, they were able to convert "is" to "is not". Nor did I know that
many educated Tibetans can only communicate in Chinese with Tibetan exiles
they meet when travelling abroad, because their grasp of their own language
is so poor.

But our ignorance is hardly surprising. We talk a lot about the Tibet we see
from the outside, but as Robert Barnett, one of a handful of western
scholars who understand the country, tells us in his introduction, the
voices of the Tibetan people are only heard in "snatches and fragments".

After the country was sealed off by China in 1959 following the Lhasa
rebellion and flight of the Dalai Lama, it became a "muffled, incoherent
place". The British left has always been diffident about the Tibet issue,
unable to shake off the memory of our own imperial designs, and uneasy at
the CIA's role in the 1950s and 60s in the Tibetan resistance (two of the
Dalai Lama's brothers worked with them).

A few years ago New Left Review (NLR) broke through this barrier, publishing
a conversation between the Chinese scholar-activist Wang Lixiong and the
leading Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya which launched a new debate. The
dialogue, with subsequent analyses from both writers, now appears in The
Struggle for Tibet, an excellent and informative book from Verso (the
publishers founded by NLR).

After the 2008 riots in Lhasa and in China's Tibetan areas, Wang organised a
petition signed by 300 Chinese intellectuals, included here as an appendix,
complaining about the ferocious attitude of the tame Tibetan officials who
rose to power during the cultural revolution, and urging Beijing to open a
dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

Both scholars warn that Tibet's cultural and national identity has been
dangerously eroded, and that China's rushed economic development only
benefits a minority. "What do we see today?" asks Wang. "Temples brim with
burning incense and butter lamps, which well-dressed people can afford to
light in the thousands at once. Yet they only want the Buddha's blessings to
help with job promotions and increasing their wealth."

The Tibetan resistance, which spread in 2008, becoming more violent, is
about "the right to have a voice", Shakya says, and Tibet will not remain
mute for ever.

There are many voices coming out of China these days, but do we always
listen? Our questions are often predictable: will Chinese economic growth
continue? Will China overtake the US? Will it rule the world? This focus on
the country's future has led to a de facto collusion with the Chinese
government in ignoring its past. According to this script, Mao was a
monster, socialism a dead end and the story only begins with the post-Mao
economic reforms.

In The End of the Revolution (Verso, £14.99), the leading Chinese critic
Wang Hui offers an alternative: an undivided narrative of modern Chinese
history which makes better sense.

The socialist reform of agriculture under Mao paved the way for the market
reform of agriculture after Mao, he argues, because "Chinese peasants had
become relatively more educated, literate, capable at self-organisation and
technically able".

Nor can we simply label China's economic policies as neo-liberal capitalism:
its socialist tradition still imposes constraints. Land has not been
privatised and state-owned enterprises still provide large tax revenues.

Perhaps most important, having experienced a century of revolution, "Chinese
society retains an acute sensitivity toward the demands of fairness and
social equality". This is the real China which we can still find if we go
into the back streets and the villages.

This book, too, is a product of the NLR/Verso effort to articulate the
serious and extensive debate going on in China - a debate that is poorly
reflected in our media and scholarship.

Wang Hui is often labelled as leader of China's new left. But while he
rejects the term, he has no time either for those Chinese intellectuals who
have fallen in love with market forces. Modernisation, he argues, should not
be a goal but a starting point. And he illustrates this in a moving tribute
to Xiao Liangzhong, an environmental activist who died young while
campaigning to defend the Jinsha river in south-west China from destructive
tourism and a new dam.

John Gittings's The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market is published
by Penguin.
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