Join our Mailing List

"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Seven Days In Tibet

July 19, 2010

Brendan O'Neill
spiked (UK)

Day 1: Tibet: Still a ‘Buffer State’ for Posh Brits?
Kicking off a week of reports from Tibet,
spiked’s editor finds that Lhasa is nothing like
the mystical kingdom of British imperial fantasies.
July 12, 2010

This week, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill will be reporting from Tibet.

Two days before leaving London for Lhasa I went
to a Tibetan-themed festival in a park in Lambeth
and witnessed Tibet as it is seen through the
eyes of the hippyish, New Age wing of Britain’s
metropolitan middle classes. Tibetan children,
decked out from head to foot in traditional
tribal garb, danced for the nodding approval of
women breastfeeding babies and long-haired, yet
balding, men. Stalls sold stones (no ordinary
stones - healing ones), scarves, CDs featuring
the sacred chanting of Tibetan Buddhist monks,
bangles, and books with titles such as The Magic
of Healing and Contact with the Gods from Space.

On one stall a young British man in a white coat
(seriously - a white coat) was trying to convince
an elderly gent, who could barely walk and who
looked jaundiced to boot, that if he put his name
on a mailing list he would ‘experience healing’
the next time the young man in the white coat
climbed a mountain in Tibet and ‘projected
positive energy’ to the world. You could write
birthday messages for the Dalai Lama (who’s just
turned 75) on pieces of colourful cloth, which
were later hung on a washing line in a poundshop
version of the tradition of Tibetan prayer sheets
fluttering in the Himalayan wind. One said: ‘The
world is a better place with you in it. Lots of
luv.’ ‘What does Tibet mean to me?’ mused a young
British woman selling tat. ‘It means calm, peace, healing, stillness.’

Wow. The reality could not be more different.
Stillness? The first sounds that greet me as I
arrive in Lhasa are the incandescent honking of
horns as car-drivers and motorcyclists (some with
three to a bike) negotiate the roads. My own
Tibetan driver is wearing a Playboy jacket. Maybe
he bought it in the Playboy shop that I later see
in the centre of Lhasa. It’s near the Tibet Steak
House (‘juicy meat for you!’) and the Lhasa
casino, in which Tibetan men in leather jackets
pile coins into slot machines. On the streets
young men in Kappa and Nike sweatshirts (fakes,
I’m guessing), with hair by Topman, flirt with
casually dressed young women, one of whom is
sporting hotpants that even Kylie would consider
too risqué. How can they dress like this in the
freezing kingdom of snow and Yetis, as made
famous by Tintin in Tibet? Because that’s another
myth of Tibet, at least in July, and at least
here in Lhasa: I might be 3,650 metres above sea
level, inside a mountain range and with the
clouds so close by I almost feel I could touch
them, but it’s so hot that I get sunburnt.

The first place I visit is the Tibet Green Barley
Brewery, where Tibetans don’t make peace but beer
- 470,000 cans a day. It’s the highest brewery in
the world. Whatever harsh conditions mankind
finds himself in, he’ll find a way to make beer.
The bespectacled Tibetan showing me around this
temple to booze rather than to Buddha tells me
Tibetans love this brand of beer (after downing
my complimentary cans I can see why) and they
drink it everywhere - ‘in bars, in restaurants,
at home. Not at temple though.’ A German engineer
(Germans helped build the brewery) is sat at his
desk, looking miserable, beneath a German flag on
the wall. ‘We don’t mention the World Cup’, says
my guide. Tibetans, like people across China,
followed the World Cup religiously (no offence
intended by my use of the word religiously).

Even when we encounter devout Buddhists, ‘calm’
and ‘stillness’ are the last words that come to
mind. On the road to Lhasa we pass a group of
men, women and children who have been journeying
by foot from southern Tibet on their way to the
Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibetan Buddhism’s
holiest site. The journey has taken them two
months, which isn’t surprising: they have wooden
boards on their hands and with every fifth or
sixth step they take they fully prostrate
themselves on the ground, making a deathly
clatter as their wood-covered hands and then
their foreheads hit the earth. I’d like to see
that young man in the white coat try this.
Stillness, calm, projecting positive energy? This
looks more like a backward, painful and very loud
zapping of one’s own energy. Richard Gere
Buddhism it ain’t. The men and women look filthy
and exhausted. One thrusts her hand through our
car window for money. She’s wearing a Kappa hat.

Yet in central Lhasa, the only culture shock I
experience is how similar Tibetans are to other
Asians and to us Westerners, too. Tsering Shakya,
a Tibetan historian who grew up in England, was
once told by an academic colleague who saw him
arrive at work by car: ‘I can never get used to
the idea of a Tibetan driving a car.’ That
academic should brace himself if he ever visits
Lhasa: here they drive cars, drink beer, smoke,
dance, wear leather, sit in parks, play cards,
flirt, chat, talk rubbish, and do all the other
things that the rest of us do. It is testament to
the influence of the Western Tibetophilic lobby,
all those actors, princes and middle-class
healing nutjobs who have spread such a severely
distorted image of Tibet as a land of childlike
monks and nuns who smile softly all day long,
that even I find myself surprised by the reality.

Of course Tibet has unique cultural traits. And
yes, it is more religious than some other
countries. As we get closer to Jokhang Temple we
see old women in traditional clothing spinning
prayer wheels and more and more of those
saffron-clad monks and nuns (but even then, one
of the monks is chatting to a young Tibetan who
is a dead ringer for Morrissey circa 1984:
hyperquiff and specs). Out of a population of
2.9million, 46,000 - or 1.5 per cent - are monks
or nuns. That is quite high. But there are places
around the world, from Scotland to Bhutan,
Afghanistan to Alaska, where people have what
look to the rest of us like strange eating,
believing and living habits. So what is it about
Tibet that has led to it being viewed, in the
words of one Tibetologist, as a ‘country that is
somehow outside the rest of the world’? (1) Where
does that image, so wrong, come from?

Ironically, it originates in large part with
British imperialism. British forces invaded Tibet
in 1904 and administered it until 1947. Their aim
was to create what they self-consciously called a
‘buffer state’ to protect their immense interests
in India, then run by the British Raj, from
potential advances by Russia and China. Tibet was
turned into a guard dog for Britain’s vast Indian
Empire. And the British discovered that the idea
of Tibet as a mystical, paranormal land - that
is, not a normal state and certainly not a part
of those other normal states of China or Russia -
was a very useful propaganda tool. As Alex McKay,
author of Tibet and the British Raj: The Frontier
Cadre 1904 to 1947, points out: ‘The [British]
found that the mystical image could serve British
interests. The mystical image reinforced Tibet’s
separate identity… furthering the interests of
the British cadre.’ The British had a strict
policy of only allowing in writers and explorers
who were sympathetic to the mystical image of
Tibet and who also would not criticise the
severities of British rule or of Buddhist
serfdom. And, says McKay, ‘in the absence of a
viable alternative, the image of Tibet they
constructed became the dominant historical image
followed by Western academics’ (2).

Indeed, it is during that period of the
self-serving Orientalism of British rule in Tibet
that the popular modern image of Tibet as a
mystical, cut-off entity takes shape - most
notably in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933),
which invented the idea of ‘Shangri La’. As McKay
points out, the writings of the British
imperialists, and of their sympathisers, are
still regularly cited in the propaganda produced
by the Dalai Lama’s people, which is designed to
prove that Tibet is a unique and special place
that only they can and should govern. Some of
those old Orientalist writings were available at
that hippy-fest in Lambeth, too - British
imperial paternalism recycled as anthropological
New Age ‘at-oneness’. What connects the old
imperialists with the new Tibetophiles is their
desire to have Tibet as a ‘buffer state’ – only
where the imperialists wanted to use Tibet to
protect their material interests against China
and Russia, the new lot want to use it to protect
their emotional interests, to preserve an idea of
innocent, childlike humanity so far uncorrupted by modernity.

Both sides have indulged in borderline racist
fantasies that are all about themselves rather
than reality. Arriving in Lhasa I’m delighted to
find that it is not mystical at all. Beautiful
and buzzing? Yes. Paranormal and utterly unlike
the rest of humanity? No. I’m in a real place
populated by real people, with all the fun and
flaws and tensions that involves, not an
otherworldly kingdom or a posh person’s buffer state.

1. ‘Tibet Images Among Researchers on Tibet’, Per
Kvaerne, in Imaginging Tibet: Perceptions,
Projections and Fantasies, Wisdom Books, 2001

2. Tibet and the British Raj: The Frontier Cadre
1904 to 1947, Alex McKay, 1997

Day 2: Chinese officialdom embraces ‘Shangri-La’
The Chinese authorities use the idea that Tibet
is somehow ‘different’ to justify the lack of democracy and development.
July 13, 2010

What the CPC and the Free Tibet lobby have in common

Tourism is booming in Tibet, especially among the
Chinese. In 1980, only 3,525 tourists came here:
1,059 of them internationals and 2,466 of them
Chinese. In 2007, four million tourists visited
Tibet, around 370,000 of them internationals and
a whopping 3.6million of them Chinese. The most
striking thing is why these Chinese are traipsing
to this tough terrain, which for five decades has
had a frequently troubled relationship with
China. It’s for the same reason that Westerners
came to Tibet, or more popularly went to India
and Nepal, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s - to escape
the grime of modern daily life and ‘find themselves’.

‘For some Chinese people, the fast pace of
economic development has left them yearning for a
pre-modern world’, says Lian Xiangmin of the
China-Tibetology Research Centre in Beijing,
which I visit before travelling to Lhasa. ‘They
want to escape for a while. They are a little bit
disappointed when they find that Lhasa is
actually a modern place.’ My flight from Chengdu
in south-west China to Lhasa is packed with
youthful Chinese and Chinese families (and also a
smattering of Western faces, including a hippyish
German family whose young son is wearing a
t-shirt that says ‘Learn Swahili!’ - someone
needs to make their mind up about which is their favourite exotic ethnicity).

Music at the Himalaya Hotel

A teacher from the Sichuan province of China
tells me she travels to Lhasa to ‘empty my mind’.
A handsome banker from Chengdu - who I am
delighted to say is wearing Fred Perry - loves
Lhasa because ‘it’s so different to the rest of
China’. The most fascinating thing is the way the
Chinese authorities themselves have co-opted the
Western-invented imagery of ‘Shangri La’ to
promote tourism to Tibet. Once super-keen to
emphasise the inherent Chineseness of Tibet, the
idea that it’s a natural, historic, permanent and
inseparable part of the motherland, the Communist
Party of China (CPC) now seems increasingly
relaxed about advertising Tibet’s alleged exoticness.

As one report puts it, ‘China promotes Tibet as
an exotic holiday destination, appropriating the
Shangri La imagery familiar to Western readers of
James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, Lobsang Rampa’s
Third Eye, and colour travelogues on Buddhist
hermits and the Tibetan landscape’ (1). So when I
arrive in Lhasa airport I am greeted by a vast
poster featuring dancing Tibetan women and the
words ‘Magical Tibet - Land of Pure Wanders’
[sic. Or maybe it’s not sic if they mean Tibet is
a place of great walks.] And then the strangest
sight of all: a youthful member of China’s
authoritarian People’s Liberation Army putting
the kata, a traditional Tibetan greeting scarf,
around the necks of Chinese dignitaries arriving at the airport.

This all points to perhaps the most startling
thing I have discovered during my visit here,
something that runs so counter to trendy opinion
in the West that I’m not even sure I should say
it for fear of being labelled, not for the first
time in my life, a contrarian. And that is that
Chinese officialdom, far from raping and
pillaging Tibetan culture, manically celebrates
and promotes it. And it does so for entirely
self-serving reasons, as a new, effectively PC
way of justifying its undemocratic governance of
what remains a tense, quite poor territory.

Free Tibet UK argues that the Chinese, whom it
always depicts as faceless, marauding monsters,
are seeking to ‘wipe out Tibetan identity and
culture altogether’ (2). This is simply not true.
My official guides, a mixture of Chinese
officials from Beijing and representatives of the
Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), who run Tibet on
behalf of the CPC, assault me with Tibetan
culture and religion. They take me to Jokhang
Temple and hand me over to an excitable monk who
explains at great length why this is Tibetan
Buddhism’s holiest site. Then to the magnificent
Potala Palace, the home of the Dalai Lamas from
the seventh century up to the fleeing of the
fourteenth Dalai Lama to northern India in 1959,
where I am given an extensive (and fascinating) education on Tibetan Buddhism.

We visit not one but two Tibetan Medicine
Hospitals, Tibetan medicine being a curious mix
of Buddhist mysticism, homeopathy, massage,
acupuncture and blood-letting (yes, they still do
that). I am told that both the central Chinese
government and TAR have pumped millions and
millions of yuan into funding these hospitals,
and also educational facilities that will create
a new generation of Tibetan Medicinists, so
concerned are they that young Tibetans are
rejecting these archaic practices in favour of
the ‘quick fix’ of Western medicine with its
manufactured pills and injections. Finally, after
failing to convert me to Tibetan Buddhism, they
take me to see one of Tibet’s many modernisation
programmes - a breakthrough IT initiative at
Tibet University. (More on that tomorrow.)

It’s not surprising that Western Tibet activists
are spectacularly wrong about how official China
engages with Tibetan culture, and are insensitive
to some important changes that have taken place.
After all, they’ve always had a supremely
childish view of the tensions between Tibet and
China. In the words of Donald S Lopez Jr, author
of Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and
the West, they view the Chinese as ‘an
undifferentiated mass of godless Communists
overrunning a peaceful land devoted only to
ethereal pursuits’ and come to see Tibetans as
‘superhuman’ and the Chinese as ‘subhuman’ (3).
That is, they reduce a complex conflict,
massively informed and influenced by
international tensions as well as by local
stand-offs, to a Hans Christian Andersen-style morality tale.

So they overlook the key, somewhat ironic role
played by the British rulers of Tibet in the
1920s, 30s and 40s in creating so-called Tibetan
Independence. Where under the feudal rule of the
Dalai Lamas, Tibet had conceived of itself
largely as a religious entity, the lamas were
convinced by the British to adopt the trappings
of nationalism. As one fascinating historical
study points out, the British funded the creation
of a national Tibetan flag, a Tibetan football
team and Tibetan school uniform, with the
explicit, express aim, in the words of one
British imperialist, of ‘showing that Tibet had
its own art etc and that in some ways Tibet is
more closely allied to India than to China’ (4).
In short, the idea of ‘Tibetan independence’ was
born largely from the needs of British
imperialism in India, and from British conflict
with China, rather than from the demands of the Tibetan masses.

Western pro-Tibet activists also overlook the
role later played by Washington, in particular
the CIA, in funding and training the Dalai Lama’s
armed forces in the 1950s. Between China’s
invasion of Tibet in 1951 and the fleeing of the
Dalai Lama in 1959, the CIA took a keen interest
in directing the Tibetan forces as part of what
the Dalai Lama himself later described as
Washington’s broader international campaign of
‘anti-Communism’ (5). There is nothing simplistic
about this historic clash. In their constant
focus on the ‘cultural freedom’ of Tibet, with
their claims about a ‘cultural genocide’ and the
annihilation of an identity, Western pro-Tibet
activists demonstrate that their aim was never to
understand the complexities of this region, far
less to put the case for grown-up freedoms for
Tibetans, but rather to protect their own reified
image of an unspoiled cultural entity.

And lo and behold, their narcissistic prejudices
have ended up serving the Chinese well. When the
entire focus of Western criticism of Chinese
governance in Tibet is that it doesn’t
sufficiently respect Tibetan culture, then the
Chinese can fairly easily make a display of their
commitment to preserving Tibetan traditions while
getting on with the business of denying Tibetans
political freedoms, democratic rights such as the
right to vote, and freedom of speech. The Chinese
have effectively made the Western fantasy of
Shangri-La a reality, increasingly treating Tibet
as a special place where harsh farming life (a
majority of Tibetans still work in agriculture
and animal husbandry) is not a sign of
underdevelopment but a tradition to be
celebrated; where extreme and backward forms of
Buddhism do not raise awkward questions about
social progress but rather reveal Tibetans’ inner
souls; where there is no need for Tibetans
directly to elect their political rulers because
they have their own lamas and monks and nuns to
look up to. The Free Tibet brigade and the
Chinese authorities have more in common than
either side would like to admit: both promote
Tibetan traditions for self-serving reasons, to
the neglect of a meaningful debate about
political self-determination for Tibetans.

The real problem here is not a national one;
there was never a mass movement for national
independence in the way there was in Ireland or
Palestine in the 1970s, for example. No, the
problem is that Tibetans are like all other
Chinese, in that they are denied some very
fundamental political rights. They have that
‘cultural freedom’ that Western observers have
been demanding for so long, but they aren’t free.

On a high

Now I know why the LSD crowd of the 1960s were so
interested in Tibet: it’s because being here is a
bit like being on drugs. When you first arrive in
Lhasa, the high altitude and corresponding lack
of oxygen can make you dizzy, disorientated, and
more than a little daft. ‘Slowly!’ said my
Tibetan host as I ascended a flight of stairs at
the Potala Palace on my second morning here. When
I got to the top I understood her concern: my
head was spinning, my vision blurred, and I said
in a voice that completely didn’t sound like my
own: ‘Where’s. The. Toilet?’ I haven’t felt like
that since the days of Ebeneezeer Goode in the early 1990s.

But you get used to it before long, thanks to a
Michael Jackson-style oxygen machine next to your
hotel bed, anti-altitude sickness pills (I’m on
12 a day), and a brilliant can of weird-tasting
pop called The Drink With Rhodiola In It,
rhodiola being a herb that Tibetans have been
taking for years to help them cope with living on
the ‘roof of the world’. But I still feel like I
haven’t taken a full, lung-filling breath since
arriving here, just short gasps of oxygen-light
air. Still, there are upsides. I have been
advised not to shower very often (you might get a
cold), definitely not to jog or lift weights (you
might faint), and to go to bed at 9pm each night
for lots of rest. I haven’t religiously stuck to
that last rule. But live like a lazy slob for a week? I can handle that.

1. Quoted in Imagining Tibet: Perceptions,
Projections and Fantasies, Wisdom Books, 2001

2. Free Tibet activists protest China’s opening
of Tibet railway, Free Tibet UK, 1 July 2006

3. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and
the West, Donald S Lopez Jr, University of Chicago Press, 1998

4. See Tibet and the British Raj: The Frontier
Cadre 1904 to 1947, by Alex McKay, 1997

5. Buddha’s Warriors: The Story of the CIA-backed
Tibetan Freedom Fighters, the Chinese Invasion,
and the Ultimate Fall of Tibet, by Mikel Dunham, JP Tarcher Publishers, 2004

Day 3: Are Tibetans being ‘seduced’ by modernity?
Western activists are often disappointed to find
that Tibetans aren’t keen on living lives of peaceful, contemplative poverty.
July 14, 2010

Why Tibet activists find Tibetan people so disappointing

Tibet University in Lhasa is the highest seat of
learning in the world - literally if not
academically. On a blazingly sunny day, some of
the 8,000 students of this college in the
mountains are relaxing on the lawns or swotting
up for their summer finals in whatever quiet
corner they can nab in libraries and corridors.

It’s an unassuming place; many of the students
are the sons and daughters of herdsmen and
farmers, taking their families’ first steps away
from life on the land towards something more
promising. Yet this is also the site of a
revolutionary breakthrough in Tibetan
communications. As a result of various students’
PhD theses and the work of professors of IT,
Tibet University has digitised the Tibetan
language, developing a way for people to use
anglocentric QWERTY keyboards to write in
Tibetan. It’s opened up a whole new world of
computing and internet-use for the speakers of
what some people naively celebrate as a wonderfully isolated language.

The process through which speakers of
non-Romanic, Oriental languages use PCs is a
fascinating one. Take Chinese. A Chinese keyboard
would be mad: Chinese has over 30,000 characters,
around 5,000 of which are used regularly in
speech and writing. So instead, most Chinese
people use QWERTY PCs fitted with ‘input method
editor’ software, which allows them to use the
A-Z keyboard to produce the thousands of characters of Chinese.

To generate a Chinese character, they type out
how it sounds according to the ‘Pinyin’ spelling
method. Pinyin, which is learned by every Chinese
schoolchild, means knowing basically what Roman
alphabet letters are used to pronounce the sound
of a Chinese character. So when Chinese
computer-users type the Romanic pronunciations,
the Chinese characters appear on screen. Tibetan
is different to Chinese, of course, but Tibet
University has created a similar method that
allows Tibetan speakers to subvert QWERTY and
make it produce their syllabic language rather than our Roman letters.

Renqingluobu (many Tibetans have only one name),
one of the university’s IT men, leads me into one
of the rooms where the breakthrough was made.
It’s kept like a museum, with the PhD theses that
contributed to the development of the software on
display, and certificates from Microsoft and
Linux, confirming that they accept and will
distribute the Tibetan-language software, pinned
to the wall. Renqingluobu makes clear that the
dawn of Tibetan computing can be used both for
the grand and the everyday – to put great pieces
of Tibetan literature online but also to allow
Tibetans ‘to email, to blog, to talk to other
Tibetans across mountains or in other countries’.
Tibet University’s next big project is to develop
software for mobile phones that will allow
Tibetan-speakers to send short text messages,
too, in order that they can join the rest of
civilisation in constantly bombarding each other
with all manner of tittle-tattle.

There are those who will view this as
inappropriate fiddling with Tibetan traditions.
Indeed, the thing that Western sympathisers with
Tibet are most concerned about these days is the
modernisation of what they view as an ancient
land. As Jamyang Norbu of the Tibetan Youth
Congress has put it, some Tibetophiles
patronisingly want to ‘cocoon [Tibet] against the
realities of the outside world, especially
politics, commerce and technology’ (1).

So Free Tibet UK is primarily concerned, not with
the question of political freedom in Tibet, but
with the alleged problem of ‘rapid
modernisation’. It has launched campaigns against
‘large-scale infrastructure projects’ in Tibet,
such as the Gormo-Lhasa railway connecting the
Qinghai province of China to Tibet, on the basis
that they ‘erase existing socio-cultural
divisions between China [and Tibet]’ – that is,
they infect pure Tibetan culture with outsider
commercialisation (2). They’re desperate to
preserve Tibet in a kind of cultural
formaldehyde, to keep it as a permanent
eco-garden for those in the West who are
disillusioned with modernity and who would like
somewhere green and unspoiled to visit every
couple of years, believing, in the words of one
Tibet-follower, that ‘Tibetan culture offers
powerful, untarnished and coherent alternatives
to Western egotistical lifestyles’ (3).

Consequently, a great irony of contemporary
Tibetophilia is that its adherents are often most
disappointed with Tibetans themselves, whom they
see as giving into modernity by wearing jeans,
drinking beer and now – Buddha forbid – using the
internet. This is what the Celebrity Lama Richard
Gere means when he says that, as a result of
Chinese intervention, the Tibetan people have
‘lost their focus’ (4). In Prisoners of
Shangri-La, Donald S Lopez Jr describes how
American undergrads who get involved in the Tibet
issue are often motivated by a belief that ‘young
Tibetans appear to be losing interest in their
religion, seduced by materialism, nationalism,
and rock music’ (5). Indeed, at a Tibetan opera
at the Himalaya Hotel in Lhasa I meet two young
Americans - teachers not undergraduates – who
won’t go so far as to say they are disappointed
with Tibetans, but they do sound a little
disappointed with Lhasa. ‘It’s noisier than we thought it would be.’

Leaving Lhasa for the city of LinZhi in
south-east Tibet, I see some of the ‘real Tibetan
culture’ that some would like to preserve. And
there’s little admirable about it. In these small
towns and villages, people are far poorer than
they are in the capital. A majority of Tibetans
still work in agriculture, animal husbandry,
forestry or fishery. According to 2007 figures,
out of the 1.6million Tibetans in employment,
around 880,000 of them work on the land.

Black pigs and dishevelled dogs roam the streets.
Children in cheap tracksuits dash towards anyone
with a white face (ie, me) in the hope that
you’ll give them a few Yuan for the privilege of
taking their photograph. At a toilet stop two
hours outside of Lhasa, there is a brother and
sister - around four and six years old - sitting
inside the toilet to collect a small fee from
those who use the facilities. It’s easily the
filthiest toilet I’ve ever been in.

China puts great emphasis on how much everyday
life has improved in Tibet since it took over
from the lamas in 1950/51. It’s true, of course,
but it would have been impossible for life to get
any worse. Things were brutish and desperate
under Buddhist serfdom. As a grisly photograph in
the Tibet Museum in Beijing reminds visitors,
Tibetans were having their hands cut off for
crimes such as stealing under the unholy alliance
of British administration and lama-led feudalism.
Back then, in 1951, life expectancy was 35.5
years. Today it is 67. A vast improvement, yes,
but it’s still one of the lowest rates of life
expectancy in China. In Beijing average life expectancy is 80.07.

We visit a herdsman and his family in a small
town outside Lhasa. They are living in new
government-funded accommodation. It’s a really
nice house: roomy, well-decorated, with
electricity, a TV, a fridge, a washing machine.
The animals – some cows and pigs – now live in
clearly separate quarters, away from the family
home, which is the thing the herdsman is happiest
about. Yet I am still a little shocked when they
tell me he is 47 years old – he looks at least
60. And I need two translators to speak to him –
a Tibetan-Chinese speaker and then a
Chinese-English speaker – because he only speaks
Tibetan, having grown up in a time when there was
no serious education in Tibet. In short, he has
followed that traditional Tibetan lifestyle so
beloved of Western fans of old Tibet - ‘tending
his garden, growing vegetables and flowers,
loving children and dogs’ – and it looks to have been a bloody hard life.

His grandson, 10-year-old Gamagongbu, is a
different story. Wearing a Puma cap, he speaks
Tibetan, Chinese and a little English, all
learned at a school that is a two-mile walk from
his home. And he definitely doesn’t want to be a
herdsman, he says. His family don’t want him to
be one either. Instead he wants to work in Lhasa
city. Clearly this Tibetan boy has ‘lost his focus’.

1. ‘Behind the Lost Horizon: Demystifying Tibet’,
in Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies, Wisdom Books, 2001

2. See the Free Tibet website here

3. Sacred Tibet, Philip Rawson, Thames & Hudson, 1991

4. Richard Gere on Tibet, San Francisco Chronicle, 5 March 1998

5. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and
the West, Donald S Lopez Jr, University of Chicago Press, 1998

6. Quoted in in Imagining Tibet: Perceptions,
Projections and Fantasies, Wisdom Books, 2001

Day 4: Investing the Dalai Lama with unearthly powers
In one of their first interviews with a Westerner
since the 2008 unrest, Tibetan officials wildly
claim that the ‘Dalai clique’ is behind everything.
July 15, 2010

t’s not often I feel the urge to defend the Dalai
Lama, having never been a fan of his vogue
spiritualism or a supporter of the idea that he’s
the man to bring liberty to Tibet. But things
change when I find myself in conversation with
Tibet’s officials. Their belief that the ‘Dalai
clique’, as they call it, is behind every problem
in Tibet is so wrongheaded that it’s enough to
make even a Dalai doubter like me rush to the giggling monk’s defence.

Whenever there’s trouble in Tibet, it will have
been ‘premeditated, organised and instigated by
the Dalai clique’, says Suo Lin, director-general
of the Information Office of the Tibet Autonomous
Region. We’re in his imposing office building in
Lhasa, at a huge table laden with fruit and mugs
of steaming green tea, with me on one side and
Suo Lin on the other, flanked by the equally
stern-looking deputy director-generals of Tibet’s
departments of education, development, language
and religious affairs. One of me, five of them.
I’m supposed to be interviewing Suo Lin – one of
the first Western journalists to have this kind
of access since the Tibetan unrest of 2008 – but
it’s me who feels under interrogation. Halfway
through my questioning, an Information Office
assistant takes one of the bananas from the
table, peels it, and hands it to me. ‘Eat.
Enjoy.’ A ploy to make me feel even more
uncomfortable? Probably not, though it’s hard to
be politically probing and serious while wielding
a banana (just ask David Miliband).

Think Alastair Campbell meets Norman Tebbit and
you’ll have an idea of the kind of role Suo Lin
plays in Tibet, where he’s responsible for
presenting a positive image of Tibet to the
outside world and swatting aside those who ask
pesky questions about the state of politics and
liberty here. And he’s in no doubt about who
threatens the stability of what he describes as
an otherwise happy part of China: those plotters
in Dharamsala in northern India, where the Dalai
Lama’s self-styled government-in-exile has been based since 1959.

In Suo Lin’s view, if it wasn’t for the ‘Dalai
clique’, things would be fine. He waxes lyrical
about how life has improved since the ‘Peaceful
Liberation’ of 1951 (the name given by Beijiing
to its takeover of Tibet from the Buddhists) and
the fleeing of the Dalai Lama in 1959. ‘Before
1959, Tibet was a theocracy’, he says. ‘Less than
five per cent of the people controlled Tibet and
the other 95 per cent were serfs and slaves.’

Chinese tourists dressed as Tibetans

He has no time for Westerners who romanticise Old
Tibet. ‘Do they expect us to keep riding our yaks
while they drive cars and fly in planes? We’re
not animals in a zoo for visitors to come and
look at.’ The idea that Tibet is a cut-off,
mystical place not fit for development is based
on a ‘lack of understanding’, he says. ‘Tibet
isn’t located in another world. It has a
population which has needs.’ And he claims China
is meeting those needs. His office gives me
facts. Towards the end of Buddhist rule, only 880
children in Tibet were in professional schools;
by 2007 it was 73,668. The mortality rate was
10.2 per cent in 1970; today it’s around four per
cent. And the Tibetan population has grown
steadily: in 1951 there were 1.1409million people
in Tibet; in 2008 there were 2.8708million. (The
one-child policy doesn’t apply here: urban
Tibetans can have two children and there are no
restrictions on how many children rural Tibetans can have.)

As it happens, I share his disdain for the idea
that Tibet should remain in a medieval timewarp
for the benefit of others. Tibetans might not
ride yaks any more, but some still live inside
them. The day before visiting Suo Lin’s crisply
air-conditioned offices I saw some weird black
tents in the countryside outside Lhasa and was
told that they were homes made from yak fur for
Tibet’s fairly substantial nomadic population.
Elsewhere, children chasing pigs or sheep is a
common sight – only they’re not chasing them but
herding them, helping out with the family
‘business’. It doesn’t take long to notice that
Tibetans who live outside of Lhasa have darker,
more withered skin, a result of working
unforgiving hours outdoors in that traditional
fashion so beloved of Western Tibetheads. As
Jamyang Norpu of the Tibetan Youth Congress has
put it, ‘The Shangri La fantasy has primarily to
do with the psychological needs of certain people
in the West’, where Tibet is reduced to a
‘mise-en-scène for the personal drama of white
people’ (1). It’s psycho-imperialism, where the
aim is to keep Tibet primitive to sooth the
consciences of well-off but modernity-allergic people over here.

Yet Suo Lin cannot be serious when he says
Tibetans are finally ‘the masters of their
destinies’. What about the riots of March 2008?
Without flinching or even blinking (this is one
professional politician) he plays the ‘Dalai
clique’ card again, accusing the Dalai Lama’s
people of orchestrating that violent outburst. He
says the Dalai Lama has ‘duped the world’.
Another top official, based in Beijing, told me
over duck that the Dalai Lama is a ‘master liar’
and ‘a brilliant expert at deceit’ who has
‘conned the West’. And how exactly did the ‘Dalai
clique’ instigate the 2008 riots? It used
mobile-phone text-messaging and secret envoys,
officials tell me, instructing Tibetans to go mad
in what Beijing now officially calls ‘The March 14th Incident’.

It starts to sound like a mad conspiracy theory.
As for labelling those events an ‘incident’...
that’s a pretty insulting term for a major
outbreak of social unrest. It started on 10 March
2008 when small numbers of monks and nuns marched
in Lhasa to commemorate a failed Tibetan uprising
of 1959. They were met with heavy-handed policing
and soon thousands of Tibetans were protesting in
Lhasa, using stones to hold back police and
soldiers armed with cattle prods, tear gas and
live ammunition. At one point during the four-day
collapse of authority, the protesters controlled
parts of Lhasa. They attacked and burned down
Chinese Han shops and businesses, viewing the Han
as a privileged minority in Tibet. Most worringly
of all for Beijing, the protests spread to other
parts of Tibet and even to Tibetan-inhabited
areas of China: Tibetans were shot and killed in
the towns of Luhuo and Aba in the Sichuan
province of China, while in the town of Hezuo in
Gansu province there was major unrest led by
Tibetan nomads on horseback. This was no mere ‘incident’.

The one thing that should be clear about the
unrest is that it was not organised by anyone --
least of all a dithering monk in northern India
who these days is most famous for being mates
with Sharon Stone, doing adverts for Apple and
once guest-editing French Vogue. Rather, in the
words of James Miles of The Economist, one of the
few Western journalists who was in Tibet at the
time of the violence, it was an explosion of
‘festering grievances on the ground in Lhasa’
(2). In pinning the blame for the unrest – and
every other problem – on the ‘Dalai clique’,
Tibetan officials ironically play the same game
as the Dalai Lama’s fans in the West, investing
him with superpowers and a special command over
the Tibetan people. They vastly overestimate the
coherence and influence of the Dalai Lama’s
government-in-exile – while underestimating the
various international agendas attached to the
‘Tibet issue’ which did play some role in stoking the violence of 2008.

The Chinese are treating Dharamsala as a kind of
festering boil which every now and then makes
China ill. This is far easier than getting to
grips with the two big issues that could cause
something like the 2008 unrest: internal social
problems here in Tibet, where despite
modernisation there’s still much underdevelopment
and inequality, and external exploitation of the
Tibet issue by Western governments, activists and
opinion-formers keen to attack what many see as
the beast of contemporary international affairs:
modern, industrialising, eco-unfriendly, overpopulated China.

Alongside James Miles’ observations of an
instinctive anger amongst Tibetans, the other
striking thing about the violence was the
influence of international factors. The riots
took place in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics,
at a time when, as one report put it, many in the
West were seeking to ‘use the Olympics to
humiliate China’ (3). For Western officials and
human rights campaigners, the Olympics presented
an opportunity to attack Beijing over its
environmental and human rights record – and this
process of international demonisation in turn
provided a green light to China’s dissatisfied
populations to have a pop at the regime that rules over them.

Tibetan men play pool outside in the rain

Indeed, much of the 2008 protesting seemed to
have been aimed at a Western audience. In the
days before the massive Lhasa unrest, Tibetan
monks in northern India protested with
English-language placards saying ‘Tibet Needs
You’, ‘Free Tibet’ and the Amnesty-inspired
‘Beijing 2008: A Celebration of Human Rights
Violations’ (4). Partly inspired by these acts of
disobedience, when people in Lhasa started to
riot they speedily disseminated mobile-phone
footage of their predicament to the Western
media, leading one British newspaper to
congratulate them for using ‘the most dangerous
weapon in the world: the cameras on their mobile
phones’ (5). It’s hard to escape the conclusion
that the unrest was partly performed for an
external audience of China-bashers as well as
revealing high levels of anger amongst Tibetans.
Indeed, Miles described the ‘general desire of
Tibetans… to take advantage of this Olympic year’
(6). The tragedy is that as a result of being
sparked by a cocktail of global PR stunts and
incoherent Tibetan frustration, rather than any
political strategy for change, the protests
achieved little more than some fierce violence
and a bit of international sympathy for Tibetans.
Things soon returned to normal, and in Lhasa and
the towns and villages around it you can still
see the kind of men who probably rioted back
then: in their twenties, with not much to do,
wearing Sports Direct-style tracksuits, they play
cards on the kerb or pool outdoors in the pouring
rain (seriously – see photo). They don’t look
particularly happy with the traditional lifestyle
celebrated by outsiders, or much like the
‘masters of their destinies’, as claimed by China’s officials.

One of the lessons of the Lhasa violence is that
the Western elite attacks on China helped to
create a volatile atmosphere in the more restive
parts of this vast country. This was no
conspiracy, least of all one executed by the
Dalai Lama – rather it revealed the destabilising
dynamic that can be unleashed by various
political actors’ thoughtless, self-serving
politicisation of already tense territories in
China. Yet China simplistically pins the blame
for all problems Tibetan on the ‘Dalai clique’,
in the process indulging in similar fantasies to
the Dalai Lama’s supporters in the West – only
where the Lama’s backers see him as a force for
good who will Save Tibet, China sees him as a
force for super-evil that will Destroy It. Both
sides treat Tibetans as a childish people easily
duped/in need of rescue by their demi-god, and
ignore the far deeper social and international
factors at play in relation to this region. The
2008 unrest showed that the Dalai Lama does not
control this place -- and that, unfortunately,
neither do the people who live here, yet.

1. ‘Behind the Lost Horizon: Demystifying Tibet’,
Jamyang Norbu, in Imagining Tibet: Perceptions,
Projections and Fantasies, Wisdom Books, 2001

2. See James Miles Interview On Tibet, CNN, 20 March 2008

3. China feels heat of Olympic flame, Los Angeles Times, 13 February 2008

4. See Using Tibet to settle scores with China, by Brendan O’Neill

5. Dalai Lama attacks ‘cultural genocide’, Indpendent, 17 March 2008

6. See James Miles Interview On Tibet, CNN, 20 March 2008

Day 5: Stuck between a rock and a hard place
Tibetans are caught between a Chinese
authoritarianism that treats them as undeserving
of liberty, and a shallow Western solidarity that
treats them as incapable of exercising liberty.
July 16, 2010

The truth about Tibetan Buddhism

I have a new theory as to why some Westerners
come to Tibet, visit a high-up monastery, and
decide to stay there forever, eking out a simple
Buddhist existence. It’s because the journey to
these places in the sky can be so
sphincter-relaxingly scary that staying put is a
preferable option to risking life and limb on the journey back down again.

We drive up the mountainsides of Nyingchi County,
outside the city of LinZhi in south-east Tibet,
and by the time we get to the top - having
swerved and beeped our way past herds of goats
and sheep and people-packed pick-up trucks on the
skinny roads drizzled on to this vast mountainous
range - I am ready to stay here the rest of my
days. Despite the fact that, for the first time
since Lhasa, an altitude-related headache is making my temple throb.

It’s worth it, of course. Here, 4,100 metres
above sea level, on a viewing platform that
stretches over the forest-covered mountains, you
can see why Tibet is called the ‘roof of the
world’. I’ve never seen anything like it. There
might not be much oxygen but the air is
lung-strippingly fresh, and even being culturally
mugged by some very impressive Tibetan saleswomen
- all trying to get me to wear their goat-skin
coat and hat for that special top-of-the-world
photo op - cannot ruin the moment.

I have my own kind-of conversion on the matter of
Tibetan Buddhism up here, but it’s not the same
as that experienced by other Western visitors. We
visit the Lamaling monastery and temple in the
Nyingchi River valley. It was first built in the
seventh century and then rebuilt after being
destroyed by an earthquake in 1930. And… how can
I put this without sounding offensive? It’s an ugly, scary place.

Not the people who work and worship here, the
young, fresh-faced, suedeheaded monks and nuns
who chat and tell jokes as they sweep the
temple’s floors, or the men in white vests,
labourers from nearby villages I guess, who
prostrate themselves on the floor before Buddha.
As a firm (though not religious) believer in
Marx’s view of religion as ‘the illusory sun
which revolves round man as long as he does not
revolve around himself’, I can understand why a
grand, profound-feeling place like this would be
attractive to people whose lives consist largely
of farming and labour. No, it’s the temple
itself, and its contents, which are ugly.

There are no photos I’m afraid (not allowed) so
you’ll have to take my word for it. The temple is
stuffed with garishly coloured statues of dancing
demons with contorted faces. There are fat gold
Buddhas with yuan notes left at their feet
(probably by worshippers who can ill-afford to
chuck money around). Even the most modern-looking
statue is weird: it depicts the Living Buddha
(now deceased) who administered this monastery
and temple in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and it is
wearing sunglasses. It looks like Bono. No one
wants to travel halfway around the world to a
temple on a hillside and be confronted by something that looks like Bono.

This brings to the fore what I have discovered to
be the greatest mystery about Tibetan Buddhism:
how it has come to be seen in the West as a
hippyish religion that involves sitting in the
lotus position for 20 hours a day and being a
Really Nice Guy. It is no such thing. It’s a
religion of violent imagery and fiery stories
about the end of days. Worshipping Buddha is like
a full-on workout here: in the Lamaling temple I
see two women in their fifties first getting on
to their knees, then lying on their bellies, then
getting back on their knees, before standing
upright again – they repeat these actions over
and over like religious Mad Lizzies. It looks exhausting.

Of course, the reason why Tibetan Buddhism here
looks and sounds and smells so different to the
Tibetan Buddhism of Richard Gere, Sharon Stone or
those shaven-headed women I saw getting backrubs
at the Tibetan-themed festival in Lambeth,
London, is because these Westerners are not
practising Tibetan Buddhism at all. Instead, in
the words of Frank J Korom of Boston University,
‘Tibet and portions of its religious culture have
been appropriated over time by proponents of the
New Age for their own purposes’. As one of
Korom’s students told him when he asked why she
was wearing a Tibetan Buddhist necklace: ‘When I
wear it, it keeps me healthy and happy.’ (1) It’s
a bit like saying you’re a Catholic because you
sometimes drink wine. This is ‘New Age
orientalism’, as Korom describes it, this
borrowing of bits and pieces from ‘fantastic
Tibet’ until Tibet becomes merely ‘an
essentialised sacred space vaguely located on the
mythic New Age landscape… denying agency to real
Tibetans and erasing Tibet from any physical map’ (2).

I have an idea: in future, in order to be taken
seriously as a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, you
have to come to Nyingchi County, drive up those
winding mountain roads, visit the Lamaling
temple, do back-breaking worship for days and
weeks on end despite the fact that you will be
short of breath due to the lack of oxygen, and
ingest all those books and sutras of Buddhist
teaching. Then, Gere and Co., I might take your
religion seriously. Though I probably still won’t like it.

Tibet: a rock and a hard place

Fittingly for a part of the world covered with
mountains, my impression of Tibet is that it is
stuck between a rock and a hard place: the rock
of Chinese authoritarianism, which denies
Tibetans even basic political freedoms, and the
hard place of shallow international solidarity,
which treats Tibetans, in the stinging words of
the Tibet authority Robert AF Thurman, as the
‘baby seals of the human rights movement’ (3). On
one side Tibetans are treated by their rulers as
individuals incapable of exercising political
judgement or of being free, and on the other side
they are treated by their ‘friends’ in the
pro-Tibet lobby as incapable of liberating
themselves from this situation. Instead, they
must be cared for and spoken up for by good,
decent outsiders, much as PETA adopts baby seals
in an attempt to prevent them from being killed by demented Canadians.

Of course the most pressing problem for the
people who live in Tibet is the daily
authoritarianism they experience under Lhasa and
Beijing: the denial of rights such as the right
to protest, to speak freely, to publish political
material, to put up pictures of the fourteenth
Dalai Lama (pictures of the other Dalai Lamas are
okay), and to directly elect their rulers. Yet
this should not distract us from the very real
impact that the patronising solidarity of Western
activists and government officials also has on
Tibetans’ political lives and liberties.

So it is true, and terrible, that the rulers of
Tibet forbid Tibetans from openly talking about,
or expressing support for, the fourteenth Dalai
Lama. Yet at the same time, the Western
world-of-opinion’s transformation of the Dalai
Lama into the sole representative of the Tibetan
cause – the man who embodies the whole of Tibet
and its future – has also had a detrimental
impact on political debate in Tibetan
communities. It has helped to stifle the
development of a real, lively movement for
liberty and democracy. As one author on Tibetan
politics argues, ‘the Dalai Lama’s role as
ultimate spiritual authority is holding back the
political process of democratisation’, since ‘the
assumption that he occupies the correct moral
ground… means that any challenge to his political
authority may be interpreted as anti-religious’ (4).

It is true that Chinese officials deny Tibetans,
like all other people in China, the right to
organise politically and independently. Yet the
transformation of the ‘Tibet issue’ into a
super-childish issue through which activists and
politicians over here try to look Caring and
Morally Upstanding has also warped the dynamic of
Tibetan politics. It has encouraged Tibetans to
orient their protests towards an international
audience, seeking more Western sympathy as a
weapon against Beijing, rather than to focus on
what they want to achieve and how they might
achieve it. Tibet only gains traction on the
international stage to the extent that it
presents itself as a bleeding victim; when
Tibetans take action, as they did in March 2008,
they become an embarrassment as much to their
shallow backers over here as they do to Beijing.
As one writer says, this victim script, this
pitying ‘solidarity’, creates a situation in
which ‘other, non-uniform voices [from Tibet]
cannot be heard or easily included’ (5).

In everyday life, the rulers of Tibet deny
Tibetans their agency -- yet as Robert Barnett
argued in an important essay on the ‘Violated
Specialness’ of Tibet, Western pity also
‘deprives them of agency and treats them in the
colonising manner, as lesser, quaint, or
predictable, or as victims, or as embodiments of
an idea’ (6). Leaving Tibet it strikes me that in
order to shake off the shackles of authoritarian
rule, Tibetans might first need to wriggle free
from the straitjacket of a Western pity which
masquerades as their friend, but is in truth an enemy of their interests.

This week, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill will be
reporting from Tibet. Read all of Brendan’s reports here.

1. ‘The Role of Tibet in the New Age Movement’,
Frank J Korom, Boston University, 2001

2. ‘The Role of Tibet in the New Age Movement’,
Frank J Korom, Boston University, 2001

3. Quoted in Should China care about Richard Gere?, Small Swords magazine, 2007

4. The Tibetan Independence Movement: Political,
Religious and Gandhian Perspectives, Jane Ardley, Routledge, 2002

5. ‘Violated Specialness’, in Imagining Tibet:
Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies, Wisdom Books, 2001

6. ‘Violated Specialness’, in Imagining Tibet:
Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies, Wisdom Books, 2001
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank