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The unusual suspect
It is not uncommon for riots involving some combination of racial, nationalistic or religious motivations, frequently with economic factors involved, to be taking place somewhere in the world, and such events occur even in rich Western countries. There have been several outbreaks of violent ethnic conflict in the Northern and the Midland regions of England in the last several years, and riots took place in the suburbs of Paris in 2005 and 2007. Sometimes, deaths occur in these events: 53 people were killed during the Los Angeles riots in 1992. The level of casualties in the Third World which have resulted from ethnic-related violence is much higher.
In the March 2008 riots in Lhasa and some other urban areas of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and adjacent provinces of China, people of the Han Chinese and Hui Moslem ethnicities, and their property, were singled out for attack. This also is not an uncommon phenomenon. A report produced in 2003 by the US Institute for Peace (USIP), entitled 'Lethal Ethnic Riots: Lessons from India and Beyond', had this to say of ethnic targeting:
Ethnic antipathy takes anger-producing events and converts them into acts of an entire group, not just of individuals. Antipathy produces a tendency toward generalization— with the anger focused on the whole ethnic group and away from the individuation of targets—so that ethnic antipathy makes possible indiscriminate violence against members of the same ethnic group. In choosing victims, the crowd does not care whether the member of the hated ethnic group is a good person or not, just that he or she is a member of the targeted ethnic group.
Yet the facts relating to the recent Tibetan riots do include some peculiar features. One of these is the response of the opinion-formers in the West to the ethnicly-targeted violence, in which Bhuddist monks actively participated. If bearded immams rather than robed monks had taken part in such destruction, questions would have been asked about the supposedly peaceful nature of their religious doctrine. Had Jews rather than Han Chinese and Hui Moslems been the victims of ethnic violence on this scale, the event would have been described as a pogrom.
One Western-controlled media outlet even played a role in fanning the flames of violence within Tibet. The US Government's propaganda station Radio Free Asia (RFA), which transmits daily to China in the Tibetan language, carried on 13th March- the day before the violence in Lhasa reached its peak- a recording in which claims were made that the Chinese are perpetrating 'cultural genocide' and 'demographic aggression' against the Tibetan people. The voice in which these highly imflammatory allegations were made was that of Tenzin Gyatso, who is better known as His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
RFA went on to broadcast stories of alleged Chinese atrocities, with lurid 'eyewitness' accounts which provided justification and encouragement for the ethnic violence. On 14th March, an RFA report included this quote, which sought to present the burning of the mosque as a response to the alleged killing of ethnic Tibetans by Moslems :
“We Tibetans had no weapons to fight back. When the Tibetans were gathered in front of Jokhang, the Chinese fired at us. I have personally seen more 100 Tibetans killed when the Chinese fired at the Tibetan crowd,” the man told RFA’s Tibetan service. “Many of those killed were young Tibetans, both boys and girls. Many girls were killed too. Some of the Tibetans were killed by Chinese Muslims and then the Tibetans destroyed their mosque,” he said. “The Tibetans who participated in the protests were from the whole Lhasa area. When I looked back, all the Chinese shops were destroyed. I think not one Chinese shop is intact in the Barkhor area. All kinds of stuff were piled up on the main road and burned. Many vehicles were burned and destroyed.”
The RFA transmission on 14th March also included this chilling remark by another witness, indicating that the violence was not purely spontaneous- preparations had been made to ensure that the destruction would be correctly targeted:
“All those shops owned by Chinese were ransacked and burned. Tibetan shop owners were told to mark their shops with scarves.”
Another notable aspect is the timing of the riots. As a leader of the Tibetan Youth Congress (one of the most militant Tibetan nationalist organisations) has made clear, activists have been deliberately seeking to provoke a crackdown by the Chinese authorities, maximising the opportunity presented by the preparations for the Olympic Games. The Chicago Tribune reported:
Tibet activists abroad are steeling for a major confrontation. Tsewang Rigzin, president of the Tibetan Youth League [sic] based in Dharamsala in northern India, said Tibetan exiles are determined to make Tibet a major international focus as the Olympics approach.
"We are taking chances. We know how the Chinese have treated Tibetans in the past," he said. "But with the spotlight on them with the Olympics, we want to test them. We want them to show their true colors. That's why we're pushing this."
The Chicago Tribune did not include in its report the fact that the Tibetan Youth Congress receives funding for its activities from the US Government.
On 4th of January this year, the Tibetan Youth Congress, together with allied organisations which are also financed by the US government, announced the founding of the 'Tibetan People’s Uprising Movement'. The Movement issued a stirring declaration:
At this critical time - as the Chinese leadership wages an unrelenting war on Tibetan religion and culture, and is drastically increasing the rate of Chinese population transfer into Tibet - the very survival of Tibetans as a people is at stake.
It is time for Tibetans to take control of our future through a unified and coordinated resistance movement. We must now proclaim to the Chinese and to the world that the desire for freedom still burns in the heart of every Tibetan, both inside Tibet and in exile...
The 2008 Olympics will mark the culmination of almost 50 years of Tibetan resistance in exile. We will use this historic moment to reinvigorate the Tibetan freedom movement and bring our exile struggle for freedom back to Tibet. Through tireless work and an unwavering commitment to truth and justice, we will bring about another uprising that will shake China’s control in Tibet and mark the beginning of the end of China’s occupation...
The Tibetan People’s Uprising Movement is a global movement of Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet taking control of our political destiny by engaging in direct action to end China’s illegal and brutal occupation of our country. Through unified and strategic campaigns we will seize the Olympic spotlight and shine it on China’s shameful repression inside Tibet, thereby denying China the international acceptance and approval it so fervently desires.
In first place on the list of demands by the Tibetan People’s Uprising Movement is:
Remove all obstacles to the unconditional return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet and his rightful place as leader of the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama is revered by Tibetans as our sole and undisputed leader.
The declaration made no mention of the solely peaceful and non-violent methods of struggle with which, at least in the Western mind, the Dalai Lama is associated.
The institution through which the US Government channels funds to these organisations which revere and seek to install the "sole and undisputed leader", who acquired his position by reincarnation rather than by election, is entitled the National Endowment for Democracy.
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was set up in 1983 by US President Reagan, to supplement the covert international political funding operations of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The statements of George W. Bush on the recent Tibetan troubles, while critical of China, have been diplomatic in their tone. But within days of the riots, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, made haste to a meeting with the Dalai Lama. Although she is a Democrat rather than a Republican politician, the office which Ms Pelosi holds is a very senior one in the USA's political hierarchy- by protocol, she is third in the line of presidential power. Ms Pelosi played a crucial role in arranging Democrat Party support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Nancy Pelosi's comments following her meeting with the Dalai Lama were decidedly undiplomatic. Richard Spencer in the Daily Telegraph on 22nd March reported that:
[Ms Pelosi] challenged the world to "speak out against Chinese oppression."
She described the situation in Tibet as a "challenge to the conscience of the world."
"If freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out against Chinese oppression and China and Tibet, we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world," Mrs Pelosi said.
She also said she was not surprised "about the use of violence on the part of the Chinese government."
The Daily Telegraph report opened and closed with the issue of the involvement or otherwise of the Dalai Lama in instigating the violence; the Chinese government describing him as a "wolf in monk’s habit", Nancy Pelosi calling for "an independent, outside investigation" in order to "clear the Dalai Lama's name". Richard Spencer did not raise the question of how this very senior US politician knows in advance that the Dalai Lama's name would be cleared by such an investigation.
Two days later, there was the first of a series of protests centred on the Olympic flame, capitalising on China's alleged 'violent crackdown'. The Telegraph reported on the event in Greece:
The men, believed to be associated with the French human rights group Reporters Without Borders, ran up behind Liu Qi, the head of the Beijing Olympic organising committee, as he spoke before the flame was lit.
One man unfurled a black flag portraying the Olympic rings made from handcuffs. Another tried to grab the microphone from Mr Liu and shouted "freedom, freedom".
The activities of Reporters Without Borders are paid for by large corporations, the billionare George Soros, the French Government, and also the US Government, via NED.
In deciding whether China deserves the international condemnation, either for its overall policy on Tibet or specifically for the way it has been dealing with the recent riots, some international comparison might be in order. The experience of another very large Asian country, the one where the Dalai Lama and his 'Government of Tibet in Exile' are based, might be considered. In 2002, when ethnic rioting broke out in the State of Gujarat in the North West of India, a minimum number of 1,044 people, most of them Muslims, were murdered and 150,000 became refugees. Among the reasons for the very high death toll was that the Hindu nationalist dominated state government, which in India's decentralised political system held the responsibility for maintaining order, failed to crack down on the rioters.
The denunciation by US officials of China's repressive measures against the Tibetan rioters is, to put it mildly, hypocritical. The United States Institute for Peace (USIP), which produced the 2003 report entitled 'Lethal Ethnic Riots: Lessons from India and Beyond', is a government body, whose directors are appointed by the President of the United States. The report emphasises the importance of effective state action, including the use of sufficient force, in dealing with violent ethnic disorder. It notes the following as factors contributing to violence in riot situations:
* Lack of credible opposing force by the victims or the police.
* Societal condemnation of the targeted ethnic group confirmed by the inaction of the state to protect that group.
* Inadequate police deployment.
The USIP report affirms the necessity of ensuring that rioters and potential rioters are aware that taking part in violent acts is likely to result in severe consequences:
Ethnic riots are most likely to occur when four elements are present: ethnic antagonism, an emotional response to a precipitating event, a sense on the part of the rioters and the larger social group to which they belong that killing is justifiable, and the assessment by rioters that the risk of response from police is low. Policymakers can reduce the incidence of ethnic riots by increasing the risk of response from police.
Governments can reduce the likelihood that ethnic riots will break out by increasing the perception by potential rioters that participating in riots is risky.
In contrast to India's permissive response to the Gujarat riots, the Chinese authorities have acted swiftly to increase the perception by potential rioters that participating in riots is risky. A report by Chris Buckley for Reuters, Guardian News & Media and Agence France-Presse on March 21st, was headed 'Tibet suspects put on parade as deterrent':
State-controlled Tibet TV said those in detention should be "seriously punished" to ensure others respected the law, as it screened footage of several line-ups and the confessions of two men. Three of those held appeared to be monks...
...a man, identified as Pobo Tseringma, said: "We believed other people's rumours … I did things I regret." Another man, Dorje Tseringma, said a crowd threatened to set his house on fire if he did not take part in the riots.
'Paraded' is a word which is routinely used in English-language journalism to imply that a sinister purpose is being served whenever the prisoners of a government or a group which is not allied to Western interests are put in front of a television camera. In this case, the purpose served by the public confessions of Pobo and Dorje Tseringma is not so sinister. They appeared not as figures espousing, and thereby attracting, ethnic hatred: rather, these broadcast representatives of the captured rioters regretted their actions and deflected blame; they claimed that they were not instigators of violence, but were tricked or pressured into becoming the tools of others. Nevertheless, they will doubtless be severely punished.
Another key aspect of China's response to the riots is the identification of the Dalai Lama and his emigre 'clique' as the instigators of the violence. Leaving aside- only for a moment- the issue of whether this accusation by Chinese politicians and the Chinese media has a basis in truth, the allegation serves a helpful purpose. The horrific images from Lhasa and the accounts of survivors and other witnesses, which have been broadcast on Chinese TV and printed in the press, have inevitably aroused great anger among the majority of people in China, anger which is bound to find a focus.
The Chinese communists have strong reasons to do everything possible to ensure that the ethnic Tibetans as a group do not become the focus of a backlash. Although they have abandoned some communist principles, notably on the collective ownership of the means of production, the Chinese communists have not abandoned the principle of striving for political unity, and preventing emnity, between the various ethnic groups which make up the People's Republic. And the grave dangers of allowing mutual ethnic antagonism to develop are all too apparent; not only from the experiences of India, but even more worryingly from the experiences of the former USSR and Yugoslavia.
Focusing the blame on the Dalai Lama serves two other useful purposes from the point of view of the Chinese Communist Party. It avoids consideration of the much bigger and more potent international enemy, behind and beyond the Dalai Lama; the enemy which China is not yet ready to confront directly. It also avoids consideration of underlying social problems within the territory of the People's Republic of China, which have contributed to the unrest.
An article in the Times on March 22nd, written by Jane Macartney, was headlined 'Tibet: the jealousy, rage and bitterness of a new generation that fuelled deadly riots'. It quoted an Australian researcher:
Ben Hillman, of the Crawford School of Economics and Government of the Australian National University, sees a mix of economic and ethnic factors behind the unrest. “I think there has been a pace of change so fast that Tibetans have failed to keep up. Other groups, such as the Han, have moved in and taken opportunities, and that's caused a great deal of tension - particularly among young Tibetans.”
Beijing has poured billions of dollars into the region over the past three decades to try to develop one of its most backward - and strategically important - corners. The economy has grown at more than 12 per cent for seven years and hit 14 per cent last year - higher even than the national rate. Incomes too have risen: up 13 per cent in 2007 for Tibet's many nomads and farmers and a stunning 24.5 per cent for urban residents.
But there are those who feel left out. Young Tibetans who speak poor Mandarin - the official language of China and crucial to finding a job. Others are accustomed to a more rural way of life and their education, like others in China's vast countryside, leaves them ill-equipped for the rough and tumble of a market economy.
As Mr Hillman said: “These issues are incredibly complex. They are not just economic. It's an oversimplification to say it's the haves against the have-nots.”
Many Tibetans chafe under the restrictions imposed two years ago by the regional party boss that ban Tibetan Government servants from religious activities. Others are keenly aware that scarcely a single Chinese official in the regional government can speak Tibetan. That ethnocentric Han approach only intensifies the ethnic divide and cultural misunderstandings. No ethnic Tibetan has ever held the job of Communist Party boss - a potent signal of Beijing's lack of trust in this deeply Buddhist people who still revere the Dalai Lama.
Mr Hillman said: “It is a real source of resentment among people who feel very proud of their cultural heritage, which is an extremely well-developed one.”
The latest unrest has shown that Beijing needs to do more than restrict religion, vilify the Dalai Lama and throw money at the problem. Mr Hillman said: “Chinese investment has been overwhelmingly in hardware, in infrastructure and not in people, in education, in software.”
Though Ms Macartney's commentary contains some innacurate remarks, for instance on the alleged "ethnocentric Han approach" of the Chinese government, Ben Hillman's insights are helpful in illustrating some of the sources of discontent in Tibet. Also illuminating is this section from a US State Department report:
[Chinese] Government development policies have helped raise the material living standards of most ethnic Tibetans, particularly by providing better transportation and communications facilities. However, in recent years, freer movement of persons throughout China, government-sponsored development, and the prospect of economic opportunity in Tibet have led to a substantial increase in the non-Tibetan population (including China's Muslim Hui minority as well as Han Chinese) in Lhasa and other urban areas as migrant workers from China's large transient population seek to take advantage of these new economic opportunities. Most of these migrants profess to be temporary residents, but small businesses run by ethnic Han and Hui citizens (mostly restaurants and retail shops) predominate in almost all Tibetan cities.
The State Department report also admits:
Tibetans, as one of China's 55 minority ethnic groups, receive preferential treatment in marriage and family planning policies, and, to a lesser extent, in university admissions and government employment. According to official government statistics, 74 percent of all government employees in Tibet are ethnic Tibetans.
But running counter to these preferential policies, China is now mainly a market economy; within which people compete for the well-paid and high-status jobs, and also for business opportunities, on the basis of their technical, administrative and entrepreneurial skills. Two factors combine to ensure that, in this context, many of the newly created urban jobs which require a high level of skill and education, and many of the urban business openings which require commercial knowledge and abilities, will be taken by people from outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
One factor is that the vast majority of ethnic Tibetans live in rural areas and earn their living through agriculture, a backgound which does not equip most of them to compete equally in what Jane Macartney calls the 'rough and tumble' of the urban market economy. The other factor is that the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) has a population of less than three million, while the People's Republic of China has an overall population of 1.3 billion, of whom 577 million (on 2006 figures) are urban residents. With the 'freer movement of persons throughout China' to which the US State Department report refers, it is inevitable that many of the best positions in employment and business in urban Tibet are taken by people who have migrated from outside the TAR.
The fact that this is an inevitable consequence of the objective conditions pertaining within China's expanding market economy does not in the least prevent the emergence of 'jealousy, rage and bitterness'.
In situations of ethnic conflict, there are always such underlying issues- expressed through racial, cultural and religious identity, but with social and economic factors among their causes; which, in a global economic and political context which allowed more room for more balanced development through economic and social planning, could be addressed in a far better way.
To continue the comparison with India, by population the largest country in the world which operates by the principles of pluralist democracy; that country has had little success in resolving the issues which underlie its continuing problems of ethnic violence.
In the North-East region of India, less than 250 miles from Tibet, the ethno-nationalist conflicts- which take the form of both riots and terrorist activity- are getting worse. As India's Interior Ministry acknowledged recently, since 2003 well over two thousand people have lost their lives in these conflicts. On 27th March 2008, UPI reported some information which was not considered important by Western newspapers and broadcast media:
The report presented in [India's] Parliament during the current budget session said the security situation in the region has continued to worsen for the past five years. Among the seven states in the northeast, Assam and Manipur witnessed the worst militancy-related violence.
India's northeast is home to seven states and a dozen-odd ethnic groups all fighting for independent homelands...
Assam-based United Liberation Front of Assam, along with Karbi Longri National Liberation Front and Dima Halam Daoga, accounts for the bulk of the violence in Assam, the report said.
The report said last year there were 474 incidents of insurgency-related violence resulting in the killing of 27 security forces and 287 civilians. The corresponding figures for 2006 were 413 incidents in which 32 security personnel and 164 civilians were killed. There has been a marked increase -- 200 percent -- of violence against Hindi-speaking migrant workers in the state...
The number of violent incidents in the northeastern states increased from 1,332 in 2003 to 1,489 in 2007. Civilian casualties recorded in 2003 were 494, 414 in 2004, 393 in 2005, 309 in 2006 and 498 in 2007...
The UPI article concluded:
Peace negotiations launched by the government to restore normalcy in the poverty-stricken area have failed to get to the core issues of the conflict.
Ethnic nationalism in the North-East region of India receives no publicity in the West; there is no Western condemnation of India for the many hundreds of deaths which this problem causes, or for India's failure to resolve the problem. This is quite understandable. There are hundreds of ethnic and territorial disputes in the world: most of them are rarely heard of of outside the countries affected; in relation only to a very few of them, do large numbers of people in the wider world believe they have sufficient grasp of the facts and the issues to think that to support campaigns for changes in international borders, or for greater 'autonomy' for regions within those borders, will do more good than harm.
Why is it that so many people in the West believe that they are in a better position than is the Chinese government to decide what is best for the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China, and the other areas of China where ethnic Tibetans live? One reason is that, as the Australian researcher Ben Hillman has noted:
Tibet occupies a special place in the Western imagination. For many it represents a place where spiritual fulfillment takes priority over material gratification, a beacon for those disillusioned with the hectic striving of the modern world. This is why Westerners are quickly outraged by stories of Tibetan suffering at the hands of the Chinese. It is politically correct to feel nothing but compassion for Dalai Lama's exile community and disdain for the Chinese, as if human societies can be so easily be divided into good and evil.
For the less romantically inclined, including politicians, and owners and managers of media outlets, there are also two further reasons: China is emerging as a potential strategic rival to the military and political bloc led by the USA. It is still ruled by the communist party.
For these reasons among others, the claims advanced by the Dalai Lama and the 'Government in Exile' are not usually subject to sceptical scrutiny. The most serious and frequently repeated charge, made again in the Dalai Lama's statement on 18th March, issued to clarify his position on the "demonstrations and protests taking place in Tibet", is that, by accident or design, China has been perpetrating 'cultural genocide' against the Tibetans:
Whether it was intended or not, I believe that a form of cultural genocide has taken place in Tibet, where the Tibetan identity has been under constant attack. Tibetans have been reduced to an insignificant minority in their own land as a result of the huge transfer of non-Tibetans into Tibet. The distinctive Tibetan cultural heritage with its characteristic language, customs and traditions is fading away. Instead of working to unify its nationalities, the Chinese government discriminates against these minority nationalities, the Tibetans among them.
The statement contained no condemnation of the destruction of property and the murders of ethnic Han Chinese and Hui Moslems. Indeed, for all the Dalai Lama's well-known commitment to non-violence, his discourse in which the non-Tibetans in Tibet are the vehicles of 'cultural genocide' and 'demographic aggression' against the Tibetans very clearly has the effect of inciting- whether it is intended or not- feelings of resentment and hatred against the Han Chinese and Hui Moslems who are living in Tibetan areas. To use the terminology of the USIP report, this discourse encourages 'societal condemnation of the targeted ethnic group[s]'.
The Dalai Lama's allegations have been promoted by the US government, and not merely by broadcasting them into Tibet via its RFA radio station. For instance, as Barry Sautman has noted:
An echo of this charge [of 'ethnic swamping'] can be found in United States Secretary of State Colin Powell’s January 2001 statement that the “Chinese sending more and more Chinese in to settle Tibet . . . seems to be a policy that might well destroy that society.”
These accusations are not only incendiary; they are also untrue. Barry Sautman, who is Associate Professor of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has performed invaluable work in deconstructing the claims of the anti-Chinese Tibetan émigrés. Regarding the assertion that Tibetans have become a minority in Tibet, which the 'Government in Exile' has been disseminating for many years, Sautman explains:
This is a statistical trick based on including in Tibet areas at the eastern edge of the Eastern Plateau that have long been mainly non-Tibetan, especially Xining City and adjacent areas. These have not been ruled by ethnic Tibetans for a thousand years and had non-Tibetan majorities decades before the Communists came to power. Apart from these regions, about half the Eastern Plateau population was ethnic Tibetan in 1990. In the Tibetan Autonomous Region (the Central-Western Plateau), the 2000 census revealed that 2.41 million of the 2.61 million people who had resided there for six months or longer were ethnic Tibetans, up 15 percent from 1990. Tibetans thus comprise 92 percent of the TAR total, while Han are 5.9 percent and other ethnicities 1.9 percent. Taking into account very recent migrants and army deployments, ethnic Tibetans exceed 85 percent of the TAR population.
On the issue of language; as Barry Sautman points out, not only does the Chinese government actively promote the Tibetan language, but by international comparison it has been fairly successful in doing so:
No recent work on endangered languages deems Tibetan to be imperiled. Language maintenance among Tibetans contrasts with language loss in even remote areas of Western countries renowned for liberal policies. In the United States, all indigenous languages are now extinct in California, French is heading that way in southern Louisiana, and other 'ethnic' languages face official and popular hostility elsewhere in the country.
In most minority areas of China, including Tibet, local languages are used in grade schools, with putonghua [the language of the ethnic Han majority in China] used as a second language. Claims that primary schools in Tibet now teach in putonghua are in error. Tibetan is the main language of instruction in 98 percent of TAR primary schools, while putonghua is introduced in the early grades only in urban schools. Many parents want instruction to be in putonghua for the (mainly urban) children who go on to middle school; thus the TAR regulation that requires that middle schools use Tibetan has not been enforced. In 1999, however, secondary school Tibetan-language texts were introduced in the TAR and Tibetans now comprise about 50 percent of TAR secondary school teachers. In eastern Tibetan areas, parents can often choose the language of primary education, and secondary education is available in Tibetan.
Bilingualism is also promoted by policies that require that all laws, official notices, and commercial signs be bilingual; that allow Tibetans to interact with government in their own language; and that have created mass media with substantial Tibetan components. Official policies in Tibet go beyond the respect for minority languages required by international law or practiced in European 'rights-based' states.
And the notion that the religious element of Tibetan culture is 'fading away' is the reverse of the truth. During the the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, religious thought and practices were suppressed in the whole area of the People's Republic. In Tibet, the monasteries and mosques were closed down and religious artefacts destroyed, with the enthusiastic participation of many ethnic Tibetans.
Tibetans during the Cultural Revolution, holding copies of Chairman Mao's 'Little Red Book'.
Since that period, there has been a resurgence of religious activity in Tibet, and a huge number of Tibetans pursue the Buddhist religion as a full-time profession:
The 46,000 monks in the TAR are, as a percentage of adult males, more numerous than monks in all other Buddhist lands and far exceed the density of priests in Catholic Poland and Ireland. (Indeed, there are only 45,000 priests among America’s 61 million Roman Catholics.) China does limit the number of monks, but so too did the Dalai Lama when he was in power. In old Tibet, most monks were sent to monasteries by their parents at 7 to 10 years of age without regard to their wishes. It may not be unreasonable for the authorities today, when there are many more schools, to allow only adults to become monks. The degree of regulation of religion—whether to allow the display of Dalai Lama portraits and to conduct political campaigns in monasteries—mainly depends on the authorities’ perception of the degree of local separatist sentiment; thus a more liberal attitude can be found in the eastern Tibetan areas than in the TAR. Increased separatist activity that may be linked to the émigrés or the seeming successes of the émigré internationalization campaign typically generates tightened regulation of the monasteries through expulsions and political study sessions.
In a more recent article, Barry Sautman adds:
Western scholars of Tibetan literature and art forms have attested that it is flourishing as never before.
The false allegations by the Tibetan émigrés are used to support an aim that both ambiguous and ambitious. Radical elements, including activists in the Tibetan Youth Congress, are promoting national independence. The Dalai Lama's objective is interpreted as being limited to the achievement of genuine 'autonomy'. But the latter position is misleading, in two ways. Firstly, as Barry Sautman remarks:
However much he [the Dalai Lama] may characterize his own position as seeking only greater autonomy for Tibet... he is unwillingto recognize that Tibet is legitimately part of China, an act that China demands of him as a precondition to formal negotiations.
Secondly, the area to which all the factions around the 'Government in Exile' lay claim goes far beyond the area of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. As a BBC article notes:
Tibet's government-in-exile, based in northern India, has a very different concept of its homeland. A term often used is Greater Tibet, which covers the TAR, the whole of Qinghai province, western parts of Sichuan, areas of Yunnan and a corner of Gansu.
The area of this 'Greater Tibet' is almost one quarter of the territory of the People's Republic of China. The majority of the population in this vast area is ethnicly non-Tibetan.
Greater Tibet, as envisaged by the Dalai Lama's 'Government in Exile'.
The legalistic justification put forward in support of the assertion that the Chinese Government's authority in Tibet is not legitimate, is that the area which is now the Tibetan Autonomous Region enjoyed 'de-facto independence' from China for a period in the early to mid 20th Century. This, as Barry Sautman notes, has no basis in international law:
Tibet, from the fall of the Qing dynasty to the outset of Chinese Communist Party rule (that is, from 1913 to 1951), is often described as having had 'de facto independence.' Regions may slip outside the control of weak states that had governed them and that still assert claims to sovereignty over them, but no category of 'de facto independence' in international law entitles an alienated region to be deemed a state by other states...
Under international law, 'de facto independence' for a state only results when major states extend official recognition, as with Bangladesh in 1971 and the former Yugoslav republics in the early 1990s. Major states may do so when a prior claimant central government in fact or in law relinquishes its claim, as in the Soviet case... No major state recognized 'de facto independent' Tibet because China had a colorable claim to sovereignty. A United States State Department spokesman noted in 1999 that since 1942 the United States has regarded Tibet as part of China, and during the 1940s United States actions repeatedly affirmed that view.
Even though China remained a weak, divided and invaded country during the first half of the 20th Century, no major state ever gave official recognition to Tibet as a separate national entity. During World War 2, when China was a key ally of the United States against Japan, the USA made its position explicit: Tibet is part of China. Following the defeat of Japan, the Chinese communist and capitalist forces resumed their civil war, which continued until the communist victory in 1949. As Sautman remarks:
Forty years of civil wars and Japanese aggression had left much of China outside central control, even though these areas remained part of China in the view of the national government and other states. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Beijing thus made agreements for 'peaceful liberation' with many local leaders in, for example, the Yunnan, Xinjiang, and Hunan regions. Unlike the agreements between the United States and Native Americans, which noted their nationhood but denied them the rights of citizens, China reincorporated errant regions on the basis of the legal equality of all ethnic groups...
Moreover, the recovery of alienated parts of China by the new regime was not tantamount to invasion or occupation any more than the armed action undertaken by United States President Abraham Lincoln after he declared in his First Inaugural Address in 1861 that the perpetuity of national integrity is a universally recognized principle.
Subsequent incumbents of the office once held by Abraham Lincoln have not all been consistent in recognising the national integrity of other countries as a universal principle.
The slaves of Shangri la
But having dismissed the Dalai Lama's claim of 'cultural genocide', it must be conceded that there is a very significant aspect of the old Tibetan way of life that has been completely eradicated by the People's Republic of China. The reforms of the late 1950s and early 1960s destroyed the former socio-economic structure of Tibet. The Dalai Lama has evoked a wistful nostalgia for this this bygone era, which was smashed by the communists:
Tibetan civilization has a long and rich history. The pervasive influence of Buddhism and the rigors of life amid the wide open spaces of an unspoiled environment resulted in a society dedicated to peace and harmony. We enjoyed freedom and contentment.
Under this regime of freedom and contentment, 95% of the population could not read or write in their own or any other language. Average life expectancy in 1951 was 35.5 years. As Michael Parenti has observed, not all the inhabitants of the wide open spaces of old Tibet enjoyed a Shangri-La lifestyle:
In 1953, the greater part of the rural population -- some 700,000 of an estimated total population of 1,250,000 -- were serfs. Tied to the land, they were allotted only a small parcel to grow their own food. Serfs and other peasants generally went without schooling or medical care. They spent most of their time laboring for the monasteries and individual high-ranking lamas, or for a secular aristocracy that numbered not more than 200 wealthy families. In effect, they were owned by their masters who told them what crops to grow and what animals to raise. They could not get married without the consent of their lord or lama. A serf might easily be separated from his family should the owner send him to work in a distant location. Serfs could be sold by their masters, or subjected to torture and death.
A Tibetan lord would often take his pick of females in the serf population, if we are to believe one 22-year old woman, herself a runaway serf: "All pretty serf girls were usually taken by the owner as house servants and used as he wished." They "were just slaves without rights." Serfs needed permission to go anywhere. Landowners had legal authority to capture and forcibly bring back those who tried to flee. A 24-year old runaway serf, interviewed by Anna Louise Strong, welcomed the Chinese intervention as a "liberation." During his time as a serf he claims he was not much different from a draft animal, subjected to incessant toil, hunger, and cold, unable to read or write, and knowing nothing at all...
In addition to being under a lifetime bond to work the lord's land -- or the monastery's land -- without pay, the serfs were obliged to repair the lord's houses, transport his crops, and collect his firewood. They were also expected to provide carrying animals and transportation on demand. "It was an efficient system of economic exploitation that guaranteed to the country's religious and secular elites a permanent and secure labor force to cultivate their land holdings without burdening them either with any direct day-to-day responsibility for the serf's subsistence and without the need to compete for labor in a market context."
The common people labored under the twin burdens of the corvée (forced unpaid labor on behalf of the lord) and onerous tithes. They were taxed upon getting married, taxed for the birth of each child, and for every death in the family. They were taxed for planting a new tree in their yard, for keeping domestic or barnyard animals, for owning a flower pot, or putting a bell on an animal. There were taxes for religious festivals, for singing, dancing, drumming, and bell ringing. People were taxed for being sent to prison and upon being released. Even beggars were taxed. Those who could not find work were taxed for being unemployed, and if they traveled to another village in search of work, they paid a passage tax. When people could not pay, the monasteries lent them money at 20 to 50 percent interest. Some debts were handed down from father to son to grandson. Debtors who could not meet their obligations risked being placed into slavery for as long as the monastery demanded, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
The theocracy's religious teachings buttressed its class order. The poor and afflicted were taught that they had brought their troubles upon themselves because of their foolish and wicked ways in previous lives. Hence they had to accept the misery of their present existence as an atonement and in anticipation that their lot would improve upon being reborn. The rich and powerful of course treated their good fortune as a reward for -- and tangible evidence of -- virtue in past and present lives.
This kind of social structure was not specific to Tibet. Much of Europe used to be organised in a not dissimilar way, until feudalism was replaced by capitalism. In Tibet, the Medieval order was not overturned until the late 1950s and early '60s of the Twentieth Century.
On the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the victorious communists made it clear that the the area which was under the control of the Dalai Lama (or to be more exact, given that the Dalai Lama was only 13 years old at the time, the theocratic lords around the Dalai Lama) and which since 1913 had enjoyed so-called 'de-facto independence' from Beijing, would be included in the territory of the PRC. When this area, which later became the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) was re-taken into Chinese control in 1951, the communists did not for several years take action to change the structure of Tibetan society.
At the National People's Congress, Beijing 1954: The Panchen Lama, Chairman Mao, and the Dalai Lama.
Tenzin Gyatso, the teenage boy who at the age of two had been annointed as the 14th Dalai Lama, retained his position at the top of this structure; on the basis of a treaty known as the '17 Point Agreement', negotiated with the communist leaders, Gyatso co-operated with the Chinese government. In 1954, together with the Panchen Lama, he travelled to Beijing to attend the first National People's Congress (NPC) of the People's Republic of China; after his arrival he accepted the position of Vice-Chairman of the NPC Standing Committee. In 1956, at the age of 21, Tenzin Gyatso accepted another key position, as chair of the committee in charge of establishing the political structures of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China.
When the communists began to implement social changes in Tibetan areas, they started them in places which had, prior to 1949, not been under the rule of the group around the Dalai Lama. As Professor Tom Grunfeld of the State University of New York explains, significant armed resistance did not begin until the communist party and the state began to reform the Tibetan social structures:
*[In] 1956... the Chinese began to impose revolutionary changes upon the Tibetans in Kham (eastern Tibet to the Tibetans, the province of Xikang to the Chinese). While Tibetans inside the TAR saw little change to their lives and therefore, for the most part, acquiesced to Chinese rule, Tibetans outside the TAR felt, quite rightly, that their traditional lives were under threat and a revolt against Chinese rule ensued. The Chinese responded harshly which further alienated the Tibetans and a war between Tibetans and Chinese broke out in eastern Tibet, eventually making its way westward into the TAR.
Military actions against Chinese government forces included an armed insurrection in Lhasa in 1959; it was only following the defeat of this uprising that the communist authorities seized their moment, and moved to abolish feudalism and theocracy in the TAR area, setting up in their place socialist institutions including collective ownership of the land. The Dalai Lama fled to India where he established his 'Government in Exile', and guerilla warfare in Tibet continued until 1969.
Thus, at least in its origins, the struggle to 'free Tibet' cannot with full accuracy be portrayed as a struggle against Chinese control. Chinese control was, however reluctantly, accepted by the Dalai Lama and his allies in 'historic Tibet'. What they fought against was the abolition of the Medieval structures of Tibetan society.
There was also another very important factor. Prof Grunfeld adds:
The CIA became engaged sometime around 1956 and ended their participation in the late 1960s as far as we currently know. Washington’s monetary subsidies to the Dalai Lama personally continued, apparently, beyond this date, to, at least 1974.
Without this engagement with the CIA, the armed struggle of the Tibetan anti-communist forces could neither have had any significant impact, nor could it have been sustained. In a clandestine operation which was codenamed 'ST Circus', the CIA supplied weapons, radio equipment, other munitions, funding, and much more. Tibetan fighters were flown out for military training at various US bases, including the Saipan in the South Pacific and Camp Hale in the Colorado Rocky Mountains; the CIA set up and ran the base at Mustang, Nepal, from which many of the raids into Tibet were made; for other operations, fighters were dropped into Tibet by parachute from US military aircraft, and were re-supplied with equipment dropped by US aircraft. The Tibetan guerilla units contained American instructors and advisors.
The CIA's most important agent within the emigre Tibetan political leadership was the Dalai Lama's older brother. As John B. Roberts II wrote in an article in the American Spectator:
...by far the most important CIA asset was an agent named Gyalo Thondup, elder brother to the Dalai Lama. Although he has remained in his brother's shadow, Thondup's role in Tibet's fight for freedom is unsurpassed. He was vital not only to CIA paramilitary operations in Tibet, but to the Dalai Lama's safe flight into exile. Thanks to Thondup's liaison with the CIA, the Chinese were prevented from capturing the Dalai Lama. " Gyalo Thondup was a good agent," says the retired CIA officer who met clandestinely with the Dalai Lama's brother to plan the exodus from Tibet. " He was smart, articulate."
To describe all this merely as assistance by the USA to the anti-Chinese Tibetan struggle would be an understatement. Although the soldiers were Tibetans, it was the Americans who determined strategy and tactics, and who chose the targets for attack.
Of course, the US involvement was denied at the time; the Dalai Lama famously claimed that the only weapons his fighters possessed were those which were captured from the Chinese.
From the late 1990s onwards, newspaper articles and books began to appear, and a BBC documentary was produced; containing information released by the CIA, and from interviews with former CIA operatives and anti-Chinese Tibetan soldiers, about the ST Circus operation. Some of this material is contradictory, and also, given the obvious anti-communist and anti-Chinese bias of the providers of the information, some of the accounts of alleged atrocities perpetrated by the Chinese side may be unreliable. Nevertheless, much is clearly true- including the disillusionment which was felt when the USA decided to end the military aspect of its involvement. According to Tenzing Sonam, the maker of the documentary film 'Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet':
In late 1968, Gyalo Thondup [the Dalai Lama's brother] was unexpectedly informed by the CIA that it was pulling out of its Tibetan operations. The agency would provide funding for another three years, which would give the Mustang organization time to retrench and resettle the guerrillas. No explanations were given but it was becoming obvious in Washington that the Tibetans had long outlived their usefulness. Besides, secret rapprochement talks were already underway between America and China and the last thing the Americans needed was an aging guerrilla army under their patronage in the Himalayas. Gyalo Thondup saw the pullout as a complete betrayal. "The Americans had given me verbal assurances," he says, "stating that if the Dalai Lama came to India, they would support Tibet's struggle for independence until Tibet regained independence."
Though able to cause death, destruction and severe inconvenience, the USA's Tibetan partners had never stood any chance of regaining 'independence'. On the battlefield inside Tibet, they were repeatedly defeated. Tenzing Sonam cites a fighter's recollection of one incident:
"Then one day, the Chinese surrounded us. A Chinese aeroplane came in the morning and dropped leaflets which told us to surrender and warned us not to listen to the ‘imperialist’ Americans because nothing good would come of it. After that, every day, some fifteen jets came. They came in groups of five, in the morning, at midday and at 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Each jet carried fifteen to twenty bombs. We were in the high plains so there was nowhere to hide. The five jets made quick rounds and killed animals and men. We suffered huge casualties."
Though the Chinese bombs killed many people, the message in the leaflets which preceded them was true. The Americans were imperialists, cynically manipulating their Tibetan footsoldiers. And nothing good came of it.
Following the termination of US involvement in the guerilla base at Mustang in Nepal, the Nepalese government in 1974 took military action to close down the base. Accepting the inevitable, the Dalai Lama sent a taped message to the Tibetan fighters, appealing to them to lay down their weapons. Most of the guerillas surrendered, some committed suicide, and others who fled or resisted were shot to death by the Nepalese Army.
That was the miserable end of an armed force which, for the US authorities, had never been anything more than a pawn in the USA's overall Cold War strategy. As Tenzing Sonam's account shows, the US side had deceived its Tibetan partners about the nature of the ST Circus operation:
Although it was never the official American policy, the Tibetans were led to believe – and perhaps their American mentors came to believe it themselves – that they were being trained for the fight to regain Tibet’s independence. Thinley Paljor, who worked as an interpreter at Camp Hale, recalls, "During the training period, we learned that the objective of our training was to gain our independence..." But Sam Halpern, a senior CIA officer at the time, has no illusions about what the aim of ST Circus was: "I think basically the whole idea was to keep the Chinese occupied somehow…keep them annoyed…keep them disturbed. Nobody wanted to go to war over Tibet, that’s pretty clear. I would think that from the American point of view it wasn’t going to cost us very much, either money or manpower. Anyway it wasn’t our manpower involved, it was the Tibetan manpower, and we would be willing to help the Tibetans become a running sore and a nuisance to the Chinese."
The Americans told one lie to the world public and a different lie to their Tibetan allies; these Tibetan allies lied too, denying the US involvement. The people who had been telling the truth were the Chinese Communists.
When some of the facts about ST Circus began to emerge in the late 1990s, the Dalai Lama was put in an embarassing position. How could His Holiness explain his involvement in the conspiracy with the CIA, and how could he explain his denial of that conspiracy? In 1998, the Tibetan 'Government in Exile' issued a statement to clarify the matter, giving an explanation which relied on the assurance that there had been a deception within a deception- the Dalai Lama had, they insisted, been deceived by his loyal brothers... in order to protect him:
In sharp reaction to media reports about CIA's secret financial support, from late '50s till early '70s, to the Tibetan resistance movement and the Dalai Lama following the release of certain declassified documents by the United States Senate department last month, Tibetan Minister of Information and International Relations T C Tethong said the Dalai Lama was nowhere involved in the CIA help, though the American intelligence wing had links with the early guerrilla operations waged by Tibetan freedom fighters.
The minister said that in his autobiography (Freedom in Exile), the Dalai Lama has already mentioned: "Naturally, my brothers judged it wise to keep this information (about CIA involvement in Tibet) away from me. They knew what my reaction would have been.''
Tethong said all the financial transactions during early guerrilla operations were in fact handled by the elder brother of the Dalai Lama, Gyalo Thondup. While the money (cited by the declassified documents as 1.7 million dollars a year) allocated for the resistance movements by CIA was spent on training of the volunteers and guerrilla operations against China, the subsidy earmarked for the Dalai Lama (amounting to 180,000 dollars) was utilised to finance the setting up of offices of Tibet in Geneva and New York and for other international lobby activities.
"In as much as the CIA's help proved crucial and a necessary support to the Tibetan freedom struggle in initial stages, the concerned authorities like Gyalo Thondup deliberately opted to keep the Dalai Lama out of the picture because of his age, religious sensibilities and mainly because the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government were then making their best efforts to make the 17-point agreement with China succeed,'' the Minister held, asserting that the CIA and other involved intelligence authorities were even denied meetings with the Dalai Lama despite their repeated requests then.
In defending His Holiness against the charges against him, by means of the bizarre assertion that the sole and undisputed leader knew nothing about the financial and military operations of his own 'Government in Exile', this statement relies on further falsehoods. In fact, the '17 Point Agreement' collapsed in 1959. The Dalai Lama was hardly in his very delicate youth during the whole period of CIA military support and direction. In 1959 he was 24 years old, and by 1968 he was 33 years old.
However, the statement does raise interesting points. It would be useful to discover which Western intelligence agencies, besides the CIA, were among the "other involved intelligence authorities". And it is of note that the international lobbying activity, conducted by the 'Government in Exile' from its offices in New York and Geneva, was also financed by the US government via the CIA.
Balance of fear
The rapprochement between the USA and China, for which the anti-Chinese Tibetan guerilla struggle was sacrificed by the US, set the scene for dramatic changes. In the 1970s, the People's Republic of China was drawn into an alliance with the United States against the Soviet Union; as part of the deal, the USA's economic sanctions against China were relaxed. The Chinese were thereby enabled to re-equip their industries with relatively advanced foreign technology, and to start exporting manufactured products to the lucrative consumer markets of North America and Western Europe.
Thus began China's rapid and sustained industrial modernisation. The USA gained greatly also- strategically, through China's assistance in helping to isolate, demoralise and finally defeat the USSR; ideologically, as China's economic reforms dealt a bitter blow to the conception of socialism as an alternative system to capitalism; financially, through the profits made by US companies engaging with China, and by China's supply of billions of dollars to maintain the USA's financial system.
But the longer-term consequence for the USA- the emergence of the People's Republic of China, still under communist party rule, as a potential challenger to the United States as the world's dominant economic, political and military power- is beginning to loom large in the calculations of ideologists and policymakers.
As early as 2000, the document 'Rebuilding America's Defenses', issued by the neo-conservative think tank Project for a New American century (PNAC), emphasised the need for the USA to "deter the rise of a new great power competitor". The document, which specifically referred to "anxieties about the rise of China", asserted:
At present the United States faces no global rival. America’s grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible.
Though often misunderstimated as a strategist, George W. Bush has made some wise choices. Among them is his appointment of Paula J. Dobriansky to the post of Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs and Special Co-ordinator for Tibetan Issues. Ms Dobriansky, a leading member of PNAC, has also been awarded a medal by the National Endowment for Democracy. Paula J. Dobriansky has taken a leading role, both in reinforcing the USA's relationship with the Dalai Lama and also in recruiting celebrity support for the cause of 'Free Tibet'.
Some remarks by Professor John J. Mearsheimer, an academic of the 'realist' wing of foreign policy studies in the USA, are worth considering:
The United States does not tolerate peer competitors. As it demonstrated in the 20th century, it is determined to remain the world’s only regional hegemon. Therefore, the United States will seek to contain China and ultimately weaken it to the point where it is no longer capable of dominating Asia. In essence, the United States is likely to behave toward China much the way it behaved toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Or, as he might also have added, the United States is increasingly likely to behave toward China, now and in the future, much the way it behaved toward China during the early to middle years of the Cold War. In any case, even when it is not in a Cold War-type situation, the USA's international behaviour is not always helpful to peace and stability. As Professor Mearsheimer said:
The great advantage the United States has at the moment is that no state in the Western Hemisphere can threaten its survival or security interests. So the United States is free to roam the world causing trouble in other people’s backyards.
To put this in another way: when there is trouble in somebody else's back yard, it is the United States of America, and with good reason, which is the usual suspect.
Mearsheimer speculated that the moment when China is able to relate to the USA on a militarily equal basis may arrive as soon as two decades in the future:
It is... true that China does not have the military wherewithal to take on the United States. That’s absolutely correct—for now. But again, what we are talking about is the situation in 2025 or 2030, when China has the military muscle to take on the United States. What happens then, when China has a much larger gross national product and a much more formidable military than it has today? The history of great powers offers a straightforward answer: China will try to push the Americans out of Asia and dominate the region. And if it succeeds, it will be in an ideal situation to deal with Taiwan.
But, as the presidential election in Taiwan on 22nd March 2008 suggests, it is possible that China may be able to make progress on the Taiwan issue much earlier than 2025 or 2030, thus strengthening its strategic position. Already, China is extending its economic influence far beyond Asia, into Africa and Latin America; and by doing so, reducing somewhat the political dependence of countries in these continents on the United States. Unlike the USA, China has a generally positive image in world public opinion, a factor which states have to take some account of when determining their international relationships. This being the year in which China hosts the Olympic Games, the People's Republic had cause to hope that its global image would be further improved. The Chinese will now have to struggle hard to realize this aspiration.
Although it decided to release some of the information in the late 1990s, the CIA has still not declassified the main documents relating to its ST Circus operation of the 1950s and '60s. The full facts of the USA's recent and current role in Tibet are likely to be unknown for many years hence.
Meanwhile, Hu Jintao has avoided making any direct accusations against the US government, and there have been no fingers pointed in the Chinese state-owned media to the role of the USA as the main backer of Tibetan separatism. The President of the USA, while allowing lesser US figures to make aggressive remarks, has also been guarded in his public statements. There is sound reasoning behind the official reticence of both sides.
However much it fears the likely consequences of China's rise, and whatever it may do to undermine China's reputation and growing power, US capitalism desperately needs China to continue supplying money and to perform its role as an investment platform; otherwise the current US financial crisis could descend into a full-scale economic catastrophe. And while fully aware of the USA's military build-up and its political intrigues, China's Communist Party leaders desperately need the Western investments in China, and the openness of Western markets to China's exports, to remain; otherwise the tremendous Chinese economic growth phenomenon, which has supplanted the prospect of the world communist revolution as the optimism of the people, could crash- with unthinkable consequences.
Although politically and economically, the USA is still by far the most powerful of the partners; need and fear, on both sides, are more equally, though very unsteadily, balanced. For the uneasy peace and unequal progress of our post Cold War world, long may that balance continue.