The media imposes certain stories on us, and the one about Tibet goes like this. The People’s Republic of China, which, back in 1949, illegally occupied Tibet, has for decades engaged in the brutal and systematic destruction not only of the Tibetan religion, but of the Tibetans themselves. Recently, the Tibetans’ protests against Chinese occupation were again crushed by military force. Since China is hosting the 2008 Olympics, it is the duty of all of us who love democracy and freedom to put pressure on China to give back to the Tibetans what it stole from them. A country with such a dismal human rights record cannot be allowed to use the noble Olympic spectacle to whitewash its image. What will our governments do? Will they, as usual, cede to economic pragmatism, or will they summon the strength to put ethical and political values above short-term economic interests?
There are complications in this story of ‘good guys versus bad guys’. It is not the case that Tibet was an independent country until 1949, when it was suddenly occupied by China. The history of relations between Tibet and China is a long and complex one, in which China has often played the role of a protective overlord: the anti-Communist Kuomintang also insisted on Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Before 1949, Tibet was no Shangri-la, but an extremely harsh feudal society, poor (life expectancy was barely over 30), corrupt and fractured by civil wars (the most recent one, between two monastic factions, took place in 1948, when the Red Army was already knocking at the door). Fearing social unrest and disintegration, the ruling elite prohibited industrial development, so that metal, for example, had to be imported from India.
Since the early 1950s, there has been a history of CIA involvement in stirring up anti-Chinese troubles in Tibet, so Chinese fears of external attempts to destabilise Tibet are not irrational. Nor was the Cultural Revolution, which ravaged Tibetan monasteries in the 1960s, simply imported by the Chinese: fewer than a hundred Red Guards came to Tibet. The youth mobs that burned the monasteries were almost exclusively Tibetan. As the TV images demonstrate, what is going on now in Tibet is no longer a peaceful ‘spiritual’ protest by monks (like the one in Burma last year), but involves the killing of innocent Chinese immigrants and the burning of their stores.
[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Book on April 24th 2008.]