All the media reports impose an image which goes like this: the People’s Republic of China, which illegally occupied Tibet in 1950, engaged for decades in brutal and systematic destruction not only of the Tibetan religion, but of the identity of Tibetans as a free people. Recently the protests of the Tibetan people against Chinese occupation were again crushed with brutal police and military force. Since China is organising the 2008 Olympic games, it is the duty of all of us who love democracy and freedom to put pressure on China to return to the Tibetans what it stole from them. A country with such a dismal human rights record cannot be allowed to whitewash its image with the noble Olympic spectacle.
What are our governments going to do? Will they, as usual, cede to economic pragmatism, or will they gather the strength to put our highest ethical and political values above short-term economic interests? While the Chinese authorities did no doubt commit many acts of murderous terror and destruction in Tibet, some things disturb this simple “good guys versus bad guys” image. Here are nine points which anyone passing judgment on recent events in Tibet should bear in mind:
1. Tibet, an independent country until 1950, was not suddenly occupied by China. The history of its relations with China is long and complex, with China often acting as a protective overlord – the anti-Communist Kuomintang also insisted on Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. (The term “Dalai Lama” bears witness to this interaction: it combines the Mongolian dalai – ocean – and the Tibetan bla-ma.)
2. Before 1950 Tibet was no Shangri-la, but a country of harsh feudalism, poverty (life expectancy was barely 30), corruption and civil wars (the last, between two monastic factions, was in 1948 when the Red Army was already knocking at the door). Fearing social unrest and disintegration, the ruling elite prohibited any development of industry, so all metal had to be imported from India. This did not prevent the elite from sending their children to British schools in India and transferring financial assets to British banks there.
3. The Cultural Revolution which ravaged the Tibetan monasteries in the 1960s was not imported by the Chinese. Fewer than a hundred of the Red Guards came to Tibet with the revolution, and the young mobs burning the monasteries were almost exclusively Tibetan.
4. Since the early 1950s there has been systematic and substantial CIA involvement in stirring up anti-Chinese troubles in Tibet, so Chinese fears of external attempts to destabilise Tibet are not irrational.1
5. As television images show, what is going on now in Tibetan regions is no longer a peaceful “spiritual” protest of monks as in Burma over the last year, but also gangs burning and killing ordinary Chinese immigrants and their stores. We should measure the Tibetan protests by the same standards as we measure other violent protests: if Tibetans can attack Chinese immigrants, why can’t the Palestinians do the same to the Israeli settlers on the West Bank?
6. The Chinese invested heavily in Tibetan economic development, as well as infrastructure, education and health services. Despite undeniable oppression, the average Tibetan has never enjoyed such a standard of living as today. Poverty is now worse in China’s own undeveloped western rural provinces than in Tibet.
7. In recent years the Chinese changed their strategy in Tibet: depoliticised religion is now tolerated, often even supported. The Chinese rely more on ethnic and economic colonisation, rapidly transforming Lhasa into a Chinese capitalist Wild West with karaoke bars and Disney-like “Buddhist theme parks” for western tourists. What the media image of brutal Chinese soldiers and policemen terrorising the Buddhist monks conceals is a far more effective American-style socioeconomic transformation. In a decade or two Tibetans will be reduced to the status of Native Americans in the United States.
It seems the Chinese Communists finally learned the lesson: what is the oppressive power of secret police, camps and Red Guards destroying ancient monuments, compared to the power of unbridled capitalism to undermine all traditional social relations? The Chinese are doing what the West has always done, as Brazil did in the Amazon or Russia in Siberia, and the US on its own western frontiers.
8. A main reason why so many in the West have taken part in the protests against China is ideological: Tibetan Buddhism, deftly spun by the Dalai Lama, is a major point of reference of the New Age hedonist spirituality which is becoming the predominant form of ideology today. Our fascination with Tibet makes it into a mythic place upon which we project our dreams. When people mourn the loss of the authentic Tibetan way of life, they don’t care about real Tibetans: they want Tibetans to be authentically spiritual on behalf of us so we can continue with our crazy consumerism.
The philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote: “If you are snagged in another’s dream, you are lost.” The protesters against China are right to counter the Beijing Olympics motto of “one world, one dream” with “one world, many dreams”. But they should be aware that they are imprisoning Tibetans in their own dream. It is not the only dream.
9. If there is an ominous dimension to what is going on now in China, it is elsewhere. Faced with today’s explosion of capitalism in China, analysts often ask when political democracy, as the “natural” political accompaniment of capitalism, will come.
Valley of tears
In a television interview a couple of years ago, the sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf linked the growing distrust of democracy in post-Communist east European countries to the fact that, after every revolutionary change, the road to new prosperity leads through a valley of tears. After the breakdown of socialism, one cannot directly pass to the abundance of a successful market economy. The limited but real socialist welfare and security have to be dismantled, and these first steps are necessarily painful.
For Dahrendorf, this painful passage lasts longer than the average period between (democratic) elections, so that the temptation is great to postpone the difficult changes for the short-term electoral gains. Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, pointed out2 that democracy can only catch on in economically developed countries: if developing countries are prematurely democratised, the result is a populism which ends in economic catastrophe and political despotism. No wonder the three formerly third world countries that are the most successful economically – Taiwan, South Korea, Chile – embraced full democracy only after a period of authoritarian rule.
There is a further paradox: what if the promised democratic second stage that follows the authoritarian valley of tears never comes? This is the most unsettling thing about China. There is the suspicion that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a reminder of our past, the repetition of the process of capitalist accumulation which in Europe went on from the 16th to the 18th century, but a sign of the future. What if the “vicious combination of the Asian knout and the European stock market” proves economically more efficient than our liberal capitalism? Might it signal that democracy, as we understand it, is no longer a condition and motor of economic development, but an obstacle?