India, China and the Tibetans

Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal
The Tibet issue continues to linger on. In the last few years a number of Tibetans have felt compelled to immolate themselves as a form of protesting Chinese control of Tibet. There might be a lot of international sympathy for Tibetans and condemnation of the PRC, yet this does not translate into any form of significant political action. While this predictably upsets individuals and summons all the more scorn against China, I often sense Buddhists fail to understand the general Chinese perspective on Tibet beyond all the propaganda about it “always having been a part of China”. If the Chinese leadership was irrational, they probably would have failed long ago in their attempts to industrialize a nation of over a billion people. However, China's leadership is rational and painting them as thoughtless monsters bent on greed and domination just skews the picture and prevents a realistic appraisal of the situation.

The reality is that the Chinese are not really doing anything that hasn't already been done plenty of times before by the Chinese and numerous other cultures. Throughout history many cultures, many in the present as well, have insisted on forced adoption of cultural paradigms and languages. Elimination of regional cultures is a key component in the process of homogenizing a populace, whereby they are readily and efficiently put to work in the industrial machine, though it need not always be a matter of developing a desirable workforce – some countries just don't tolerate what they perceive of as inferior cultures within their territory.

Japan homogenized its population to the point that generally everyone from Hokkaido to Okinawa thinks of themselves as being a single culture, race and ethnicity, regardless of the fact there used to be massive linguistic and cultural gaps. This led to the social stability and effective management of the populace that Japan presently enjoys. Everyone is educated in the same fashion and speaking standard Japanese they can work together efficiently with no communication issues.

The Canadian state forced native children into boarding schools not so long ago where they lost their language and heritage in a generation. Likewise immigrants from Europe were expected to learn English (or French depending on where they were going) and fit into mainstream society (the immigration wave from Asia starting in the 90s was a lot more liberal in respect to expected levels of conformity). Their children might have spoken another language at home, but they were educated in English and then their children spoke English as a native language. That's why I speak English as my native language, not the Ukrainian, French or Icelandic of my grandparents. Cultural homogenization enabled the country to be integrated with a common identity. Granted, this goes against the wishful thinking of liberal ideologies nowadays, but at the time it made sense to the public and state. Social stability gained through assimilation was not seen as unfair.

Now, the PRC is especially concerned about any social instability that real multiculturalism (i.e., separate cultures living in the same borders rather than the present leftist idea) inevitably brings. When people see themselves as "us" versus a "them", there is cause for separatism, which can be the death of a state. Consequently, several million Tibetans losing their culture is of little consequence to a country with over a billion people. Moreover, for the PRC and its population, if a unified and powerful China requires the eradication of Tibetan culture, then so be it.

I imagine the top echelons just see it as a necessary evil. They probably realize it isn't exactly benevolent of them (they create the propaganda, so they know what is really happening), but then the welfare of a billion people in an industrialized nation depends on the stability of the state. If they allow for divisions in the nation to arise, most notably in contested territories like Xinjiang and Tibet, then China stands to lose strategically essential territory and resources which they require to ensure social stability and prosperity in China proper. It isn't so much about culture as it is about resources and strategic issues.

Guangzhou, China
In the 19th and 20th centuries China was humiliated and almost carved up by competing imperialist powers. There is a national consensus that this cannot and will not ever happen again. Therefore the state has the public support and political will to do whatever it takes to ensure such security is in place and is never compromised. Tibet is essential to China's strategic power in Asia. They can twist the arms of their neighbouring countries because they control access to the sources of numerous rivers which provide freshwater to much of Asia. That alone is a deterrent that will keep border states quiet, and make India think twice about overstepping their limits (atomic weapons of course are another issue). Such deterrence also gives China the ability to stake claims to resources that other nations might otherwise contest.

Consequently, the PRC elites might be unpopular on the world stage, but then they have their own reasoning for what they're doing. It isn't kind and compassionate, but then Chinese policies historically seldom ever have been. Government is dirty work. Heavy state control and firm control of the populace were part of the Qing Dynasty way of governance, and every other past dynasty. The traditional hegemonic model of Chinese statecraft sees social order obtained through a firm hierarchy and subjugation of any dissenting voices. They might not use such language anymore, but then old habits die hard. Liberal democratic values would be seen as detrimental and dangerous.

I don't really believe China will loosen its grip on Tibet anytime soon. It will fight tooth and nail to ensure it becomes a permanent part of China, just as India will do with Kashmir. There's too much at stake to do otherwise. Cultural genocide is easily justifiable if it means a billion people or more are ensured stability and prosperity. The west had the same reasoning only a few years ago. We need only recall that cultural genocide was carried out against Native Americans. This of course does not justify what has happened in Tibet, but the reality is that nations can always justify their sins as being for the greater good, especially when national prestige and the cold hard realities of resources and social stability are at stake.

Lumbini, Nepal
Interestingly, the Tibetans in India and Nepal maybe recognize this reality and have resigned themselves to staying permanently as a respected minority. I say this because they've already built massive monasteries that are clearly not meant to exist for just a few decades. All things considered they'll be able to preserve their culture and Buddhism in India better than they could under the PRC. India automatically has to tolerate different cultures and languages because it was founded on such principles and its social stability depends on respecting differences in a nation comprised of countless cultures and languages. China on the other hand is not obligated to follow such a line of thought, nor does it. Even if China became a democracy the elites and public still wouldn't budge much on the Tibet issue, because everyone has a stake in it. Even just cultural autonomy would be problematic as it could lead to issues with the overarching state in the long-term.

Democratic countries can be just as brutal and ghoulish in their conquests as any tyranny. The US and her allies (all elected governments) attacked Iraq in the last decade – two reasons behind this was to ensure the well-being of OPEC and carve up Iraq for interested parties. Some people protested, sure, but at the end of the day citizens of the western power bloc benefited from those spoils of war, so there was the political will for murder and conquest. It wasn't just western elites who gained something. The common citizen of the west enjoys a high standard of living in part to such military adventures. Economic power is closely tied to either military power or being a client state of one. In general Tibet is not so different in that the Chinese need it for strategic and economic reasons, and such arrangements benefit the common PRC citizen in various ways. Giving Tibet autonomy is not the interests of PRC citizens.

Now, going back to Tibetans in India, I noticed in Dharamsala that Namgyal Monastery (the monastery of the Dalai Lama) looks rather utilitarian. A lot of cold cement, steel and yellow paint, but not much in the way of decorations or traditional Tibetan architecture. That's actually quite a political statement, because it sends the message that this is just a temporary structure and not meant to stand for centuries. It was put together relatively quickly I read and would come down just as fast when the Dalai Lama takes his rightful seat in Lhasa once again. If they built a more permanent and pretty facility it would send the message that the institution believes they'll be staying around indefinitely.

Sarnath, India
Still, in other places like Sarnath the Karmapa's temple is extensively decorated, both the inside and out. Other places have clearly invested heavily in permanent structures, decorations and institutions, especially down south, but also in Nepal. At Namo Buddha, Pharping and Boudha you can see huge temples that are works of art in their own right. Again, there's no indication that the Tibetans plan to be heading back to Tibet anytime soon.

There's also the Tibetan colleges in Sarnath and Ladakh which are permanent. The Tibetan resettlement outside of Leh had a huge college complex built for them at state expense (I visited and met the principal). The Indian government gets a lot from this arrangement because it helps legitimize their claim over Jammu and Kashmir (the state that Ladakh belongs to) against Pakistan and China (more the former, but the May 2013 incursion of Chinese forces into the Nubra Valley says something about China's intentions in the area).

Really what this reveals is that the Indian state also expects the Tibetans are staying for good when they build such resettlement communities and colleges. Maybe in the early years they thought the Tibetans would go back eventually, but they're not expecting that any longer. Plenty of Tibetans in India now are second or even third generation. I meet them frequently.

With that in mind, I've come to wonder if the Tibetan independence movement and its associated organizations in India are not really more about supporting long-standing institutions and personal interests rather than realistically finding a solution or bringing the issue to the world's attention. 

Everyone knows about Tibet already, and clearly the world doesn't care enough to move against the PRC (it would actually undermine people's access to cheap goods, i.e., a cheaper higher standard of living). Meeting the Dalai Lama is a nice way for a politician to demonstrate what a swell individual they are for meeting him and giving him a scarf. It's an seemingly innocent way to boost your image, especially when China is protesting: it shows you're autonomous and not one to back down when China protests as they often do. But then that's just utter selfishness on the part of state leaders and it doesn't help Tibetans.

If the Tibetans in India don't plan to go home, who is really benefiting from such activism for a free Tibet? In Dharamsala and elsewhere there are people earning a living off such sentiments for independence. They are paid to do research or work in broadcasting and/or media. The hope, albeit often abandoned it seems, for a free Tibet justifies spending money on such projects. For the people involved, that hope is what gets them a salary. To disband such obsolete organizations would be unimaginable at the moment even though Tibetans in India are settling in for good.

So what happens from here? It sounds like the Chinese administration in Tibet is proceeding as planned. Recently it was reported that parts of Lhasa are being demolished to build a plastic tourist area (see here). This has caused a stir amongst Buddhists online, but who is going to stop them? The UN certainly isn't much help.

At the same time the foreign media have been outlawed from Tibet. The Nepal-Chinese border is increasingly policed with Chinese agents apparently interfering with foreign media on the Nepal side of the border. Much of the west is struggling economically and thus many might not have the leisure to care much about Tibet (ironically they might be depending even more on cheap Chinese goods to get them through rough times).

Kathmandu, Nepal
Is there still hope? Eminent academics like Robert Thurman insist we should never give up hope, but then just looking at how Tibetans are settling in India, it indicates plenty of them don't plan to go back to Tibet ever. Their home is India (or Nepal) now. Now, granted, I spoke to some Tibetan Exile Government representatives a few weeks ago and they told me how they still have hope. Tibetans in Tibet are taking more initiative to preserve their culture and passive-aggressively resist Chinese hegemony. It might be a glimmer of hope, but then if this hope was widespread why are Tibetan communities in India and Nepal demonstrating outwardly that they are settling down for good?


Malcolm Smith said...

Things probably seemed pretty grim to African Americans too, but they did not give up.

Todd Marek said...

I'd have to agree with Malcolm that there is no point in giving up. We tend to project a "dying culture" narrative on a number of groups including many of the Native American groups in the US and Canada, where the people in question see change instead. I'd also point out that it is strange to say that Tibetan culture has been better preserved in exile than in the PRC. There is still, despite pressure from the Chinese government, a greater deal of linguistic diversity preserved in Tibet, and there are also certain traditional life ways (such as nomadic families), which, while also under a great deal of pressure, do not exist in the exile communities. Likewise there are a number of traditional medical therapies being practiced in the PRC that are not, or are only just now, being practiced in the exile communities. There are between 5 and 6 million Tibetans in the PRC, and at most some few hundred thousand in exile

Shakya Indrajala said...

I'm not saying they should or shouldn't give up, just that clearly the diaspora has demonstrated a willingness to settle down for good. The large and permanent institutions reveal such widespread sentiments. We might be seeing a transition now.

It strikes me as odd that despite a continued push for independence and/or cultural autonomy on the part of Tibetans in exile, they themselves don't outwardly show a plan of returning, the notable exception being Namgyal in Dharamsala, which is too utilitarian to make you think they're emotionally invested in it. They other big monasteries though are different.

Kunga said...

Bear in mind that the fancy temples in Nepal aren't a sign of Tibetans settling down, but are catering for an already extant Himalayan Buddhist(Sherpa, Tamang, Gurung, etc.) population. The monks are mostly from these tribes and there is antipathy towards Tibetans from some of them.

The Tibetans in India live in a Bardo state - they can't often own property, travel, have a passport, etc., even those children of the original refugees who were born and raised in India. India needs to do something about this.

Shakya Indrajala said...

Kunga, I'd be curious to know what percentage of the monastic population in Nepal is made up of Tibetans. I understand some of the big places cater to ethnic groups in Nepal, but plenty are still led by Tibetans, right?