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No, Tibet Is Not Free - But Then, Neither Is China

No, Tibet Is Not Free - But Then, Neither Is China

Author: Ian Buruma
Publication: RealClearWorld
Date: April 9, 2009
URL: http://www.realclearworld.com/articles/2009/04/tibet_china_not_free.html

The 50th anniversary of what Tibetan activists like to call Tibetan National Uprising Day took place last month. It marked the day in 1959 when Tibetans in Lhasa rose up and rebelled against Chinese Communist Party rule.

The rebellion was crushed. The Dalai Lama fled to India, and for at least a decade things became a lot worse. Many Tibetans - possibly more than a million - starved to death during Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward campaign, temples and monasteries were smashed, sometimes by Tibetan Red Guards, during the Cultural Revolution, and a large number of people died in the violence.

Chinese officials are noticeably jumpy in this year of anniversaries, 20 years after Tiananmen Square. Last month I was in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, where many Tibetans live. Even foreign tourists who had no clue about the anniversary were stopped in the streets by policemen looking for signs of rebellion. The colourful Tibetan district was cordoned off. Not only was it forbidden to take pictures there, you couldn't even walk through.

The Chinese press, however, marked the anniversary with effusive articles describing Tibetan joy at being liberated from centuries of feudalism and slavery. If the China Daily, among other publications, is to be believed, "pre-Liberation" Tibet was a living hell, and Tibetans are now happy and grateful to be citizens of the People's Republic of China.

Some probably are. Many are not. But if Chinese propaganda paints too dark a picture of the Tibetan past, westerners who sympathise with the Tibetan cause are often too sentimental.

The personal charm of the Dalai Lama, combined with the Himalayan air of superior spiritual wisdom, has promoted a caricature of a mystical, wise and peace-loving people being crushed by a brutal empire. It was not for nothing, however, that quite a few educated Tibetans actually welcomed the Chinese Communists in 1950. The Buddhist clergy was seen, not without reason, as hidebound and oppressive. Chinese Communism promised modernisation.

And that is what China's government delivered in the past few decades. Lhasa, a sleepy, rather grubby backwater only 30 years ago, is now a city of huge public squares, shopping centres and high-rise buildings, connected to the rest of China by a high-speed railway line. It is true that Tibetans, sparsely represented in local government, may not have benefited as much as the Han Chinese, whose presence in cities such as Lhasa as soldiers, traders and other less salubrious professions is so overwhelming that people worry about the extinction of Tibetan culture, except as an official tourist attraction.

Still, there is no question that Tibetan towns are now more modern - in terms of electrification, education, hospitals and other public facilities - than they were before. This is one of the arguments used not only by Chinese officials, but by almost all Chinese, to justify Tibet's absorption into greater China.

This argument has a long history. Western (and indeed Japanese) imperialists used it in the early 20th century to justify their "missions" to "civilise" or "modernise" the natives. Taiwan, under Japanese rule, was in fact more modern than other parts of China. And the British brought modern administration, as well as railways, universities and hospitals, to India.

Outside a fringe of nostalgic chauvinists, however, most Europeans and Japanese are no longer so convinced that modernisation is sufficient validation of imperial rule. Modernisation should be carried out by self-governing people, not imposed by foreign force. Tibetans, in other words, should be allowed to modernise themselves.

But the Chinese have another argument up their sleeve, which seems more plausible (and more modern). They are justly proud of the ethnic diversity of China. Why should nationality be defined by language or ethnicity? If Tibetans should be allowed to break away from China, why not the Welsh from Britain, the Basques from Spain, the Kurds from Turkey or the Kashmiris from India?

In some cases, the answer might be: well, perhaps they should. But ethnicity as the main marker of nationality is a vague and dangerous concept, not least because it leaves all minorities out in the cold.

So are people wrong to support the Tibetan cause? Should we dismiss it as sentimental nonsense? Not necessarily. The issue is not so much Tibetan culture, or spirituality, or even national independence, but political consent.

In this respect the Tibetans are no worse off than other citizens of the People's Republic of China. Historic monuments are being bulldozed everywhere in China in the name of development. Culture is being sterilised, homogenised and deprived of independence and spontaneity in all Chinese cities, not just in Tibet. No Chinese citizen, regardless of whether he or she is Han, Tibetan, Uighur or Mongolian, can vote the ruling party out of power.

The problem, then, is not mainly one of nationality or discrimination, but of politics. The Chinese government claims that Tibetans are happy. But without a free press and the right to vote, there is no way of knowing this. Sporadic acts of collective violence, followed by equally violent oppression, suggest that many are not.

Without political reform there will be no end to this cycle, for violence is the typical expression of people without free speech. This is true not only for Tibet, but also for the rest of China. Tibetans will be free only when all Chinese are free. In that sense, if in no other, all citizens of China hang together.

- Ian Buruma is professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College, New York. His latest book is The China Lover.

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