“If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.”

-Gandhi

 

The idea of passive resistance, promulgated by Thoreau, Gandhi, King, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mandela and the Dalai Lama, has become a popular strategy among human rights groups. Unfortunately, the 60 years of history that have passed since the movement really started catching on indicate strongly that it is neither an effective nor a lasting solution to the majority of the world’s major problems. Thoreau’s country has become an unprecedented military steamroller flooded with propaganda and misinformation, India murdered 250,000 of its own at partition, Reverend Wright, Farrakan and the Nation of Islam have usurped King, Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest 20 years after winning an 80% democratic majority, South Africa is under a Mandela-party leader that publicly denounces the existence of AIDS as a hoax, and the Dalai Lama has lost all control over his message and his people.

Tibet is a very emotional issue. It has become much more emotional in the western mind than many other, comparatively much larger scale humanitarian concerns (Palestinian genocide, Kurdish massacres by the Turks, the Congolese Civil War, etc.). What Tibet is, and what people want it to be are very different entities.

The value of stopping a war in the Sudan or Somalia, places where hundreds of thousands of people are nearly guaranteed to die in the space of just a few months is very detached from our lives and has very little psychological meaning for us.  However, a charismatic spiritual leader with a life-enhancing and easily packaged philosophy is very meaningful for a great section of the population of the developed world. It is not an accident that the best-seller shelves of every bookstore in the west sag with self-help and pseudo-mystical titles like “The Secret”, “The Celestine Prophecy”, “The Tao of Pooh” and other such vapid comestibles, and are generally bereft of books about Chechnya or the Kurds.

I have nothing against protesting injustice. I have everything against painting the population of an entire country with the same “evil-empire” brush. Especially when we get to talking about China. While there are around 2.5 million Tibetans in Tibet, there are around 1.4 billion Chinese in China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan (now with a recently elected pro-China leader), not to mention the international diaspora. At this time in history they are the most economically stable and dramatically upwardly mobile section of the human race.

I have this concern about generalizations for a very good reason. Whenever and wherever I travel, I continually meet people from all around the world who declare unabashedly that they loathe the Chinese. Not the government, mind you. Not communism. Not exploitation. The Chinese. They are usually talking about Tibet, and usually curse when they say it. Most of them have never been to China, are largely unaware of the stabilizing effect the Chinese economy has had on the global recession, and don’t seem to see any irony in the fact that the majority of the things they own and clothes they wear were made in the “nation without human rights.”

Now, In spite of the burgeoning pan-global anti-Chinese sentiment, it must be recognized, however grudgingly, that there are a great many very important things that China does right. Consider the following:

  1. The “one child policy” which was implemented in 1980 (and consequently furiously railed against by the international community for its outrageous “inhumanity”) has limited population growth to reasonable levels, permitting more sustainable development –compare the much poorer, infinitely less developed, and vastly more overpopulated example of India.
  2. The rate of illiteracy in China immediately after Mao´s revolution (in 1949) was approximately 80%. Now it is around 10%. Remember that this is Mandarin Chinese we are talking about, one of the most difficult languages in the world to read and write.
  3. Since the communist victory, life expectancy at birth has gone from around 35 years to almost 72.  At the same time, epidemics like smallpox, cholera and scarlet fever (that were previously rampant) have been largely eliminated and the infant mortality rate is down from 40 to less than one percent.
  4. China is one of the safest countries in the world to travel in. The rate of violent crime is very low compared to almost any other developing country in the world. Consider the following, and ask yourself how your country would measure up: I lost my wallet twice in China, each time with approximately $500 American dollars in it. The first time it fell out of my pocket on a packed Beijing train. The second time on a bustling city street. Both times, a poor Chinese tracked me down (the second time, after a hunt of three days) and returned the wallet to me with everything in it. $500 dollars is equivalent to a year’s salary in most parts of China.
  5. The rural population of the entire mainland interior (around 800 million people) has, as of January 1, 2006, been freed by the government of its previously obligatory agricultural tax, which had been a great barrier to the ability of the average farmer in his ability to accumulate wealth and better his life for himself and his family. This tax abolition is a huge change in domestic policy and had not been expected to be possible for many more years

Now note that all this progress has occurred over the last thirty years, since the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution -without a single major war or armed conflict, either domestic or external. Remember that a fifth of the world’s population is being governed. Also note that the Cultural Revolution is often recognized as the greatest humanitarian disaster in recorded history, which lasted ten years, and in which nearly all books were banned, all contact with the outside world blocked, most cultural relics destroyed, and approval required from the communist party to get married. So thirty years ago the Chinese people had to start digging their way up from absolute zero on all fronts: agriculture, medicine, arts, technology, you name it. Zero. Now the currency is stable, 150 million people have crossed from the poverty line to the middle class, you can ride trains that travel at 430 kmph, and urban centers like Shanghai are growing at a rate of one million people per year.

China is a success story. Unprecedented in the history of any nation at any time in human history in terms of the speed of its development (the only remotely approximate examples I can think of are Singapore and the post-war recovery of Japan, and these phenomena involved much smaller populations and much more western aid).

Is the government corrupt? Of course it is. More corrupt than say, Russia? Hard to say. Are there human rights violations? Tons. More than other developing countries? More than India for example? Or Latin America? Maybe South East Asia? How about Africa? Are the Chinese people racist and ethnocentric? Sure. More than your average Parisian or Muscovite? I doubt it. Does China support dictators and exploit countries like the Sudan for natural resources? You bet. More than America? Not a shadow of a glimmer of a ghost of a chance. Are things improving for the Chinese people at a dramatic rate? Unquestionably.

But how about the Tibetans? Are they benefiting? It’s a tough question, and certainly depends on what aspects of life you are talking about, but here are some key facts about Tibet that are rarely discussed by the western media:

  1. Firstly, it is important to be aware that 60 to 70% of all Chinese nationals are not living any better than the average Tibetan. In fact, the Tibetans receive considerably more government privileges than the Han Chinese majority. They are exempt from the one-child policy. They receive discounts on medical care and education. In times of famine, they historically received larger ration portions. They also receive annual welfare checks that the Han do not. This is government policy, and it is not just for Tibetans. It is across the board for all 55 ethnic minority groups in China.
  2. Tibet was never, in any sense of the word, a democracy. It was a theocracy. In spite of its many flaws, the society under the current Chinese administration may actually be much more democratic, in terms of opportunity for the man on the street to find work and feed his family, than it ever was under the Dalai Lamas. The widespread belief that Tibet was a utopian society before the Chinese came is bizarre and very unfounded. It was a feudal society, and the infighting between the lamas and the powerlessness of the peasant serfs under them are historical facts undisputed by western anthropologists.
  3. The constant declaration that the Tibetan people are peaceful non-aggressors is incorrect, as I have personally seen numerous Chinese tourists attacked and thoroughly beaten without provocation by Tibetan mobs. The opinions of Tibetans are comparable to the (equally historically justifiable) attitudes of many North American Indians, and just as in North America, the current animosity is almost certainly much higher on the subjugated, indigenous side. The widely held Western belief that Buddhists are much less violent than believers in other religions is, unfortunately, only the product of a western ignorance of Asian history and culture. Consider names like Tojo Hideki, Pol Pot, Than Shwe, and Kublai Khan, good Buddhists all.
  4. It is also important to be aware that the greatest destruction of Tibetan culture and history came during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, which is now very much over. This period of Chinese history was unquestionably brutal for all parties involved, and not just the Tibetans.
  5. The idea that the Tibet-China relationship started in 1950 and was unprecedented aggression is completely mistaken. The forced incorporation of the Himalayan plateau into the Han communist empire was just another episode in the long and violent history of Sino-Tibetan relations –during the majority of which the Tibetans had held the bloody upper hand. From the seventh to the ninth century, Tibet was a vast empire that stretched from northern India to Inner Mongolia, and subjugated the Muslim Uyghurs and numerous areas of Buddhist China by the sword. They even captured the Chinese Tang Dynasty capital of Xian and installed a puppet emperor there in 763. Sino-Tibetan hostilities lasted until 821, when a fragile peace was finally reached. Similarly, at the time of the Mongol Empire (13th and 14th centuries), Tibetan tantrism won out in a religious competition between Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists held before the court of Kublai Khan, and received royal patronage. With Buddhism as the state religion, Mongol hegemony over largely Buddhist China was fortified by the Tibetan allies, whose lamas acted as key political advisors. The Mongolian empire was geographically the largest and unquestionably one of the most brutal in all of world history. It was Tibet-backed and devastated a quarter of the globe.

But enough of this talk of history. It’s all good and well to talk of how things were a thousand or a hundred or even thirty years ago. What about the situation right now?

So let’s consider the situation right now. Right now, at this moment in time, do the Tibetans have the right to independence? Of course they do. Every nation of human beings has the right to its own little section of the world to despoil and poison just like everybody else. That is what democracy is all about. The Tamils and the Sikhs in India have it. Chechnya in Russia has it. Kosovo has it. Northern Ireland has it. The southern Sudanese and southern Mexicans have it. The Spanish Basques have it. The Bolivians of Santa Cruz and the Turks of northern Cyprus have it too. Whether any of them will ever really get it is another story.

At this time, in the year 2010, would the Tibetan independence that the western world is clamoring for, as in Israel-style carve-a-chunk-out-of-the-map religious nation status, be possible, even if China were to allow it? Would you expel the 80% Han Chinese population from Lhasa and all the rest from all corners of the plateau? Call in all the diaspora? Break up all the roads the Chinese paved? Dismantle all the train tracks and schools they built? Where would you start? Where would you end?

And how resistant do you think China would be? Estimates run at around 300,000 for the number of Chinese troops currently stationed in Tibet, while about 300 million more Chinese men are available at any given time for military conscription. As well, a key factor, completely ignored by the western press, is that approximately one-third of China’s nukes are reportedly kept on Tibetan territory. Tibet contains one of the richest sources of uranium in the world, and this is one of the key reasons why Mao wanted it so bad[1].

But the most important thing to notice right now, is that what the Dalai Lama wants, i.e. peaceful recognition of the equal rights of the Tibetan people, combined with the continued benefits of staying united with the fastest growing economic superpower in the world, does not seem to be what the public at large in the rest of the world is hoping for.

People raised in a Hollywood culture always need somebody to despise, and China has become the new global bogeyman. The Germans are busy leading the European Union, the Japanese have been tamed down to comic books and comic relief, the Russians are too busy with their own problems, and the terrorist threat is just too amorphous. The heathen Chinee, however, remain fiercely independent, as well as culturally and linguistically incomprehensible, and therefore threatening. It is called sinophobia, if you want to get technical about it, and it is a longstanding western tradition. The “Red Scare” may be over, but the “Yellow Peril” is back with a vengeance. Fu Manchu and the serried ranks of his screeching followers have returned!

The population of China is of course huge, and is only just starting to stake its claim to a proportionate share of the world market. The global resentment over this is growing and undisguised hostility is coming to the belligerent fore. But the irony is enormous. Everyone around the world was pressuring China to open its doors to international investment all those years and now it finally has. This is what you want. This is what you get. So when you fire your own nationals and pay people a 50¢ a day in a part of the world you cannot pronounce to increase company profits, maybe you should not complain if the products have bad paint. It’s called a free market economy and you’ve been singing its praises since Adam Smith.

Sure the Tibetans hate the Chinese. Their leader was stolen from them. Their monasteries were desecrated. Their culture made a television spectacle. I do not want to make light of this, and the unquestionable tragedy that it is, but this is the way history works. Tibet is not the first, nor will it be the last, culture clash in the history of the human race. So we can draw new lines across as many new maps as we like, as if countries’ borders were the walls of maximum security cells designed to keep violent offenders locked away from each other, or people can try to deal with their cultural differences and get on with their lives.

見賢思齊焉, 見不賢而內自省也[2]

孔子


[1] Mao was not at all afraid of nuclear war (nukes were just paper tigers, after all), and the great philosopher-poet often said to his personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui (who later wrote “The Private Life of Chairman Mao”), that “a few hundred million casualties” would not matter overmuch to a nation with the size and population of China.

[2] “When you perceive good, examine it. When you perceive evil, examine yourself.” -Confucius

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