July 18, 2010

Demonizing—and idealizing—Tibet

Nate DeMontigny at Precious Metal alerts us to an interesting article by spiked editor Brendan O'Neill. Writing from inside Tibet, O'Neill, no fan of the Dalai Lama's, finds himself nonetheless defending the Tibetan spiritual leader against repeated charges that he is fomenting unrest in Tibet. In fact, it seems the "Dalai clique" is behind just about everything that goes wrong there, including the 2008 unrest in Lhasa that quickly spread to the Tibetan countryside. In "Demonizing Tibet" O'Neill writes:

Whenever there’s trouble in Tibet, it will have been "premeditated, organized and instigated by the Dalai clique," says Suo Lin, director-general of the Information Office of the Tibet Autonomous Region. [Following this is a pretty funny anecdote, which I have not included here, so read the entire article.]

O'Neill is no easier on Westerners—its Tibet activists and leaders—whose deeply naive view of Tibet, he argues, serves only to exacerbate an already difficult situation, and in some cases, even creates new problems:

The one thing that should be clear about the unrest is that it was not organized by anyone—least of all a dithering monk in northern India who these days is most famous for being mates with Sharon Stone, doing adverts for Apple and once guest-editing French Vogue. [As I said, he's no fan.] Rather, in the words of James Miles of The Economist, one of the few Western journalists who was in Tibet at the time of the violence, it was an explosion of "festering grievances on the ground in Lhasa." In pinning the blame for the unrest—and every other problem—on the "Dalai clique," Tibetan officials ironically play the same game as the Dalai Lama’s fans in the West, investing him with superpowers and a special command over the Tibetan people. They vastly overestimate the coherence and influence of the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile—while underestimating the various international agendas attached to the "Tibet issue" which did play some role in stoking the violence of 2008.

University of Michigan professor and Tibetologist Donald Lopez delineates this split view of Tibet in The Prisoners of Shangri-La (Chicago, 1998). Although Lopez does not share O'Neill's disdain for the the Dalai Lama (not in the least), he reaches some similar, and in some cases, identical, conclusions. This quote, from Fred Phell's review of Prisoners in Tricycle, pretty much anticipates O'Neill:

[F]or several centuries now, Westerners have gotten Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism quite wrong. Blinded by fixed obsessions and driven by shifting needs, we have tended to regard the former as a stagnant sinkhole and the latter as a mishmash of superstition and imported Indian philosophy. Or, conversely, we idealize Tibet as a timeless realm and Tibetan Buddhism as the eternal wisdom that kept it so—at least until the Chinese showed up. In either case, both Tibet and its Buddhist practices are assumed to be static entities transparent to Western eyes. But like everything else, the evolution of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism is a process, moving unstably through time.

China has its own "sinkhole" vision and it takes some solace in it: China can tell itself that it's feudal Tibet's great "liberator." As O'Neill reminds us, the Chinese-sponsored Tibetan government refers to last century's takeover of Tibet as the "Peaceful Liberation of 1951," which rivals the cynicism of the old East Bloc propagandists. (Closer to home, euphemisms like "Freedom Fighters" are similarly chilling.)

How, then, to look at the "Tibet issue?"

For one thing, it is not unique; in fact, it is not the exception but the rule. As difficult and tragic as the situation is, there is historical precedent for it. This is not a case of a pure and happy people facing an enemy bent on evil; nor is it a case of an enlightened people liberating a feudal society. It is yet another case of a modern industrialized (or industrializing) state finding within its boarders a nation-people whose very existence it considers an existential threat. There are plenty of contemporary analogues (consider Kurdistan, say, or Chechnya, or Palestine, or the many members of Unrepresented Nations and People Organization, known by its acronym, UNPO). We need only look to our own history and the fate of the Native American to understand how common—and close to home—such conflicts are. In fact, according to UNPO (whose president is a Tibetan), over 90% of the conflicts in the world are intra-national. Because these peoples live in isolation from one another, representing different cultures and languages, a countervailing ideology has not yet fully emerged. Organizations like UNPO, it should be noted, may formulate such an ideology that will unify these otherwise separate causes.

Tibet is among many other nation-peoples who find themselves within the geographical borders of a modern state that is hostile to them. People can chafe at comparisons to Native Americans, but Tibetan exceptionalism is a failure to see what it is the Tibetans face and more, it's a failure to see ourselves.

"Demonising Tibet" is one of a series of reports ("Seven Days in Tibet") that O'Neill has filed from Tibet this week. For more, click here. For another recent take, read Barbara's Buddhist Blog post "China Unhinged Over 'Son of India.'" (I should note I respond on that blog under my first name only.)

Image: Chinese tourists dressed as Tibetans, from "Demonizing Tibet" at spiked.

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brandon's picture

oh also i forgot the most important step for all american citizens to do

8. sit around and wonder why they (tibetans) don't seem to appreciate "all we've done for them"

this is the most important step because it involves privilege, ignorance and misplaced self righteousness.

brandon's picture

i mean, american being the paragon of how to deal with those pesky natives, i've painstakingly outlined a multi-point plan for helping china arrive at the same standards of democracy and equality that americans so selflessly sweat for day to day for its impoverished minorities.

1. flood tibet with crack cocaine and cheap alcohol
2. document the supposed rape committed by tibetans against han chinese women in the news on a daily basis, also, subtly hint at tibetan criminality
3. rape tibetan women or ignore rape committed against
4. sponsor massive settlement and developments in tibet while relegating tibetans to squalid ghettos
5. increase police pressure on them, warehousing them in prison superstructures
6. regard tibetans as only 3/5th's of a person but mete of 5/3th's of average punishment whenever possible.
7. allow a few elite tibetans concessions such as gambling ventures and access to hallucinogens

there you have it! 7 easy steps to make ensure china's treats its natives with the same dignity as america does!

its all so simple

Tricycle » Chinese migrants and money pouring into Tibet's picture

[...] Read more about the pitfalls of demonizing or idealizing the “Tibet issue” here. Read the full New York Times article [...]

Namkhah's picture

Now this takes guts: Dramatic new photos obtained by RFA Tibetan Service’s Dolkar and a citizen journalist, show Chinese security forces detaining up to 30 Tibetans in Shigatse after an anti-mining protest. On May 21st, local Tibetans in the U Yuk Sogchen sub-district of Namling Shigatse protested environmentally destructive gold mining activities which have affected their only sources of drinking water, grazing ground for cattle, and have brought an increasing number of Chinese miners to the region.


Namkhah's picture

Mark: I take your point, although you seem to be cleaving down the old east-west line like Kipling. Chinese projections of their prize colony are equally as delusional as any European orientalist fantasy–an entire fictive history has been spun by the CPC to justify their invasion. The plain truth is that any thoughts other than the party line is criminal activity in the People's Republic, and a large number of Tibetans still languish in prison simply for having the idea they lost their country.

linda's picture

seems basic buddhadharma that we project our own unexamined states and desires on whatever Other we come across.

Re: "Chinese are doing far more to bring up the economic level of the Tibetans than the Europeans ever did for the Native Americans."

Do we really debate which country's colonialism/imperialism is better than another's? Is the intention to destroy a culture somehow mitigated by an offer of economic benefit?

Mark's picture

While not intending to valorize the Chinese in any way, I do hope this article will encourage Western Buddhists to contemplate their thoughts and feelings, not just about Tibet but about the Asian sources of the dharma generally. We must be vigilant to avoid rendering the people of other cultures into sterotypical projections of our own ego needs, even if we do it with feelings of reverence and love. How much of our fascination with the Asian cultural markings of the dharma transmission comes from our need to believe in the existence of these quaint, primative, spiritually pure people who remain untainted by the spiritual dross of modernity? This article suggests there are very real, negative unintended consequences of such ideas -- and Tibetophiles aren't the only Westerners who have them.

James Shaheen's picture

Before this discussion goes any further, let me be clear that when I say "China," I mean its government, which has indeed shown hostility toward Tibetans who call for a greater degree of self-determination, whether with regard to language, culture, or self-governance.

Namkhah's picture

Mumon: Except for the fact that the International Commission of Jurists determined that the invasion of Tibet was illegal and genocide was committed, no hostility. Except for the fact that hundreds of unarmed Tibetans were murdered by security forces in 2008, no hostility. I direct your attention to :


Mumon's picture

Wow, that's the most balanced writing on Tibet I think I've seen in a while, except that I think most Han Chinese would take great offense at the notion that the Chinese are "hostile" to them. In fact, the Chinese are doing far more to bring up the economic level of the Tibetans than the Europeans ever did for the Native Americans.

Tricycle’s James Shaheen on “Demonizing–and Idealizing–Tibet's picture

[...] The Buddhist Review‘s great editor and publisher James Shaheen offers a thoughtful response to a recent series of articles by spiked editor Brendan O’Neill, who is visiting and writing [...]

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