Who Owns Tibet?

Mikel Dunham reviews Warren W. Smith's China's Tibet? Autonomy or Assimilation

Mikel Dunham


Warren W. Smith, Jr.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008
400 pp.; $49.95 cloth

This year, Tibetan riots became a lightning rod for Chinese nationalism, as seen on the TV news programs broadcast from many Chinese cities. Even Chinese students in the United States, normally regarded as models of preoccupied scholasticism, took to the streets fuming in protest against the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan diaspora's call for autonomy and cultural—if not national—identity.

Why are ordinary Chinese citizens so adamant, yet so sensitive? Why are they suspicious of international intentions? Why do they tend to assume that foreign concern for Tibet is, in fact, hostile—fabricated in order to denigrate, humiliate, and even split China? Where did their viewpoint come from? Are there two separate universes at work here?

Warren W. Smith, Jr.'s China's Tibet? Autonomy or Assimilation—a groundbreaking study in disconnect—goes a long way in explaining why China's bitter reaction to any and all criticism about Tibet, including religious and human rights issues, may be an abyss too vast to be spanned by traditional reason or negotiation. According to Smith, a research historian with Radio Free Asia's Tibet Service in Washington, D.C., and the author of Tibet Nation, China's possessiveness of Tibet is so infused with self-injected propaganda that normal rules of verbal engagement may not apply. His new book is the history of two conflicting versions of Tibetan history, the Tibetan version being subsumed by the Chinese. It is the story of Tibetan Buddhism defying, against all odds, China's political gravity. It is a story of colonization. Anyone who is a Tibet activist, a serious student of Tibetan Buddhism, or a history buff will find Smith's book indispensable. It begins with the two separate realities from which the Tibetans and Chinese respectively formulate their opposing views. Smith makes both universes worth visiting.

As far back as the second millennium B.C.E, the Tibetans and Chinese formed two distinct ethnic groups, defined by environment. High altitudes helped formulate Tibet as a culture of pastoral nomads, while the Chinese became agriculturists in the lowlands to the east. It was not until the seventh century C.E., however, that Tibet had its first glimpse of national identity when a warrior-king created a feudal confederation of nomadic tribes. Thereafter, Tibet's armed forces triumphed in Inner Asia, expanding its influence to Ladakh to the west, East Turkistan to the north, Nepal to the south, and Tang Dynasty China to the east. In 882, after two centuries of conflict, Tibet and China signed a peace treaty, declaring that they were separate countries.

Eventually, Tibet's military empire collapsed, leaving a political vacuum gradually filled by monastic Buddhism. By the thirteenth century, the four Buddhist sects—Nyingma, Kagyü, Sakya, and Gelugpa—were the dominant economic, political, and spiritual authorities in Tibet. Monastic eminence was further reinforced by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty's patronage of the Gelugpa sect. The Tibetans governed the Mongols' spirituality while the Mongols provided military security for the Tibetans. The drawback was that Tibet essentially became dependent upon a foreign power—an arrangement China cites as proof that Tibet was never an independent state. What China fails to mention is that at the same time, the Mongols also ruled over China; Tibet and China were two separate, subjugated countries. Smith's detailed description of the subsequent centuries in which China claimed control over Tibetan territory, only to be repeatedly challenged by Tibet's resistance, brings into focus the seesaw pattern of SinoTibetan history—a tug of war that lasted up to World War II, when Tibet remained neutral while China was ravaged by the Japanese. But after Indian independence in 1947 and Great Britain's withdrawal from the Asian political arena, the playing field shifted in favor of China.

When Mao Zedong assumed power in 1949, he immediately set his sights on Tibet. His view of Tibet—as a hopelessly feudal "treasure house" of natural resources to be tapped for China's economic benefit—led Mao to the conclusion that his task was to reeducate Tibetans through the ideology of class struggle. Once Tibetans recognized the exploitative nature of the Buddhist hierarchy, he theorized, they would embrace his "democratic reforms" and discard their bourgeois attachment to independence.

Since the early 1950s, when Mao's People's Liberation Army (PLA) invaded and seized control of eastern Tibet, China has denied the validity of Tibet's right to national self-determination on the grounds that the issue is one of class, not nationality. But as Smith documents, China's takeover of Tibet was always about colonization. Even Mao, in 1952, admitted as much when he launched the resettlement in eastern Tibet of Han Chinese (designated "Han" to distinguish them from the Tibetans and other ethnic minorities corralled under the Chinese flag). Mao's Seventeen-Point Agreement, signed in Beijing in 1951 without the Dalai Lama's authority, also worked toward assimilation by redefining Tibetan territory: the eastern provinces of Kham and Amdo, representing more than half of Tibet's landmass and two-thirds of its population, were no longer identified as part of Tibet.

The Tibetan government protested, but its undermanned and antiquated army was in no position to act militarily. Ultimately, the Dalai Lama accepted China's terms under duress, hoping Mao would honor his promise in the Seventeen-Point Agreement to guarantee autonomy in central Tibet. But, as Smith points out, the young man was destined to be disillusioned. "The ultimate goal of all Marxist-Leninist-Maoist nationalities' doctrines is not autonomy, but assimilation. Autonomy...was a temporary tactic intended to reduce minorities' resistance to incorporation into Communist states."

Communist treatment of Tibetans in the 1950s was savage. Monasteries were bombed; high lamas were publicly humiliated, tortured, imprisoned, or murdered. By the end of the decade, there was a mass exodus from eastern to central Tibet and, eventually, across the Indian border. Among other things, Mao had grossly misread Tibetans' devotion to Buddhism—the very core of their national identity.

Chinese "liberation" translated into spiritual lockdown, and the Tibetans rose up in armed resistance. Even on a nonspiritual level, Buddhism was the primary ideological competitor to Mao's master plan. The thousands of monasteries sprinkled across Tibet were at the center of village activities. Funerals, holidays, festivals—even the correct time for planting fields—were tended to by the local robed officials. Mao's plan was flawed from the beginning because he never understood the practicality of Tibetan Buddhist machinery.

Nevertheless, after the revolt in Lhasa in 1959 and the Dalai Lama's escape to India, the Seventeen-Point Agreement was forgotten and Tibetan armed resistance was extinguished.

When the Cultural Revolution arrived in Tibet in 1966, all pretense of respect for Buddhism was dropped. Nearly all the monasteries yet standing were razed, and the monastic community vanished into secular life. An intensive assimilationist campaign ensued in which all aspects of Tibetan culture were denounced as reactionary.

After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, China's stranglehold on Tibet relaxed somewhat, and there was a resurgence of Tibetan culture and religion that caught Chinese leaders off guard. They had presumed that Tibet's attachment to a separate identity was a dead issue. Instead, they found themselves saddled with a revival of Tibetan nationalism centered on grassroots reconstruction and repopulation of monasteries. At first, the revival was merely worrisome, but when a series of Lhasan riots erupted between 1987 and 1989, the Chinese, "essentially abandoned the experiment of allowing any real Tibetan autonomy." Confronted with international criticism, China's propaganda machine worked overtime to prove that the Tibet issue was strictly an "internal matter."

This culminated in a fiercely promulgated official Chinese version of Tibet's history that pounded four points: Tibet had always been Chinese territory, never independent; China had liberated Tibet from an evil feudal system ruled by an upper class of monstrous lamas and greedy aristocrats; only the upper class, supported by foreign imperialists, had resisted the Chinese takeover; and serfs—the overwhelming majority of Tibetans—were universally ecstatic when the Chinese "liberated" them. To this day, the Chinese government consistently censors all contradictory interpretations of Tibetan history.

What is truly fresh and original in China's Tibet?—and reveals Smith at his most penetrating and disturbing—is his analysis of China's greatest propaganda successes: how they were designed, whom they were designed for, and why their self-congratulatory message has consistently triumphed in rallying nationalistic support among the Chinese people.

Movies were always extremely popular in China, and Smith focuses on the Communist film Serf, released in 1963, four years after the Dalai Lama's escape to India. Hugely influential in forming Chinese opinion about Tibet and China's role there, it remains a seminal example of Communist manipulation of historical facts. The movie depicts abused and downtrodden Tibetan serfs, haughty aristocrats, and monks ignorant of their own hell. The only lama in the film is deceitful and selfish, in cahoots with an estate owner to suppress the serfs and defeat the Communists. By contrast, the soldiers of Mao's People's Liberation Army are seen as wholesome and compassionate.

It would be easy to laugh off Serf as too overwrought to be taken seriously, but Smith explains why it was taken very seriously indeed by millions of people in the 1960s, Tibetans as well as Chinese. Even more sobering is the fact that its historical revisionism reverberates down to the present time.

In all fairness, it should be pointed out that Hollywood's stereotypical treatment of Native Americans was just as egregious as Chinese cinematographic propaganda—at least until recent decades. Indeed, it could be argued that on an international level, nearly every state's existence was initially based on self-justifying propaganda and the sort of violence we are witnessing today in Tibet. Nevertheless, Smith finds China's use of propaganda unique on at least two counts. The first is China's appropriation and perversion of Tibetan Buddhist imagery as a means to serve Communist party rhetoric. The Communist army in Serf,for example, is not only depicted as well behaved and high-minded but is actually described as a Buddhist military force made up of "enlightened beings," its arrival hailed in the following bit of dialogue:

There's a red sun rising in the East....The Army of the Bodhisattvas has crossed many mountains and many rivers and has come to alleviate the suffering of the people. Every one of the Bodhisattva soldiers wears a hat on his head with a red star!

American missionaries may have believed they were destined to save Native American souls, but the salvation of the Indian Nations was never a state-held policy in the United States.

The second peculiarity of Chinese propaganda is the Communists' insistence that Tibet was not, and never had been, independent. In political terms, the most powerful message of Serf is what it doesn't say. Not once does the film allow Tibetans to regard themselves as members of a separate nation. Serf is about liberating downtrodden masses—period. In contrast, Smith points out that while America's colonialism was despicable, Americans didn't try to justify it as liberation.

Cinema wasn't the only venue that propagandists exploited. In 1965, the Museum of the Tibetan Revolution opened in Lhasa next to the Potala. It contained eye-opening memorabilia exhibited to reveal how horribly repressive Tibet ostensibly was prior to the PLA takeover. Many displays were either unsubstantiated or fabricated: piles of skeletons identified as the bones of slaves; implements of torture said to be used extensively in "Old Tibet." One document, replete with the seal of the Dalai Lama, ordered the delivery of "human heads, blood, meat, fat, entrails, right hands, children's skins, widows' menstrual blood, and stones that had been used to crack human heads... for the strengthening of the holy rule." Another hit attraction consisted of amputated penises of young men, purportedly preserved for "use in worship."

A decade later, the same museum opened its most famous exhibit, a series of clay sculptures entitled "Wrath of the Serfs." Even the Tibetans, according to Smith, "describe the sculptures as so impressively lifelike that they found it hard to resist the appeal of such propaganda." One example, which portrayed a rapacious monk forcing a boy into a box to be sacrificially buried alive, bore the caption "They are the executioners of the boy and many other serfs like him in their effort to suppress the serfs' revolt and prolong the barbarous rule of the feudal serf system."

There is no historical evidence, of course, to support the notion that little boys were sacrificed for the construction of Buddhist temples, but the fact that a book of photographs of the exhibit has been republished suggests there is a Chinese appetite for keeping such rumors alive to reaffirm their belief that colonization of Tibet is justified. It also helps explain why the Chinese people oppose Tibetan independence with such indignation. According to Smith, the Chinese truly believe that Tibet's historical independence is a myth created by foreign imperialists who don't want China to succeed.

Chinese civilians may believe their government's propaganda, but Tibetans remain unconvinced. In the 1990s, Beijing tackled this problem by intensifying economic development in Tibet and resettling even greater numbers of Han Chinese. China also placed "firm restrictions on religion, the rebuilding of monasteries, and the numbers of monks and nuns." Subjected to lengthy indoctrination sessions, all monastics were required to denounce the Dalai Lama as the legitimate leader of Tibetan Buddhism and to denounce Tibetan independence—a policy still in effect today.

Smith contends that, year after year, Tibetans have watched their communities become marginalized by the sheer number of Chinese relocated to Tibet to scoop up the best jobs and opportunities. The completion in 2006 of the railroad to Lhasa was "further indication that China was committed to an economic development and colonization policy in Tibet." But as demonstrated by the uprising earlier this year in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), as central Tibet is now called, and the surrounding districts, China's policy of assimilation has belly-flopped. The constant influx of Han Chinese, coupled with the pretense of religious freedom, has only deepened resentment and quite possibly sharpened Tibetan resistance.

Will the abyss between Chinese and Tibetan perceptions of statehood ever be bridged? China's Tibet?ends on a dark note. Smith concludes that "there may be no resolution to the Tibet issue other than the one that China chooses to impose. At the present time, the Chinese solution seems to be constant and relentless repression of any manifestation of Tibetan nationalism or separatism."

Smith questions the sagacity of the Dalai Lama's efforts to maintain an open dialogue with Chinese officials. China's conditions for talks include an end to all "splittist" activities of the Dalai Lama, "which seems to mean all the Dalai Lama's international activities and even the very existence of the Tibetan government-in-exile." Smith is equally dubious about autonomy, under which Tibet would be a self-governing entity within Chinese borders, as a strategy for cultural preservation. He argues that China's resolve to assimilate Tibet negates any possibility of preservation based on a Tibetan definition, which would obviously include profound reverence for China's arch enemy, the Dalai Lama.

Autonomy, therefore, should be dropped as a talking point, Smith says. "Under autonomy, the minority has no right to any political status except as defined by the majority state... This is the status in which China would like to keep Tibet."

Given China's intractability, Smith suggests that Tibetans take a stronger stance and argue for self-determination, as a distinct nation whose people have "the right to decide for themselves their political organization and affiliation." It's an extremely provocative idea that may not sit well with the many Tibet sympathizers who staunchly adhere to the government in-exile's current strategy, but Smith insists that it has the key virtue of engaging the international community on legal footing: "The issue of Tibet is a fundamental political issue arising from the existence of two national entities within one political state. The situation poses an existential dichotomy that can be resolved only by separation into two political entities or the assimilation of one nation to another." Not unlike the Israeli-Palestine deadlock, the self-determination strategy may not force China to resolve the Tibet issue, "but at least it is capable of putting more pressure on Beijing to do so. Self-determination, unlike autonomy, is clearly defined and has the advantage of being regarded as a fundamental right—the foundation of all human rights—in international law."

Regardless of how one feels about Smith's concluding argument, the tug of war between recorded fact and historical revisionism, autonomy and assimilation, Tibetan Buddhist culture and Chinese real estate, will continue while the rest of the world looks on from the sidelines. In the meantime, we should be very grateful that Warren Smith has kept a superb scorecard for us.

Mikel Dunham is the author of Buddha's Warriors.


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phrin_las's picture

I stopped reading Dunham's review at these lines:

"By the thirteenth century, the four Buddhist sects - Nyingma, Kagyü, Sakya, and Gelugpa - were the dominant economic, political, and spiritual authorities in Tibet. Monastic eminence was further reinforced by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty's patronage of the Gelugpa sect."

Tsongkhapa founded the Gelugpa in the early fifteenth century. The Yuan dynasty ended in 1368. The Yuan patronized mainly the Sakya, but also the Kagyu.

There is no point in reviewing a book on Sino-Tibetan historiography if you do not have a grasp on the seminal moments in Tibetan history. Unfortunately, it is unclear from this review if the mistake is Dunham's or Smith's, though I expect it is the latter since he would have otherwise corrected Smith. Tricycle editors ought to be more careful when they print reviews. Factually incorrect reviews will not result in greater sales for the books reviewed or the magazine itself.

Cameron Warner, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion, Dickinson College