Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I keep listening to stories about the problems in Tibet. Every story I’ve heard frames the issues mostly on religious freedom, and that is partly true, I think. But I think it’s mostly about family and money.

I spent some time in Tibet about nine years ago. I vaguely supported the Tibetans and wanted them to have their religious freedom. (I still believe this but understand the issue is more complex, now.) When I got to Lhasa, I was surprised at how bad things were for the Tibetans.

The Han Chinese are distinctly different looking than the Tibetans, so it made the difference between their economic status starker and sadder. When I was there, Tibetans were generally not allowed to own a business at all. There was some wiggle room, but it was much more difficult for them to own a business. Contrast this with the Han Chinese, who not only came from a culture that had business ownership in their history in a major way, were given financial incentives to move to Tibet to open a business.

The Tibetans were, and probably still are a nomadic people mostly and they were cloistered together in Tibetan ghettos in the city or wandering around, wide eyed and looking lost.

The Han Chinese were openly disdainful of them. They were opening businesses everywhere and the Tibetans were in the way.

Then there was the kid thing. Tibetans are required to keep to the one-child policy (or at least this is what was true.) but the Han Chinese, if they moved to Tibet, were allowed to have as many children as they wanted. When I was in Kunming, in southern China, where I spent some time before I went to Tibet, there were signs that advertised moving to Tibet. They offered the chance to have more than one child and help with starting a business.

Where did the Chinese get inspiration from for this policy that was systematically marginalizing the Tibetans and over time, reducing their numbers? The U.S. policy towards Native Americans, that’s where.

When I was in Tibet, it was like getting a first hand look at what it must have been like in many areas of the U.S. a hundred and fifty or so years ago. Lost looking Native Americans wandering through industrial cities built by immigrant Europeans (for the most part.)

It was so sad to see this. It was heartbreaking. When I saw the picture of all the Chinese goods being trashed in the streets in Lhasa, that was on the cover of the New York Times yesterday, it made perfect sense to me.
In front of the big monastery in Lhasa, the one that the Dalai Lama fled from, there used to be a big reflecting pond. You were able to look at the majestic monastery than and you were able to see it’s reflection in the pond. It must have been beautiful. The Chinese had covered up the reflecting pond with tar, and made a big parking lot sized tarred area out of it. Then they parked a military plane on it. So you couldn’t see the monastery so well without also seeing an ominous symbol of Chinese control.

I’m not sure that Tibet becoming a religious monarchy again is such a good idea. The Dalai Lama doesn’t even think this is possible or good either. But the Tibetans do need the ability to open business and better ways of assimilating rather than being shut out. And it’s so sad, not only are the Tibetans not allowed to own business (except under extreme circumstances) they can’t even look at a picture of the symbol of their culture, a picture of the Dalai Lhama.


Petra said...

I have recently discovered Karen Armstrong, a former nun and, though it doesn't say it in her biography, I believe she is also a former (or perhaps present) atheist. (In an interview with Bill Moyers she said, "After I left the convent, for 15 years I was worn out with religion, I wanted nothing whatever to do with it. I felt disgusted with it.")

She gave a talk at TED (which you can see here http://tinyurl.com/2e6xpw) about the lack of compassion in religion.

(In it, she made an amusing comment about how the very religious tend to prefer to be RIGHT rather than COMPASSIONATE.)

In this speech, she addresses some of the atrocities in the way human beings treat each other and reading your post on China and Tibet made me think of this.

She didn't come out and SAY she was an atheist, but I interpreted what she was saying as, "IF you choose to be religious, use it in a way that is COMPASSIONATE."

Hope it is okay to post the link here.

: ) P

Anonymous said...

If you guys can watch the BBC's documentary "A Year in Tibet" episode 2, you can tell this is so not true. Of course, the westerners have already put a communist propaganda label on it.
"Then there was the kid thing. Tibetans are required to keep to the one-child policy (or at least this is what was true.) but the Han Chinese, if they moved to Tibet, were allowed to have as many children as they wanted. When I was in Kunming, in southern China, where I spent some time before I went to Tibet, there were signs that advertised moving to Tibet. They offered the chance to have more than one child and help with starting a business."

Sheldon said...

All this China-mania is making me very nervous and confused. In addition to using their "starving kids" to encourge me to eat my broccoli, my parents always reminded me that China was Communist, and that meant their government was oppressive and cruel.

Not much has changed in that respect; we still occasionally hear about people being "disappeared" for one reason or another. But what has changed is how gleefully U.S. companies do business with China. It's disgusting! As we complain about atrocities elsewhere in the world and deny families the ability to visit their relatives in Cuba, the U.S. does billions in business with a country that filters every word its citizens hear, arrests people for speaking out against oppression, etc., etc.

Our college (like many) has recently caught the China Fever. Seeing dollar signs from potential non-resident tuition payments, our Administration has begun serious efforts to recruit students from China...to the tune of tens-of-thousands of dollars being spent on sending faculty, Administration, and students on "goodwill trips" to visit our "sister college." It's disgusting.

I could understand if it were all about outreach or helping them in some way. But simply luring them over here with the promise of an education to mitigate the effects of a bad economy on our general fund...it just seems like more abuse.

Sheldon said...

So, Anonmyous, you're saying that this documentary claims that China does NOT have a one-child policy, and/or that people in Tibet cannot have as many children as they would like?

I have about 200 students this semester alone (immigrants, or first-born Chinese Americans) who would respectfully disagree...and they didn't rely upon the BBC to tell them anything.

Benjamin said...

Interesting perspective, thank you. I tend to side more on the idea that this about identity. It seems the monks are going to be crushed by China's military. Hopefully the up coming Olympics can be used to force some sort of compromise.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sheldon,
You are right. We shouldn't rely on BBC. They must be paid by the Chinese government. See, their website was just unblocked by China this week, however, CNN or Fox websites are still blocked.

Jeff Eyges said...

Karen Armstrong isn't an atheist. She describes herself as a "freelance monotheist".

Anonymous said...

Sounds like they are trying to breed them out. That's an old tactic.

crf said...

I don't know anything personally about the one child policy, however, from what I've read, it is, at least officially, considerably different from what Sweeney wrote.

It is the Han Chinese who are the most seriously affected by the one child policy. Not the minorities. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-child_policy

From a pro-sovereign Tibet perspective:

In the communist totalitarian state of China, it may be difficult to deduce what is the objective effect of the one child policy in Tibet.

The biggest problem I've read about is, as Sweeney writes, the encouragement of development and immigration from other areas of China into Tibet, which seriously threatens the cultural and physical environment. There is going to be great change in their way of life. Like in other areas of China, a lot of it will be for the worse.

More democracy, autonomy and education all over China would be the only thing that could helpful. How to get it? -- not likely by outpouring a people's frustration in violence. Tibet's fate can't be now separated from China's, and China's fate is firmly in the Communist party's hands. So change will have to come from within that organisation.

Kind of depressing. But there is no law of nature that says there is always a way to make things better quickly.

Sheldon said...


You seem to be saying two things: 1) China does NOT have a one-child policy, and 2 the BBC is a trusted source which claims that the policy does not exist.

If those are indeed your claims, please explain these:




Anonymous said...

I think she brings up another disturbing point.
Forgetting the possibility of another bad theocracy(remote) and assuming the description of the differences of the 'One Child Policy' between Tibetans and Han is correct:
Ok, a Free Tibet. I'm all for that. China has a history, before all the current madness, of screwing them over.
A question that needs to be asked. Free Tibet, then 'something' needs to be done about all the Han currently living/working there. And the possibilities of what that 'something' is...is truly disturbing.

Assuming the best and they just restructure their economy/politics to allow equal business/human rights to all ethnic groups..still going to be riots.

Assuming just a tiny bit worse is not something I wish to contemplate.

And assuming a tiny bit worse than that? Well..if you think it's bad now...Folks may be Buddhist but they are also people, and very angry, and they will do what angry people do, which is generally unpleasant.

Sheldon said...

I wonder if any of the hippies carrying those "Free Tibet" signs and worshipping at the feet of the Dalai Lama know anything about the history of those Tibetans?

They were a bloody bunch of bullies to the Chinese for centuries from what I've read...and the Communist takeover simply ran them into the hills.

Jeff Eyges said...

They were a bloody bunch of bullies to the Chinese for centuries from what I've read...and the Communist takeover simply ran them into the hills.

Absolutely untrue. The history of Sino-Tibetan relations is extremely complex. Tibet held part of Northern China for a while during the 7th and 8th centuries, after which they entered into a peace treaty. The Manchurians took control of Amdo, the northeastern province (birthplace of the current Dalai Lama) in the 17th century, and China held various parts of Tibet, with fluctuation, until the early 20th century. At other times, much of Tibet was a Mongolian tributary. One of the earlier Dalai Lamas was established as temporal and spiritual ruler of Tibet by the Mongolian Khan in the 16th century.

The Tibetans, like their Mongolian neighbors, went through a period of empire, but to call them "a bloody bunch of bullies" is irresponsible and inaccurate; it would be analogous to calling today's Scandinavians barbarians because of the activities of the Vikings a millennium ago.

For a balanced view, read The Story of Tibet, by Thomas Laird, which came out last year. The subtitle is Conversations with the Dalai Lama, but I think that was the publisher's decision for marketing reasons. Laird has lived in Asia for the past two decades and did a great deal of research (including many hours of dialogue with the Dalai Lama), and his intention was to write the first comprehensive history of Tibet for a popular audience.

Anonymous said...

Julia, this was a really interesting post on a very important topic! More attention needs to be called to Tibet. I submitted it to Yearblook.com - I hope people here go and vote on it. (Yearblook is a competition to find each day's best blog posts.)

Anonymous said...

It was good for me to hear about life in Tibet from first hand experience. I have tried in my own small to contribute to bring people to the awareness of the unfairness exercised upon the Tibetians by the Chinese- but it seems so hopeless...
Eva Ulian

Anonymous said...

The British were doing the same kind of thing in Ireland long before America was "discovered". They systematically destroyed the Irish language and gaelic culture. irish people weren't even allowed to own a horse!

Brahamvakya said...

CHINA, Well what to write about them? Let me talk about Tibet. Had tibet owned a stock exchange even half the turnover/ valuation of China,or owned some scarce energy assets, the world would have beaten chineese to pulp.
It is such a sad situation, Tibetan's are uprooted from their homeland, beaten and driven oout and out bred in their own homeland. For those who talk about the hegemony oy of USA right now, just think of the drangon's hegemony some years down the line. China has one dispute or another border with all it's neighbour - Russia, Japan, India, Mangolia and they have already gobbled up Tibet. They want Tiawan and they are just waiting in silence, upgrading their forces to take on the US for tiawan.In a decades time they will do it and I can assure you you will not hear even one voice of sanity from the Chineese public.
Democracies like USA, Israel or India are bound by public opinions and US has population that is morally sound. they bash up the government for any wrong doing but what happens to the communist government? they are answerable to none.
Watch out, today is tibet, tomorrow it may be japan, Taiwan or mangolia.

TeddyPhotoNyc said...
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Mani said...
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Mani said...

Nice to know about your experience in the not-so-often-visited Tibet. You might like to read my views on the Tibetian issue here. I didn't have a first hand knowledge though.

Anonymous said...

not to side with the Chinese of course, but the Tibetan Monks are not totally innocent either. There is a National Geographic article that talks about how there is a 'forced' entry into Tibetan Buddhist Monkhood for adolescent boys. And a systematic 'abuse' of these boys. These is not my story but National Geographic;s,...Just saying the truth....

Jeff Eyges said...

Look, Tibet was no playground before the Chinese takeover. Power was concentrated in the hands of the kachag, a cabinet consisting of representatives of the monastic orders and the aristocratic elite. It was a feudal society. The Dalai Lama recognized this while still a young man, and was determined to change it.

The Chinese, however, haven't brought the kind of "change" he was looking to make. Over one million Tibetans were killed in a program that can only be described as genocide. There were six thousand monasteries in a country of six million people. These were decimated, along with vast numbers of texts and priceless works of religious art. There is now a majority of Han Chinese in Lhasa, the capitol city, and the Tibetans are treated as second class citizens in their own country. And the Chinese have been engaged in a process of deforestation that's got millions of tons of topsoil rushing into the mountain rivers that form the headwaters of pretty much every major waterway in Asia, including the Ganges. This is going to have devastating consequences for the ecology of Asia, and, indeed, that of the entire world.

You can't compare the abuses of the Chinese with what was there before. Don't even attempt to go there.

Jeff Eyges said...

I meant Kashag.

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