On January 20, 2012 I participated in a Voice of America TV discussion on the Tibetan self-immolations in their Tibetan language program, Kunleng. I made the following points.
When discussing the possible reasons for the developments in Tibet, I mentioned that there was “One Central Factor and Two Major Points.”
The one central factor is obviously the broader issue of Chinese rule over Tibet for the past 60 years or so. While Chinese authorities continue to call it peaceful liberation, their policies during these period did not correspond to a liberation.
The two major factors may be, what could be called “immediate causes.” The first is that in the wake of the pan-Tibetan protests of 2008, the Chinese authorities launched a policy of relentless repression that alienated the Tibetans. Tibetans found that their concerns were not being given a hearing. This was further exacerbated by deliberate encouragement of nationalistic fervor among ethnic Chinese by the authorities that resulted in increased tensions between Tibetans and Chinese.
The second factor is that Chinese policies have increasingly let to the virtual absence of any space for Tibetans to express themselves even on matters relating to their religion, culture, and way of life. The misguided Chinese official attitude of seeing all Tibetan activities as “political” has resulted in an environment that has no escape valve for the expression of Tibetan grievances.
What is the message from the Tibetan self-immolations? I would venture to say that there are at least three.
First, this is yet another harsh, but nonetheless clear, indication that the new generation of Tibetans are leading the campaign in Tibet. All of the individuals who committed self-immolation have been born after 1964, and so have been nurtured under the Chinese Communist society. These are individuals who have not seen old Tibet their only experience is life under the current regime. Therefore, it is a clear signal to the authorities of the failure of their policies.
Secondly, the developments are indications of the emergence of a new reality in Tibetan society. They could be taken as indicators of the radicalization of the Tibetan movement. With access to information about happenings in the Chinese society, even though they may not be aware of many international developments, Tibetans are increasingly becoming aware of the discriminatory policies of the Chinese authorities.
Thirdly, the developments indicate that the Chinese authorities are victims of their own propaganda on Tibet that has led them to formulate misguided policies relating to Tibetans. On this, some of the Tibetan officials, both at the central level in Beijing as well as in the Tibetan areas, may have a hand as they may have been in providing misleading reports to the powers that be.
In any case, the developments have caught the Chinese authorities, the international community and the governments by surprise. As a result there are indications that governments are having internal discussions on the best approach to be adopted. Similarly, there is no doubt that hectic discussions would be going on within the Chinese leadership on this. The Chinese authorities should not commit the mistake of believing that increased repression is a solution to the ongoing crisis.
It is encouraging to see a Chinese nun, Miao Jue, in China writing about the Tibetan self-immolations and expressing her solidarity. Similarly, Chinese scholar Wang Lixiong has also given his analysis of the development on the blog of his wife, Woeser. These will strengthen the emerging Chinese public discourse on Tibet. In his essay, Wang Lixiong says, “The Dalai Lama has been pursuing autonomy within the frame-work of Chinese constitution, while China has always been implementing the laws of village self-rule. Then why can’t the struggle for Tibet’s genuine autonomy start with seeking autonomy for each Tibetan village?” He hints that Tibetans may want to learn from Wukan in China and make effort at the grassroots level, in the form of village elections. I see no contradiction between this and the Tibetan policy of finding an overall solution through dialogue with the Chinese leadership. Given that Tibetan areas are already dubbed autonomous, Tibetan villages should actually be having more freedom than a village like Wukan.
Even if the Chinese authorities do not want to consider the feelings of the Tibetan people, it is in China’s own interest that the Tibetan people’s concerns are redressed. Therefore, the Chinese people have as much a stake in encouraging a positive approach towards the crisis in Tibet as Tibetans have. They need to bear in mind the “One Central Factor and Two Major Points.”
Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, India, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Tibet (in exile) and, maybe soon, even Burma. Connect these locations on a map, and you have an almost complete arc of (mostly) democracies encircling the Middle Kingdom from its east to its southwest.
Tomorrow, Taiwanese citizens go to the polls to vote for their next president. The election is apparently a toss-up between the incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) party and Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive party (DPP). A third candidate, James Soong of the People First party, could draw votes that could determine the winner.
This will be the fifth popular vote for Taiwan’s head of state since its turn to democracy in the 1990s. These elections give the communist leaders in Beijing fits, as they represent free elections in a Chinese polity denied to those on the mainland and give Taiwanese a tool to self-identify. More importantly, they offer uncertainty and the possibility of a victory by the pro-independence DPP (which was in power from 2000-2008). It is no secret that Beijing favors the re-election of President Ma for the sake of “stability” and because of the KMT’s pro-unification stand. It must be noted that the U.S. – quite unofficially – is also said to favor Ma for “stability.”
In the past, Beijing meddled in Taiwan’s elections, but has had to reel back, as evidence of interference could help the DPP. This is an important point. Democracy, in itself, is serving as an obstacle to the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to advance its own interests. As the circle of democracies widens, Beijing may encounter this obstacle with more frequency. Concurrently, to the extent that other nations (including the U.S.) worry about countering the apparent expansionist trends in Chinese foreign and military policies, they should look to democracy as an integral tool.
In Burma, developments are happening fast. Just today, Burma President Thein Sein announced the release of hundreds of political prisoners, as well as a ceasefire agreement with the Karen National Union. In a statement, President Obama called it a “substantial step forward for democratic reform,” and restored full diplomatic relations. This follows the government decision to allow Aung San Suu Kyi’s previously banned National League for Democracy to re-register and take part in elections in April 2012.
It is too early to call Burma a democracy, but the trend is in the right direction. What does this mean for China? Recall that a few months ago, Burma announced the cancellation of a controversial hydroelectric dam project to be built by a Chinese state-run company. This was credited to both civic opposition and nervousness in Nay Pyi Taw about Beijing’s influence inside Burma. This combined assertion of constituent responsiveness and sovereign concern can’t be a comfort in Beijing.
Let’s look at the rest of the circle. Japan is East Asia’s oldest democracy. South Korea and the Philippines joined the club around the same time as Taiwan. Like Taipei, Seoul has its own complicated domestic politics of reunification to deal with. Manila is now dealing with Beijing’s new territorial assertions in the South China Sea (or as they call it, the West Philippine Sea).
To the south/southwest, India wears its democracy (however imperfect) as a badge of honor, defining its national identity in part through a distinct contrast with the other country of a billion-plus people.
Since 2006, both Bhutan and Nepal have made steps toward democracy. The Bhutanese King willingly ceded his seat to his son and power to democratic institutions. Nepal, recovering from civil war, disestablished its monarchy and became a republic. While political paralysis in the interim government has hampered progress, all parties appear committed to instituting a full democracy.
And of course there is Dharamsala. Last year, the Dalai Lama ended his formal role in the Central Tibetan Administration, handing over all governmental responsibilities to the elected parliament and executive branch. Like the Bhutanese King, his decision represents a willful yielding of power to the people, concept as alien as it is poisonous to the Chinese Communist Party.
Concurrently, the Tibetan exile population successfully conducted free and fair elections for a new Kalon Tripa, Lobsang Sangay, and a new parliament. This democratic transformation has not only a moral motivation, but a strategic one as well. The 14th Dalai Lama has served as the unifying force for Tibetans for decades. He wants democratic values to be a unifying force once he is gone, a binding agent for the Tibetan struggle for freedom into the future. Again, not a desired development for Beijing.
Unlike the rest of the nations in the circle, Tibetans don’t rule their own country. What they do share is a common experience, a common cause, and a common commitment to the universal values of democracy and the right to determine one’s own leaders and future. This dynamic should not be understated as we monitor trends in Asia. Just as Chinese military assertiveness in the waters of the East China and South China seas had the effect of driving nations on its seaboard periphery (plus the United States) closer together, perhaps we are seeing a similar reaction, under the banner of democracy, as a response to Chinese political, economic and cultural assertiveness.
Our challenge is to make sure that policy-makers see, and include, Tibet in that analysis.
When a dog is cornered it tends to bark ridiculously. I was reminded of this when reading the Global Times editorial of January 11, 2012 concerning another three Tibetans who have committed self-immolations in recent days. How else can we interpret its effort to blatantly ignore the real cause of the self-immolations by Tibetans by questioning their power of judgment and virtually calling them tools of the West?
Global Times, which “dares to touch the sensitive issues,” is surpassing the official Chinese propaganda in its effort to divert blames for the Tibetan self immolations being put rightly on the policies of the Chinese authorities. I would have thought Global Times would have shown its daringness by going deeper and objectively into the causes leading to the Tibetan self-immolations, something like those Chinese Lawyers who did a report about the 2008 Tibet-wide protests. Even a person with little or no education would know that no one commits such extreme actions for the pleasure of it. Blaming outside forces for interfering in China’s “domestic affairs” is just an easy excuse and merely sweeps the problem under the carpet without addressing it.
On November 30, 2011, Chinese Ambassador to the UN, Li Baodong, made a statement at the 66th Session of the General Assembly on Review of the Middle East Situation and Palestinian Issue” saying, “China has all along supported the Palestinian people in their just cause to restore the lawful rights of the nation.” China did not think it was interfering in the domestic affairs of others here. However, if Global Times does not want outsiders raising questions about developments in Tibet, why is it not using its daringness to look at the concerns of the Tibetan people? I know what the answer would be, but I wanted to say this to keep up with the pretense that the Global Times is different from the People’s Daily.
Here I am reminded about how Global Times covered the Chinese police action against Uyghurs on December 28, 2011 leading to the death of some and the detention of five children. Amnesty International, in a statement on January 6, challenges the version published by Global Times and the Chinese Government. “The official explanation that people were killed because they ‘resisted arrest’ doesn’t answer how seven people ended up being shot dead, and a number of others injured,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Director for the Asia-Pacific. Amnesty has said that “The Chinese authorities must reveal the whereabouts of up to five Uighur children reportedly detained” and Global Times should use its daringness to question the Chinese Government on this.
Coming back to the Tibetan issue, I do not think Global Times has to go far in searching for topics if it has the courage to address the sensitive Tibetan issue. It could look at its own editorial, referred to above, and I can find at least two points that could be addressed.
Global Times said, “It is cruel to put political pressure on young Tibetan monks.” While it mentions this in the context of the “Dalai group” (whatever this may mean), I challenge it to look at the Chinese Government’s policies over Tibetan monasteries, from the most recent regulations on recognition of reincarnations to the denial of freedom to undertake daily and traditional religious activities, both the ritual and the philosophy aspect of it, that are putting not just political, but emotional, physical and even social pressures on Tibetan monks, both young and old. That will be something writing to the Party about.
Similarly, the Global Times concludes, “As time goes by, the believers of Tibetan Buddhism will finally know the Dalai Lama’s true intentions.” I wish they really mean this in its true sense and followed up with articles that will enlighten the Chinese minds. This is because the H.H. the Dalai Lama’s “true intentions” have been known to Tibetans throughout Tibetan history and it is this that has resulted in the special bond between him and the Tibetan people. It is this knowledge that is also leading to increasing admiration and reverence for him by people throughout the world. The Dalai Lama has gotten these not from spending millions of dollars in soft power diplomacy, as some countries do, but through the simple and positive messages that he conveys.
To conclude, While I would concur with Global Times that “China’s Tibetan region has been affected by outrageous political influences,” I do not think it is happening “under the name of religion.” Rather, it comes from a Chinese leadership that is giving the Tibetan people an outrageous choice of choosing between the Communist Party and the Dalai Lama (in the process not being able to face with the Tibetan people’s choice).
“China’s President Pushes Back Against Western Culture” is the title of a January 3 New York Times article by its excellent correspondent Ed Wong that has been making the rounds.
The article’s focus, as the title suggests, is that Chinese President Hu Jintao claims the West is waging a culture war against China. He is quoted as saying, “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.”
The quote comes from an essay by President Hu printed in the party magazine Qiushi, derived from a speech he gave in October to coincide with the release of the Central Committee Decision on culture.
My first reaction was to observe, with irony and anger, that the apparently intentional evisceration of Chinese culture, as claimed by Hu, is the very thing that Beijing has been doing to Tibetan culture for the last 60 years. So I found a translation of the article and read it, substituting “Tibetan culture” for “Chinese culture” and “Chinese Communist Party” for “Western forces” where applicable.
I had planned to write a blog with excerpted phrases with substitutions that captured the tragic hypocrisy. But by the time I got to the end, my direction had changed.
Hu’s essay demonstrates that leaders in Beijing define and interpret culture in a way that is disconnected from the way the rest of the world see it. Culture, in the sense we are talking about, can be understood as “a set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterize an institution, organization, or group.” It is derived organically, the product of hundreds, thousands or millions of individual people interacting, sharing and creating, giving meaning, shape and a collective identity to their lives. By nature culture is an abstract concept.
According to Hu’s essay and the Decision, culture is a tool, a tangible instrument to be used by the Party in the pursuit of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Culture is something that can be manufactured, like an engine or a dam, operated by a controlling authority – an unsurprising notion given that Hu and many top leaders are engineers. As Hu writes, “we must scientifically determine the people’s basic cultural rights and interest, and diverse spiritual culture requirements, completely grasp the responsibilities and functions of government and market in cultural construction…”
Professor Stephen Walt critiques this view in Foreign Policy:
“What Hu doesn’t understand is that you can’t just order creativity up by fiat or by making a cheerleading speech. Nobody in Washington told Louis Armstrong to redefine the art of jazz solos, a government official didn’t order Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to invent be-bop in order to increase America’s global influence, and the Beatles didn’t spend all those hours in the Cavern Club or in Hamburg because somebody at the BBC had been told to create a “British invasion.” Instead, these things happened because these various individuals were free to assimilate influences from all over, and to work on their art for essentially selfish reasons.”
Thus, China’s leaders portray Western culture (however one defines that) as a tool by “hostile foreign powers” to undermine China. As a response, the essay and the Decision compel the Party to “raising the international influence and competitiveness of Chinese culture, vigorously expand into international cultural markets, innovate methods for culture to march out, incessantly raise national cultural soft power.” To this end, the government announced on January 5 that it would launch a 24-hour television channel in New York to “propagate information about China overseas.”
The Asia Society’s Orville Schell offers a spot-on critique:
“China confuses propaganda and public relations with cultural power. I think it has the idea that if it only tries harder, and engages its PR and propaganda machine more forcefully, then everyone will see China’s glories and will appreciate China more. But of course that’s a very strange notion of what soft power and true cultural self confidence is. It’s not something you can create, it arises naturally out of society. I think that speaks of a lingering insecurity and uncertainty about just how substantial China really is.”
Hu’s essay also reveals a contradiction in the Party’s approach to culture. Throughout the essay, the word “culture” is always used in the singular, whether in reference to socialist culture or Chinese culture. Yet Beijing recognizes a diversity of cultures in the PRC. An official White Paper says that “the Tibetan people have created and developed their brilliant and distinctive culture.” While a good Marxist may be able to resolve this contradiction by noting that the Paper locates Tibetan culture within the “treasure-house of Chinese culture,” the problem of the singular culture cannot be easily or empirically dismissed. The bubbling unrest among the Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian, and now Hui populations, demonstrate that the Party’s approach to culture is not contributing to the multi-national harmony it seeks.
In the coming weeks, the International Campaign for Tibet will release a report provisionally titled “The Case for Cultural Genocide in Tibet.” The lengthy report documents the claim that a cultural genocide is happening in Tibet. It argues that the Chinese state has abjectly failed in its responsibility to protect and preserve the distinct Tibetan culture, a role it selected for itself following the invasion and occupation in the 1950s. The report further argues that saving Tibet’s culture should be a matter of concern for the international community as a matter of policy and as part of the overall trend toward the development of a more comprehensive regime for combating genocide.
This brings me back to my original point. Is it possible for government leaders to assert upon themselves the role of protectors of a culture, when they have a fundamental misunderstanding of (if not hostility toward) the very nature of culture? How can a governmental entity, whose official statement on its self-asserted responsibility to manage culture omits the notion of a diversity of cultures within the realm, be accepted as a responsible steward for the various cultures under its control?
Is there any possibility that the methods used to study and explain the (alleged) threats to Chinese culture could be employed objectively to develop understandings of the threats to Tibetan culture within the PRC? Can Chinese scholars and citizens even find space to explore these questions free from ideological shackles? Moreover, would there be space for scholars and citizens from other cultures to contribute?
China analyst Damian Ma concludes that:
“[Hu’s ] ‘culture war’ is not truly meant to be waged against nefarious U.S. cultural encroachments. It is instead part of a battle to sustain the confidence of its own people — via nationalism, Confucian tenets, wealth, cultural renaissance, or whatever substitute that can be dreamed up — or risk the consequences. The war is, and has always been, about defining the soul of the modern Chinese nation.”
Ma’s analysis begs the question of whether Beijing has the capacity or willingness to truly understand who “its own people” and their cultures are, much less genuinely respond to their grievances. If Hu Jintao the culture warrior truly wants a “harmonious society” as his legacy, it would seem that he has some fundamental contradictions to resolve first.