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.
Although every year has its share of happenings and developments that make it different from previous ones, 2011 can definitely be considered the Year of Great Transformation for Tibetans. It is so on account of the following reasons.
First of all, this year witnessed a paradigm shift in looking at the historical relationship between the institution of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people as political authority was devolved (“voluntarily, proudly and happily”) to the elected Tibetan leadership. For the first time since the time of the fifth Dalai Lama, the present Dalai Lama ceased to be the temporal leader of the Tibetans. The ramification of this change is being seen not only among Tibetans, both inside and outside of Tibet, but also among the broader Tibetan Buddhist community. It will also have an impact on the future of the institution of the Dalai Lamas. In the past six decades, followers of Tibetan Buddhism have expanded from the immediate neighbors of Tibet to the broader international community. Given the role of the Dalai Lama as the spiritual leader of all followers of Tibetan Buddhism, all these followers have also become stake holders in the institution of the Dalai Lama.
Secondly, the self-immolations by Tibetans in Tibet is a great transformation in the mode of Tibetan activism in recent decades. The path adopted by these courageous Tibetans to express their grievances against Chinese misrule was certainly something unexpected by the Chinese leadership. The impact of this development is still being felt in the Tibetan society as well as among the Chinese people.
Thirdly, the Tibetan political system in exile completed the circle of its transformation; from rule by incarnation to rule by elected leadership. This development will certainly have a great impact on the future of Tibetan polity. It not only strengthened Tibetan democracy, but also heralded the establishment of a stable system of Tibetan political transition henceforth.
In all 2011 witnessed developments that epitomized His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s philosophy, “Hope for the best while preparing for the worst.” Thus, 2012 is a “new” year for the Tibetan community in more ways than one.
Like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, if the U.S. announces a diplomatic presence in Tibet and no one can see it, does it exist?
A few weeks ago, a flurry of interest among Tibetans and Tibet supporters focused on the webpage, lhasa.usvpp.gov. It is a website for the U.S. State Department’s “Virtual Presence Post in Lhasa, China.” An exciting discovery? Maybe.
I apologize that ambivalence had gotten the best of me. I’m stuck on the word virtual, which the dictionary defines as “being such in power, force, or effect, though not actually or expressly such.” We can thus look at a virtual American presence in Lhasa as simultaneously there and not there, much as physicists describe quantum particles.
On one hand, it’s there. Look at the list of official U.S. embassies and posts overseas. There’s Lhasa! According to the State Department, Virtual Presence Posts (VPPs) allow American diplomats to “broaden engagement with key cities, communities, regions, and countries that do not have an American embassy or consulate building.” Functionally, VPPs constitute two things: (1) a website for a particular VPP which provides information and links relevant to the area and country, and (2) a mechanism for U.S. diplomats from nearby embassies or consulates (in this case, Chengdu) to service U.S. citizens and commercial interests, perform public outreach, and engage with local officials, organizations and citizens.
By establishing and listing this post, the State Department demonstrates that the U.S. has an interest in Tibet. And it provides a mechanism for U.S. diplomats to be able to spend time in Lhasa and to monitor developments of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
On the other hand, it’s not there. Being virtual, there is no office. A VPP involves a U.S. Foreign Service Officer working for a few days in a city, likely out of his or her hotel room, a few times a year. The website gives no indication as to what any U.S. official has done in Lhasa, or even whether any have been allowed in to do this work (the State Department has stated that three-quarters of their requests to travel to Tibet are denied). There is a picture of former Ambassador Jon Huntsman’s trip to Lhasa, but that was in September 2010, a few months afeter the VPP Lhasa was established in April 2010.
Since a key aspect of a VPP’s purpose it is web presence, one wonders how useful it is if so few visit it for current information?
Most critically, it’s not what it should be. Congress has been insistent for years that the U.S. put a full-fledged consulate in Lhasa. Following the Tibetan Policy Act, which urged establishment of “an office in Lhasa, Tibet, to monitor political, economic, and cultural developments in Tibet,” Congress has advanced legislation in 2008, 2009 and 2011 directing that this post in Lhasa be a full consulate.
Since 2008, the State Department has told Congress that Lhasa remains one of two priorities for consulates in the PRC (the other is Xiamen). This was reiterated as recently as June 2011. The Chinese want consulates in Boston and Atlanta, and under reciprocity, they would have to grant the U.S. two consulates in their country. Keeping Lhasa on top of the consulates list is an important point of leverage for the U.S.
I think the VPP Lhasa is positive, as it shows a U.S. interest in Tibet, including for travel by American tourists, journalists and diplomats which is so often refused. It is a foothold, even if just virtual at this point. But it should not be seen as a compromise position with Beijing, regardless of how intransigent they appear to be on making a deal under reciprocity.
We should continue to urge the State Department to maintain its position to upgrade this post to a consulate, specifically because implementation requires consent by the Chinese government. The US is always looking for leverage with the PRC. If they get Boston or Atlanta, we get Lhasa. The Lhasa consulate is not just a tug of war with China over US Tibet policy, it is a statement of national interest. The closest US consulate to Lhasa is in Chengdu, some 800 miles away, limiting the ability of U.S. officials to respond to American visitors seeking assistance and to keep a pulse on human rights, strategic, social and economic developments in Tibet. A consulate in Lhasa is consistent with both U.S. policy and U.S. interests in the region.