The Heart of the Matter
Some Observations on the Independence Controversy
If one does not know to which port one is sailing,
no wind is favourable.
The word “realistic”, whenever introduced into any discussion on Tibetan politics, never fails to set my teeth on edge. It invariably signals the opening of the argument that if the Tibetans compromised on the question of independence and accepted some form of autonomous status within China, then the Chinese authorities would reciprocate with concessions; which though not as preferable as independence, would make life inside Tibet more tolerable, and hence ensure the survival of the Tibetan people.
On the face of it, yes, a reasonable argument. So what’s the catch? Well, for one, the Chinese have never evinced any desire to discuss a compromise solution — not even the most pathetically watered down one proffered by Dharamshala. But certain Tibetan ministers, ofﬁcials and some foreign friends will insist that there have been positive signals from the Chinese, at least on occasions, indicating their readiness to talk. So who’s being untruthful here? No one really — at least not wilfully so.
Early this century astronomers world-wide saw through their telescopes intricate networks of canals radiating all over the surface of Mars. On the strength of this evidence, the theory was put forward of a great Martian civilisation that had once built this monumental system of waterways. There were two main causes for this mass delusion: one, everybody wanted to believe that there were canals, hence civilised life-forms on Mars; two, there was a linguistic misunderstanding. The astronomer who ﬁrst made the discovery was an Italian, Giovanni Schiaparelli, who reported the sighting of “canali”, which in Italian means channels, not man-made “canals”.
Our delusion, which eventually fossilised into a full-ﬂedged and ofﬁcial idée ﬁxe, began with the introduction of Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernisations and the announcement of the ﬁrst fact-ﬁnding delegation to Tibet in 1979. I recall the excitement and hopes these events generated in Dharamshala at the time. Going back to Tibet suddenly appeared to become an immediate possibility. There was even a mild panic among building owners in McLeod Ganj. I went around deliberately pouring cold water on these expectations and did not particularly endear myself to those who had most need to subscribe to such fantasies, namely, the naive and those in power.
Everyone talked of the Four Modernisations but no one, except for myself, seemed to have heard of the Four Absolutes — which was essentially Deng’s way of saying that aside from economic liberalisation, he would tolerate no criticism of, nor challenge to, the Party’s absolute power. I am sure that, even now, many Tibetans and friends have not heard of this disturbing obverse to the Four Modernisations.
Furthermore, everyone at the time seemed to assume that Deng Xiaoping was a fresh entrant on the Communist political scene, like Gorbachev, and not that he was one of the oldest Chinese Communist Party leaders, someone who had even opposed Mao for initiating the Hundred Flowers Campaign to allow some criticism of the Party. Later, when Mao reversed his line, Deng was put in charge of the anti-rightist campaign to take care of “stinking” intellectuals and critics of the Party. About 2.9 million people were accused of rightism. About ﬁve hundred thousand, by Deng’s own estimate (offered in 1980) were condemned. The campaign was marked by great brutality.
No great intellectual perspicacity was required to see that the cause of Tibetan independence would soon become a bargaining chip in our futile bid to elicit some concessions from China. I mentioned these misgivings in a number of articles in the Tibetan Review, but, like most things I wrote at the time, they had as much impact on actual events as “a ﬂy beating its wings against a boulder”, which was how Chinese authorities in Tibet, betraying an unexpected penchant for colourful imagery, disparaged my writings.
Whenever the Tibetan issue has received any substantial attention in the world, be it with the demonstrations in Lhasa or the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama, the Chinese have nearly always succeeded in side-tracking international concern by making titillating press announcements soon after the event, declaring their willingness to sit down and talk with the Dalai Lama or his representatives. Those sympathetic to Tibet naturally heave a huge sigh of relief on hearing this, and the situation is then effectively defused.
At Dharamshala a delegation to Beijing is announced and ﬁerce intrigues are conducted by various political factions to get their man on the team. It all comes to nothing, of course. Once in a while, though, the delegation does actually get to go to Beijing. They invariably return to Dharamshala in a daze, with a look on their faces not unlike that on Charlie Brown’s when he is lying ﬂat on his back, after having been persuaded by Lucy, for the umpteenth time, to take a running kick at a football that she never fails to yank away at the last moment. “Isn’t trust a wonderful thing, Charlie Brown?”
Aside from Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, another and equally unpleasant politician who has been successfully pulling off something like this has been the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. For the last few years, every time a US president began to talk seriously of using force to halt the bloodshed in Bosnia, Karadzic has at once cooed sweet reason, talking of getting all the warring parties to a conference, and what not — keeping up the patter long enough till Western resolve invariably became deﬂated.
To be fair to Chinese leaders, it wasn’t a lie, at least not an outright one, when they said that they would be willing to sit down and talk with Tibetans. Whenever Beijing declared its readiness to discuss “all other issues” if Tibetans gave up their demand for independence, we never asked ourselves what exactly Beijing meant by that wonderfully vague phrase. We always assumed that this would either be the question of autonomy, or some other special status within China.
But if one carefully goes through all that the Chinese have actually said concerning dialogue with Dharamshala, there is absolutely nothing to indicate their willingness to make even the tiniest of concessions. So what do the Chinese really want to talk to Dharamshala about? I think they made that clear in the only statement they issued where they speciﬁcally mentioned what they were prepared to discuss. This statement was made by Hu Yaobang in 1984 and laid down ﬁve points for discussion; these essentially dealt with knotty details that would arise from the Dalai Lama’s return to the “motherland” — after he had given up his demand for Tibetan independence: questions like his political rank (would he be restored to his vice-chairmanship in the National People’s Congress?), whether he would be allowed to live in Lhasa or maintain a ménage in Beijing; by what route he would make his journey, and so on. That is the furthest extent to which Beijing has been willing to enter into discussions with Dharamshala.
The main proponent of giving up independence and cutting a deal with China is the Dalai Lama’s brother, Gyalo Thondup, who is a minister in the Kashag. He has been energetic in spreading his message that Tibetans in exile should give up the hopeless cause of independence and return to Tibet. He is not one of those leaders conspicuous for leading by example. So far neither he nor any of his immediate family have shown any inclination of abandoning their relatively comfortable lifestyles in exile to return to Tibet. But what GT (as he is known to the less reverent) lacks in this respect he makes up for in the intensity with which he has been conducting his campaign. There has been a large demonstration by a rent-a-crowd contingent of naive students from the school for new arrivals, at Bir, especially trucked in to Dharamshala, carrying placards and banners, some even wearing headbands declaring “We love Gyalo”.
Threats of violence and arson were made to the Tibetan Youth Congress which, in an issue of their magazine, Rangzen, carried letters from Tibetans in North America, Europe and Japan protesting against speeches made by Gyalo Thondup when he visited North America in 1992. In these speeches, GT had reprimanded Tibetans living in the US and Canada for hurting the Chinese economy by organising boycotts of Chinese goods, and campaigning against MFN status for China. He voiced a personal concern that if China lost MFN status hundreds of thousands of Chinese would lose their jobs in Guangdong province alone. All of this was in addition to his usual message on the impossibility of achieving Tibetan independence and the need to cut a deal quickly with the present leadership in China.
Through threats and intimidation, an ugly climate of fear and suspicion has been created in Dharamshala where you could be accused of “being against the Dalai Lama” for merely stating your desire for Tibetan independence. One of the unfortunate consequences of all this has been the outbreak of large-scale ﬁghting at the school for new arrivals from Tibet at Bir, where pro and anti-Gyalo Thondup factions, involving a few hundred students, battled it out with knives, rocks, sticks and axes. The school was effectively closed down for a number of months, adversely affecting the studies and lives of hundreds of innocent students from Tibet. The school has only reopened recently, but residual violence remains. The principal was assaulted violently by two students, some months ago. The school had about 750 students before the outbreak of trouble, now it is down to 400.
A writer friend of mine, a new arrival from Amdo, Pema Bhum, has been constantly harassed and threatened with violence, even murder, for allegedly “insulting the Dharma” in an academic paper on modern Tibetan literature that he presented at a Tibetology conference in Italy last year. The real reason for his unpopularity with a section of politicians here has probably more to do with his attempts to dissuade the students at Bir school from getting involved in Dharamshala factional politics. He also offended many supporters of GT at a large meeting of Amdowas, where he raised a sole dissenting voice when everyone else voted to withdraw from the Tibetan democratic process if the parliamentary committee investigating GT’s controversial statements was not called off. Right at the moment a fatwa of two hundred thousand rupees has been placed on this young writer’s head by Ngawang Tempa, a leader of the Tibetan Cholsum United Association (Chigdril tsokpa), a Gyalo Thondup front organisation.
Gyalo Thondup affects a somewhat Olympian attitude in matters of statecraft, coolly making public statements absolutely contrary to Tibetan government policies — and getting away with it too. A rather craven parliamentary investigating committee cleared him on this matter, justifying his controversial statements on the grounds that they were only “personal opinions”. There is more than a touch of the late Chiang Kai-shek in GT’s political make-up, which is not at all surprising seeing he was educated at a Kuomintang school in Nanjing just after World War II, and was reputedly close to the Generalissimo’s family. Nothing sinister about that, of course. However, such an inﬂuence, especially during one’s formative years, is probably not conducive to the ﬂowering of any democratic sentiments in one’s later political development. GT likes to operate only at the highest levels of polity, and claims to be on close terms with Deng Xiaoping and other top Chinese leaders. GT once lectured to me, in his slightly Chinese-accented English, on how he had reproached Chinese leaders in Beijing for their heavy-handed tactics in Tibet. “I thole them, I thole them, why?”
I would probably once have been ﬂattered by such a sharing of conﬁdences, and impressed by this anecdotal, yet nevertheless heady, proximity to great people and events; but I had read of Neville Chamberlain being “ﬁrm” with Hitler, while Goring and Ribbentrop were killing themselves laughing in the ante-room. These days, it is a political rule-of-thumb with me that an accurate perspective on monsters can only be obtained at a distance. You get too close and all you see are rather ordinary people, asking for understanding, sympathy or even admiration. “The banality of evil”, I think was how Hannah Arendt described it, in a reference to the revelations of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Dictators, and hence politicians by extension, must be judged solely by their deeds, not by what they say or promise; nor by their “friendship” with one, no matter how close or seemingly genuine.
We have to be particularly wary of Chinese leaders. Over and above the usual set of treacherous vices that seem to be standard issue to modern despots, Chinese leaders are the inheritors of an ancient tradition of “barbarian control” that has been used in the past with an impressive degree of success against Tibetan, Uighur, and Mongol fan guan (barbarian ofﬁcials). Such distinguished visitors from the West to the Middle Kingdom as John Kenneth Galbraith, Edward Heath, Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush and others, have been courteously subjected to the same, and have all dutifully gone through their paces with the eager compliance of performing poodles.
In the last few months, Gyalo Thondup has had talks with Chinese leaders at Taipei, and, more recently, Beijing. In view of his previous indiscretions, GT has been, seemingly, encumbered with ofﬁcial minders — two on his Taipei visit and one for Beijing. The peculiar thing about this arrangement is that none of the ofﬁcials accompanying GT spoke Chinese, and the negotiations have all been conducted in that language. This has raised the suspicion among many, including, I understand, the aides themselves, that their participation was nothing more than window-dressing for Tibetan public opinion, behind which GT, once again, did exactly as he pleased.
Like American Indian chiefs going to see the “Great White Father” in Washington, Tibetan politicians have vied with each other to get a berth on delegations to Beijing. Whether this “one sided infatuation” (dan xiang si) as the Chinese so aptly put it, serves any national purpose, is debatable, but it provides our politicians with an illusion of playing at the big table, and like most power drugs of this kind, produces an irresistible addiction.
I think His Holiness now realises how misplaced his efforts to initiate a dialogue with the Chinese have been. The ﬁrst indication came on the 17 April 1993, at the Institute of Performing Arts. After watching a Lhamo performance the Dalai Lama made an unexpected political statement in which he mentioned that all the many efforts made by him and the Tibetan government to negotiate with the Chinese had made no headway. He also expressed his fears that Chinese overtures concealed a darkly insidious and long-term plan for ensuring the end of Tibetans as a nation and people. He concluded that Tibet now faced its greatest danger in the ever-increasing immigration of Chinese settlers. He called on all Tibetans and friends to do everything they could to ﬁght this threat.
* * *
One of the latest arguments of the anti-independence lobby has been on this issue of Chinese immigration to Tibet. What is claimed is that the question of the survival of the Tibetan people is now so acute that even the cause of independence must be sacriﬁced in order to ensure racial survival. But where on earth is the connection? Have the Chinese leaders even hinted that if Tibetans gave up their claims to independence they would halt Chinese immigration? Of course not. Giving up the cause of a free Tibet and having everyone in exile returning quietly to Tibet would ensure an even quicker end to the existence of the Tibetan people.
Anyhow, I mistrust this sudden discovery by some of the dangers of Chinese immigration. Right from the mid-eighties it was obvi-ous to all but the most wilfully stupid, what the Chinese were doing. I wrote a detailed two-part article on this subject six years ago in the Tibetan Review. Even earlier, I know of a number of concerned Tibetans who, after visiting Tibet, had warned the Tibetan government of the growing threat of Chinese immigration to Tibet. But some of the people who now claim to be desperately worried by Chinese immigration were often those very people who were pooh-poohing reports of Chinese immigration six years ago, preferring then to believe that a wonderful deal with China was just around the corner.
For a number of years now, the few Tibetans who have vocally insisted on maintaining the cause of an independent Tibet have often been seen by non-Tibetan supporters of Tibet as dangerous extremists, undermining the good work of all those working towards the far nobler goals of establishing Tibet as a “Zone of Ahimsa” or a Buddhist environmental theme park; and promoting the Dalai Lama as a global New Age super-guru.
Nationalism has always been a dirty word for those Westerners who have been interested in Buddhism and Tibet; and with the present murder and mayhem in the Balkans let loose, in part, by unbridled nationalistic passions, who can say that they are entirely in the wrong. At the same time, I cannot but help note that the critics of nationalism are invariably those who have pukka passports, and a nation of their own to return to when Dharamshala or Lhasa could get too depressing or dangerous. The internationalist may ﬁnd the idea of nation states old-fashioned and limiting, but at the moment that’s all we’ve got (and some of us haven’t got it). People who have it can afford to speculate on alternatives, but they should not, like Marie Antoinette, push their preferences on more unfortunate people. Cake may be exciting but bread sustains life. Tibetans would like a loaf, please.
Some years ago, when my friend Lhasang Tsering and I were giving a talk at the University of Calgary, a Chinese student asked a question which I had previously encountered in the writings of certain “experts” on China (David Bonavia) and Tibet (Mel Goldstein). The thrust of it was that: Yes, the Tibetan case for independence was not entirely without cause or merit, but the reality was that they would never get it. So why shouldn’t they reconcile themselves to Chinese rule and attempt to beneﬁt from it? After all even China, a former victim of Western imperialism, had beneﬁted from that humiliating experience, in the sense of having been forced to learn about science, technology and modern politics from its oppressors, as had other countries in Asia and Africa.
Not only is such an outlook historically ill-informed on the character of old-style colonialism and imperialism, it is dangerously naive on the nature of modern totalitarian states, especially when the state in question has the chameleon ability to change everything about itself in order to survive — everything, that is, except its permanent core of violence, lies and repression.
Churchill, in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, relates the fate of Britain as a Roman colony, after British resistance had been overcome:
For nearly three hundred years Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects the happiest, most comfortable, and most enlightened times its inhabitants have ever had. In culture and learning the land was a pale reﬂection of the Roman scene, not so lively as the Gallic. But there was law; there was peace; there was warmth; there was food, and a long-established custom of life. The population was free from barbarism without being sunk in sloth of luxury. Some culture spread even to the villages. Roman habits percolated; the use of Roman utensils and even of Roman speech steadily grew. The British thought of themselves as good Romans as any… There was a sense of pride in sharing in so noble and widespread a system. To be a citizen of Rome was to be a citizen of the world raised upon a pedestal of unquestioned superiority above barbarians or slaves.
The celebrated Indian writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri dedicated his Biography of an Unknown Indian to the memory of the British Empire, saying “all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule”.
But if Chaudhuri is too much the Anglophile, let us hear the view of an Indian less enthusiastic of British rule. Gandhi, in his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, says: “Hardly ever have I known anybody to cherish such loyalty as I did to the British Constitution. I can see now that my love of truth was at the root of this loyalty. It has never been possible for me to simulate loyalty or, for that matter any other virtue… Not that I was unaware of the defects in British rule, but I thought it was on the whole acceptable. In those days I believed that British rule was on the whole beneﬁcial to the ruled.”
I am not trying to justify Roman, British, or any other kind of imperialism here. Gandhi was right, of course, to later change his mind and ﬁght for independence. Whatever beneﬁts imperial rule may confer on its colonial subjects, in the end it makes them lesser people. The costs outweigh the beneﬁts.
How much more so under Chinese rule, where such beneﬁts are non-existent. I do not think it necessary to go into detailed comparisons here, but let us take one of the most important foundations of any society — law. Nearly all the legal systems of present-day European nations are based, in one form or another, on Roman law — on the Codex Justiniani, the Emperor Justinian’s great legal code. Transcending even its legal function, Roman law, in the end, became one of the profoundest intellectual forces in the history of European civilisation.
The British Empire’s greatest legacy to India is constitutional government and the rule of law. Imperfect as the system is often criticized of being, it is still the lifeblood which powers this great democracy, and the sinews which bind its disparate people together as a nation.
I think it can be said without exaggeration that nothing remotely similar has taken place in Tibet. Instead, the lessons we have learned from the Chinese, legal and otherwise, have not only been negative, but pernicious in the extreme. Taking into account the constant lies, violence, famines, “struggles”, mutual surveillance, denunciations, “Reform through Labour”, and varieties of cultur-al revolutions that have been inﬂicted on the Tibetan people for over four decades, it is surely a miracle that they have not all regressed into hopeless depravity, cynicism, drunkenness, brutality and madness.
A triumph of the Tibetan character? One would think so from reading accounts of “smiling, friendly” natives in recent travel books on Tibet. Complementary certainly, but not too discerning of the fearful bashing the Tibetan spirit has taken. No psychological study has been conducted of the people living inside Tibet, but I have the very uneasy feeling (I hope I’m wrong here) that the damage inﬂicted on the mental health of the Tibetan people, far outweighs the destruction of the monasteries and temples. Even now, with the liberalisation in the economy and social lifestyle, the law in China is no more than just an instrument of state repression.
In the ﬁnal reckoning, I am convinced that Tibetans must have independence if only for survival as a people. With every passing year we are getting closer to extinction. Aside from the deliberate Chinese government policies to erase Tibetan identity, by sending Tibetan children to schools in China, or possibly making Tibet a special economic zone, the sheer relentless pressure of China’s exploding population will eventually push Tibetans to extinction. No autonomy, or any kind of understanding or accommodation with China will prevent it. One cannot accommodate an avalanche, neither can one stop it half-way. Only independence holds out some hope for Tibetan survival — and even that is touch and go.
I am in no way claiming that achieving independence will be easy — or even possible, in the near future. All I am saying is that in the cold clear light of all the evidence we have before us, the struggle for independence, no matter how desperately hopeless it may appear, holds out at least a chance for Tibetan survival.
The various fantasies being espoused in the name of compromise, understanding and realism serve only to divide Tibetan society, and provide legitimacy to all manner of dubious self-styled experts, “honest” brokers, pocket Kissingers, “friends” of Chinese leaders, even well-meaning imbeciles — all eagerly contributing to the production of an effectively disorienting smokescreen of policy confusion (Do the Tibetans want associate status, a zone of peace, human rights, some help with the environment, freedom, a Vatican for the Dalai Lama, emigration to America… what on earth do these guys want?) behind which the Chinese are going about the business of resolving the issue once and for all.
the latest on sino-tibetan negotiations
I wrote the above article last April for a book of essays, Tibet: the Issue is Independence, conceived and edited by Ed Lazar. But since then a number of critical developments, not mentioned in my article, have taken place. I covered these events for the independent Tibetan language newspaper, Mang-tso (“Democracy”), published by the Amnye Machen Institute. My ﬁrst story on the Sino-Tibetan negotiations came out on 15 September 1993. It essentially, reported that on 5 August this year, Gyalo Thondup admitted to the Tibetan Parliament that all his discussions with the Chinese for the past fourteen years had achieved nothing. Furthermore, he added that he had been constantly scolded and browbeaten by Chinese ofﬁcials, who never listened to anything he had to say.
Inside Tibet, rumours of GT’s negotiations with Chinese leaders raised, unduly, the hopes of many Tibetans, and in some cases dissuaded activists from further protest against the Chinese. New arrivals from Lhasa told me that after hearing of the negotiations, people have been advising activists not to provoke the Chinese as a deal for some kind of Tibetan self-rule was imminent.
Shortly afterwards, the Tibetan government released a number of documents relating to its relations with China since 1979, including texts of the Dalai Lama’s letters to Chinese leaders — some of which were published in the Tibetan Review and Sheja. The Dalai Lama also released a statement, and in no uncertain terms, stated that all the efforts by him and his government to negotiate with China had failed.
In addition, Beijing’s diplomatic mask has slipped on a couple of occasions recently. We now know that in a recent inner circle meeting, the Chinese premier Li Peng spelt out the “Three No Concessions” policy. Li said that no concessions should be made on the issues of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet. As far as Tibet was concerned, not even the minimum (“half a step”) was to be conceded as it could cause a chain reaction within China. (World Journal, 8 December 1993.) Furthermore, secret documents leaked from Beijing some months ago detail Chinese strategy to “Divide and Destroy” Tibetan supporters. The documents also reveal that China considers negotiations with the Dalai Lama to be an exercise to resolve the problem of his “reparation”, rather than any genuine discussion on the issue of Tibet.