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Barefoot Experts

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Tuesday, Jun 10, 2008
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Where facts are few, experts are many.
— Donald R. Gannon

Among the many half-cocked (and often disastrous) schemes dreamed up during the Cultural Revolution, the institution of “barefoot doctors” (Chin: 赤脚医生 chijiao yisheng; Tib: ཨམ་ཆི་རྐང་རྗེན་མ་ amchi kangjema) was one much admired by Western Maoists and celebrity pilgrims to the middle kingdom as Shirley MacLaine.

Only after the PRC opened up in the late 70s did Chinese authorities admit to the system’s deep flaws and abolish it in 1981. In too many cases these “doctors”, often illiterate peasants with little or no training (and even less medical supplies and equipment), frequently inflicted more harm and suffering on their patients than they did any good. Jasper Becker, Beijing Bureau Chief for the South China Morning Post, noted that even in the 90s rural Chinese had been so turned-off by such official health-care that they were reverting to treatment by traditional “witch doctors.”

Following the revolutionary events of this March, the international media found itself unable to obtain detailed information on what was going on inside Tibet, and unable to rely on its usual stable of talking-heads and pundits. So it had to reach out to the small (and scattered) number of scholars and writers on Tibet, activists, NGO personnel, and Tibetan political and community leaders, to explain and elaborate upon what was going on. Some among these, whether for reasons of personal pique, political convenience or academic conceit seemed to me to have been intent on creating doubt and misunderstanding about an issue that, if you have even a basic grasp the fundamentals, is unquestionably straightforward. They were doing more harm than good; hence the designation “barefoot experts”.

This is not a detailed analysis of these specialists and their statements but rather an initial overview of some of their more extreme utterances and a cursory attempt to figure out why they made them.

Kate Saunders, spokesperson for the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), stated on the BBC World Service (March 14th) that Tibetans wanted “meaningful autonomy”. This was on the fourth day of the protests in Lhasa, the day when monk and lay demonstrators in Lhasa and in Labrang were shouting slogans calling for Tibetan independence, waving the Tibetan national flag – and were being savagely beaten by People’s Armed Police (wujing) and also fired upon by “army units” (jundui) according to Woeser’s Tibet Update 1.

Robert Barnett of Columbia University in an interview in Foreign Policy (March 31, 2008) also offered an unusual explanation of what protesters in Tibet were demanding in their slogans. “ A huge sector of the rural population has said, ‘Tibet was independent in the past. We reassert that belief. That doesn’t mean we demand that it be independent again.’”

Did Barnett conduct a survey of political opinions in rural Tibet? Does he seriously think that Tibetans put themselves in the way of being shot in the back or incarcerated and tortured, to deliver such a delicately nuanced message to Chinese security forces? Are rural Tibetans capable of such Clinton style triangulation and parsing?

Barnett further advises us “…we have to get over any suggestion that the Chinese are ill-intentioned or trying to wipe out Tibet.” This, he implies, is the kind of propaganda that exile Tibetans are spreading, and he analyzes the situation further “We have to be very careful not to confuse exile politics, which is a demand for anti-China this and anti-China that, with internal politics, which is much more pragmatic, complex, and sophisticated.”

Andrew Fischer (of the London School of Economics) in his article for the Guardian “Hard Lines Helps No One.” makes a remark similar to Barnett’s: “In the ensuing propaganda battle, Tibet itself is again being lost between the two extremes of hardcore Tibetan nationalists in exile and hardliners in Beijing”.

Note that both men make no bones about representing exile Tibetans as anti-Chinese and hardcore nationalists (on par with hardliners in Beijing) while those Tibetans living inside Tibet are represented as hapless victims squeezed between the intransigence of both exile Tibetans and Chinese authorities.

But where on earth are the “hardcore nationalists” the uncompromising “anti-China” Tibetans in exile? The Dalai Lama and his exile government have absolutely conceded Tibetan sovereignty to China. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated that it was an advantage for Tibet to be a part of China because of China’s booming economy. Prime Minister Samdong Rimpoche has even welcomed the new railway to Tibet saying that it would bring economic prosperity to the Tibetan people. Recently His Holiness, in a May 18th interview with the Times (London), even said “I can’t wait to be a Chinese citizen.”

It must also be made clear that the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile (TGIE) control all the institutions and organization in the exile world: political, administrative, cultural and religious, including most Western support groups. Many of the organizations that claim to be autonomous are in fact not so. The TGIE is a highly centralized structure that has near exclusive control of all funding that comes into exile society from Western aid and governmental sources. The Tibetan government has in the last four or five years actively discouraged exile Tibetans from not only from voicing their feelings about Tibetan independence, but even prevented them from conducting peaceful demonstrations and protests in India and abroad.

Only a few organizations are in practice independent and have goals in variance with the Dalai Lama’s. The largest of these is the Tibetan Youth Congress. The most visible, at least in the west, is the Students For a Free Tibet. Both have absolutely no say in the making of Tibetan government policies and no influence on the Dalai Lama’s decisions. These organizations are declaredly non-violent and not anti-Chinese in any sort of racist or xenophobic way. They are merely against Chinese rule in Tibet. To anyone who has been in demonstrations organized by them and Tibetan communities in exile will have noted the quaint and marked mildness of most of their slogans: “ Shame on China” “China go Home”. Shame Shame…China Shame. Stop the Killings… in Tibet. Free the People…In Tibet. Long Live the Dalai Lama.

There is none of the “Death to the Zionist Pigs” or “Wipe the Jews of the Face of the Earth” kind of thing that you would hear in similar gatherings in Gaza. There are also, of course, no suicide bombers or terrorists. I would be interested to know if Fischer and Barnett support an “independent homeland” for the Palestinians – and why.

To call these Tibetans “hardcore nationalists” is not only a perversion of the truth but raises concerns whether an underlying, a subliminal sort of suggestion is being disseminated. For anyone with memories of the 90’s such terms as “hardcore nationalism” immediately brings up images of the Yugoslav Civil War: Milošević, Serbian nationalism, ethnic cleansing and murdered babies. Fischer also attempts to represent the Olympic torch protests as a kind of sinister Dick Cheney/Neocon style maneuver by Tibetan hardliners that turned what should have been a protest about China’s policies in Tibet “into an attack on China and the Chinese…in much the same way that the Iraq war was turned into a question of patriotism in the US.”

All this is of course classic victim bashing. China was on the receiving end of it once. When Japan invaded China in 1937, US ambassador Joseph Grew ridiculed the idea that Japan was a great oppressor and the Chinese were the “downtrodden victims.” Many in the West, especially in Britain, felt that a backward, corrupt country like China needed to be “taught a lesson” by a vigorous, modern and progressive Japan.

Another barefoot expert Patrick French wrote in The New York Times (March 22) that Tibetans inside Tibet were instigated to demonstrate because they fondly imagined that America was supporting them, a delusion that was reinforced by the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama. French claims that he was told this by a Tibetan informant – whom he does not name. If that were actually the case why didn’t Tibetans demonstrate immediately after that Gold Medal event? The Dalai Lama was awarded the Gold Medal on September 14, 2006. He received the actual award on 18 October 2007. Why did Tibetans wait seventeen months, or at least five months before doing anything? Surely public excitement about the award would have dissipated by then. French deliberately overlooks the fact that the protests started on March 10th – a day powerfully symbolic of the assertion of Tibetan sovereignty, and having nothing to do with gold medals or American support. But a little inconsistency like this doesn’t get in the way of French wanting to establish that Western instigation and encouragement caused the unrest in Tibet. That if left alone Tibetans would accept Chinese rule – which would be the best thing for everyone concerned.

Andrew Fischer also thinks that the political manipulation of Tibetans originates from the West and claims “there is a very real danger that Tibetans in Tibet are being put at risk by the uncompromising political agendas set in the West.”

Patrick French attempts to narrow the sources of this manipulation in the West to specific organizations “… the various groups that make Chinese leaders lose face each time they visit a Western country. The International Campaign for Tibet, based in Washington, is now a more powerful and effective force on global opinion than the Dalai Lama’s outfit in northern India. The European and American pro-Tibet organizations are the tail that wags the dog of the Tibetan government-in-exile.”

When French was involved in the Tibet movement in the late 80s, Western support groups and the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) were involved in activism against China. But since the Dalai Lama ratcheted up his Middle Way policy nearly all of that has stopped. After Bill Clinton’s de-linking of human-rights and trade and his policy of “constructive engagement” with China, which ICT director Lodi Gyari enthusiastically embraced, all boycott campaigns and economic activism against China came to a crashing halt (see the article “Going For Broke” in my book Shadow Tibet). These days the TGIE and the ICT far from organizing demonstrations or protests have been doing their best to discourage and stop such activities, and attempting to control the organizations carrying them out. (See Don’t Stop the Revolution).

And most Western support groups, or what’s left of them, now carefully observe Samdong Rimpoche’s injunctions against protest marches and demonstration. Tenth March rallies in New York City have now become near exclusively Tibetan events. At the anti-Olympic Torch rally in San Francisco this year there were many non-Tibetans supporters but none of them were from any of the old support groups. In fact at the rally I met just one inji activist from the old days, Fred Shepardson of the Committee of 100 for Tibet – and he pointed this out to me.

The fact is that French and the others are completely out of touch with the current realities of Tibetan activism. If they just stepped down from their intellectual perches and observed or (heaven forbid) participated in a demonstration or two they would clearly see that the ICT and support groups don’t call the shots anymore. Tibetan and Tibetan led organizations, including community associations have taken over. There is also a growing change in the make up of activists with new arrivals from Tibet not only filling in the ranks and beginning to assume leadership positions in the various groups (and also starting new ones) so that the exile/Tibet (sarjor/ningjor) divide, is fast disappearing.

Our barefoot experts are largely unanimous in giving Chinese authorities the benefit of the doubt in nearly all instances. Andrew Fischer goes one step further and tells us why this should be done. “We need to understand that the Chinese Communist party includes many differences of opinion, including some powerful voices in favour of negotiating with the Dalai Lama and genuine autonomy for Tibet. We must support these voices. However, they could be easily scared or forced into silence if nationalist anger were turned against them.”

This is a variation of the “reformers vs hardliners” or “moderates vs hardliners” scenario within the CCP that never seems to lose its fascination for practitioners of infantile Sinology. By the very fact of it being made up of human beings, one would expect any political organization, even a totalitarian one like the Nazi Party or the CCP, to register some differences in ideology or policy within its ranks. The question is whether these small differences mean anything in such closed non-democratic structures as the CCP, or whether they are merely illustrative of Lu Xun’s remark about the hard reality of perceived doctrinal or policy differences among the power elite in China: “Whoever was in power wishes for a restoration. Whoever is now in power is in favour of the status quo. Whoever is not yet in power calls for reforms. The situation is generally such.”

Anyway, who are the moderate pro-Dalai Lama, pro-autonomy party leaders in China? I am sure Fischer cannot give us names. The same sort of argument was raised in the 30s by pro-Nazi Englishmen in Britain, that attacking Hitler or criticizing German rearmament was counterproductive. That it weakened the arguments of “moderate” Nazis who wanted to negotiate with Britain and played into the hands of hardliners in Berlin.

This leads us to another of Fischer’s theories of “the rarely mentioned reality that the Dalai Lama, and Tibetan Buddhism more generally, is in fact very popular in China. As far as I understand it, the Dalai Lama is keenly aware of this influence and realizes that this channel is crucial for resolving the Tibet issue …Effectively, the Dalai Lama is waging a public opinion battle with Beijing within China itself, not within the west. Current Olympic demonstrations are not helping him in this battle.” This is pernicious rubbish of the most delusional kind. But we do not have space here to discuss Fischer’s theory at length. Those wanting to know more could check out the latter half of my article Looking Back From Nangpala, where I have attempted to lay this fallacy to rest.

One underlying message that the barefoot experts, in one way or the other, are all attempting to get across is that by the very fact of protesting and kicking up a fuss internationally, Tibetans are bringing upon themselves and their countrymen the very oppression and suffering that they are protesting against in the first place. The sensible thing to do, the experts appear to be advising us, is to keep quiet, to give up. China’s rise is inevitable, they seem to be saying. Just look at what the cover stories of Newsweek or Time and other popular news magazines are telling us : China is the next superpower, the 21st century is China’s century, The Future Belongs to China and so on. You my Tibetan friends are getting in the way of free trade, globalization, and more personally my research project, my tenure track, and visas for my students for their next study tour of Amdo. For why the experts should behave in this manner read “Have China Scholars All Been Bought” by Carlson Holtz (of Hong Kong University) in the Far Eastern Economic Review, and also “The Anaconda in the Chandelier” by leading American sinologist, Perry Link, of Princeton University in the New York Review of Books.

I want to make clear that I am not just singling out these few people for criticism. I have a follow up piece where I will discuss another group of Tibet/China “experts” in the free world who are outright propagandists for Communist China and who have built successful careers largely regurgitating propaganda from the Ministry of Truth in Beijing and whitewashing China’s crimes in Tibet. Compared with them our barefoot experts, even if not exactly epitomizing objective scholarship, have at least more complex reasons for their failings.

Patrick French was a friend of mine, before I reviewed his book Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land (my review “The Incredible Weariness of Hope” is on Phayul). He was an enthusiastic Tibet supporter once and director of the UK based Free Tibet Campaign in the early nineties. With the exception of his Tibet book he is a gifted writer and I think his Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division is one of the more perceptive histories of modern India. I am looking forward to his biography of VS Naipaul.

If there was one person, who could claim to be the linchpin of the Tibet support movement in the 80s and 90’s it was Robbie Barnett. He founded the Tibet Information Network, TIN in 1989, which quickly became a valuable source of well-researched factual material relating to Tibet. Having created a standing for accuracy, independence, and quality, TIN acquired, for a time, an almost iconic status within the Tibetan movement.

I do not know Andrew Fischer, but someone whose opinion I respect told me that his research work on development in Tibet was substantive and useful.

So what happened to these experts and friends of Tibet? There is the broader explanation. Not only China’s rise as an economic powerhouse, as I mentioned earlier, but also America and the West’s retreat on human rights, the weakening of democracies world over, and most critically of all of the complete political and moral capitulation by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan leadership, and the collapse of the Free Tibet movement. How can you expect steadfastness in the ranks when leaders are falling over themselves in their eagerness to submit to China?

Then there is the intellectual failure, which is perhaps more relevant in this case. The inability of so called experts and scholars to sufficiently understand what is really happening in China has been a long-standing and fairly notorious one. To give just one example: in the 60s and 70’s all the big name Sinologists who regularly traveled to the PRC and even resident diplomats in Beijing were all blissfully unaware of the Great Famine that was wiping out many tens of millions in China. Among the small handful of experts who discovered this catastrophe was a husband and wife team, Miriam and Ivan London, who were originally researchers on the Soviet Union. In 1971 the two established themselves in Hong Kong and with the aid of translators interviewed recent refugees from the mainland. They came out with the first accurate reports of mass starvation in China. Of course, they were roundly criticized by professional Sinologists world over.

I always thought the Londons saw China clearly because they had critical distance. They had no ideological, academic, financial, sentimental or even romantic ties to China – all that baggage that Sinologists seem to lug around like long suffering Bactrian camels.

That’s why I think the best analysis of what happened in Tibet this year was written by someone with a similar distance. Someone not involved in Tibet or China studies, but a specialist on Eastern Europe and Communism, and author of the the Pulitzer Prize winning book Gulag, A History. I have mentioned this in a previous article but I think it bears repeating. Anne Applebaum in her March 18 article in the Washington Post discerned that the events in Tibet represented one manifestation of a wider reaction of “captive nations”, Uighurs, Mongols, Tibetans, rising up against the tyrannical rule of an old imperial and foreign power that has long oppressed smaller countries and societies surrounding it. Applebaum included even such independent nations as North Korea and Burma in this category, hence, quite accurately, relegating Kim Jong Il and the Burmese military junta to the role of Beijing’s surrogate dictators. As if in confirmation of Applebaum’s broad theory, Reuters reported, shortly after, that major demonstrations had broken out in East Turkistan (Xinjiang). When the Olympic torch passed through Seoul, North Korean refugees staged a protest and one even attempted to set himself on fire as a protest against China.

Applebaum concluded that if Chinese leaders “… aren’t worried, they should be. After all, the past two centuries were filled with tales of strong, stable empires brought down by their subjects, undermined by their client states, overwhelmed by the national aspirations of small, subordinate countries. Why should the 21st century be any different? Watching a blurry cell phone video of tear gas rolling over the streets of Lhasa yesterday, I couldn’t help but wonder when – maybe not in this decade, this generation or even this century – Tibet and its monks will have their revenge.”

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