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Middle Way Economics: One-On-One

Thursday, Jun 20, 2013
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Wool caravan bound for Kalimpong, 1938. F. Bailey Vanderhoef Jr.

One of the more depressing things about being a spokesperson for the Rangzen cause, even in the unofficial “of sorts” way that I am, is being obliged to participate in the occasional Middle Way Approach (MWA) vs Rangzen debate, organized by some SFT or TYC chapter or the other. I am not a good debater, but that’s the least difficult part of it. It’s just that having to watch grown men (with whom at one time or the other I had been friendly) make embarrassingly brainless and facile statements just to ingratiate themselves with the MWA high cabal, can be such a disheartening experience.

I think it was at a 2008 TYC sponsored debate in New York City (moderated by Karma Zurkhang of RFA) where Sikyong Lobsang Sangay unleashed his now infamous “U-Rang” formulation. Then, in a 2011 SFT debate in Emory University, Lobsang Nyendak, the Representative of the Dalai Lama in New York, came out with the MWA economic rationale that as Tibet was a landlocked nation it had to be part of the PRC in order that Tibetans be able to ship their products out to the world through Chinese ports and share in China’s economic prosperity. To be fair I should point out that this was not an original statement made by Lobsang Nyendak la. In fact it was contained in the official MWA pamphlet that was being distributed at the talk.

His Holiness himself had, way back in 1995, stated in a couple of interviews that since Tibet was economically an underdeveloped country it would be beneficial for it to be part of China and its booming economy. He also added that as Tibet was a landlocked country it would need to be part of China which had access to the sea. I mentioned this in an article in the Tibetan Review. At the time I thought it might have been an off-the-cuff remark, and so did not pursue it any further.“It is not the place here to debate His Holiness’s views on economics and geo-politics, but it can most certainly be said that his recent utterances have thoroughly confused and demoralized many of his followers.”

But now it appears that there is nothing off-hand or extempore about the statement. It clearly represents a foundational economic argument in the MWA doctrine. And since everyone is, I think it is safe to say, thoroughly confused and demoralized – more than ever before – it is perhaps time to analyze the statement and see if it stands up to rigorous inspection.

Far from the situation of being landlocked necessitating that a country give up its independence to join a coastal nation, I might point out that, as of this moment, there are forty-eight independent landlocked countries in the world – all doing very nicely, thank you. Landlocked states like Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein are thriving, even in the midst of the present European economic crisis. I might add that these four solidly landlocked nations are doing far better than Greece, Spain or Italy, countries that probably have longer coastlines than any other European state.

The rest of the world’s landlocked nations are managing to hold their own in the present global economic climate, probably no better or no worse than coastal countries around them are doing. Tibet’s old neighbors, Mongolia, Bhutan and Nepal are, of course, fully landlocked nations. They also certainly have their share of problems, economic and political, but whether these stem from their landlocked condition is doubtful. Anyway, no matter how great their problems, no one, I am sure, is suggesting that they give up their independence to be a part of China and benefit from access to the ports of Shanghai or Shenzhen.

Being landlocked does have its disadvantages, in terms of access to seaborne trade or starting a fishing industry. Yet some economists have argued that being landlocked may actually be a blessing in disguise as it creates a “natural tariff barrier” which protects the country from cheap imports. In some instances this has led to more robust local food systems, and a more self-reliant economy. We should also bear in mind that all the coastal nations in Asia and Africa were the first to be conquered and colonized by European powers, while landlocked Tibet was probably the last non-colonized country to which the British Empire sent a military expedition, and one that encountered near-impossible logistical problems.

Mules carrying wool entering Kalimpong, 1953. James Burke, LIFE.

Yet, however remote and inaccessible Tibet may have been in the past, by all accounts it managed to sustain a fairly brisk and profitable commercial relationship with neighboring countries. Tibet’s exports: salt, musk, caterpillar-fungus, other medicinal plants, sheep and yak meat, hide, wild animal-pelt, pashmina, shahtoosh and of course the most lucrative of all, sheep wool. By 1950 Tibet’s wool exports to the USA, Britain, Italy, and Japan were worth around two million US dollars annually, which was unquestionably big money in those post-war years.

Wool caravan arriving at 11th Mile, Kalimpong, 1953. James Burke, LIFE

There was no comparable big business in the rest of High Asia at the time. Earlier during the War itself Tibetan traders supplied Nationalist China with an enormous variety of items from penicillin, Rolex watches, Parker pens, Scotch whiskey, French brandies and so on, and created a period of legendary prosperity for everyone from Kalimpong to Lhasa and further on all the way to Lijiang. I am putting together a longer account of that period, so I won’t go on any further. The reader will have to buy the book. But I can honestly say that I have never met a Tibetan of that period, farmer, nomad or petty trader who didn’t own a wristwatch – sometimes a Rolex or an Omega but more often the affordable but famously reliable “West End” of Switzerland. I don’t think you could say the same about peasants in India, Nepal or China, at the time.

Tibetan wool traders unload their mules, 1951. Hulton-Deutsch.

The crucial terminus for this amazing trading activity was Calcutta harbor, which if you look at a map is relatively close to Lhasa, only about 500 miles as the crow flies, while Shanghai is about 2000 miles away – four times the distance. I read somewhere that even a Manchu amban had travelled via Calcutta to Lhasa. Communist China’s first occupation administrator for Tibet, Zhang Jingwu, did not come to Lhasa via Chamdo with his troops, but instead took the easier sea voyage to Calcutta.

From Calcutta you took the overnight express train to Siliguri, and then a two-hour jeep ride to Kalimpong. From Kalimpong to Lhasa it would take you around seventeen to eighteen days on horseback, in easy stages of about twenty miles a day. David MacDonald mentions that his son-in-law, Captain Perry once rode from Gyangtse to Darjeeling in seventy six hours. A journey on horseback from Beijing to Lhasa could easily take you a couple of months.

A do-khyi mastiff guarding a caravan

Until the Qinghai-Tibet railway had been completed in 2006, the enormous problems of linking Lhasa to China had not been overcome, even with the extensive road-building efforts in the fifties, sixties and seventies. In the Far Eastern Economic Review of April 8, 1999 there was a report that Beijing had proposed to India the opening of a land route for Tibetan imports and exports through the port of Calcutta. This would require a transit agreement for Tibet similar to those which the independent kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan had already. But India wanted the border question to be settled first before any trade-route discussion could be started.

MWA economists should note the fact about Bhutan and Nepal having transit agreements with India, which were settled sometime in the sixties. Independent Tibet already had an informal agreement with British India and later independent India, an indirect benefit of the major trade concessions Tibet had to make in the Lhasa convention of 1904. A more formal agreement would certainly have been worked out if Tibet had remained an independent nation. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea gives a landlocked country the right of access to and from the sea without taxation of traffic through transit states. The UN also has a program of action to assist developing countries that are landlocked.

The long and the short of it is that there is absolutely no reason for a nation to give up its sovereignty because it is landlocked.

Another argument invariably trotted out by our tireless MWA debaters, to demonstrate how Tibet could benefit economically by being part of China, is the comparison with the European Union, and how membership in the EU benefits small nations like Ireland or Portugal. This is, of course, specious nonsense of the most pernicious kind, especially since MWA ideologues always neglect to tell members of their target audience (old palas and amalas in the settlements) that membership in the European Union is on a purely voluntary basis, and that each member state still retains its sovereignty and seat in the United Nations. Comparing such a mutual association of independent nations to the brutal military invasion and occupation of Tibet by Communist China is the equivalent of saying that legal consensual marriage between adults who love each other is the same thing as violent rape, with made-in-China electric batons, in our case.

But the fact that such outrageously fatuous and dishonest “economic” arguments are being made by MWA proselytizers when Tibetans are being oppressed, marginalized and exploited to the point of functional extinction, and over a hundred and nineteen people have burned themselves to death in a desperate bid to demonstrate to the world that “without independence Tibet will be annihilated” (Phagmo Dhondup), should convince all honorable, intelligent and free-thinking Tibetans that MWA can no longer be considered national policy, even in the most marginal sense.

I have, for some time now, relegated the whole Middle Way cabal and its faithful but simpleminded followers to the status of a cult, especially after its high priest, Samdong Rimpoche, declared enthusiastically that the Qinghai-Tibet railway (now fast-tracking Chinese immigrants to Tibet) represented a genuine economic benefit to the Tibetan people. Perhaps Rimpoche meant it in the same way that a cult leader in California claimed, some years ago, that an alien space-ship represented salvation for his followers from the coming apocalypse.

On March 26, 1997, San Diego police discovered the bodies of Marshall Applewhite and 39 of his Heaven’s Gate cult followers who had committed mass suicide in order to reach what they believed was an alien space craft following the Comet Hale–Bopp, which was then at its brightest.

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