The Real China-Tibet Story

I visited Lhasa from the 24th to the 29th of June, seeing the city as well as Namtso Lake, and conversed with a friend who has been working there since May. The previous post was about the unique and interesting things I saw, but now I feel the need to post something serious.


This post is about the extraordinarily skewed account of the history between China and Tibet presented by Western media, one brought about due to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan independence movement’s ability to tell a story that resonates deep within the Western psyche, such that any counterargument is readily dismissed as Chinese propaganda. I myself have first started paying attention to the issue back during the March 14th 2008 riots that brought Tibet to the center stage of international affairs. Doing research of my own, comparing sources from both China and the West, I had reason to doubt much of the accounts of the Free Tibet movement, as well as the fact-reporting methodology of the western media in this case (note to any prospective journalists reading this: if there are two sides to a story, and one side refuses to comment, the proper response is not to present the other side’s account as fact). But it was visiting the area that allowed me to see just how badly the media failed at presenting a fair and balanced account in favor of a good story, one that sounds like:


“Tibet was its own country, an idyllic utopian Shangri-La before the Chinese invaded in 1951. Now the Tibetan people’s culture is being erased, they are not allowed to practice their religion, and the influx of Han migrants is forcing them to become second-class citizens in their own homeland, oppressed by the government.”


Allow me to deconstruct this line by line.


Caveat: the facts I present below are either a matter of public record, received from my friend who works there, or derived from my own observations, and the conclusions drawn from these facts. As this is not a scholarly article, I’m not exactly going to go all MLA citations up in here; a good chunk of them will consist of “talked to this guy” or “visited this place” anyway, and you can Google the rest for yourself.


“Tibet was an independent country before the Chinese invaded”


Technically true…back in the 7th century, when the Tibetan king Songtsan Gampo entered in a political alliance via marriage to the Tang Dynasty. Move forward in the timeline to the Qing (1644-1911), and you will find this was not the case. After the dynasty of Tibetan kings fell Tibet entered a period of disunity that ended when the 5th Dalai Lama, with military support from the Qing emperor Shunzhi, consolidated control over the region of U-Tsang, which is what is now the Tibet Autonomous Region. In fact, the title of “Dalai Lama” was one bestowed upon the 5th by the Qing emperor. This is why there is very little heard about the 1st-4th Dalai Lamas, because the title was applied retroactively to them, back when they were just one of several holy men and not The Holy Man of Tibet. In addition, the central Qing government in Beijing has always had the power to “confirm” candidates for reincarnation of Dalai and Panchen Lamas, and the Snow Lion flag that the current Free Tibet movement uses was originally the army flag of the Qing garrison in Tibet. A free Tibet nation-state has not existed since the Qing.


All in the past, right? Who cares? Sure, I’ve established that Tibet used to be part of China, but the US also used to be part of Britain, and we all know that it’d just be plain silly for Britain to claim ownership of the US now, right?


The PRC bases its claim to Tibet not just on a simplistic “this used to be ours, so it should still be ours” as the Free-Tibet movement likes to claim; rather, it is on the established principle of the Succession of States, which basically means that when a country changes governments, all land that belonged to the old government by default is transferred to the new government to do with as it sees fit. This is why the map of the United States does not change with every presidential election; just because we switched from Bush to Obama does not mean Texas is no longer part of the Union due to it voting for McCain. As for what determines land ownership, that is a mite fuzzier, but a good rule of thumb is international recognition. If a hostile nation recognizes a piece of land as belonging to you, then there’s little ground for a third party to argue that it isn’t.


One can find many foreign maps of the Qing that put Tibet squarely within its borders (the Perry-Casteneda Library at the University of Texas has one, last I checked). When Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the Qing and established the Republic of China, ownership was transferred to the RoC, as can also be established by foreign maps of the era. Thus, when Mao Zedong overthrew the RoC and established the PRC, ownership legally speaking transferred to the PRC. The key here is an unbroken line of internationally recognized ownership. The US may have been part of Britain, but the US also successfully launched a war for independence against Britain resulting in international recognition of the US as a sovereign nation. Nothing similar ever happened in Tibet.


One can bring up Younghusband’s expedition that seemingly repudiated Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, but that opens up another can of worms. First off, Younghusband’s expedition was undoubtedly one of imperialist shenanigans. The fact that he (and by extension the British) had to launch an expedition confirms that Tibet rightfully belonged to the Qing as a matter of international law. Second, if we are to hold the results of imperialist intervention by a foreign power as valid, then we must also hold the subsequent Communist invasion of Tibet as equally valid – possibly more so, as the CCP can be argued to be reclaiming territory taken from China, while Younghusband’s expedition was more or less naked imperialist aggression. You cannot have it both ways; if Younghusband’s expedition was valid, then so is Mao Zedong’s; if it is not, then Tibet still belonged to China by the succession of states.


One can argue that Tibet enjoyed de facto independence under the Qing or the RoC. One may also argue that territories should have the right to secede. These are all irrelevant to the fact that, as a matter of international law, Tibet has been a part of China since the 1600s and is legally part of the PRC.


“Tibet was an idyllic Shangri-La”


There is a trope in fiction called the “Noble Savage”. It refers to the tendency in modern humans to look at primitive peoples and romanticize what they perceive to be the positive aspects (freedom, the idea of living by the strength of one’s own arms, spiritualism) and downplay or ignore the negative ones (short lifespan, little to no medicine, horrid sanitation). This has been very much applied to Tibet. Nowhere can this best be seen than in the sheer amount of mineral resources used in construction and still available for mining.


The “spirit tower” for the 5th Dalai Lama (tower under which he is buried) is constructed out of 3721 jin (half that number in kg) of gold, with many precious stones (turquoise, coral fossils, amber, etc) inlaid. The towers for the other Dalai Lamas are of similar construction, along with the many temples and Buddha statues, all of gold and precious stones. The paints used for wall paintings and thangkas are also made of such materials, gold from gold dust, blue and green from ground turquoise, red from powdered coral fossils, etc. To this day, there are still mineral deposits sitting on the surface, visible to passer-by.


What does this mean?


The presence of so much gold being used for nothing but religion indicates they have no trade, and that their production possibilities frontier is extraordinarily skewed and extraordinarily small. They enjoy none of the benefits of trade that one learns about in high school economics, none of the opportunities that trade and a diversified economy brings. This includes things like consumer goods that are not yak or barley products. This also includes things like widespread education and medicine – the average life expectancy for Tibetan commoners was somewhere around the mid-thirties, compared to the mid-sixties for Tibetan nobles or religious figures. Tibet was highly isolated before the CCP came in 1951, and their holy men did very little to fix that.


Speaking of which, there is very little to indicate that these people were any good at ruling. Consider a theocracy in which the method of succession was finding the child who happened to fit the signs of being the reincarnation of the previous leader. Consider all the political intrigue that would surround any succession. Now consider the fact that the 9th-11th Dalai Lamas all died extremely young, in their teens or twenties, all due to “ill health” and that it was around this time that silver became very popular among Tibetans due to their supposed poison-detecting properties (in actuality, silver is highly reactive with arsenic, and has properties that inhibit bacterial growth). Also consider that, while those in power were sitting on their vast lodes of gold and silver and stones, there were very few attempts to use that to build roads and infrastructure to expand the domestic economy and create more opportunities for the Tibetan people. What conclusions might one draw from these trends?


Tiny PPF and theocratic rule aside, were the Tibetan people happy? Perhaps, but it is doubtful whether they knew a better life was possible, especially given a Buddhist culture that reinforces the idea of a bad current life is punishment for sins of the previous life, while performing according to one’s station in this life leads to reincarnation into a better next life. Other sources – and not just CCP ones – describe them as serfs. It is not my objective to argue the truth of this; merely to demonstrate that life before the CCP was not sunshine and bunnies under the enlightened rule of the Dalai Lamas.


“Tibetan culture is being erased, and the people are not allowed to practice their religion”


It really doesn’t take actually going there to figure the falsehood of this one. Currently, Tibet is a money sinkhole for Beijing. Tourism, comprised largely of people who want to see Tibetan Buddhism and people who are adherents of Tibetan Buddhism, is a major part of Tibet’s economy. More tourism = less of a money sinkhole = financial incentive for Beijing to help preserve Tibetan culture. Yes, some things are gone, but mainly the theocratic parts and the parts that naturally go away due to modernization (for example, yak butter churned by machine rather than by hand). The essence, the art forms, the prayers, the principles for living life, they still remain for those who want them.


Going there, though, really helps hit it home. Temples all over the place. Yak butter for Buddha lights all over the place. Worshippers all over the place – and from what I understand, it’s hard to avoid accidentally stepping on them during religious days. Lots of praying people. And lots of shrines dedicated to Dalai Lamas 5-13.


Wait, what? Dalai Lamas? Aren’t they not allowed to worship that guy?


Well, not exactly. It is only the current Dalai Lama, the 14th incarnation, who is not allowed to be worshipped. And even then, it is purely a political issue, not a religious one, centered on China perceives to be the current Dalai Lama’s separatist agenda. The 14th claims to have shifted from wanting Tibetan independence to “greater autonomy for the area of Greater Tibet” – however, Greater Tibet is an area that encompasses the Tibet Autonomous Region as well as significant portions of Qinghai and Sichuan (Amdo and Cham). The problem with the latter two areas is that those were never under his jurisdiction in the first place. The Dalai Lama traditionally had control over U-Tsang, and the Panchen Lama control over Amdo and Cham, which makes the desire for “Greater Tibet” seem less like altruism and more like a land grab. The rationale for outlawing worship of the 14th Dalai Lama has everything to do with policy (anti-separatism, secularism in government) and very little if at all to do with religion.


The other problem is that he and his supporters make claims that are either patently untrue or intellectually dishonest. He claims “cultural genocide” – however, the Tibetan population has been climbing steadily since CCP rule, and Tibetans themselves are exempt from the One-Child Policy; if this is genocide, then it is quite the most unsuccessful genocide in history. Their culture – minus the parts that says Tibetans are supposed to live in a theocracy – isn’t so much being eroded as changed over time as all cultures do. Yes, the Cultural Revolution did happen, but that was an act that harmed all Chinese, Han, Mongol, Hui, Uyghur, Bai, Tibetan, and otherwise; Tibetans were not singled out which makes the “genocide” label untrue. The 14th Dalai Lama makes promises of democracy and laughs at the idea that he might reimpose religious rule – but it is the CCP coming in with their modernizations and technology and trade that showed Tibetans the possibility of a different life and made it impossible for them to go back to theocracy. A promise of democracy costs the Dalai Lama nothing, and it is a promise he could make only because of the CCP.


If the Dalai Lama was to come back and take up his role as simply a religious leader, China would be fine with him. As he and his supporters seem unwilling to give up their political power, reconciliation is unlikely – but to blame only China for this is nought but favoritism.


“Influx of Han migrants causing Tibetans to become second-class citizens”


There is an influx of Han migrants, as is generally the case when large development projects occur. However, the “second-class citizens” part is not true. From my friend, I learned that of the landowners – by which I mean the people who hold the 30/50/70 year leases on land meant as a temporary measure until the CCP figures out how to reconcile private land ownership with socialism – most are Tibetan. Sure, there are still plenty of impoverished Tibetans, but there are also plenty of impoverished Han Chinese. The important part is that Tibetans do not seem to form a disproportionately large subset of “poor people”, but they do form a significant proportion of “holders of capital”.


In addition, having already established that Tibet is legally part of China (again, unrelated to whether you personally think Succession of States is valid or secession is a right), it also follows that there is nothing inherently wrong for a Chinese citizen to move legally within China’s borders. Lots of Sichuanese workers moving in and undercutting Tibetans? That’s merely a market economy at work. In the US states are not allowed to enact protectionist policies against other states, so why should China further restrict Chinese movement from other provinces into Tibet?


“Tibetans are being oppressed.”


Are they?


For the most part, given a little thought, they do not seem like an oppressed people.


It would be easy to think that, especially if you had a camera and took pictures of military police stationed around Lhasa, especially if you went to get all the right angles and the right lighting and the right caption. Such a photo might win you a Pulitzer – the Chinese soldier, armed and impassive, staring intently into the masses of Tibetans he is supposed to oversee, looking for any sign of discontent, be it a Snow Lion flag or a small photo of the 14th Dalai Lama, while Tibetan beggar children pray in front of their collection bowls – and it would have been worthy an award named after man who started a war between the US and Spain based on utter lies.


Based on personal experience, both my own and my friend’s, the MPs are easy to ignore. My friend adds that they are also very good about giving road directions.


Based on the general experience of past rulers of all empires in the world, quashing the local culture in an area where you are the minority has never worked out well. The CCP is many things, but retarded isn’t one of them.


According to my friend, among the older generation of Tibetans – the ones who grew up when the Dalai Lamas were still in power – many do have the feeling that they were invaded and conquered by the CCP. And there are some who view Han Chinese with hostility, even enmity. But the younger generations generally do not care so much, as they know life is much better now than it once was. Their society is much more mobile, they are finally connected with the world, they can have fruits and vegetables grown in the plateau, their culture and experiences are now more diverse, they have opportunities beyond herding yak and growing barley – all in all, they can do so much more than their ancestors did.


My tour guide to Namtso was in Lhasa when the March 14th 2008 riots started. People were not allowed out into the streets while the military police maintained order. He and his non-Tibetan neighbors soon ran out of food in their apartments. Their Tibetan neighbors saw this, boiled their rice into gruel, and shared it with their Han neighbors. They did not have to do this, and it would have been perfectly justifiable for them not to do it, yet they did anyway.


Does this seem like the behavior of a recently conquered people to their oppressors?


One of the restaurants I went to, Accordion Bakery, is owned by a Tibetan-Han couple, and while it is somewhat noteworthy, there is no stigma attached to it. Consider their example, and consider the look that, say, a mixed black-white couple might still get in the US today.


In what oppressive society does the dominant class marry into the dominated class?




Again, as I must mention once more, set aside your notions of whether succession of states is valid or whether secession is a right or whether the Dalai Lama is really all that important to Tibetan Buddhism or whether all facets of an ancient culture must be preserved at whatever cost or any of the other values-based arguments you may have. I aim not to change anyone’s worldview. I do aim, however, to possibly change the conclusions you may have drawn about Tibet by adding new information to the fact pattern.


The conclusions I have drawn, aside from confirmation that the PRC has a legal basis for its claim of ownership over the Tibet region, is that objectively speaking, life for Tibetans as a whole have improved under Chinese rule. If, at some point in the future, the Dalai Lama comes back, or if Tibet manages to become independent and a successful nation-state, most if not all of the credit must go to the PRC in its efforts to develop the region from nothing. Imagine the mountains of gold and silver not being used to build infrastructure, but solely for religious icons. My tour guide to Namtso was an ethnic Hui who one day asked his Tibetan friend “who do you believe in more, the Dalai Lama or the Chinese Communist Party?” His friend thought for a while and replied, “I believe in the Dalai Lama, but life is better now.” Due to Chinese rule, the Tibetan people now know to separate church and state.


I personally find it distasteful that when the US Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” it is “separation of church and state,” but when China does the same, it’s oppression. With regards to free exercise, my observations lead me to the conclusion that limits to the free exercise of Tibetan Buddhism are little more than similar limits on the free exercise of Hinduism’s caste system or Christianity’s stoning punishments. It seems less important whether they are allowed to worship the 14th Dalai Lama and more important whether they have choice in to what degree they allow the traditional Tibetan Buddhist ways to influence their lives.


I welcome intellectually honest and well-thought-out debate and critique of my facts or logic. Arguments based on values (basically, anything with a “should”) will be ignored and occasionally mocked in private to my friends.


A good site for “intellectually dishonest debate tactics”. Use this checklist if you wish to opine. I do realize that technically “I heard it from a friend who works there” counts as hearsay, in which case your burden of proof rests on disproving my friend’s credibility, not simply shouting “hearsay!” and denying everything else in this post.



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3 Responses to “The Real China-Tibet Story”

  1. crisap444 Says:

    I will not argue that pre-Chinese invasion Tibet is a bit idealized, as the past is almost always idealized, but your overall argument that rule under China is not terrible is flawed for three reasons. First you assume that all the benefits that Tibet has received from trade with the outside world only occurred because of the Chinese occupation. Tibet was cut off from the outside world to great degree not because of an insular culture that shunned trade completely but because geography kept almost everyone out, which in turn helped to create an insular culture. The 14th Dalai Lama showed signs of being open to the West and the outside world long before the Chinese invasion (any biography of the Dalai Lama would show this, but Harrer’s autobiography “Seven Years In Tibet” shows that the rest of the nation was also becoming open to the outside world) and the technological increases of the post-War era would likely have brought the same benefits. It may have even brought more as India in the post-Britain era would likely have welcomed a partner in the area that bordered Pakistan. One could even argue that Tibet would be in much better position if did not have to endure Chinese rule during the time China was cut off from much of the first world.

    You second flaw is your misunderstanding of the term “cultural genocide.” This genocide is not to kill people but to kill the culture and it’s ideas. Rather than throwing people en masse into the furnaces China has taken up a policy of smaller, but very public acts of brutality against the Tibetan culture. While the cliche of schools ordering students to kill animals in direct opposition to Buddhist beliefs has been repeated so many times as to lose it’s effectiveness, this is not the only move China has made. The communist government’s actions include the public destruction of numerous temples, the torture of monks and nuns (a personal favorite of the Chinese army was to hold a gun a child’s head and tell monks and nuns to fornicate in the street in direct violation of their vow of chastity or the soldier would kill the child) and the crucifixion (yes, I said crucifixion) of monks and those who would not break Buddhist traditions when ordered to. While these are document in numerous books the volume I would suggest, as it’s main goal was not to focus on Tibet, but to give an accounting of all the world’s religions, would be Joseph Campbell “The Masks of God: Volume II–Oriental Mythology.” It gives the most dispassionate account of the crimes against humanity committed in Tibet that I have ever read, although even an academic can only be so dispassionate when discussing people being crucified for their beliefs.

    Finally you ignore that whatever the past might have been, today, China has one of the worst human rights records in the world. It is a tyranny that will not think twice about jailing any opposition to the government and shooting down protesters. No one, not Tibet, not Hong Kong, not any part of China should be under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

    • roflmaozedong Says:

      Point 1: Speculation. You can no more say the 14th would have modernized than you could say he would end up doing what the current Chinese are doing with seeking to get the material benefits of a market economy without the political liberalizing that goes with it. In addition, the Dalai Lamas have had plenty of opportunities to do nation-building in between the late Qing and Republic eras, when the central gov’t was too busy with other affairs. They did not.

      Point 2: That all happened during the Cultural Revolution. It has no relevance to discussion on current Chinese policy regarding Tibet, save to set up a “oh, the Chinese government sucks anyway, so Tibet shouldn’t be a part of China” argument. More to the point, it is very difficult for me to take the words “cultural genocide” seriously when I am seeing with my eyes Tibetan culture live and well.

      Point 3: It is a shame that the KMT was never able to get its act together. That said, I find it doubtful anyone other than the CCP would be able to run China to nearly the amount of success that it has right now, which is saying a lot considering the CCP’s many recent failings. But that s also derailing from the main point, which is the many errors of fact with the Free Tibet side’s account of things.

  2. Let’s Watch Fate/Zero, Ep 11 « Roflmaozedong’s Weblog Says:

    […] sent an army to quash a riot in 1989, because China was a country that just so happened to have parts of it be inhabited by ethnic minorities with secessionist movements, because this because that, it did not deserve to host the Olympics and we should boycott […]

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