Begging to Differ

The majestic mountains, the intensely deep blue sky with its blotches of white clouds, the grand architecture of Lamaist monasteries and temples, the distinctly handsome features of the Tibet people, their nomadic tents with herds of yak, sheep and goats — who cannot be impressed?  Words fail me, as they often do, so I suggest a trip there yourself, or perhaps just a high-price, coffee-table book.

Our guide Dawu, at age 15, slipped across the border without passport or permission to join the 14th Dalai Lama’s community-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, for three years.  There he learned very serviceable English and a deep regard for Tibetan Buddhism before slipping back to Lhasa, where he now supports his family of two young boys as tour guide.  If only within the confines of our tour mini-van he talks about his experiences and political feelings openly.  An eminently reasonable and pleasant man; certainly not a firebrand. And a Tibentan through and through.

It doesn’t take a guide to point out the Chinese military presence; it is obvious and obscene.  In the Tiben quarter of Lhasa there are armed, riot-geared, five-man posts literally on every-other street corner, observation stations on many a roof-top, long convoys of military trucks clogging the twisting highways radiating from the Capital.  Having grown up with the Kent State and Tiananmen Square killings, I suffer a viceral response to the sight of a country’s military force ready to turn it fire power on its own people.

Chinese economic imperialism is scarcely less obvious.  Lhasa during the summer tourist season, at least, is 2:1 Chinese to Tibetan.  The administrational talent and money behind Dawu’s organization, I suppose typically, was a friendly Chinese guy with an effective, entrpreneurial pitch on the Internet, and to whom I rendered my sheckels without a wince.  I have no idea what proportion of the fee ended up in Dawu’s pockets.

There are serious problems with the relationship between Tibet and China, but I beg to differ with the “Free Tibet” crowd as to the solutions.  For one thing, I have reservations that the notion of self-determination implies that every ethnic group is entitled to its own nation-state.  The Kosovo model is not a good one.  There are practical problems arising from the ancient mingling of peoples.  Half of Tibetans live outside of the borders of the present “Tibetan Autonmous Region”, in provinces like Yunnan, Sichuan, Xinjiang and Qinghai — undisputably parts of China.  Where does a free Tibet leave them? China is certainly not about to acquiesce in four additional provinces being dismembered to achieve a Greater Tibet.  Which state would?

There are sound arguments under international law supporting the hegemony of China over Tibet. The Brits, who tried themselves to invade Tibet in 1911 — and failed to establish any but a transient presence — concede the point.  Lest you regard the brutal 1951 invasion by the PLA (the Chinese refer to the “peaceful liberation”) as a tick in Mao’s twisted brain, know that, had the Guomingdang previaled in the Chinese Civil War, they too would have reasserted Chinese control over Tibet by armed means as necessary.  Both sides of the Strait, which agree on little else, agree on that.

My inspiration for an appropriate resolution comes from the Constitution of the United States.  That document provides for federal authority in a remarkably few matters:  national defense, foreign affairs, minting money, postal services, interstate commerce, including transportation — with other powers left to the states (read “autonomous regions”) or to the people. Tibet’s being an integral part of China in those senses is not a bad idea at all.  (No need to point out to me that the Beijing power elite doesn’t share my regard for the U.S. Constitution: thank you, I’m keenly aware of that.  But that does not disqualify it as a model of appropriate resolution.)

The U.S. Constitution also requires the federal government to guarantee democratic forms of government of the States.  And that, to me, is the crux of the problem.  Restoration of a Lamaist theocracy in Tibet would be even more reprehensible than the current sham-socialist autocracy.  No sane European considers restoration of European medieval Christianity as essential to the preservation of “European Culture”: preservation of its cathedrals, performance of its music, display of its art, and free exercise of its rituals (for the maybe 5% of European “Christians” who choose it) is sufficient.  But all that in the context of a robust, secular rule of law, free of church domination, even if tainted by the smell of “Christian” political parties.

That is what is needed in Tibet, and, even as the Chinese are wide of the mark, the Lamaists are wider. Democratization of Tibet will follow in the wake of democratization of China — and that process will not be accelerated by the creation of an Iranian-style theocracy in a “free” Tibet.

Of course, I snapped my tourist photos of the flagellating pilgrims (not literally, but crawling prostrate to holy places strikes me as a psychological equivalent) and mendicant monks, even stuffing a few jiao into their beggars cups — though not in sympathy or support, but out of a sort of pruriency of which I am especially not proud.

Chinese economic colonialism is a trickier matter.  Chinese investment in the remarkable engineering feats of highway and railroad construction along the roof of the world obviously facilitates military logistics and the easy movement of Chinese in and out of Tibet, but these transportation links are also indispensible infrastructure for tourism, which, in turn, is essential to the preservation of the artifacts of Tibetan Buddhism. It would not take a huge leap of imagination to insure involvement of Tibetans in Tibetan prosperity, for the Chinese need look no further than their own, effective techniques of blunting the insidious intrusion of Western capital into China.  Chinese requirements for joint-venture arrangements have had phenomenal effect on retaining the proceeds of overseas investment within China’s borders:  witness the economic expansion, the rising standard of living, the enormous dollar reserves.  The model ought to transfer nicely to Han-Chinese investment in Tibet, giving Tibetans a real stake in their land’s business and economy.  Implementation of such a model ought to be within the authority of a truly autonomous government in the TAR.

At present, apparently, it is not.  Mild mannered and heavy-handed President Hu Jintao spent a couple of years in Tibet as Communist Party chief (Are there no good Tibetan communists up to the job?); his hard-line is not out of bureaucratic ignorance of that remote place. Even so, I believe the route to preservation of the unique Tibetan culture and society is not with the separatists, but with those who can argue persuasively and cogently with the thickheads in Beijing at a truly autonomous Tibet, ruled by civilians, according to civil law, by and for Tibetans, is the most economic (an obsessive idea in China) and harmonious (a favorite term of the central government) solution to preserving Tibet while retaining it as an integral part of China.

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