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     Oct 15, 2005

Might versus right
Tibet and China in the Twenty-First Century. Non-Violence Versus State Power by John Heath Buy this book

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Asymmetry of power and method divide Tibet and China much more acutely today than at the dawn of their competitive relationship in the 7th century AD. The last 50 years of direct Chinese rule have been the most traumatic in all Tibetan history, imposing a new unbearable, yet irremovable disequilibrium.

In Tibet and China in the Twenty-First Century. Non-Violence Versus State Power, British economist John Heath, a researcher for the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile, not only investigates the etiology of the Chinese communist iron claw in Tibet but also updates readers with recent developments in the forbidden land. An able mix of fact and analysis, it proposes a negotiated settlement to alter the course of blatant injustice.  

Tibetan dissatisfaction with Chinese occupation has remained steady over the last five decades. The main problem is communist perception of Buddhism as an enemy that prevents or distracts Tibetans from making material progress. Ninety percent of monasteries have been physically destroyed, and monks and nuns subjected to waves of "patriotic reeducation". Beatings, expulsions and deaths are meted out to non-conformists. Political prisoners receive the worst treatment. Escapees across the hazardous high Himalayas to Nepal and India are being apprehended and dealt with very harshly by Chinese surveillance guards.

Since 1997, the situation has worsened significantly, with persecution, torture, arrest and fining of lay persons. Education is assimilationist, indoctrinating and discriminatory in nature, forcing rural Tibetans to finance schools at their own expense as illiteracy rates rise. Health care in Tibet is one of the least developed in the world, accentuated by the new exorbitant "green pass" insurance system. Family size quotas are grotesquely inhuman and based on eugenics principles. Due to the mass influx of Han Chinese as "free flow of labor", Tibetan housing needs are given least priority. Spiritual dispossession and rural impoverishment go hand in hand. Introduction of fencing in grasslands and livestock confiscation from farmers are driving traditional livelihoods into extinction. In towns, Tibetans without Chinese connections get menial jobs and wilt under unfair work practices.

Heath turns to Chinese history to explain this harsh colonialist attitude toward Tibet. Mao Zedong used to read and reread the life of the First Emperor, Shihuangdi, who conquered neighboring states and extinguished their existing cultures in the 3rd century BC. To colonize the locals, he moved large numbers of his own Qin people into the new territories. Mao's military tactics owed a big debt to Sun Tzu's The Art of War. The dazzling deployment of surprise, defection, threat, deception, intelligence and public relations in the 1950 Chinese invasion of Tibet had "clear origins in Sun Tzu"(p48). Confucius' ideal of a strong authoritarian leadership and obedient subjects, illustrated in modern times by Stalinism, also influenced Mao's Tibet policies.

Mao did not realize the objective differences between China and Tibet when he embarked on "liberation". Private landlords were proportionally much less of a problem in Tibet, and the pre-1950 setup was not quite feudal. For most Tibetans, the basic principle of existence is relinquishment of material values. They dislike change and believe in magic, mysticism and divination. The Dalai Lama's proposed land reforms (halted by China) had a non-revolutionary and non-violent core that could have worked better than forced collectivization. In fact, within four years of his flight to India, he abolished the old semi-feudal system amongst the exiled community and flagged off democratic development and federal elections in the refugee settlements. Theocracy and special privileges of monks in the legislature have been curtailed by the Dalai Lama. His own executive power is abstract and nebulous. With Indian and international support, the government-in-exile is providing modern education and training schemes to the diasporic younger generation.

The 1951 Seventeen-Point Agreement that legally transferred Tibetan sovereignty to China was negotiated under the duress of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Two leading Tibetans, Ngabo Jigme and the Panchen Lama, were railroaded into legitimizing the document. In 1954, when the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama were invited by Mao to Beijing, the two Tibetans were not allowed to meet in private. In 1962, the Panchen Lama wrote the Seventy Thousand-Character Petition detailing the woes of Tibetans facing survival threats and sent it to Mao. This damning eyewitness account was suppressed until 1997, and the Lama was imprisoned for nine years in China. Tibetans claim his death in 1989 to be a case of poisoning.

PLA and communist party cruelty in Tibet were extensions of Mao's ideological purges and experiments in China. Cadres whose families and friends were brutalized back home vented their frustrations on Tibet's population. Reports and resolutions of the UN General Assembly and the International Commission of Jurists urging cessation of practices that deprive Tibetans of fundamental human rights "meant absolutely nothing to Mao" (p139). The Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, was more receptive and was responsible for Tibet's best times under communism. In 1980, Hu Yaobang, a Deng loyalist, acknowledged "colonialism" in Tibet and recommended autonomy. A period of relaxation in agriculture and religion ensued. However, Deng's followers turned the tide in 1984 by accusing the Dalai Lama of treason when he mooted his "Zone of Peace" plan for demilitarizing Tibet. Hu, hailed as "China's Buddha" in Tibet, was dismissed in 1987, and hardliners reversed liberal policies.

Opening up Tibet for subsidized influx of Han Chinese and the ambitious Western Development Program was highly desirable to Beijing because it altered the political demography, stemmed the eastward flow of internal migrants and absorbed the huge population growth. For the indigenous Tibetans, though, this foretold disaster. Classic modernizing by Western Development was not necessary for a place such as Tibet, which could have followed the model of Ladakh in India where decentralized technology based on renewable resources has succeeded.

The years 1988 and 1989 witnessed riots and huge anti-Chinese demonstrations in Lhasa, led by monks and nuns. After US Congress and EU parliamentary condemnation of the predictable crackdowns, China offered talks with the Dalai Lama that could not be held due to the Tiananmen Square disturbances. Following an exchange of words about Tibet in 1988 between the US president, Bill Clinton, and his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, Beijing again offered to negotiate with the Dalai Lama, but tightened the preconditions to preclude even autonomy. President George W Bush's direct appeal to open talks with Tibet in 2002 also met a similar fate. Fear of "instability" is at the forefront of the Chinese leadership's thinking on conceding any ground in Tibet. "Stability" is a euphemism for checking autonomy movements and boosting centralization.

In 1993, exceptionally large protest marches were held by lay people in Lhasa and in rural areas. China's response was a "Second Cultural Revolution in Tibet". Chen Kuiyuan, the communist party secretary concerned, declared an "all-out effort to eradicate Buddhism from the face of the earth so that no memory will be left in the minds of coming generations" (p151). Intensive efforts to foist a "Marxist outlook" and "rectify" Tibetan culture drove the Karmapa Lama to his sensational getaway to India in 1999.

Heath identifies the low priority accorded to civil law vis-a-vis economic law in China as the reason for permitting so many rights violations in Tibet. The new Chinese legal system of the 1980s was "essentially designed to serve the needs of the state, not the protection of the individual" (p234). Institutionalized prevalence of guanxi (political nepotism and corruption), another Chinese malaise, has left Tibetans cheated and resentful at the bottom. The "Strike Hard" campaigns against economic crimes have, instead of easing matters, been extended to hammer "separatists" in Tibetan monasteries. Failure of Jiang's administrative restructuring drive means that the cost of China's huge bureaucracy is still being borne by ordinary Tibetans through excessive arbitrary taxes.

Heath sees new possibilities opening up with Hu Jintao's succession to the Chinese throne. Hu, who once served as party secretary in Tibet, has indicated that "control over territory may now be seen as separate from control over its people" (p200). Premier Wen Jiabao is touted to be in the liberal mould of the former leaders and reformists, Zhao Ziang and Hu Yaobang. Nonetheless, Zeng Qinghong, the powerful vice president, is extremely anti-Dalai Lama. How the power game at the summit in Beijing plays out will have a big effect on Tibet's future.

China's ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2001 entails a powerful obligation to honor the right of self-determination of all peoples (Article 1). The International Court of Justice, deliberating on East Timor, interpreted the right as "binding on all states". The reality, though, is that the principle has lagged in application, especially due to the violent rise of ultra-nationalism in the guise of self-determination. Other rights enshrined in UN conventions ratified by China are equally imprisoned by a weak sanctions regime against non-compliance in international law.

To achieve autonomy, Tibetans will have to sit across the table with mighty China that has the self-confidence of military superiority and global power status. Tibetans only have international law, world opinion, spirituality and right on their side. Their team should carefully study the "One Country, Two Systems" concept (coined by Deng Xiaoping to describe Hong Kong's place in China) and come with representatives possessing recent experience in Tibet. It has to be aware of the Chinese shopping list at talks and press for a neutral venue or at least Hong Kong as the location. Public diplomacy is to be preferred instead of secrecy, and the pitfalls of the famous Chinese "swaying tactics" should be guarded against. Alleged benefits of Chinese occupation need countering with studied comparisons about the attainments of Tibetans in exile.

Tibetan negotiators must have several versions of a draft "Basic Law" that contains concrete terms. Religious freedom, health, education, agriculture, roads, water, housing etc should be bargained for full Tibetan control. Codetermination with China should be proffered in taxation of natural resources, police, security, judiciary, prisons and infrastructure. Sole Chinese determination can be left in the domains of territorial boundaries, foreign policy, air traffic, customs and excise. Sovereignty would thus apply differently in different policy areas.

Is Heath building castles in the air? Much depends on Hu's stated desire to increase public participation in government and strengthen the rule of law. The extent of autonomy China agrees to in Tibet is also a function of its economic and foreign-policy priorities. Progress in Tibet cannot be divorced from happenings in China and elsewhere. The 21st century waits with bated breath for healing to begin at the roof of the world.

Tibet and China in the Twenty-First Century. Non-Violence Versus State Power by John Heath. Saqi Books, London, 2005. ISBN: 0-86356-591-3. Price: US$ 29.95, 332 pages.

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