Friday, March 21, 2008

Random Thoughts On the iotsRa in ibetTa

Some bad, bad things happening on the roof of the world recently.

I'm temperamentally inclined to sympathize with the Tibetans, as is most of the world. Whereas most of China has been experiencing a dramatic increase in the amount of personal freedom they have (as long as it doesn't interfere with the Party), everything the Tibetans want (autonomy, independence, and the Dalai Lama) is anathema to the Chinese government.

It's also not hard to see why the Tibetans view the Chinese as oppressors - you can argue either side of the self-determination question, but there are many Tibetans alive who remember their independence, not to mention the depredations of the cultural revolution, and the still heavy weight of authoritarian rule than undoubtedly falls heavier on their shoulders than on those of the Han.

An interesting aspect of the current situation is the degree to which the Dalai Lama seems to be being marginalized by his own people. At least in public (and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity), he has always preached non-violence, sought autonomy not independence, and asked his followers to avoid causing problems for India by protesting. The younger members of the Tibetan independence movement don't think this "middle-way" is achieving anything, and want to push for more forceful methods (ironically still including "long live the Dalai Lama" in their protests).

But what do Free Tibet protesters in the US really want to happen? Do they expect America to install the Dalia Lama as the supreme leader of a theocratic government? It hadn't occurred to me until last week, but the Dalia Lama is still the head of the Tibetan government in exile, giving some justification to Chinese suspicions that he wants independence.

There's also been little in the way of condemnation of the violence against Han civilians and their property in Lhasa. Whatever the crimes of the Chinese government, surely shopkeepers ought not be the ones to pay the price. This thought brings me to another issue, the migration of Han into Tibet that has been described as cultural genocide. Certainly I can appreciate that when a place like Tibet receives a massive influx of outsiders eager to modernize, there is something lost in terms of the pristine, remote, austere quality that has enchanted so many visitors. But Tibet is not by a long shot the only place on earth confronting this dilemma, and it's not clear what the solution would be. If it were even possible, are we saying that non-Tibetans should be barred from moving there? I'm certainly not comfortable with such an idea.

There are also difficult questions with regard to America's "authority" to criticize China's behavior in Tibet - certainly nothing China has done compares to the complete decimation of the American Indian. And had we not killed them all with smallpox and straight-up murder I doubt that we would have respected their desire to live a traditional life free of strip-malls and gas stations. Are several generations enough separation from these horrible crimes to free us from a charge of hypocrisy? I don't know. These are complex questions, and that's really the whole point I was trying to make.

Of course, for now the solution would be for the Tibetans to stop killing Chinese civilians (I'm going to avoid digressing on whether or not Tibetans are Chinese and in what sense)and the government to stop oppressing the Tibetans, but that's about as likely a the US government not bailing out irresponsible bankers or sensibly ending the war in Iraq. Good night moon, good night China, good night Tibet, good night suffering and misery, you'll still be there when I wake up tomorrow.

A final thought: this article, nearly ten years old, is still awesome and incredibly poignant. I learned a lot about the Chinese perspective:

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