Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tibet, History And Pointless Arguments

Continuing with my commentary of world affairs, now that I've become something of a "backseat traveller", today I'm going to talk about the news item that has hogged the international headlines for the past fortnight: Tibet. I don't particularly want to weigh in on any one side of the Free Tibet debate as I think it's far more complicated than we give it credit for, but instead want to talk about perceptions of Tibet. You see I'm lucky enough to have a Chinese colleague (and by that I mean that he is both Han Chinese and also brought up there) and so I was able to discuss the situation with him. Well, when I say discuss I mean argue (those of you who know me well know that I love to play Devil's Advocate).

My friend took particular umbrage at what he saw as the Western media's bias towards the Tibetan cause and portraying the Chinese as the evil party in the whole affair. Although I would agree with him up to a point, in that Western sympathies generally lie with the Tibetans and that this probably skews the reporting somewhat, there was in fact a healthy proportion of reports showing Tibetan mobs beating up innocent Chinese civilians. This certainly compares very favourably with the Chinese state-run media which is blatantly one-sided. His argument does make an interesting point though: we see the Tibetans, their culture, their religion and their history through rose-tinted glasses. It has become very fashionable to be Buddhist (or at least have Buddhist leanings) and therefore idolise the Dalai Lama. (This in itself is a rather blinkered view as the Tibetan form of Buddhism embodied by the Dalai Lama (the Yellow Hat school) is just one form of Tibetan Buddhism, all of which are heavily influenced by the indigenous Bon religion, and which doesn't actually bear that much resemblance to original Buddhism. Of the many forms of the religion the Sri Lankan/Thai Theravada type is the one most similar to the original.) Also the Western view of Tibet is heavily tinged by legends of Shangri-La and a romantic, Victorian image of them as "noble savages" living in a utopian society until they were brought under the yoke of the perfidious Chinese. The truth, however, upon prompting from my colleague (I refuse to take what people say at face value and will stubbornly investigate any facts that people throw into an argument), turns out to be very different: Tibet had a very feudal society with a few rich landowners (often the monasteries) and the rest of the population as impoverished serfs. Hardly the idyll portrayed in the media over here.

This formed one of the two planks of my friend's arguments (i.e. that the Chinese have liberated ordinary Tibetans from serfdom and improved their lot) as to why China is in the right with regards to Tibet. The other is that Tibet is, and has been for a very long time, an integral part of China and therefore has no right to secede. As far as the first point goes I would broadly agree with it, but would raise the question whether such improvements would not have taken place anyway without China's intervention, and whether that should give China any claim on Tibet anyway. One must not forget that in the first half of the last century many other societies were also following a less-emancipated social system and have now become more just, and that secondly although the British empire brought with it many benefits to its colonies we do not say that the Empire was just.

Alongside this social argument was the historic argument: Tibet is and always has been a part of China. The date most Chinese set for the incorporation of Tibet into the rest of China is around 1250 during the Yuan dynasty. Most outside historians would disagree because, although they were both under the same rule, they were both actually part of the Mongol empire and separately administered. Tibet didn't fall under Chinese sway until 500 years later, and even then it was more of a vassal state paying tribute and allegiance, though with its own laws and rulers. Indeed when one sees maps from the era Tibet is never shown as being part of China. But either way that itself does not seem to me to be a compelling argument because even if a people are ruled by another they do not necessarily feel as if they belong to that country. Much of the history of the past 150 years has been that of the struggle for self-determination and emancipation from colonial rule and China's struggles with its restive minorities is just a continuation of that. In some respects China is the last, classic colonial power and it is just as loathe to give up its colonies as Britain and France were.

Not that the Tibetans are even demanding independence, just more freedom and autonomy - a solution which would save face on both sides but which the Chinese authorities are refusing to even contemplate, believing too strongly in their own version of history which states their inalienable right to Tibet. In its essence that is what I believe that this, and several other conflicts boil down to: cultivating a one-sided view of history as a justification for actions, and then repeating that history so often that it becomes an indoctrined, religious, unquestionable dogma. Turks and Armenians, Indians and Pakistanis, Kosovars and Serbs, Israelis and Palestinians, all have their version of events and refuse to listen to the other side dismissing them automatically as lies, fabrications and ploys to deprive them of their birthright (it was George Orwell who said that "he who controls the past controls the present"). Reason, objectivity and fairness are left at the door and are replaced by claims, counter-claims, recriminations and "scientific evidence" that proves the other side to be cheaters, liars and treacherous interlopers. And like all good dogmas no argument on earth, no matter how well crafted or how much supporting evidence is gathered, will be able to budge the adherent from their righteous viewpoint and so you end up having to agree to disagree before you exasperate each other. The best thing to do, before such an argument develops, is to ask your opponent whether they would be willing to change their point of view if presented with sufficient information, and if not then just to refuse discussing it further.

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