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.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Mad World, My Masters

There hasn't been much of note happening in my life lately: getting up, going to work, coming back, seeing friends on the weekend, the usual. However I thought I'd talk about a few news articles that I have noticed this past week and that have, generally, exasperated me and made me think that perhaps people really are that stupid and selfish.

The first one is rather comic: the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) has been refused accession talks with NATO because of a veto by Greece which rejects to the application on the grounds of their name. Some of you may remember when I was in Greece I wrote about the best way of annoying a Greek was to call FYROM Macedonia. Yep, those Greeks sure can bear a grudge and take it all the way. One would have thought (or should I say hoped) that politics is about being rational, taking the long term view and being pragmatic, but in fact it's all about emotions and touchstone issues. More than in any other walk of life, more even than little boys fighting in the playground, politicians can't seem to admit fault or let a trivial issue pass.

Except, that is, for our illustrious ex-leader Tony Blair, who announced on Friday during his visit to Japan that rich nations should slash greenhouse gas emissions. Now, I may be a bit cynical, but shouldn't he have done something during the 10 years that he was in power and had the perfect opportunity of actually doing something concrete, instead of dithering and, now that he's on the sidelines, criticising and getting on his moral high horse.

But the saddest piece of news comes from Iraq as it prepares to "celebrate" the fifth anniversary of its "liberation". The Chaldean archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped and killed (though possibly he died of other causes in captivity, it's unclear) this week. This in itself is a sad event, as is any loss of life, but it's poignantly so because it's a rare newsworthy article of one of the disasters of the Iraq debacle. The media concentrates on the 3 dominant groups within Iraq - the Kurds, the Shi'ites and the Sunnis - but ignores the many other minorities that live(d) there and that are being targeted by the other 3 three. The Armenians, Assyrians, Qawliya, Mandaeans*, Yezidis, Yarsans and Shabaks (and to a lesser extent the Turkmen) are undergoing what could be termed as a genocide as the stronger groups seek to carve out more power for themselves and as religious intolerance increases to fever pitch. The last 4 practice pre-Christian religions that originated in Mesopotamia and are an important relic of cultural history of the region, but without proper protection they will be wiped out. Unfortunately the Americans don't seem to want to rock the boat with the big three and are turning a blind eye. A truly sad development for what used to be the most ethnically diverse country in the Middle East.

*The Mandaeans are particularly interesting because they follow an ancient gnostic religion that has incorporated elements from Abrahamic religions, where they revere some of their saints and prophets such as Adam, Noah and John the Baptist who they particularly like. Abraham, Jesus and Mohammed, however, are seen as false prophets, which is probably why they kept their teachings very much to themselves and didn't publicise them!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Food And The City

Last weekend I went down to The City with an old friend of mine I hadn't seen in a very long time (although, to be fair, I haven't see a lot of people in a very long time). The City is, paradoxically, the historical heart of London as well as the financial centre. This makes the area feel rather schizophrenic: small, windy medieval streets and alleyways are home to modern office blocks that try to cope with the haphazard street layout, swanky boutiques and chic bistros. Then tucked in between these large, corporate buildings are small churches with colourful names that betray the Anglo-Saxon origins of the city: St Olave, St Botolph, St Ethelreda - not your everyday names nowadays. Yet despite the fact that this square mile of the country is by far the richest and produces a significant proportion of the UK's GDP, if you go there on a Sunday it feels like the day after Judgement Day - the streets are deserted and people are conspicuously thin on the ground. If a tumbleweed were to tumble across your path it would look like the most natural thing in the world. It may seem strange, but in my three years that I lived here as a student I never actually ventured into this part of the city, confining myself to the north and west.

My friend, Lisbeth, is Mexican and I was telling her how the previous day I had been to a "Mexican" restaurant and had a chimichanga. "A what?" she asked. So I had to explain to her that a chimichanga is basically a deep-fried burrito. In fact most of the menu at the restaurant would have been alien to most Mexicans. She has lived in London for over 7 years and she told me that there is, in fact, only one real Mexican restaurant in the whole city and all the rest are actually Texan. That made me think about how many different ethnic restaurants there are in London alone and yet how many of them bare only a fleeting resemblance to what they are supposed to represent. Not only will you not find chicken tikka masala in India, but you're unlikely to even find chicken in a restaurant that isn't geared towards tourists (the vast majority of eating establishments are vegetarian); I couldn't find a Peshwari nan in Peshawar; and I didn't even catch a glimpse of sweet and sour sauce in my 3 months in China (the cuisine that we generally consider Chinese is Cantonese - the food in the northern heartland is plainer and stodgier, but very tasty nevertheless). It's a shame that even our culinary experiences of other countries are so far removed from reality - especially as the real local food is generally much tastier than our ersatz fare.