The following questions and answers about Tibet came to me from the Socialist Labour Party. When I received a petition from a source I often support in the name of human rights I held back from a knee-jerk reaction because I felt a need to understand. In Snowmail a point was made that little attempt had been made to put a Chinese view across. This is not to say that colonialism is right, but those making noises live in glass houses and there are key questions to ask about what is going on: what is the agenda behind it? I was reminded that there had been a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Why? Because of the Soviet Union’s presence in Afghanistan!!!
The Dalai Lama has recently been in the presence of George Bush, which is enough to start me asking questions. Nancy Pelosi is not exactly a Bush supporter, but her recent intervention in Tibetan matters has also to be questioned. The article is translated from the French being an account by a woman who has made a study of Tibetan Buddhism.
TIBET: QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
China contains 1/6th of the world’s population and events affecting that part of the world should be a concern for all.
With the China/Tibet issue being much in the news recently, it is useful to discover the social, political and economic background to current developments.
Elisabeth Martens is the author of Histoire du bouddhisme tibetain:compasio (Publisher: Harmattan (Nov 1 2007) Language: French)
Elisabeth Martens was interviewed by Bénito Perez for “Le Courrier” of Geneva on 27 March 2008. Here is the entire interview in which she directly answers all questions on the history, recent events, repression, the Dalai Lama, and the social problems of Tibet.
Tibet: Answers on the history, religion, the monk class, social problems, repression, and the role of the US.
by Elizabeth Martens
Benito Perez: Can you briefly introduce yourself? How did you become interested in Tibet and China?
Elizabeth Martens: I spent three years in China, after studying biology in Belgium, in order to specialize in traditional Chinese medicine. Of course, I took advantage of my stay there to travel throughout China—from north to south, and east to west. One of my trips in 1990 took me for the first time to a Tibetan region (i.e., inhabited by Tibetans), XiaHe in Gansu, to the great Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Labulang. I was surprised by the ease with which one could make contact with the Lamas who walked the streets and shopped at the corner grocery store; it was far from the image of our own monks who were cloistered behind their walls.
I was also surprised by the difference between the Chinese Buddhas, round as teapots mildly brewing on the stove, smiling, jolly, and the Tibetan Buddhas, much more imposing. And still more surprised to find in the Tibetan temples an incredible quantity of representations of the gods, of monsters, of Bodhisattvas, and such, one more ferocious and frightening than the next. I found that, in a certain way, this was a lot like what you find in the chamber of horrors in our churches, men impaled, crucified, or thrown into pots of boiling oil, and so on. Nothing like what is in Chinese art: in Chinese thought, and thus in the arts of China, suffering and the means by which it is brought about are not central preoccupations. From what must one free oneself at the moment when one realizes that suffering is only the flip side of well-being? I found in the Tibetan regions, where I returned several times after that (the last time in the summer of 2007), a very different culture from the Chinese. This difference seemed interesting to me: how could a country as huge as China (larger than all of Europe) reconcile 55 nationalities, each speaking its own language, especially with the disproportionate presence of the Han (about 90% of the population of China) as compared to the other nationalities?
BP: What happened, according to your information (and what are your sources?), recently in those regions of China populated by Tibetans?
EM: The violence which went down in Lhassa on 14 March 2008 was perpetrated by groups of Tibetan demonstrators. The testimony of foreigners present at the time was in agreement on this point: the aggression targeted the Chinese (the Han) and the Hui, a majority of whom are Muslims. Some people were burned alive, others were beaten, stabbed or stoned to death. The weapons used were Molotov cocktails, stones, iron bars, shanks and butcher knives. There were 22 dead and more than 300 wounded, nearly all were Hui and Han. These were criminal acts of a racist character. Serge Lachapelle, a tourist from Montreal, said: “The Muslim quarter was completely destroyed, not a single store was left standing.”
By the 18th of March, the Dalai Lama declared at a press conference that “the events in Tibet got out of control and that he is prepared to resign if the violence continues.” He added that “these acts of violence are suicidal.” It did not stop, just a few days later, through a strange bit of scheduling, US Senate Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, from showing up in Dharamsala for an official visit to the 14th Dalai Lama. She spoke of the events in Tibet as “a challenge to the conscience of the world” and demanded that China send and independent international commission to Tibet to verify the Chinese accusation that “the clique of the Dalai Lama was behind the violence”, and to check on “the manner in which the Chinese are treating their Tibetan prisoners.” This is one of the strategies used by the US: to force China to accept the teams of inspectors who carry the cachet of “Human Rights”, or to be able to say that China refused to accept them. There is no one better suited to pull off such a plan than the Dalai Lama: in his speech of 10 March, he had already demanded that China demonstrate “a greater transparency.”
Aren’t these terms curiously resonant of ‘glasnost’, which led to the break-up of the USSR? Germany, the avant-garde of Europe, lined up behind the demands for transparency made by the US: the German Minister of Foreign Affairs declared “the German Federal government demands greater transparency on the part of the Chinese government.” But the Chinese authorities speak of a premeditated and well-organized revolt. The occasion chosen to give the green light to the rioters was the anniversary of the 1959 revolt in Lhasa, a date the Tibetans in exile have declared a “National Holiday”: 10 March. On this day, a march from India to Tibet was effectively begun. It was supposed to go on for six months: until the opening of the Olympic Games in Peking. This march was organized by the “Movement for the Uprising of the Tibetan People”, an organization in which were represented the principal factions of the Tibetan government in exile: the NDP (New Democratic Party), the Tibetan Youth Congress, and the Women’s Movement.
10 March was clearly the signal to kick-off the riots: they were encouraged from abroad by multiple demonstrations in front of Chinese Embassies (e.g., in Brussels). Even in China, fliers calling for independence for Tibet were distributed in Tibetan regions. The same day, 300 Lamas from the monastery in Drepung demonstrated in the center of Lhasa in a non-violent but “provocative” manner; the police dispersed the demonstrators without clashes. This was not the case a few days later on the 14th of March: several Tibetan groups, all armed in the same way and operating in the same manner, were dispersed in city of Lhasa, bringing on hostilities and creating panic. What followed was the drama that we saw, with the anticipated repression by the Chinese. It should be remembered that international law stipulates, “Every country has the right to use force against independence movements aimed at dividing that country.” Imagine the havoc that would ensue in France if Corsican separatists set fire to French civilians in the middle of Ajacio!
BP: The general analysis of the riots has been that they were “a reaction to the colonization of Tibet by the Chinese”? There has even been talk of genocide? What’s up with this?
EM: When we speak of the “colonization” of one country by another, there should be, at least, two countries. In this particular case, we should remember that Tibet has never been recognized as an “independent country”. In the 13th century, the Mongols annexed Tibet to China, and in the 18th century the Manchus divided the Chinese empire into 18 provinces, Tibet being one of them. At the end of the 19th century, the British Empire invaded Tibet and installed their trading posts.
This happened under the reign of the 13th DL, who saw in the British occupation of Tibet an opportunity to claim independence. The basis for this was what was called “Greater Tibet”, a territory five times the size of France, about a third of China, and which corresponds more or less (because there were no maps at this time) to the territory of Tibet at the end of the Tubo dynasty of the 9th century. But China at the beginning of the 20th century had just come out of a territorial auction in which it had ceded a number of “concessions” to Western countries. To give up a third of its territory was to sign it own death warrant. So this demand for independence was inconceivable. That is to say that neither the UN nor any of its member states ever recognized Tibet as an independent country. This is an initial answer to your question.
A second answer is that when we use the term “colonization”, it implies that the invading country profits from the assets of the invaded country. But, if we consider the last fifty years in Tibet, we notice the opposite phenomenon. The Tibetan population has tripled thanks to the health care system and the rapid improvement of living standards. Which was, in fact, not difficult to achieve given the disastrous conditions under which 90% of the Tibetans lived under the theocratic regime of the Dalai Lamas. In any case, this improvement was not as fast as in the larger Chinese cities, which, with their gleaming spires, have made the whole world believe that China has turned capitalist. It’s crazy what you can make people believe with a few sequins, some lights and some big store windows. To answer your second question, about genocide, we must once more go back into history. In 1949, with the advent of the Peoples Republic of China, the Chinese government chose to set the odometer back to zero: all foreigners and foreign influences were shown the door, and all the borders were reasserted, even those in distant provinces like Tibet. In 1956, an armed rebellion was organized in several Tibetan monasteries (e.g., Litang and Drepung): the Peoples Republic of China targeted the Tibetan dignitaries, those of the clergy in particular. And so it was this part of the population that began to flee into India and which would make up the Tibetan community in exile (just as the exodus for Taiwan was made up mainly of the larger Chinese families).
This armed rebellion was from its beginnings financially and logistically supported by the CIA. For what reason? All you have to do to understand this is read a report by the US State Dept from April 1949: “Tibet has become strategically and ideologically important. Since the independence of Tibet could serve the struggle against communism, it is in our interests to recognize Tibet as independent. (. . ) However, it is not Tibet that interests us, it is the attitude we must adopt toward China.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that! The armed rebellion, which began in the monastery in Litang, spread in waves to Lhasa, where the most important action took place, and was put down by the Red Army in 1959. After this event, it was of great importance to the US to conduct public opinion to believe that there was a genocide, and that’s why the figure of 1.2 million dead was put out by the Tibetan Buddhist authorities in exile.
Several demographic studies later showed that this figure was made up out of whole cloth. Patrick French, former director of “Free Tibet”, verified this on the spot in Dharamsala. After a lengthy review of the “official” documents putting out this figure, he became completely disgusted with the magnitude of the falsifications coming from those he had admired. He recounts this episode in his book. What is important to remember in this falsification is that if we speak of 1.2 million dead from a population of barely 2 million inhabitants, we could well be talking about a “genocide”. But if it’s actually a matter of a few thousand dead on both sides, then it’s no longer a genocide, but more like a civil war. This figure of 1.2 million dead was allowed to manipulate public opinion toward a distrusting, unto xenophobia, of the Chinese. It has been the same story for 50 years. So, if we analyze the historical facts, we can no longer speak of either an invasion, or of colonization, or of genocide. The riots which took place in March 2008 must be analyzed, first of all, in an economic context, without forgetting that Tibet has been for a long time now one of the fields of battle between the US and China.
BP: The violence of the demonstrations does not jibe with the pacifism advocated by the DL. Why?
EM: The DL and his entourage carry the banner of pacifism and have cultivated the image of tolerance and compassion that has come to be associated with Tibetan Buddhism, or so it is believed in the West, right? Yet the DL still takes time to stir up public opinion over the peaceful demonstration of 300 monks from Drepung in the streets of Lhasa on the 10th of March and immediately charges the Chinese police with repression (and it should be noted here in passing that—and anyone who has been to Tibet can confirm this—the forces of order are essentially made up of Tibetans and depend very little on the Chinese). When these violent acts had reached a level of unspeakable barbarity, he quickly distanced himself from the events. What role did he play in the events? To determine this, you have to look at who profited from these riots: neither the Chinese, nor the six million Tibetans living in China. The riots essentially served to stir up public opinion over China’s Human Rights violations, the lack of freedom of expression, and the various repressions that we charge the Chinese government with. So, this uprising served to give China a terrible image, and this just before the Olympics were to gather the world press in Peking.
I think that, in part, they reflect the enormous fear that we have of the economic power represented by today’s China. It’s true that in some ways China is still part of the Third World, but in others ways, it threatens to catch up with us very quickly and even to surpass us. Few people here (in the West—ed) are aware of China’s huge intellectual potential and that this mass of Chinese intellectuals have begun to see themselves being under the constant repression and denigration of the West. They will not remain silent much longer. To recap, I think that these riots served to further darken the image of China: provoked by these racialist riots in the Tibetan regions, China was obliged to bring out its big guns, and so we can speak honorably of a “savage repression” exerted by the Chinese government at the time of these “ethnic incidents”.
It’s the same old song: we’ve heard it constantly since 1989 (with conflicts in Africa, the Balkans, Iraq, and those that went to breaking up the USSR). It should be noted also that at the heart of the Tibetan exile community, there is a scission becoming more and more apparent: on the one hand, there are the moderates, including the DL, who do not advocate violence (not openly, at least), and who do not even demand independence, but speak of “growing autonomy”, as we know. On the other hand, and at the moment it is a majority faction within the government in exile, there are the radicals who demand total independence and are ready to take up arms to achieve it. You can imagine that such discourse would be impossible to maintain without the support of their allies of 50 years: the US, which also continues to finance and arm the Tibetan community in exile. In reality, today the US has two war horses it can use simultaneously: the DL and his followers (in Europe, especially) from whom comes the pacifist line that serves to rally Western intellectuals around the themes of “democracy”, “Human Rights”, “Freedom of the Press”, etc., that must be imposed on China (what a bizarre idea: “a democracy” that has to be imposed! . . . but it gets across 200% of the time), and then the “hardcore” faction of the Tibetan government in exile, which is acquiring more and more adherents because of the tough talk of the struggle for independence at all cost. Apparently, these are the ones who have ignited and carried out the recent violence.
BP: Isn’t this an expression of real discontent?
EM: Yes, of course. What I’ve been describing so far is the “outside” instigators of the riots. But it’s obvious that if there weren’t a “suitable situation” on the ground, the instigators couldn’t instigate anything. As I said, the internal reasons are essentially economic, and therefore social. First, we must remember that mass education in Tibet didn’t begin until the 60s, which explains why Tibet is behind the rest of the country. What this means is that the first university students or advanced technicians in Tibet did not start working until the 80s, about 10 years later than the Han Chinese (and 10 years in China is like 100 years for us!). This is a disadvantage that they still have not made up. This disadvantage at the level of training, as well as in the type of work offered to each group, explains why all the “important” positions are held by the Chinese.
Besides this first problem, which is real, difficult to resolve, and the source of “ethnic” conflict, there is also the disadvantage, well recognized in China, of the country folk compared to the inhabitants of the large urban centers. If many Tibetans have benefited from the economic advances China has made, many others have been left behind in economic stagnation. This fact does not just impact Tibet, but effects the whole of China: the inequalities are becoming more and more glaring between the more fortunate (or even those of average fortune) and the more unfortunate. What is without doubt is that very few Chinese living in Tibet are unemployed—if they come to Tibet, it’s because they know there is a job waiting for them, if not they would go elsewhere—, while there are many young Tibetans would are without jobs. In general, they come from the countryside and have only had elementary school educations. They lack qualifications, while the Chinese who come to work in Tibet are qualified technicians, university trained, or experienced administrators, and, of course, merchants. Even if education is facilitated for Tibetans (as it is with other ethnic minorities elsewhere in China), the requirements for gaining an education are lower and the entrance exams less rigorous for the Hans, the Tibetans don’t always see their interests in pursuing a higher education. But bringing the Tibetans to educate themselves would be an interesting way of reducing social inequality, while China “stands by its commitment” to inject billions of Yuan just for the development of the Tibetan economy. What’s more, in Tibetan towns, the free market favors the Han and Muslim Hui who have more experience in trade than the Tibetans. So, here again, the Tibetans feel they have been dealt out of the game by the Han and the Hui.
Just to note that the racial hatred toward the Muslims has for a long time been rooted in and propagated by Tibetan Buddhism (e.g., by the Kalashakra): it is because of the Muslim invasions of northern India in the 10th and 11th centuries that the Tantric masters sought refuge in Tibet. Indian Tantrism came to Tibet and became Tibetan Buddhism, and held on to an age-old rancor for Islam because of their persecution by Muslims.
BP: Didn’t China annex Tibet? Can we deny the existence of a national claim for Tibet, for a “Tibetan nation” distinct from China?
EM: As I said earlier, Tibet was annexed to China by the Mongols, that is, during the period when the Mongols extended their empire into China (13th century). When China regained control of its empire, with the Mings, from the 14th to the 16th centuries, it pretty much lost all interest in that distant Tibetan region and Tibet remained “passively” annexed to China. Then the Manchus took over China and made Tibet a Chinese province. This tactic was repeated by the British and then by the US.
So what is meant by the term “nation”? If you want to talk about a nation historically distinct from China, you have to go back to the Tubo dynasty that ruled Tibet from the 7th to the 9th centuries. It would be like our now claiming to be the empire of Charlemagne! If you want to talk about a specific culture, it seems obvious that Tibet does not have the same culture as China, not just because of the differences in their spoken and written languages, but also because of the differences in their traditions, their religions, their inhabitants, and so on. This had not stopped the many instances of cross-culturing, to the point that I asked myself what would jump off in the way of family dramas and breakups if one day Tibet really became independent and shoved all the Han Chinese out the door, along with all the Muslims (these are the two ethnicities targeted by the government in exile): they would have a helluva problem telling just who was who and who belonged to what ethnicity. In fact, the ethnic analysis is only a way of explaining to the general public why the wars fought among the great powers happened: this was also seen in the Balkans, in Iraq, in the USSR, and it is happening again in Tibet. What flabbergasted me was that public opinion has still not caught on. And what worries me is that the stakes in this conflict have by far surpassed those of the other conflicts: on the one hand, China can not just let itself do whatever, and on the other, the world economy is at risk of serious shock.
BP: Today, can the Tibetans live according to their culture/religion?
EM: Tibetans are for the most part very devout, that can be seen in their daily life: the stone mills turn lightly, we see them kneeling in front of the temples from morning till night, on the highways we regularly encounter pilgrims en route to Lhasa, prayer flags around their necks, the monasteries are packed with monks, even very young children (which is forbidden by Chinese law), bank notes piled up at the feet of the Buddhas, in the distance we can hear the sounds of trumpets and mantras.
Religious practice is far from being repressed. It can only be an expression of bad faith to claim otherwise! Or of never having been to Tibet. In education, bilingualism is required and practiced in every school that we visited (primary, secondary and higher education); institutes of Tibetology were open for those young Tibetans (and others) who wished to deepen their study of Tibetan culture: here we found they gave courses in language, medicine, theology, music and dance, and so on. So I think that it is pure nonsense to say that the culture and the religion are being oppressed or destroyed. Again, it is the information we are fed at home: after shedding some light on the deception as to the ethnic genocide, we were quickly diverted to “cultural genocide”. It is obvious, that if I, as one small individual, were to contradict this notion, no one would believe me, but it is enough to go and see the place for yourself to be convinced.
So what are they talking about when they point a finger at “Chinese repression”? What is banned and severely punished is any attempt at “separatism”, or the division of China. What may seem trivial activities in our countries, like carrying a Tibetan flag in the streets (the flag that was created in 1959, at the time of the exodus, and which is thus of a political color), or distributing leaflets in the street, or passing out photos of the DL (who is a political effigy), or organizing demonstrations, and such. For this sort of activity there are very quick (doubtlessly too quick?) arrests, and sometimes imprisonment. China is quite severe on this matter because they know that the support for the Tibetan independence movement is huge, that this support comes from the West and is aimed at dividing China. As I said, the bone of contention here is not so much the six million Chinese Tibetans up against the Chinese state, but the pitting of China against the West, and it is expressed in the economic problems that exist in today’s Tibet.
PB: What is the nature of Tibetan Buddhism and its structure/clergy?
EM: Ok, so, you’re asking me to rewrite my book! To recap: Tibetan Buddhism came out of Tantrism, one of three great schools or “vehicles” of Buddhism. According to scholars of Buddhism, this vehicle is the farthest removed from the Dharma (or the original teachings of Buddha in the 6th century BC). First of all, because this vehicle is the most recent (6th century AD), so Buddhism had time to go through several changes, and did so largely because of the intellectual difficulties in its teaching. And then, because Tibetan Buddhism had the particularity of exerting a spiritual as well as a temporal power, which is not the case with the two other vehicles of Buddhism.
In fact, Tantrism fled to Tibet in the 10th and 11th centuries because of the historical circumstances I have just told you about (Muslim invasions). At this time, Tibet was totally disorganized on the political and social levels. But the Tantric communities who came north from India were very structured and hierarchical. This is why, when they had moved into Tibet, which badly needed a reorganization, they took control of the region “spontaneously”, by applying their own standards. Tantrism became Tibetan Buddhism from the moment it adapted itself to the local morals, customs and religion (Bön). You could say that at this time, the Buddhist religion was beneficial because it guided Tibet toward a structured feudalism. The problem was that this feudalism, over a millennium, became rigidly set in an extremely repressive and conservative religious power. Tibet was halted in its evolution because of this omniscient and omnipotent religious power. We must not forget that the monasteries owned more than 70% of the land in Tibet, the rest belonging to the families of the nobility. There has never been a theocratic rule as powerful or as rich as the one in Tibet. There was no comparison with what happened in Europe during the Middle Ages where the monasteries were tucked away in a dark corner of the castle grounds. With the arrival of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, it was much more difficult for the Tibetan clergy to give up this power.
BP: You said that Tibetan Buddhism allowed the imposition of a feudal system. But that was the case with most all religions. Isn’t this all in the past now?
EM: Certainly, that was the case with most religions, as religion has always had one foot in politics, as we say. Tibetan Buddhism permitted a tribal society, as it was before the 9th century, to evolve into a better structured, feudal society. Feudalism is no longer very popular anywhere, and the former Tibetan elite, now in exile, has no intention of returning to the old system. They, too, have modernized and are strong partisans of the “free market” model with a reinstallation of the private ownership of land, thus especially outside the Chinese system, and based on the Western model.
PB: How do you explain the very pro-Tibetan feelings in the West, especially in the media?
EM: Public opinion follows the media, and the media obey the economic interests. Don’t we live in an economic dictatorship here at home? Censorship is as real here as it is anywhere, but just better hidden. In the West, you are not locked up in prison for your opinions, but rather in your head, then in the illnesses that ensue. I wonder sometimes which is worse. So your actual question becomes: “How do you explain the pro-Tibetan feelings conveyed by our economic system?” Neither the US nor Europe fully appreciates the dazzling advances made by China on the world stage. All the plans are in place to bring it down: “We have to raise hell during the Peking Olympics!” squeals Danny Cohn-Bendit in his speech before a plenary session of the EU parliament on how Europe must act toward China. And this, not even a week after the events that lit up downtown Lhasa! It is so monstrous, yet that shows in a very simple way that the “big world of diplomacy and high finance” doesn’t have a solution for the Tibetan problem, and what is really important for them is to “raise hell in China.”
How do you get the Western public to swallow this pill, especially without losing the approval of intellectuals? For that you have to call on His Holiness, who with a smile of the “eternal snows” could make a cat back down in front of a mouse. Hasn’t Tibetan Buddhism gussied itself up in its best bib and tucker to charm a West “devoid of spiritual values”? Surfing into our lives on the 70s wave of “getting back to the source”, it was not difficult to pass it off as the Dharma, presented to us as a sort of “spiritual atheism”, a philosophy of life, a way of being, an internal therapy, etc., in short, everything BUT a religion.