Tibet has received much attention from the West. It is described as having a rich cultural heritage. It is viewed as being a victim of Communist aggression. It is hailed as a tourist destination. Each of these has some truth to it. But what is not always ascertained is the geopolitical importance of Tibet in Eurasian economics. Known as the “rooftop of the world,” it contains in its plateaus a treasure trove of water, minerals, and energy (Samphel). For this reason and others, it has been the source of conflict and contention over throughout its long and storied history. This paper will discuss the history of the international conflict associated with Tibet and show how and why it has been depicted in various lights.
The documentary feature Tibet Situation: Critical by Jason Lansdell is a film that showcases the brutal oppression of Tibetans by the Chinese government. Its take is sympathetic to the Tibetan people and critical of the Chinese authorities who perpetrate these abuses. The film opens with a portrayal of Tibet as a peaceful, beautiful oasis that was invaded by evil Communists. The footage of the Communists and their lorries is in black and white and grainy and contrasts sharply with the colorful images of Tibetan monks praying and green, gorgeous hills and snow-capped mountains. Synthetic music plays over the invasion scenes, giving an eerie “invaders from Mars” feeling. The film notes that 1.2 million Tibetans have died as a result of the Chinese invasion of 1950. This is a staggering number. Why did China invade? Why did so many Tibetans have to die? Why were they tortured and/or executed?
The revolution that occurred in China in the 20th century was a violent one that opposed the ancient traditions of the mainland. War had become a business, and leaders like Mao Tse-Tung had developed a cult of personality. Chairman Mao in China during the Cultural Revolution attempted to secure his position and prestige through gangster-style tactics and bombastic and Marxist-inspired rhetoric. A confirmed ideologue for Communism, Mao insisted upon atheism for a nation whose religious practices ranged from Confucianism to Catholicism. Under Mao, religion was suppressed and a new vision of man was promoted. For Tibet, this meant cultural genocide, as Tibetan Buddhism was bulldozed in favor of statism. Tibetans were to be re-educated to think like good Communist Chinese — or else expelled or executed.
But why had China invaded in 1950? The fact is, Tibet had always been a source of contention for as long as powerful groups could take what they wanted. The East India Company pushed into Tibet fearing that Russian Imperialists might get there first. Before then, Tibet had ruled over a portion of the Silk Road and even maneuvered to install a Chinese emperor in Xian (Tucci). The Tibetans were a fierce people at this time. But with the adoption of Buddhism, their ferocity began to turn to a more peaceful and contemplative attitude.
As Britain expanded into India, it saw Tibet as a buffer zone, or protection from Russian expansion, which it feared would threaten its “jewel” (Gratale 9). But now that Britain was in Tibet and so close to China, China began to view Tibet in the same way that the British saw it — as a buffer: a layer of protection near its own borders from Western colonial powers. With the British now right next door, China decided to act, to take Tibet and restore a buffer zone between it and the West. From Manchu, China the declaration was simple: “Tibet is the buttress on our national frontiers — the hand, as it were, which protects the face” (Samphel).
At this point the Dalai Lama had left Tibet. The Dalai Lamas had served as advisors to political leaders: they were like the spiritual element in the midst of political intrigue. But now, the Lama had abandoned his post and left Tibet without its Buddhist leadership. The “priest-patron relationship” disintegrated and Tibet was occupied (Samphel). But China was not resting well. It underwent a revolution in 1911 and the Manchu soldiers were expelled from Tibet following a Tibetan rebellion. The Dalai Lama returned to Tibet, finding order restored in the Tibetan people’s favor. But in China, revolution was turning into gangsterism. Mao Tse Tung came to power and operated using the playbook of Joseph Stalin — brutal, aggressive, and insane. Stalin advised Mao to ethnically cleanse Tibet in order to erase any possibility of future Tibetan rebellion (Chang, Halliday).
Mao was not a brilliant strategist by any means, but rather an iron-willed and iron-fisted dictator with a great supply of young, vigorous men and women willing to follow his lead. It helped that he let them get away with murder (in fact, promoted murder), while making life miserable for everyone else who was not on his payroll. Mao’s policies were great failures, like the Great Leap Forward. He apologized for these mistakes but the apologies rang hollow as he never corrected his attitude or his disagreement with the ways of the past and the traditions of his ancestors. So when he said things like, “The chaos was on a grand scale, and I take responsibility” (Johnson 551) it meant little when considered alongside the fact that he continued to cause chaos at every turn. His invasion of Tibet was no less than an exercise in suppression of peace for activity in violence and warfare. He not only sought to attack the Tibetans but to erase Tibetan culture and flood the area with Chinese culture. It was a policy of buffering through expansion and brutal oppression.
C.P. Fitzgerald stated that the “purpose of the Cultural Revolution [was] as a whole to eliminate the principal features of the old society, and in particular all that [had] the taint of foreign origin” (124). Because Tibetan Buddhism had emanated from India, it was considered foreign to Chinese culture — the culture that Mao wanted to promote in order to keep his control over the empire. (Mao was a materialistic Communist, whose ideology was completely modern and fabricated as he went along. All he knew was that what came before him had to be replaced by what he cooked up in his own head.) Buddhism was a practice that Mao could not abide. Thus, it was not surprising to find that temples were destroyed in the wake of the 1950 invasion. The Cultural Revolution’s platform was to crush the Four Olds: “old thought, old culture, old tradition, and old custom” (Zhang, Schwartz 197).
For that reason, the “three out of four main creeds” that were of foreign origin were marked for elimination when the Cultural Revolution began (Fitzgerald 124). Mao was not out simply to eliminate foes who had insulted or resisted him in the past — he was out to purge China of everyone and everything that did not bow down before him. Thus, while in traditional Chinese culture, Chinese people could choose from “Confucian ethics, Buddhism, and the ancient polytheism known as Taoism,” in the new Chinese Culture sponsored by Mao himself, the brilliant mind behind the Great Leap Forward that fell flat on its face and took millions down with it, the Chinese people could choose from the doctrine of Mao and the doctrine of Mao — there were no other alternatives. Indeed, the old ways of ethics and philosophies had been dissolving for decades and were of lesser account in the 20th century than they had been in the past centuries before the era of modernization. Now, it was Islam, Christianity, Buddhism that were marked for death in Mao’s mind. Essentially, the Cultural Revolution was a movement that was “deeply political [in] character” and not grounded in any real philosophy other than Mao’s self-will (Woodstock 130). It was purely a business move to suppress Tibet.
Mao always liked to say that “there is no construction without destruction,” which is why his forces were so destructive in Tibet (Johnson 555). By occupying Tibet, Mao could also boast of having a great military strategic position (even if he bungled all else in his domestic policies, he at least had this post). However, economically speaking, Tibet was nothing. Its cultural significance was found in its retention of Buddhism, but its geopolitical significance was far more important for far-reaching empires wishing to protect their vital interests either abroad or at home.
Because the West now had reason to rally against Communism during the Cold War and to oppose Communist nations, it focused on Tibet as a place where human atrocities were being committed (even though the West was committing similar atrocities wherever it secretly invaded using CIA men). The attention was part of a mission to bring bad light on China, and Tibet was a perfect opportunity to do so in the world of political gaming: the Tibetans were shown as peaceful, spiritual people and the Chinese as murderous, fierce monsters — just as in the documentary by Lansdell. Tibet was indeed painted as being at a critical point. But was it any more critical in Tibet than in any other place where Western Imperialism had practiced its own form of ethnic cleansing, for example in Central or South America? Or in the Philippines? Or in the Middle East? The answer was no. It was the same — with this exception: this was China doing the oppression, not the West. So, in order to position themselves as morally superior, the West latched onto Tibet’s cause.
Yet, as Han and Paik show, the controversy of Tibet is deep-rooted for the Tibetan people value their independence and resent the Chinese occupation and the ethnically-cleansing that is going in their homeland. Tibetans have fled for other territories, such as Nepal, to escape this persecution. They want to retain their cultural heritage and their Buddhist temples even as the Chinese seek to instill in them a new culture, new identity, new language. It is just as controversial as the occupation of Palestine. And as with that occupation, the reason is geopolitical.
Despite the fact that filmmakers like Lansdell show the reason for Tibet’s occupation as being cultural, the cultural revolution is only the surface. The occupation is the direct result of Tibet’s geopolitical location in Eurasia and the immense resources that it has in its domain (Chellaney). Tibet, perched as it is among the Himalayas, is a great source of water in Asia, as well as precious minerals and energy sources.
Tibet has proposed peace memorandums to China, but China, with its military strength and imperial designs, views such memorandums as insignificant. It has what it wants in Tibet and sees no reason to reverse its policy. Here the UN is equally ineffective because as a new Asian century dawns, the decisively Western-leaning UN is incapable of securing anything for smaller countries like Tibet, no matter how much protests and leaders may call for intervention (Escobar). Right to Protect assaults are typically land grabs in disguise and R2P in Tibet would in effect be an assault on China and the beginning of WW3, if it can be said that the world is not already in the throes of such a conflict. Today, Tibet is firmly in China’s control. The only conflict that is present today is that between ruler and ruled, which can be found anywhere colonialism forces an unwanted and undesired policy of culture and education on its subjects.
Nonetheless, talks are happening between China and Tibet and this in itself shows signs of a change in direction. Change has occurred in China in the past as one emperor replaces another and new policies of tolerance and acceptance replace old policies of aggression and hostility, and vice versa. No nation is ever static or its relations with other nations ever permanent in one direction or another. Therefore, Tibetans may take hope in the fact that its leaders and its voice for autonomy are not being completely ignored, even if its memorandums for independence are rejected out of hand. In fact, even Chinese leaders and scholars are approaching Tibet with a different attitude: Jin Wei, a director of Beijing’s Central Party School, has put in a “call for a ‘creative’ new approach” (“Bold New Proposals”).
Wei’s approach is for China to stop demonizing the Dalai Lama and to get rid of the attitude that Tibetan culture is somehow bad for China. It is a clear desire to distance today’s Chinese government from the oppressive system of government seen under Mao in the 20th century. Indeed, China’s recent partnership with Russia in a lucrative energy deal and the West’s increasingly antagonistic strategy in the Ukraine make it apparent to China that it may have to reverse its cruel, totalitarian course in order to shore up its borders and make itself stronger as the West displays a more and more erratic and desperate hand. In the art of business, likeable managers are effective managers, and it appears that it may be time for Chinese leadership to make itself more likeable to its Tibetan subjects.
That does not mean that it is ready to hand over rule to the Tibetan people or to welcome the Dalai Lama with open arms if he continues to tow a separate line from what Chinese authorities wish to see. But the attitude is changing in China. It still asserts its power and authority over the region — but how it does so is now becoming a focus of discussion. Oppression, it is said, is no longer a viable solution in a more self-aware, self-possessed China.
Western documentaries such as Lansdell’s do not highlight such changes of attitude but rather emphasize the brutal repression that existed during the reign of Mao. It uses interviews of survivors and torture victims to show how horrible the oppression was. But what is the focus of such works if not to raise ire towards modern-day China? Just as Russia has turned a page from its Soviet past and days of Stalinist practices, China appears to be turning away from the methodology of Stalin-inspired practices of Mao and his “great” policies of revolution.
Samphel states that the reason for this change of attitude is clear: China wants to change its image. It wants to stop being demonized by the West, just as the Tibetans want to stop being demonized by the Chinese. So, in order to secure what it wants, it has to give. It is the ancient golden rule coming to the fore in Chinese minds. Samphel states: “China wants something from the Tibetans which China does not have: legitimacy.
This means that Tibet has a certain amount of power in its hands. Its protests and “fiery deaths” are a sign that it too wants a degree of legitimacy from China in the form of autonomy. Can a political peace be reached between the two? Or does a bridge of respect and mutual appreciation still need to be erected?
As Asia looks on, it appears that a new spirituality is rising to the top of Eastern concerns. Chinese is viewed as having violated the sacred principles of Tibetan peoples and must make amends. Governance over the Tibetan Plateau has been fundamentally based on Buddhist ideas in Tibet for centuries. The mining of this Plateau by the Chinese is not based on the same principles and this is seen as another bone of contention (Samphel). To restore Tibetans to the land would be to allow these principles to supersede the principals of business, which are what fundamentally drive China today. Which will win out in the new Asian century? Spirituality or business? Might there be a compromise? It appears that a compromise is at least possible as Asia looks within to find strength against an increasingly terroristic West.
Samphel notes that China’s “leading lights,” which include Nobel winners, scientists, activists, and intellectuals are supporting a compromise between China and Tibet. Moreover, they point to the Dalai Lama as the drafter of this compromise. As the nation speaks of reforming itself and taking a new, fresh step forward, this desire for compromise is growing ever more popular among Chinese. For China, it means making amends, and for Tibet it means granting forgiveness. Only in such an attitude as this can the Tibetan conflict truly come to a satisfactory close.
The Middle-Way Policy is the document that forward thinking peoples in Asia and around the world talk about when they speak about ending the Tibetan conflict. It is a policy that would allow Tibetan people to oversee the maintenance of the Plateau. Should China assent to such an agreement it would be a significant reversal of attitude and bold new step indeed for Asia because it would signify something that the West appears to have lost in its attitude towards other nations and cooperating on a spiritual level rather than on a ruler and ruled level or even the level of gangsterism.
In conclusion, the Dalai Lama was a political as a well as a cultural figure and he represented Tibetan independence. However, Tibet’s geopolitical importance to Eurasia had long been understood — ever since the days of Britain in India and Russia expansionism. Tibet’s resources were highly coveted by the industrial world and just as the two World Wars were all about land grabs, the Tibetan invasion was just that — a land grab. That monks were killed, temples destroyed, and protesters beaten and killed only shows the ferocity with which the invaders undertook their mission. But these people were not being pushed out because of their beliefs or because of their culture. They were being pushed out because they happened to live on land that a more powerful nation wanted. Like invading marauders, they destroyed so as to make their occupation all the easier. It was a foreshadowing of Mao’s later chapters on how to run a country through thuggery and gangsterism. It was a method copied by the West as well. If the West highlights the struggle of Tibetans today it is only to cast asperity on China, its competitor in the global plot for hegemony.
So while the Chinese force the Tibetans to learn Mandarin in schools in an attempt to culturally subjugate Tibet to Chinese rule, the fact remains that this is all part of the business plan of industrial, imperial China — and the West has acted no differently in its colonial conquests. What matters, however, is that China and Tibet are sitting down to talk about what is important to each and how to move forward with an attitude of respect. China has some debts to pay as far as respect goes towards Tibet. If China can sever ties with its brutalist policies of the 20th century, it may truly be a real Asian century, founded on spiritual rather than materialistic principles.
“Bold New Proposals.” The Economist. 22 June 2013. Web.
Chang, Jung; Halliday, Jon. Mao: The Unknown Story. UK: Vintage, 2006. Print.
Chellaney, Brahma. Water: Asia’s New Battleground. NY: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.
Escobar, Pepe. “Year of the Sheep, Century of the Dragon?” The Roving Eye.
AsiaTimes. 23 Feb 2015. Web.
Fitzgerald, C.P. “Religion and China’s Cultural Revolution.” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 40,
No. 1/2, 1967, pp. 124-129. Print.
Gratale, Joseph. “Walberg, Eric: Posmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great
Games.” European Journal of American Studies, vol. 1, 2012, pp. 9-10.
Han, Enze; Paik, Christopher. “Dynamics of Political Resistance in Tibet: Religious
Repressioin and Controversies of Demographic Change.” The China Quarterly, vol. 217, 2014, pp. 69-98. Print.
Johnson, Paul. Modern Times. NY: HarperPerennial, 1992. Print.
Lansdell, Jason, dir. Tibet Situation: Critical. YouTube. 2013. Film.
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