Tibet Update: Much smoke and mirrors, but little clarity while the suffering continues

Tibet Flag

It has been far too long since I wrote a post, and even longer since I wrote about Tibet. Considering all that has happened since I last posted on this topic, I think it’s time for an update.

On one hand, I think that the relatively comfortable position that I took earlier regarding the need for a reasoned debate is looking a bit waffly, in the face of the rather brutish and unproductive attitude that the hardline faction at the highest levels of the Chinese government – and an influential majority of its nouveau riche Han urbanites – have taken throughout the past few weeks.

How best to summarise the events of the past month?

On one hand, there has been a vicious and continuing official Chinese government strategy (orchestrated, it has to be stressed, by powerful hardliners, and not the entire government per se) of giving free rein to the xenophobic nationalist sentiment of its (purportedly) middle class and educated “angry youth” while demonising the Dalai Lama and unleashing severely repressive measures on its Tibetan population.

So far, so bad. By which I mean that I am not necessarily saying anything that has not already been widely reported.

However, as I began to settle into a depressing daily routine of surfing for the latest on Tibet, I came across various stories that deeply unsettled me. In particular, I ran into this story in the Chinese media regarding a supposed declaration of loyalty to the Chinese, and repudiation of the DL, by Pasang Wangdu, one of Tibet’s foremost academics, and a very dear friend. Pawang-la was the first Tibetan I ever met, in Cambridge, and was my very first teacher of the Tibetan language. He is a giant among Tibetan historians, a critical thinker of the highest level and a decent man. To learn that Pawang-la would have been forced (undoubtedly forced) to go public with such a goonish declaration as the one that was reproduced in the Guangming Daily (which, incidentally, is known to be widely read by academics and intellectuals across China) is just ludicrous and chilling.

If this is even just a minor part of what the Chinese government implies when it euphemistically speaks of “patriotic re-education” (also referred to more recently as “anti-secession education”) , then I am afraid that I am beginning to shift my previously nuanced stance towards how best to approach the Tibet situation. The depressing truth is that China has time on its side, and knows it, and is therefore deploying a long-term strategy of eroding the relevance of monastic activism and religion in the everyday lives of Tibetans while continuing to stall any meaningful dialogue with an interlocutor that it sees as completely unpalatable (for an insightful explanation of said strategy see this interview with Robbie Barnett that was taped shortly before the Lhasa riots broke out).

In the meantime, several different strands of thought regarding how best to react to China have continued to emerge from various quarters, of which I will include only three or four exemplars here for the sake of brevity. Pankaj Mishra has argued the case for the fact that Tibetan resentment has more to do with the ravages of socio-economic inequality and top-down modernisation, while Andrew Fischer has continued to push his argument in respect of the fact that the international pro-Tibet movements do not necessarily speak for Tibetans in Tibet and may, in fact, be doing more damage than good by taking a hard line against China . Just for the record, while I still largely agree with Andrew, I do believe he needs to flesh out his argument a little, and that in any case it does not alter the fact that events on the ground are grim.

In turn, John Pomfret has weighed in by taking the opposite argument in the sense that the best strategy that the international community can take is to apply continuing pressure on China. I am not so sure about this rationale, but the argument is shared by a substantial proportion of people, and merits at least some attention.

Finally, when I began to tire of sifting through the multifarious reflections of the many opinionologists who believe themselves qualified to utter authoritative statements on Tibet, I came across a slightly more distant but insightful analysis by George Friedman of Strategic Forecasting Inc.

While I get the feeling that Friedman is doing what analysts do best – which is to evaluate reality from a slightly detached realpolitik stance, I nevertheless learned a couple of interesting facts from this piece, which otherwise helps to put certain basic facts back on the table, such as what the actual strategic value of Tibet might look like from a Chinese perspective. Which helps to dispel the confusion sown by the rather shrill but simplistic accusations which are sometimes leveled at the PRC in terms of its engaging in cultural genocide and other such obfuscating nonsense which does nothing to provide a better perspective about the various realities on the ground.

EDIT: I recently came across this opinion piece and found it interesting and relevant enough (among many many others) to include it here for further reading.

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