Published by request, bd
Gabriel Lafitte [email protected] is a development policy consultant to the Environment & Development Desk of the Tibetan government in exile based in India. In 1999 he was asked by Tibetans to assess a World Bank project in Tibetan areas of Qinghai province, that proposed alleviating poverty by sending tens of thousands of nonTibetans settles to displace Tibetan nomads. While at the World Bank site he was detained and interrogated by China’s state security force for a week, then deported. He recently returned to China to present a plan to a state-sponsored conference on poverty, for improving Tibetan livelihoods by interbreeding Australian carpet wool sheep. Gabriel contributed to two reports just published, which explain the roots of Tibetan discontent:
23 March 2008
Zhang Qingli, China’s Party boss in Tibet says: “We are engaged in a fierce battle of blood and fire with the Dalai clique, a life-and-death struggle between the foe and us.” At the very moment China’s Communist Party denounces the Dalai Lama with renewed spleen, as a devil and a wolf, the Dalai Lama offers to fly to Beijing, to resolve the crisis. Is his timing utterly inept, or does he know something that has not yet occurred to the rest of us?
Tibet is in crisis, the Chinese Communist Party leadership is in crisis, utterly unable to understand events and bereft of new ideas. In Newsweek, Melinda Liu says: “Can Chinese officials put the entire roof of the world into lockdown? According to one foreign analyst involved in monitoring Olympic preparations, who requested anonymity for security reasons, ‘They’re simply just freaking out.'” The authority of the Dalai Lama among Tibetans is in crisis, the global Tibetan exile is reinventing itself; and the world looks on, unable to read this old volcano now erupting anew.
In Chinese, the character for crisis is made up of two symbols, signifying danger and opportunity. If opportunity is not recognised and grasped, the danger occurs. In Tibetan tradition, timing is everything, a decisive tool in the hands of the clear-minded, seizing the moment in the unequal game of a small nation surrounded by giants, none greater than China. Could it be that this is the unique moment of opportunity for both Chinese and Tibetans?
In so many ways, the panTibetan revolt of 08 is a repeat of the revolts of 87 and 59, yet in many ways the situation now is completely new. Few discern the new terrain, as it becomes clear the lava flow of Tibetan determination is unstoppable. The world looks on as nomadic horsemen gallop en masse out of the vast rangelands into new Chinese towns in Tibet, such as Gansu Hezuo, shredding the red Chinese flag, hauling up the forbidden Tibetan snow lion mountain flag. What to make of a scene captured by a Canadian film crew as archaic as was the 1917 charge of Australian horsemen seizing Palestine from the Ottomans?
Despite all efforts of Chinese state media to deny the reality of state violence, to portray Tibetans as vicious criminals, imagery of what erupts reaches our tv screens. This alone makes this Tibetan revolt so different from the revolts of 20 and 50 years ago. No longer can anyone believe these revolts, thousands of kilometres apart, are just the work of a malign handful, orchestrated secretly from the far side of the Himalayas.
What is in the minds of those Hezuo horsemen? China’s propaganda won’t tell us, nor the lame language of world leaders who want only business as usual with China. The world’s leaders look on in embarrassed silence, muttering strained clichés about restraint and how disturbing it all is. None want to be disturbed, or to understand how utterly sick of Chinese haughtiness the Tibetans are.
The BBC footage of Tibetans standing in their stirrups, astride the sturdy Tibetan horses China used to rely on for its army, does not tell us the minds of these nomads. We do know that nomads charging into town is one of China’s deepest nightmares, a race memory that explains why the Great Wall was built to defend (unsuccessfully) against the nomadic hordes sweeping across the plains, coming out of nowhere.
For Tibetan nomads, freedom is more meaningful than the modern freedom to choose between competing brands in the shopping mall. In the year 1900 a loyal subject of the Tsar, Captain Kozloff, led an expedition across the deserts of northern Tibet, into the lush pastures of Golog, a Tibetan prefecture almost the size of Hungary or Portugal, not far from today’s horseback revolt against China. A Golog said to him: “You cannot compare us Golog with other people. You obey the laws of strangers, the laws of the Dalai Lama, of China, and of any of your petty chiefs. You are afraid of everyone: to escape punishment you obey everyone. And the result is that you are afraid of everything. And not only you, your fathers and grandfathers were the same. We Golog, on the other hand, have from time immemorial obeyed none but our own laws, none but our own convictions. A Golog is born with the knowledge of his freedom, and with his mother’s milk imbibes some acquaintance with his laws. This is why we have ever been free as now, and are the slaves of none -neither the [Mongolian ruler] Bogdokhan nor of the Dalai Lama”
Mobile bands of Tibetan pastoralists were free to spread through an unfenced land, loyal only to their clan leaders and to the lamas of the nearest major monastery, who supplied these proud people with mediators to resolve disputes. A 21st century anthropologist of Golog, Fernanda Pirie, says monasteries appointed headmen in Tibetan called gowa to the tribes within their areas, these tribes being groups consisting of several thousand nomads.. It does not appear that any substantial taxes were levied, although the nomads offered substantial tributes of butter, wool and meat to the monasteries.
The ability of gowa headmen to resolve conflicts was not due to their status as monastics, although the nomads of Golog, despite their quarrelsomeness, were known as devout Buddhists. A gowa respected by the nomads won their support not by authority, since these people had little respect for any authority outside the clan. The skilful gowa was respected for his clear-headed equanimity, persuasive rhetoric, his use of logic, reason, fairness and compassion in winning over stubborn and hot-headed antagonists. These are the skills of rigne, a part of classic Buddhist education in ways of leading others towards a more spacious and accommodating outlook, on the path to awakening.
“Some of the Tibetan tribes- notably some of the smaller ones- traditionally have no chief; all matters of policy are decided by a council of elders somewhat analogous to the encampment council. The members of this tribal council have no special title but are also known simply as the rgan-po (the aged ones). Nor is participation determined by any formal election; by common consent the leading mean men of each encampment attend. There are also tribes who have no chiefs but are ruled by the lamaseries to which they belong. In such a case, the lamasery, through its leaders acts as ruler for certain tribes” In these words, a Christian missionary, Robert Ekvall, described the nomads, in 1939.
But today the monasteries of Golog are today rigidly excluded from playing a constructive role in conflict resolution, and are not permitted to infringe on the prerogative of the state to administer justice. Now the Chinese authorities have broken their promise of long-term land lease allocations to Golog nomads. In much of Golog leases have been revoked, or restricted by new regulations that ban grazing for several consecutive years, deeply undermining nomadic livelihoods. The herds must be sold, livelihoods ruined. This is done in the name of grassland and watershed protection, as if nomads cannot be trusted to care for their pastures and meadows.
During the 1980s and 1990s, customary community based management of the grasslands returned, but in the 21st century nomads are once more being expelled, this time in the name of conservation. The fiercely independent Gologpa are now the first victims of a policy that is being rapidly implemented right across the Tibetan grasslands, of displacing nomads from their grasslands, as if the only way of regrowing degraded pastures is by banning grazing and even the graziers. What should be a measure of last resort, excluding the nomads, has become China’s foremost policy instrument for governance of the rangelands. Elsewhere , this might be recognised as blaming the victims.
All over Tibet, in the name of scientific modernity, nomads are herded into squalid newtowns, deprived of livelihood, internally displaced as refugees within Tibet, their customary skills suddenly useless, their livestock compulsorily sold off. These are the people who are now revolting, and unless we can see the world through their eyes, stand in their stirrups, we can only repeat vapid clichés of the past.
These nomads are shaping 21st century China, and have even made the 2008 Beijing Olympics questionable. We need to understand them, silenced for too long, now that they have burst onto everyone’s tv news screen, galloping into town to cut down China’s colonial flag. With one slash of the nomadic knife, they cut through China’s claims of Tibetans contented to live under market socialism with Chinese characteristics. They whirl their lassoos, unerringly corralling wayward colts, or fat cadres doing a runner. They cut through the Dalai Lama’s talk of compromise and a carefully calibrated minimal demand for autonomy and minimal Chinese loss of face. The nomads refuse to die quietly or live uselessly in newtowns on the edge of their rangelands. They demand freedom, and are prepared to take the consequences.
After fifty years of enforced silence, Tibetans inside Tibet now speak for Tibet. The nomads seized the initiative from a China caught unawares, lulled by its own propaganda about the Tibetan masses loving the Party. They also seized the initiative from the Dalai Lama, whose patient diplomacy over decades had steadily narrowed the gap, reducing what Tibet seeks from full independence down to cultural autonomy. Now the gulf is wide again: freedom or subjugation.
Despite the dense network of informers China has implanted in Tibetan communities, the secret police did not foresee this revolt. Despite the might of the armoured units of the Rapid Response Force of the People’s Armed Police, this revolt is now so widespread that it cannot be quelled as per their training drills ostentatiously undertaken in Tibet. This uprising, this yearning to be rid of the demanding, taxing, hectoring, superior Chinese overlords is now widespread, yet the only explanation the Communist Party is capable of is that it is all a conspiracy masterminded by the Dalai Lama. It does not occur to them that Tibetans, after being told for decades how uncivilised, primitive and barbaric they are, with China the epitome of all that is civilised, modern, hygienic, powerful and wealthy, might be just a bit sick of living under Chinese colonial rule.
Despite the complete absence of free media or open debate, this “conspiracy” managed to stage simultaneous uprisings in all areas nominally designated by China as counties, prefectures and regions of Tibetan governance, erupting in all five of China’s 30 provinces where Tibetans are at home. These official fictions the 150 “Tibetan Autonomous Counties”extend far beyond the designated Tibet “Autonomous” Region, which both in area and Tibetan population is only half of Tibet: from a Beijing centric perspective, the outer half.
Tibet’s crisis is deep. The entire Tibetan way of life, not only in towns but in the remotest grasslands, is threatened by the meddlesome interventions of China’s “scientific developmentalism”, the slogan in Chinese that top leaders endlessly repeat.
If crisis is to become opportunity rather than danger marched blindly towards tragedy, we all need to open our eyes. We need to stand in the stirrups with the horsemen, to see through their eyes. They are the people who have been silenced for five decades, spoken for both by the Communist Party of China, and by the Dalai Lama. We need to experience, with them, the hollowness of China’s claim that, in Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan provinces, as well as in the Tibet “Autonomous” Region they are governed by Tibetans for the Tibetans. We need to understand their experience of governance as endless extortionate taxation by Chinese and Tibetan cadres who grow fat on corruption and deliver nothing. Township officials have a genius for inventing new taxes, but give nothing back.
We need to understand the nomads’ decades of passive resistance, withdrawing to the vast rangelands where cadres seldom dare venture, where modern health care, education and employment opportunities are beyond reach. We need to understand how in recent years they reached the tipping point, as a newly zealous Chinese state extended its reach into the remotest pastures, tearing up long term land leases issued to the nomads only a few years earlier. What sparked this revolt on the grasslands is a story the world knows very little about: the forcible removal of nomads from their pastures, herding them onto urban reservations, all in the name of “ecological migration.”
The Party wrongly insisted Tibetans all embrace market socialism with Chinese characteristics. The Dalai Lama wrongly said all Tibetans can accept minimal cultural autonomy under ongoing Chinese colonial rule.
The uncompromising Tibetan demand for freedom is outcome of the denial of all debate inside Tibet for 50 years. Tibetans have been unable to form NGOs, or set up their own civil society outside the agencies of official power. The wisest and most revered of Tibetan leaders, the lamas, are excluded from the public sphere. They may be glimpsed on tv, but may not speak. Tibetans have been unfree, under constant suspicion of “splittism”, their leaders given no role in public life. Educated Tibetans have been required to slavishly translate Party propaganda into Tibetan, to write textbooks for rote parroting in schools and monasteries that are a Chinese inversion of Tibetan history and identity.
In exile, Tibetans have debated endlessly whether their goal should be independence, autonomy, a middle way or something else. But inside Tibet all development of debate has been arrested, stifled by the Party’s insistence that only the Party, with its token Tibetan cadres, speaks for the will of all Tibetans.
Now everyone pays the price for fifty lost years. Exiled Tibet had 50 years of freedom to debate endlessly, while inside Tibet all political debate was arrested, all maturation of a Tibetan public sphere and civil society cut off before they could evolve. No middle way is possible when there is no debate, no popular participation, no civics education, no public sphere. The only possibility now is extreme: either punitive direct rule from Beijing, or total freedom, with nothing in between. Tibetans know only that China treats them with disdain and contempt, and they yearn to breathe again. The horsemen have seized the initiative. The endless passionate debates among exiles, over various models of autonomy, self-determination, independence, sovereignty, suzerainty, middle way and so on, are swept aside.
If this is a crisis for both Hu Jintao and the Dalai Lama, we can rethink what we know. This might be a clue as to the wider picture. All along, China’s leaders have pretended to themselves that the Tibetan question is only the problem of the personal status of the Dalai Lama. The loyalty of the Tibetan masses to the Chinese motherland was, by definition, settled once and for all by the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet from Tibetan rule, over five decades ago.
The Tibetan people have found their voice, and what they want is clear. The six million Tibetans counted in China’s census have spoken, as a people, as a nation. Now no-one can doubt that what all Tibetans want is freedom. They do not want to become Chinese, as the necessary precondition for access to modern health care, education and economic development. What Tibetans want is not merely cultural autonomy under Chinese rule. The Tibetans, in all Tibetan areas, want freedom, the collective right to self-determination which for almost a century has supposedly been the right of all colonised peoples. Unless the answer is to ruthlessly suppress all Tibetans into enforced silence once more, we are in new territory. The lava flow may cool, but new terrain is under our feet.
The revolt could undo much the Dalai Lama has tried to achieve, over decades, at a stroke nullifying his efforts, and that of his prime minister and government in exile, over many years, to show the Communist leaders that he is reasonable and realistic. So totally has this crisis undone his diplomacy that he was forced, early in the revolt, to threaten to resign unless Tibetans restrain their violence. He was forced to the brink, to lay the very last card in his hand, by the rock hurling youths of Lhasa, who grew up without spiritual guidance under Chinese capitalism, beating and even killing Chinese shopkeepers.
So this is a crisis too for the Dalai Lama, for his global diplomacy, and for the worldwide network of supporters of the Tibetan path of nonviolent resistance. Tibetan diplomacy, now subverted by nomads crying freedom, steadily sought in recent years to coax China’s suspicious Party bosses to open their minds, and resolve this decades old legacy of China’s revolutionary era. The Tibetans, based in the Indian Himalayas, supported by a global diaspora, chanted the mantra of nonviolent resistance, to try to persuade China’s leaders to relax and open their eyes. Tibetans given asylum in Europe, Canada, the US and Australia, free countries frequently visited by Chinese leaders, were urged by the government in exile to refrain from demonstrating, or shouting slogans. With great reluctance, they generally complied.
All that has been swept aside by the charge of the Tibetan light horsemen. Their charge challenged not only the legitimacy of China’s occupation of a land the size of western Europe, but also the authority of the Dalai Lama. The horsemen want freedom, independence, a return to Tibet run by Tibetans, restoration of the open unfenced land where wild animals used to mingle with the nomads’ herds before China’s guns made them fear the human presence.
Why, at the very time China renews its blame of the Dalai Lama, does he daily renew calls for dialogue and negotiation, face to face, with China’s leaders, as the only way to actually resolve this crisis? Can’t he see that he is the last person China’s leaders want to talk to? Why is the Dalai Lama’s main message to the world that this moment of crisis is also the moment of opportunity, for a real solution, if only he can personally meet with China’s leaders? As China’s leadership retreats into paranoid clichés, this seems to be the worst possible time to call for dialogue, yet it may also the best (and last) opportunity. Clear sighted as ever, he sees this as a singular opportunity to resolve what has remained unsolvable for 50 years.
For more than a decade I have worked in Dharamsala as a consultant with the Dalai Lama’s Planning Commission and the Environment & Development Desk of the Tibetan government-in-exile, helping young Tibetan professionals monitor and analyse the actual situation inside Tibet, and prepare alternative plans for sustainable, productive Tibetan livelihoods. www.tibet.net/en/diir/pubs/edi/tib2007/content.html The job of my Tibetan colleagues begins with the words of the Dalai Lama who, frequently but cryptically, speaks of a future Tibet which is modern, developed but also equitable, sustainable and a haven of biodiversity and peace. The task of the new generation of Tibetan ecologists, economists and geographers is to test the feasibility of the Dalai Lama’s vision, to explicate his brief remarks. So, over the years, my colleagues and I have had much opportunity to think carefully about what the Dalai Lama says and means.
The Dalai Lama today appeals to every friend and ally of China to persuade the Party Politburo to meet with him face to face, just as China’s emperors and their courts have always done with visiting high Tibetan lamas, and resolve the crisis. Timing is everything. If this moment of crisis passes, the lava flow will harden into stone. China will self righteously depict the Tibetans, whether nomads of the steppes or urban intellectuals, as treacherous ingrates to be treated with utmost suspicion, surveillance and coercion. The Tibetans too will revert to the maximal demand of nothing less than full independence, and the Dalai Lama will be helpless to propose a middle way. It might happen again: Tibet could perhaps be repressed, denied and ignored as in Kosovo, Bosnia, Latvia, Timor and many nations until the dead were so many that even state terror no longer works.
Over Tibet, China has spy satellites. On the new railway to Lhasa, guarded by Israeli surveillance technology, China rushes in more and more armour and troops. China has the best Russian and home grown technologies of control and destruction, yet they have been unable to stop the nomad horsemen, whirling their lassoos, macerating the red flag of the dictatorship of the Chinese proletariat..
The Party intensifies its rhetoric of the Dalai Lama as an evil saboteur, against whom all Tibetans must compulsorily wage “people’s war”. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama is on our tv news nightly, relaxed, confident and joking, inviting China or anyone to investigate him up close for any evidence he is the author of the riots and horseback stampedes. The Dalai Lama knows the situation is critical but not serious, because that is the nature of existence. Buddhists knew this long before Karl Kraus coined his witticism in Vienna a century ago. Because the situation is critical, the Dalai Lama can be ever more open and jovial; it is the only way forward.
Tibetan lamas have timed/turned/tamed the minds of China’s emperors before, and can yet again produce a win/win which involves minimal loss of face for China, as well as real cultural freedom for Tibet. All that stands in the way of crisis fruiting as opportunity is that the Politburo agree to deal directly, and personally with the Dalai Lama. That is how the real world does its deals: face to face, despite all of modern technology. That is how, over the centuries, emperors and lamas have renewed their classic patron-preceptor relationship of equals. China, as all Chinese say, is ruled not by law but by men. Around one table, the Politburo and the Dalai Lama can resolve the Tibet question, and the Beijing Olympics can be the unqualified triumph it should be.
Dealing face to face with the Dalai Lama, in Beijing, is China’s best and last hope. Only the Dalai Lama can deliver a compromise; otherwise we face polarised extremes. The alternative is that the quarter of China’s land area that is Tibet remains forever alienated, excluded from prosperity, an obdurate, unworkable colony which can never be populated by millions of Chinese farmers, and never be integrated. Tibet can be occupied but never conquered; ruled by fear but never swallowed, forever stuck in China’s throat.
Getting the fearful, timid, suspicious, unadventurous minds of the Politburo to the same table in Beijing as the Dalai Lama will need all the friendly advice they can get from world leaders they know and trust. That is why now, of all times, the Dalai Lama wants so much to go to Beijing, despite being labelled “a wolf in monk’s clothes,” necessitating a “life-and-death struggle.”
The Economist, one of the few media to have a reporter on the spot as the protests erupted in Lhasa, says: “China persists in seeing the Dalai Lama as the embodiment of its ‘Tibet problem’. In fact, he offers the only plausible solution to it.” His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama, the victorious precious one, meaningful to behold, does indeed know something we barely glimpse: this is the moment of opportunity for everyone, if only we recognise it and are not blinded by habit.