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Tibet, cynical Sinicism and the tragedy of self-immolations

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In Brief

In a recent article, Barry Sautman ascribes recent self-immolations in Tibet to a few disgruntled monks at a single monastery.

Their complaints, he says, reflect general social and economic issues rather than a genuine concern for the Tibetan people’s political and religious rights.


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Sautman borrows liberally from China’s tired propaganda book, which characterises all dissent from China’s occupation of Tibet and the massive human rights abuses against its people in the past half century as the work of terrorists or ‘splitists’. In this view, all dissent is instigated by the Dalai Lama and his ‘clique’, including suitably unidentified foreigners, who aim to restore a feudal theocracy in Tibet — never mind that the Dalai Lama has expressly relinquished his political authority to the fully democratic Tibetan government-in-exile.

The immediate impetus for Sautman’s editorial is that in the past three years 35 Tibetans have chosen to set themselves on fire to protest China’s continuing occupation of Tibet, demand freedom and human rights for Tibetans, and call for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Of the 19 incidents since January 2012, nine have taken place since the beginning of March. Most happened in historic Tibet, but in late March, Jampel Yeshi, a young Tibetan who fled Tibet in 2006 and lived in exile in India, died after self-immolating amid 600 demonstrators protesting President Hu Jintao’s visit to Delhi, bringing to four the known number of recent attempts at self-immolation by Tibetan exiles.

As for the nature of earlier self-immolation protests, it is true that a simple majority (about 60 per cent) of the incidents took place in and around the Kirti monastery, particularly in Aba (Tibetan: Ngaba), which is now part of the Chinese province of Sichuan. But it is false and misleading to suggest, as Sautman does, that the ‘vast majority’ took place there or, even more to the point, that this somehow shows that the acts do not reflect the sentiment of Tibetans throughout the ‘Tibetan Plateau’. In fact, Tibetan self-immolations have taken place not only in Aba, but 600 miles west in Chamdo (in the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’), and in Tawu, Kardze, Themchen, Darlak, Machu and Rebkong (all eastern Tibetan areas now incorporated into Chinese provinces).

Doubtless many will find it hard to fathom what could lead people to douse themselves in gasoline and die agonising deaths to make a political or moral statement. But Sautman’s cavalier dismissal of these acts as irrational ‘suicide politics’ is deeply misguided. Tibetans who self-immolate appreciate the consequences, and likely also the futility, of their actions in simple political terms. The real question we need to ask is why these Tibetans have resorted to self-immolation — and why they are doing it now, some 60 years after China invaded and illegally purported to annex Tibet.

About one-third of the Tibetans who have self-immolated were under the age of 30, belying China’s frequent claim that these and other protests against China’s occupation of Tibet are organised in support of the old ‘feudal’ regime of the Tibetan theocratic aristocracy, led by the tyrannical Dalai Lama. It is telling that none of the Tibetan self-immolators have pleaded for the restoration of a feudal theocracy in Tibet. At least two of the self-immolators left behind clear messages that describe their motivations, including their belief in the universal value of and human right to freedom. Jamphel Yeshi, for example, issued a written message of unity declaring that ‘freedom is the basis of happiness for all living beings’.

The real reason for this recent spate of self-immolations is precisely that which Sautman denies. He claims that ‘there is no repression of Tibetans simply for being Tibetan’, and indeed that ‘Tibetans receive a range of preferential policies’. Anyone who has actually travelled in Tibet (and managed to escape the Orwellian eye of China’s police state) knows that this is an utter façade. In practice, China has long treated Tibet and Tibetans in a manner that, for all intents and purposes, cannot be distinguished from how a coloniser treats a colonised people — a tragic irony given China’s own (legitimate) grievances about pre-World War II Western and Japanese colonialism.

True, as Sautman says, China does not oppose religion per se; its interest is only in religious views that threaten the elite’s monopoly on political power. But China’s treatment of the Tibetan people is a special case in this regard. Since China illegally annexed Tibet in 1949–50, the Chinese government has targeted Tibetan Buddhism because, more than any other cultural or historical factor, it — and its personification in the Dalai Lama — binds Tibetans together as a distinct people with a distinct national identity. This threatens China’s efforts to integrate Tibet into the PRC, an objective that China continues to regard as vital to its national pride, historical identity, economy (Tibet has abundant natural resources and territory), political stability, and development.

In one of its more recent attempts to regulate Tibetan Buddhism, China passed a law requiring all tulkus (Tibetans thought to be the reincarnation of famous Buddhist lamas) to apply to the officially atheist Chinese state for a ‘licence’ to reincarnate. The absurdity of such a law might be comical were it not part of a systematic, long-term, and widespread campaign to absorb and Sinicise the nationally, racially, ethnically, linguistically, culturally and religiously distinct people of Tibet. Indeed, some Chinese regard Tibetans as primitive ‘barbarians’ and fail to understand why Tibetans are not grateful for their supposed ‘liberation’ and ‘modernisation’ by China.

In moral terms, it bears emphasising that unlike a suicide attack, self-immolation does not harm others. It respects civilians’ right to life, without distinction. To be clear, this is neither to condone nor to condemn the practice. But self-immolation must be morally distinguished from suicide bombings and attacks on civilians of the occupying state. We would also do well to recall a more recent example of this form of protest: Mohamed Bouazizi literally and figuratively ignited the Arab Spring when he self-immolated in response to repeated harassment by corrupt Tunisian bureaucrats.

Given this precedent, is it any wonder that China has responded to Tibetan self-immolation with escalating brutality, including beatings, torture and ‘patriotic re-education’? The Chinese government has also escalated its propaganda campaign, describing the peaceful protestors as ‘terrorists’, and not only accuses the Dalai Lama of instigating the self-immolations but describes his views as tantamount to ‘Nazi racial policies’. China goes so far as to equate the Dalai Lama’s mere compassion for those who have lost their lives in the self-immolations with ‘the uncontrolled and cruel Nazi during the Second World War’.

In reality, the self-immolations manifest the Tibetan people’s unwavering determination to resist China’s neo-colonial treatment of Tibet for the past half century. At tremendous personal risk, as many as 3000 Tibetans flee their homeland every year as a direct result of China’s oppressive policies. Nothing about ‘Chinese oppression’ deserves the scare quotes in which Sautman places that phrase. If China truly believes that most Tibetans do not feel oppressed by its occupation, why not allow a UN-supervised referendum on Tibet’s status or the wishes of its people? Why not allow journalists, diplomats and scholars to visit Tibetan regions without a Chinese ‘guide’? Tibetans have resorted to self-immolation to demand the fundamental human rights to political and religious freedom and self-determination, and in a desperate attempt to draw the world’s attention to their sadly neglected plight. To trivialise this situation is a shameful blend of political cynicism and neo-colonial Sinicism.

Robert D. Sloane is Professor of Law at the Boston University School of Law, and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Tibet Justice Center.

14 responses to “Tibet, cynical Sinicism and the tragedy of self-immolations”

  1. China is a country with 56 ethnic groups. Han Chinese are the majority with the other 55 as minorities. Their total population is more than 104 million. There is no drama at all between the Han Chinese and the other 53 ethnic groups. Why? This is the question people should consider before questioning China’s minority policy.

    The problem with some radical elements in Tibet and Xinjiang is a direct result of foreign instigation and financial support.

    It is unfortunate that many of the reports on the issue of Tibet by the mainstream media in the west have been distorted. For example,

    1) This article demonstrated how images can be fabricated to demonize China:

    2) This article demonstrated how news can be timed to distort the truth:

    3) This article demonstrated many report on the issue of Tibet are outright lie:

    For any country to enjoy peace and harmony among its population, people have to respect each other rights on their respective private property. The logic is the same between countries. Part of the purpose of having the United Nations is to regulate and recognise the legitimate territory of every individual country. Since, the United Nations and all its member countries have already recognised China’s sovereignty over Tibet decades ago, there is no reason why Western powers and media should continue to create problems with China over the issue of Tibet with all kind of disinformation and covert operations. After all, the history of Tibet being part of China is far longer than the entire history of America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

    The reality is, Tibet under Chinese rule has experienced population growth with their language and culture still in place, while in America, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the native indigenous populations and languages have experience drastic decline or even extinction at certain point of their history.

    Everybody knowsthat China has a one child policy, but not many notice that, the one child policy is operating this way: residents in the urban areas: one child; rural area: two; minority groups (55 groups): 3. If such policy was in place in Western countries, someone would cry foul of reverse racism. Simply by searching the net on the history of China population, one will notice that, in 1953, Han Chinese (majority) make up of 93.94 per cent of the total population while the minority groups was 6.06 per cent. By 2010, Han Chinese population reduced to 91.51 per cent of the total population while minority groups increased to 8.49 per cent.

    Western countries should pay more attention to the treatment of their minority rights such as the issue of deaths in custody and the disproportionately high number of incarcerations of minorities. May the world work to improve their own human rights record and not to instigate and finance others to go against their own government.

    • Wei Ling Chua,

      Your points are understood, however with respect they do not detract from the key points of this article. That is that there are serious human rights problems in Tibet which manifest in Tibetans expressing their disenfranchisement in increasingly tragic ways such as self-immolation.
      It is quite a cynical response to trivialise these events as mere ‘foreign’ interference. There is no evidence that these individuals made the decision to resort to such drastic actions for any other than personal expressions about the political situation and indeed ‘repression’ that exists.
      In an absurd comment in the original article, Barry Sautman suggested that the immolations are not a response to repression, but rather ‘patriotic reeducation’ campaigns.
      Anyone who knows much about this kind reeducation could hardly consider it anything other than repressive.
      Wei, it is absolutely legitimate to draw attention to serious issues such as these repressive acts by local party officials, as well as the well-documented cases of torture that take place against Tibetan political prisoners. It is of course, equally legitimate to raise issues of human rights issues in western countries as you have done.
      Democratic societies allow us this freedom to discuss and analyse serious issues. This is a good thing.

  2. When mental health studies show that more than 90 percent of suicides are a result of one or more psychiatric disorders one can only wonder at the mental state of someone who chooses suicide by self-immolation.

    • I think there is a difference between suicide and sacrifice. History has shown that when a country goes through a period of repression and marginalization, many citizens sacrifice their life for the common good of the nation. If indeed the Tibetans are suicidal due personal psychiatric problems, why not choose a easier way to die than self-immolate? The series of self-immolations are more likely to demonstrate to the world the grievances of Tibetan people given the non-violent path the majority of the Tibetan people have chosen.

  3. “There is no drama at all between the Han Chinese and the other 53 ethnic groups.”

    Surely you must have heard of the Uigyurs and their protests.

  4. Many thanks for this rather disturbing but fully cogent and sympathetic commentary. Professor Sloane raises some of the more troubling issues from the still incomplete and often painful processes of state-integration initiated by the CPC regime in 1949-50.

    Sadly, for most Tibetans, although the United States and India assisted and sponsored an armed insurrection, providing training, ordnance, communications gear and sanctuary between 1956 and 1970 (when Nixon, determined to build strategic bridges to Beijing with a view to mounting a tacit joint-challenge to an increasingly confident and expansive Soviet Union, abruptly ended US involvement and effected a strategic volte face ), neither foreign patron saw sufficient value in an independent Tibet to take that campaign beyond an exercise in “bleeding China.”

    Having seen its efforts to consolidate control over the Plateau not just undermined, but seriously threatened, against the backdrop of Cold War hostility, Beijing has viewed Tibetan protestations as tantamount to a hostile cat’s paw serving the interests of powerful adversaries, including one threatening China with nuclear weapons. It is in this context that Beijing has described the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile as the “chief splittist.”

    Although Sino-US relations changed in 1971-1989 for the better, Beijing’s view of Tibet and Tibetans as a challenge to state consolidation, aided by exiles and their overseas patrons, has not changed. As the USA and India once again build a strategic partnership largely targeting China, Beijing is unlikely to feel especially charitable towards Tibetans. The latter can hardly be blamed for their plight. Tragically, for them, as Professor Hugh White so recently pointed out, when elephants fight, or even make love, ants have few avenues of escape.

    I offer an earlier work on the subject explaining the strategic context in which this tragic drama continues to play out:

    Cold War in the High Himalayas:

    Kind regards,

  5. If Kim Jong Eun of North Korea craves perpetual legitimacy he should promise his people that if they love him they will go to heaven after they die. If he can persuade his people to believe him, his southern cousins will never dare to overthrow him, because if they do, the international community will accuse them of ‘undermining North Korea people’s fundamental religious right’.

    Joking aside, if Tibet was not ruled by China, Tibet today would mirror medieval Europe. Just visit the Potala Palace, its lavishness is beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. On the other hand, believe it or not, China has made huge transfers of wealth and investment to the region in consequence of which Tibetans today are living a much freer economic life. Under the rule of the Lamas the poor Tibetan peasants couldn’t even secure basic food or shelter and economic freedom is also a unalienable human right.

    It is ridiculous to link every suicide attempt to justified motives. If Professor Sloane finds it hard to
    ‘fathom what could lead people to douse themselves in gasoline and die agonizing deaths to make a political or moral statement,’ I wonder whether he finds it hard to fathom what could lead people to plan such a sophisticated and costly attack as ‘9/11′ and fly their planes into the twin towers (mind you these perpetrators of 9/11 must have been well educated to hit the target!).

    What is difficult to understand is how people hold such double standards. The American settlers invaded America and killed almost all Indians, but do you suggest that the Indians should take back their land now? Russia forcefully occupied a vast land in the Far East that used to belong to China, what is Russia’s legitimacy over that land then? The argument that Sloane advances is simply like that of’human right terrorists’. It takes the high moral ground but cannot comprehend bringing to bear an alternative morality and the complicated tasks that applying that morality has at hand.

    • (1) Your first “serious” paragraph (i.e., “Joking aside, . . .) illustrates the point in a particularly helpful way. You say that Tibet would be like medieval Europe without China’s magnanimous “rule.” That’s precisely the attitude of the colonizer toward the colonized. The tacit premise is that those backward, medieval Tibetans could never have gotten their national house in order if China had not occupied and illegally annexed Tibet. They needed the Chinese “Motherland” to come in and impose its more advanced civilization on Tibetans – by force if necessary (and somehow it always is with colonization). Millions of Tibetans have died as a consequence of China’s colonial policies in Tibet, from its misguided “Great Leap Forward,” in which hundreds of thousands of Tibetan peasants starved to death, in part because China ignorantly forced them to try to grow rice instead of their native barley, to the “Cultural Revolution,” in which China’s red army of thugs – in the name of modernity – killed, beat, and tortured hundreds of thousands of Tibetans and destroyed their monasteries and cultural artifacts on a scale that’s difficult to overstate.

      (2) No, there’s no double standard. Please respond to what I wrote, not to your stereotypes. This is a standard line of China apologists for Tibet’s illegal annexation: tu quoque, “you did it, too.” Yes, that’s true: the United States has indeed been guilty of colonialism, particularly in and after the Spanish-American War of 1898, and of worse conduct. The United States (and Europeans before that), to take the example you raise, carried out what is today recognized as the slow genocide of Native Americans over the course of several centuries. More broadly, Europeans spent some four centuries colonizing the whole world in the name of what they regarded as their more advanced civilization. Nowhere in my article did I defend these or similar actions. Nor would I. But today most people recognize that such conduct is morally abhorrent. Regardless, since the UN Charter, to which China is an original party, the use of military force to annex territory has been illegal under international law.

      International human rights law vests all human beings, without distinction, with protections against arbitrary state action and abuse. That’s the standard; there’s nothing “double” about it.

      (3) The wealth transfers have been to the colonizers, that is, to Han settlers who have been incentivized to resettle in Tibet by the PRC’s policies. Tibetan nomads and peasants remain some of the poorest people on the planet.

      (4) History: How far back shall we go? Is China “part of” Mongolia because the Mongol Empire ruled China for centuries (far longer, incidentally, than China ever ruled Tibet in the pre-1949 period of recorded history)? Of course not. The contemporary law of self-determination allows all “peoples” to decide their own political destiny. The Han (Chinese) people certainly have that right under contemporary international law. So do the Tibetan people. China should allow them to exercise it freely.

      (5) Third paragraph: Please go back and read what I wrote. I didn’t say that “I” find it difficult to fathom what could lead to these tragic self-immolations. I said that it’s probable that others would, and I tried to explain why it’s not satisfactory to ascribe 36 self-immolations to “suicide politics,” as your remarks – again – aptly illustrate.

      (6) There is a difference between understanding and justification. I wrote that I neither condemn nor condone the self-immolations; only that we need to understand them accurately. As for 9/11, the comparison is bizarre. But no, I don’t think it’s difficult to understand what the 9/11 terrorists believed; in that case, too, it would be a grave error to suppose that the attacks were “irrational.” Like most human actions, there’s a means-end rationality even to catastrophic terrorism of the sort represented by 9/11. But that’s very different from saying that the attacks were justified, which, needless to say, I do not believe.

      (7) I addressed the final paragraph earlier. In short, it imputes views to me that I do not hold and amounts to no more than “tu quoque,” which is, neither morally nor legally, satisfactory. The last sentence, however, is unclear. To what “alternative morality” do you refer? What “complicated tasks” am I unable to comprehend? I would guess that this is a thinly veiled — and tellingly vague –justification for China’s continuing colonial administration of Tibet. But I leave that for you to clarify if you wish or for others to decide for themselves – hopefully by reading what you wrote.

      • Thank you very much for your reply.
        (1) To call China a colonizer in Tibet is deeply misrepresenting the situation. First a colonizer treats the colonized as second-class citizens. Quite the opposite, as We Ling rightly points out, Tibetan ethnics enjoy many preferential policies than the Hans. I challenge Professor Sloane to provide a single case in the history when/where a colonizer had given the ‘colonized’ superior treatment to its own citizens. Second, the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and ‘Cultural Revolution’ were not ethnic policies targeted at the Tibetans alone. People were humiliated, beaten or starved to death, and monasteries were destroyed, not just in Tibet, but all over China. These were disastrous national movements, not discriminatory ethnic policies.
        (2) You hold a double standard when you use illegal and immoral inter-changeably to your convenience. You agree that the European colonialism is morally abhorrent, but you are willing to accept its legitimacy, just because it happened before the UN Charter. On the other hand you accuse China also for its immoral conducts, and you reject its legitimacy just because it happened after the UN Charter. For me this is purely arbitrary. What is immoral stays immoral, however what is illegitimate is subject to revision. If international law vests all human beings, without distinction, why do you establish a distinction in time before and after the UN Charter?
        (3) It is a typical stereotype that the transfers have been to the Han Chinese. I have visited Tibet and I saw with my own eyes that the government has built houses for Tibetan peasants and nomads. I have not seen government provided housing for the Han Chinese. Moreover, the government has built roads, railways, and is building electricity transmission networks. These have brought immense opportunities for all the Tibetan people, regardless of their ethnic background.
        (4) China is a cultural definition. Historically, many ethnic minorities (Xianbei , NvZhen, Mongol, Jin and etc.) have ruled the land that is called China. However no matter who ruled, there was strong desire to unify this vast land which is relatively isolated from the rest of the world, and there was also strong desire to embrace the diverse Chinese culture. However distinct the culture each of the minorities might have, they are nevertheless part of the Chinese culture. Unlike Europe, the definition of China is not based on blood; rather it is based on culture. Not an excludive culture, but an embracing culture.
        (5) To clarify my final point: law is a means to promote justice, peace, prosperity and liberty. Law is not a means in itself. Neither is democracy a means to itself. Like in Tibet, dissent is not rare anywhere in China. The Chinese people are not born with the privilege of living in a rich and free democratic society. However many of miseries are down to China’s unique blend of cultural, geographical and economical legacies. Trying to exogenously impose any form of law or ideology is dangerous. History has proven for China that imposing naïve communist ideology was not the solution, as history has proven for many other developing countries that the Washington Consensus was not the magic pill. If you only look at human right in its narrow dimensions, such as law and democracy, you miss out the larger dimensions such as peace, prosperity and liberty. Willingly or unwilling, the single part rule is a fact that you have to accept at this historical moment, admittedly there are many immediate undesirable consequences with this acceptance and it is not sustainable in the long run. To sacrifice some freedom in the narrow sense and to embrace economic freedom and to grow out of poverty is the Faustian Bargain that the Chinese people and the Communist Part have stricken. It is the historical force right now; it should not be derailed by any narrow minded criticisms. Similarly, there is no viable political alternative than Chinese rule in Tibet at the moment. Notwithstanding the differences, Tibet has every right to jump onto China’s development bandwagon, rather than disputing endlessly its sovereignty.

        • (1) First, your challenge is irrelevant. Of course China’s laws about – what it characterizes as – “ethnic minorities” (more on that in a moment) look great on paper. So do the rights granted to all Chinese citizens by China’s Constitution. But there’s an important difference between the law-on-paper and the law-in-action. In practice, far from receiving preferential treatment, Tibetans suffer from pervasive discrimination in virtually every aspect of life: education, politics, and the economy, to name just a few of the most prominent. That’s precisely how a colonizer treats the colonized. Second, my point was not that the “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution” were disastrous *only* for Tibetans, although it is true that they were applied to Tibet and Tibetans with even greater brutality and ignorance – and yes, also with *national/ethnic* discrimination against Tibetans – which did not characterize the Cultural Revolution in China proper. But my point was rather to cast doubt on the plausibility of your completely speculative and, in part, clearly counter-factual assertion, in your original post, that Tibet is and has been better off under Chinese rule — and that it would resemble medieval Europe but for China’s military occupation and subsequent rule. In reality, the period since China invaded Tibet has been the most tragic in Tibet’s more than 2500-year recorded history, and human rights abuses against Tibetans continue today unabated, including torture, arbitrary detention, persecution for peaceful protest and speech, and pervasive ethnic discrimination. To the extent that journalists, UN monitors, NGOs, diplomats, and others can freely enter and conduct research in Tibet (and for the most part they can’t, because China won’t let them in, and it insists that gov’t “guides” stay with them 24/7 – I wonder why, if it’s such a paradise for Tibetans?), these abuses have been repeatedly documented since 1959, when the International Commission of Jurists concluded, among other things, that “[t]here is prima facie evidence that the Chinese Communists have by acts of genocide attempted to destroy the Tibetan nation and the Buddhist religion in Tibet. . . . There is evidence . . . that the Chinese have by killing Tibetans and by the forcible removal of Tibetan children committed acts contrary to the Genocide Convention of 1948. There is also evidence that these acts were intentionally directed towards the destruction of the Tibetan religion and the Tibetan nation.”

          (2) No. You’ve again imputed views to me that I don’t hold. I favor reparations for injustices perpetrated in the past. But there’s a difficult moral and practical question you elide here about how far back one should go in thinking about that question – for mankind’s recorded history is filled with what we now would describe, under contemporary int’l law, as colonization, genocide, aggression, human rights abuses, and so forth. That doesn’t make past cases of such conduct OK, and there’re very difficult and weighty questions about how to repair past injustices. But surely it doesn’t justify present-day abuses. International law adopts the inter-temporal principle, which dictates that we apply the law in force at the time events happened, and it could hardly do otherwise. After 1945, the acquisition of territory by the use of military force became explicitly illegal under Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, to which China is an original party. Surely China, which had suffered terribly from colonization and European domination by military force in the pre-WWII era, doesn’t wish to reject this principle. And yet it did when the PLA invaded Tibet in 1949 after Mao won the Chinese civil war. All I’m suggesting is that China apply its treaty obligations to itself, too, that it apply the rule against foreign intervention and force uniformly, that it not rhetorically denounce colonization in the past while engaging in that very practice in Tibet — especially because it’s now the law, but also because we all now recognize just how immoral and unjust it is.
          (3) I’ve also been to Tibet, multiple times, and I’ve witnessed impoverished Tibetans in the midst of a colonial police state run by ethnic Chinese – not the happy land of economic opportunity for Tibetans that you describe. Now, I realize we can’t get anywhere with this argument. It’s a he-said-she-said situation. So we’ll just have to disagree. But perhaps you can explain why China refuses to allow journalists to visit Tibet if Tibetans truly have been flourishing under Chinese rule. Why does it mount security cameras on every ledge of every monastery? Why can’t a simple tourist, let alone a journalist or researcher, visit most regions of Tibet without a gov’t “guide” who decides what the person can see, where, and when – and who they can talk to (unmonitored)? Tibet’s a very different experience if you try to escape the Orwellian eye of the state and actually look and explore on your own. Of course, that’s not permitted, and you’ll get kicked out of the country if you’re caught. I wonder why.
          (4) Tibetans are not, and have never been, an ethnic minority of the Chinese. Along any dimension you name, they’re a distinct people in the eyes of international law and common sense. They speak a distinct language, which is part of the Tibeto-Burmese language group. It doesn’t even belong to the same family of languages as Mandarin and Cantonese. They practice a distinct and highly unique form of Buddhism, which is unlike the traditions in China proper. They have a distinct history. And if, as you say, the issue is culture, it couldn’t be clearer that Tibetans are not Chinese; the two peoples have utterly distinct cultural traditions. But perhaps most critically, Tibetans don’t consider themselves “Chinese.” China has tried to make them Chinese for more than half a century now – to no avail. And yet, as I pointed out in my original article, it’s often younger Tibetans, who’ve known no other reality in their lives other than Chinese occupation, who still don’t consider themselves Chinese and who continue, despite the incredible odds, to protest China’s rule in their country – going so far as to engage in self-immolation.
          (5) I agree that law’s a means and not an end in itself. But the conclusions you draw as to China and Tibet don’t follow at all. Tibetans have not chosen to “jump onto China’s development bandwagon”; they’ve been forced onto it at the point of a gun (and even so, it hasn’t been for their benefit; they just been exploited economically). There’s also a very viable political alternative to Chinese rule in Tibet: Tibetan self-determination. Allow a U.N.-supervised referendum on the wishes of the Tibetan people. They’re fully capable of governing themselves if they so choose. If they wish to remain part of China, I would certainly have no objection. But they’ve never been given that choice. Why? Because China knows what the answer would be – in a free and non-coercive environment – and it wishes to retain its (very profitable) colony for reasons including national pride, economic extraction of Tibet’s natural resources, especially water, and Tibet’s geo-strategic value.

          If you wish to reply again, please take the last word. I don’t expect to persuade you. But I hope others will continue these debates regardless. At a minimum, they enable the exchange of views that would not be permitted in China.


          • Again, many thanks for your reply.

            I agree with you in many aspects. China’s rule in Tibet is far from perfect. The Tibetans have the lowest living standard in China. And indeed, many things look bright in China on paper, but the reality could be quite dark. I do not for a single minute doubt that there must have been ample amounts of human right abuses in Tibet, and I imagine that such incidences could be much more frequent and more violent than in most of the other parts in China. I also feel very uncomfortable with the intensive surveillance presence on and around the Bakuo Street in Lhasa. And ultimately I absolutely agree with you that the Tibetans should have a choice for the region’s sovereignty.

            However I maintain my main positions:

            1) China is not a colonizer in Tibet

            To understand this you have to look at the sad human rights records in the other provinces as well. If you conclude China is a colonizer in Tibet because it forcibly occupied Tibet and treated its people badly, then you can conclude that China is a colonizer in the country’s entire territory. If you conclude China is a colonizer in Tibet because the Tibetan culture is different from the traditional Chinese culture, then you can also conclude that China is a colonizer in many other parts of the country’s territory. If you conclude that China has an incentive to colonize Tibet for its economic worth your conclusion would not make much economic sense. In fact if you do a cost-benefit analysis purely based on economics then I am afraid it might be better-off for China to just let go Tibet.

            It is not that the Chinese government or the Han people that discriminate against the native Tibetan population. It is that the difference between Han and Tibetans have caused more miss-understanding and distrust. And the lack of mutual understanding normally leads to conflicts. For example even in today’s Tibetan family structure, two or three brothers can share a single wife. This was illegal in the Maoist China, and many officials had used force to stop it. But anything has to go through a learning curve. Now the government recognizes this as a traditional way of living in Tibet, and no longer views it as illegal. It shows that such differences do not necessarily always have to exist. I do not consider there to be any irreconcilable differences, notwithstanding the difference between love and hatred towards Dalai Lama (that being said, the Chinese government’s stance towards his Holiness does not necessarily reflect that of the Chinese population’s). China has a painful history of being colonized by Japan. Japan’s brutal rule in China was on a totally different scale. Yet nowadays China and Japan form one of the most important partnerships in the world. The Chinese government has long championed the ideology of ‘seeking mutual benefits while remaining differences’. If China can make peace with Japan, I do not see why Tibetans and Hans cannot live together. After all the Chinese history shows that many ethnic minorities were able to live together with the Hans.

            2) There is no obvious resolution other than the status-quo

            Your suggestion to ‘allow a U.N.-supervised referendum on the wishes of the Tibetan people’ sounds overly idealistic. If China can prevent journalists and researchers from touring Tibet freely, do you think there is any chance for it to allow any U.N. personal to just go in and supervise a referendum? Externally there is not a single strong political force that supports or actively pursues Tibetan freedom. Internally the Chinese government has sufficient capability to maintain the status-quo.

            3) The role for the media, researchers and the international community

            The media, researchers and the international community have the responsibility to report the truth in Tibet, but they should also bear the responsibility for mediating the conflicts. The fact is too many bad scenes have been deliberately played up and exaggerated out of proportion. As for the case of security cameras, do you know that many monasteries in Tibet preserve important Buddhist transcripts; is there anything wrong to enhance the security measures? Nevertheless, the entire city of London perhaps have more CCTVs per square meter than any of the Tibetan monastery does.

            On the other hand too few positive images have been broadcast to the world. The Han are not just in Tibet to do governing and business. They also provide medical care, education and infrastructure. Before the Chinese came, superstition was the primary guide for Tibetan’s daily lives. Be it for medical care or marriage, a Tibetan family would spend a fortune on a Shaman to perform spiritual dances or to hold sacred conversations with the god. Before the Chinese came, mortality rate in Tibet was way higher, live expectancy was much lower, literacy was a luxury only affordable to the high-hierarchy lamas, per capita income was minimal and income inequality was phenomenal. Economic growth was practically stagnant, let alone any economic development. By the measure of every single UN’s Millennium Development Goal, Tibet is a much better world now than it was ever before. In recent years, China promotes an ambitious western development strategy to address the country’s east-west regional inequality (Have you EVER heard of a colonizer doing this for a colony?!). There is evidence showing that China has increased the share of state budgetary allocations to the west, and the west now also enjoy preferential taxation policies in selected sectors.

            The truth is that within the 70 years of Chinese rule Tibet has progressed more than it did for its entire 2500 years of history. With all this black and white evidence, a human right expert, and a law professor from a prestigious institution still claims that the Tibetans are walking the worst course in their history! This is precisely why the Chinese government does not allow freedom of travel to journalists and researchers. It seems that someone just cannot think beyond the limited-sphere that they so narrowly define as ‘human rights’. Whatever regime that promotes human rights must ultimately do so by promoting productivity. It is the law of history. We say a feudal society is more advanced than a tribal society because given the production technology at time a feudal society is more conducive to productivity, not because a feudal society cares more about your definition of ‘human rights’. After all, when the economy progresses, in general everyone will be better off. I suppose if a normal person is put behind the veil of ignorance, he or she would rather be born into a feudal society rather than a hunters and gatherers society.

            I am sure that you have read the books of anti-Chinese writers such as Christian Tyler. However the colonial theories championed by you and Tyler alike are fundamentally biased and provocative. They are detrimental to ethnic harmony and are not compatible with people’s desire for peace and prosperity. If such voices get carried too far without being challenged, it will only do harm to those who are not well informed.

        • All your wordplay aside: the violation of human rites & cultural genocide is not excusable through any twist of words. Colonial theories do not matter. This is not ethical. The world would have stopped this revolting assault upon Tibet if China did not have a) Huge military power including nuclear b) a stranglehold on manufacturing. We all know this. Put your pens down and open your hearts: would you want this to happen to your family? If the answer is ‘no’ then perhaps, just perhaps it is an unethical action without any hope of validation through your best sophistry.

  6. Sloane provides no evidence to counter any of Sautman’s well researched article. Sloane is merely peddling the old slanderous tropes packaged in a wandering screed.

    China has not and does not “occupy” Tibet. That much is crystal clear under international law. It is not the US in Iraq nor the US in Afghanistan nor Israel in Palestine. Every country recognizes China’s claim over Tibet. Even The Tibetan government in exile recognizes it and always has since they signed the 17-point.

    China is not colonizing Tibet. Anyone who has been to Tibet will tell you that. Anyone that knows what colonization means will tell you that.

    China does not systematically discriminate against Tibetans. There is no law in China that singles out Tibetans for ethnic or religious discrimination. Sautman was again, correct, and Sloane left with a lie.

    Sloane gets both big and small facts wrong here.

  7. Many of the comments defending or apologizing for Chinese rule & policies in Tibet are consistent with official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) arguments justifying China’s rule over Tibet. Yet none of them directly address or disprove allegations of human rights violations against Tibetans or the immense dissatisfaction Tibetans have with Chinese policies in Tibetan areas.

    For example, one argument used by China apologists is that the economic condition of Tibetans today is better than prior to 1959. Of course, that’s also true for many peoples around the world who did not have the
    “benefit” of CCP rule, so this claim doesn’t prove anything. In fact, Bhutan, which has a practically identical culture to Tibet and an economy similar to pre-1959 Tibet, has a 2011 per capita GDP of over US$6,000. The 2011 per capita GDP in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is only US$2,558. it seems Bhutanese have done better economically as an independent state than Tibetans have under Chinese rule. One could argue that if the PLA had not invaded Tibet in 1949-50, Tibetans today would enjoy a per capita GDP similar to Bhutan & perhaps better than they have now. Moreover these arguments ignore the fact that 50% of Tibetans in Tibet are illiterate and less than 15% have a secondary education according to PRC statistics.

    In addition, some argue that laws giving preferential treatment to Tibetans in education and the right to two children per family are evidence that Tibetans are treated well by Beijing. However, such laws don’t prove there are no human rights violations. The US has an African-American President but does anyone believe this means racial discrimination has been eliminated in America? Likewise, there are many laws in China protecting the civil rights of Chinese citizens, yet there are many examples of Chinese authorities violating those rights and there are hundreds if not thousands of dissidents in Chinese jails. For example, the PRC Constitution protects freedom of speech, yet China sentenced Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo to 11 years of prison because he wrote in favor of democracy & human rights.

    Another argument used to defend the CCP regime is that Westerners have no basis for criticizing Chinese rule in Tibet because the West has engaged in colonialism/imperialism in its past. However, these arguments ignore that China was a colonial empire too (and some argue still is today) that invaded other countries & forcibly imposed its imperial will on others like Vietnam, Korea, Mongolia & Tibet. In fact, Chinese rule in Tibet today is arguably colonialism involving a foreign power that used military force to annex another territory and where the ruling class in this colonized territory are all foreign officials or foreign businessmen and the native people are treated as 2nd-class citizens with little or no political power. For example, the top political post of Party Secretary in the TAR has always been held by a Han Chinese official and never a Tibetan.

    Some also argue that Westerners like Mr. Sloane cannot criticize Chinese rule in Tibet because they have never been to Tibet (or so they assume). Yet China has frequently banned foreigners from visiting Tibet as they did for several months after the March 2008 protests, during the May 2011 commemoration of the “liberation” of Tibet, and currently in Tibetan areas like Ngaba (Ch. Aba) and Kandze (Ch. Ganzi) which have witnessed several self-immolations. When foreigners do visit Tibet, their actions are closely monitored by the authorities. China also blocks foreign journalists and foreign human rights investigators from visiting Tibetan areas & conducting independent investigations. So if foreign critics of the CCP regime have got it wrong because they have not been to Tibet, why does China deny them access to Tibetan areas to investigate for themselves? If Tibetans are truly happy under Chinese rule & claims of human rights violations are baseless, what does China have to hide?

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