On the Western media and Tibet

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Recent commentary in the international media on the pre-Olympics riots in Tibet is typical of most western reporting in this part of the world: surface-level observations which do not do justice to a complex historico-political situation. In the long run, such facile commentary will do nothing to help Tibetan people achieve their goal of cultural autonomy.
So here is some gratuitous advice for westerners who care for Tibet: Know your enemy. First, understand where China is coming from. Without this understanding, western criticism of China’s policy in Tibet will continue to be an exercise in useless self-righteousness.
Let’s put ourselves in China’s shoes for a moment. China shares land-borders with 14 other nations. Some of these neighbours are militarily and politically unstable (e.g. Afghanistan, North Korea, and Pakistan), some have close relations with great and powerful friends (e.g. India with the USA, Mongolia with Russia), and others are struggling to develop economically and politically (e.g. Burma, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan).
Furthermore, China’s long history justifies its fear of invasion (e.g. the Japanese, the Mongols and the Manchus), political and territorial disintegration (e.g. War-lords, and the Western countries carve-up of a weak China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), and social disorder (e.g. the Boxer revolution, and the Taiping revolution).
Now, if we put aside our moral outrage over China’s behaviour in Tibet for one moment and consider the scale of China’s current political concerns, surely we should have some sympathy for her geopolitical position.
If the West hopes to have any influence on China’s handling of what it regards as an internal matter, then perhaps it would be more helpful if our western media adopted a different approach to reporting on Tibet: i.e., a little less moral outrage, and a lot more analysis. Surely, there are readers out there who would like to be better informed on the China-Tibet issue. A little myth-busting would be a helpful start.
For example: although today’s exiled Dalai Lama is respected worldwide for his religious leadership of Tibetan buddhists, his doctrine of compassion is an historically more recent phenomenon. Further, the West is unaware of the reality of Tibetan society as it was when the young Dalai Lama fled to India after the People’s Liberation Army put down a revolt in his homeland in the 1950s.
Armed resistance had failed. The crazy-brave Khamba tribesmen on the eastern third of the Tibetan plateau had been defeated by a modern, disciplined Chinese Army. Closer to home near Lhasa, the Dalai Lama’s soldier-monks experienced a similar fate. The seeds of a modern myth of Tibetan sainthood and Chinese brutality were sown by that heroic defeat. A myth which has been exploited by western propaganda for years.
But myths are stories for those who refuse to think things through for themselves. In contrast, it can be intellectually taxing to look for the truth among the complexities of history.
But it is worth the effort. History can be full of irony and surprise. For example, Tibetan culture was never one giant monastic society whose members lived in harmony with each other. In fact, Tibet’s neighbours to the east used to live in fear of Tibetan brigandage. The Khamba tribesmen were a ruthless lot who were also feared by their more peaceful Lhasa countrymen to the west.
Their brother tribes further north had a similar reputation. No caravan was safe, and no neighbouring tribe could match them for ferocity.
The surprising thing for westerners to learn, is that in those days the Tibetan lamas in their monasteries were involved in commerce and benefited from the brutal rampages of the Khamba hotheads.
It is a fact that early last century, one monastery near Daocheng in southwestern Sichuan was a haven for local bandits. As incredible as this may seem to western sensibilities, the head Lama of that monastery used to lead his bandit-monks on raids into the surrounding countryside. Up to 400 of them at one time. And after plundering their neighbours, they would retire to their monastery to continue the practice of their Buddhist faith. History records other examples of lama-led commerce, avarice, and brutality.
Perhaps a comparison can be drawn between the behaviour of these bandit-monks and the behaviour of some Christian medieval European soldier-monks and their crusades.
The uncomfortable truth for us westerners is that Tibetan buddhism in 1950 was a religious/political theocracy which was intolerant of other religions, and which ruled in a manner not dissimilar to autocratic dictatorships elsewhere around the planet. Serfs, slaves, and superstition were a feature of this society as well as the well-known pathway to spiritual enlightenment. It was a cruel, unjust, feudal society.
Having said all this, and having experienced life among Tibetan people first hand, I know how deeply embedded buddhism is in their hearts. These people live their faith today. Nobody could live among these folk and not be moved by their piety. Even the Han Chinese themselves are in awe of such deep spirituality.
But know this: Tibet has always been politically linked to China. It is also a historical fact that during the last days of the Qing Dynasty, western powers (e.g., Russia and Britain) conspired to acquire this part of Asia for themselves. Misty-eyed, sentimental westerners should read their history. This is not to say, however, that the Tibetan people should accept the political status quo.
To reiterate; if we want to understand the Tibetan issue, we must first understand China. China is different, and one has to live here for many years before this fact really sinks in. I am not talking about observable cultural phenomena which are easy to identify. Rather, I am referring to the internal intellectual templates which guide Chinese thinking and behaviour.
China is a proud nation. A nation which remembers the humiliations of the last two centuries, and which is determined never again to allow foreign influence over domestic matters. And that includes the broader issue of human rights inside China as well as Tibet. Lecturing China on human rights is not the way to go. Long-term political, economic, cultural, and social engagement is the way to go. In the end, change will come from within, not from without.
The heart of the matter in Tibet today is what some people describe as, “cultural repression”. The violence we have witnessed recently (both sides) is culturally motivated on the one hand, and reactionary on the other. Two sides thinking differently.
Until this matter is addressed rather than repressed, there will never be peace on the roof of the world.
Recent commentary in the international media on the pre-Olympics riots in Tibet is typical of most western reporting in this part of the world: surface-level observations which do not do justice to a complex historico-political situation. In the long run, such facile commentary will do nothing to help Tibetan people achieve their goal of cultural autonomy.
So here is some gratuitous advice for westerners who care for Tibet: Know your enemy. First, understand where China is coming from. Without this understanding, western criticism of China’s policy in Tibet will continue to be an exercise in useless self-righteousness.
Let’s put ourselves in China’s shoes for a moment. China shares land-borders with 14 other nations. Some of these neighbours are militarily and politically unstable (e.g. Afghanistan, North Korea, and Pakistan), some have close relations with great and powerful friends (e.g. India with the USA, Mongolia with Russia), and others are struggling to develop economically and politically (e.g. Burma, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan).
Furthermore, China’s long history justifies its fear of invasion (e.g. the Japanese, the Mongols and the Manchus), political and territorial disintegration (e.g. War-lords, and the Western countries carve-up of a weak China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), and social disorder (e.g. the Boxer revolution, and the Taiping revolution).
Now, if we put aside our moral outrage over China’s behaviour in Tibet for one moment and consider the scale of China’s current political concerns, surely we should have some sympathy for her geopolitical position.
If the West hopes to have any influence on China’s handling of what it regards as an internal matter, then perhaps it would be more helpful if our western media adopted a different approach to reporting on Tibet: i.e., a little less moral outrage, and a lot more analysis. Surely, there are readers out there who would like to be better informed on the China-Tibet issue. A little myth-busting would be a helpful start.
For example: although today’s exiled Dalai Lama is respected worldwide for his religious leadership of Tibetan buddhists, his doctrine of compassion is an historically more recent phenomenon. Further, the West is unaware of the reality of Tibetan society as it was when the young Dalai Lama fled to India after the People’s Liberation Army put down a revolt in his homeland in the 1950s.
Armed resistance had failed. The crazy-brave Khamba tribesmen on the eastern third of the Tibetan plateau had been defeated by a modern, disciplined Chinese Army. Closer to home near Lhasa, the Dalai Lama’s soldier-monks experienced a similar fate. The seeds of a modern myth of Tibetan sainthood and Chinese brutality were sown by that heroic defeat. A myth which has been exploited by western propaganda for years.
But myths are stories for those who refuse to think things through for themselves. In contrast, it can be intellectually taxing to look for the truth among the complexities of history.
But it is worth the effort. History can be full of irony and surprise. For example, Tibetan culture was never one giant monastic society whose members lived in harmony with each other. In fact, Tibet’s neighbours to the east used to live in fear of Tibetan brigandage. The Khamba tribesmen were a ruthless lot who were also feared by their more peaceful Lhasa countrymen to the west.
Their brother tribes further north had a similar reputation. No caravan was safe, and no neighbouring tribe could match them for ferocity.
The surprising thing for westerners to learn, is that in those days the Tibetan lamas in their monasteries were involved in commerce and benefited from the brutal rampages of the Khamba hotheads.
It is a fact that early last century, one monastery near Daocheng in southwestern Sichuan was a haven for local bandits. As incredible as this may seem to western sensibilities, the head Lama of that monastery used to lead his bandit-monks on raids into the surrounding countryside. Up to 400 of them at one time. And after plundering their neighbours, they would retire to their monastery to continue the practice of their Buddhist faith. History records other examples of lama-led commerce, avarice, and brutality.
Perhaps a comparison can be drawn between the behaviour of these bandit-monks and the behaviour of some Christian medieval European soldier-monks and their crusades.
The uncomfortable truth for us westerners is that Tibetan buddhism in 1950 was a religious/political theocracy which was intolerant of other religions, and which ruled in a manner not dissimilar to autocratic dictatorships elsewhere around the planet. Serfs, slaves, and superstition were a feature of this society as well as the well-known pathway to spiritual enlightenment. It was a cruel, unjust, feudal society.
Having said all this, and having experienced life among Tibetan people first hand, I know how deeply embedded buddhism is in their hearts. These people live their faith today. Nobody could live among these folk and not be moved by their piety. Even the Han Chinese themselves are in awe of such deep spirituality.
But know this: Tibet has always been politically linked to China. It is also a historical fact that during the last days of the Qing Dynasty, western powers (e.g., Russia and Britain) conspired to acquire this part of Asia for themselves. Misty-eyed, sentimental westerners should read their history. This is not to say, however, that the Tibetan people should accept the political status quo.
To reiterate; if we want to understand the Tibetan issue, we must first understand China. China is different, and one has to live here for many years before this fact really sinks in. I am not talking about observable cultural phenomena which are easy to identify. Rather, I am referring to the internal intellectual templates which guide Chinese thinking and behaviour.
China is a proud nation. A nation which remembers the humiliations of the last two centuries, and which is determined never again to allow foreign influence over domestic matters. And that includes the broader issue of human rights inside China as well as Tibet. Lecturing China on human rights is not the way to go. Long-term political, economic, cultural, and social engagement is the way to go. In the end, change will come from within, not from without.
The heart of the matter in Tibet today is what some people describe as, “cultural repression”. The violence we have witnessed recently (both sides) is culturally motivated on the one hand, and reactionary on the other. Two sides thinking differently.
Until this matter is addressed rather than repressed, there will never be peace on the roof of the world.

Brian Hennessy. An Australian in China. 2008

A lot of the reporting on Tibet and its troubles with China has been predictably negative. It is as though journalists had already decided what they were going to write about before they got off the plane. Uncritical support for Tibet and self-righteous criticism of China is what was expected back home, so that is what they got. So why the all the fuss when China finally reacted and limited their visas and journalistic freedoms? That was predictable also. Now Tibetans have lost a window to the world.

On the Western media and Tibet

_______________________________________________________________________

Here is some gratuitous advice for those media agencies which have been consistently negative about China and its policy towards Tibet: First, the next time journalists are tasked to cover Tibet, insist that they do some research on Tibetan history and society beforehand. Then, make sure that they know something about China’s long association with this isolated theocracy on the roof of the world. And finally, ask them to be a little more positive. For example; acknowledge China’s efforts to raise the standard of living of all Tibetans. A little face-saving can accomplish a lot in China.

Let’s put ourselves in China’s shoes for a moment. China shares land-borders with 14 other nations. Some of these neighbours are militarily and politically unstable (e.g. Afghanistan, North Korea, and Pakistan), some have close relations with great and powerful friends (e.g. India with the USA, Mongolia with Russia), and others are struggling to develop economically and politically (e.g. Burma, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, and Tajikistan).

Secondly, China’s long history justifies its fear of invasion (e.g. the Japanese, the Mongols and the Manchus), political and territorial disintegration (e.g. War-lords, and the Western countries carve-up of a weak China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), and social disorder (e.g. the Boxer revolution, and the Taiping revolution).

Now, if we put aside our moral outrage over China’s behaviour in Tibet for one moment and consider the scale of China’s current political concerns, surely we should have some sympathy for her geopolitical position.

If the West hopes to have any influence on China’s handling of what it regards as an internal matter, then perhaps it would be more helpful if our western media adopted a more balanced approach to reporting on Tibet: i.e., a little less moral outrage, and a lot more analysis. Surely, there are readers out there who would like to be better informed on the China-Tibet issue.

A little myth-busting would be a helpful start. For example: although today’s exiled Dalai Lama is respected worldwide for his religious leadership of Tibetan Buddhists, his doctrine of compassion is an historically recent phenomenon.

Further, the West is unaware of the reality of Tibetan society as it was when the young Dalai Lama fled to India after the People’s Liberation Army put down a revolt in his homeland in the 1950s. Armed resistance had failed. The CIA supported, crazy-brave Khamba tribesmen on the eastern third of the Tibetan plateau had been defeated by a modern, disciplined Chinese Army. Closer to home near Lhasa, the Dalai Lama’s soldier-monks experienced a similar fate. The seeds of a modern myth of Tibetan sainthood and Chinese brutality were sown by that heroic defeat. A myth which has been exploited by western propaganda for years.

But myths are stories for those who refuse to think things through for themselves. In contrast, it can be intellectually taxing to look for the truth among the complexities of history. But it is worth the effort. History can be full of irony and surprise.

For example, Tibetan culture was never one giant monastic society whose members lived in harmony with each other. In fact, Tibet’s neighbours to the east used to live in fear of Tibetan brigandage. The Khamba tribesmen were a ruthless lot who were also feared by their more peaceful Lhasa countrymen to the west. Their brother tribes further north had a similar reputation. No caravan was safe, and no neighbouring tribe could match them for ferocity.

The surprising thing for Westerners to learn, is that in those days the Tibetan lamas in their monasteries were involved in commerce. They also projected their political influence by inciting young Tibetan hotheads to go on murderous rampages through neighbouring Christian communities (e.g., the Nujiang Valley). In fact, one monastery near Daocheng in southwestern Sichuan was a haven for local bandits. As incredible as this may seem to western sensibilities, the head Lama of that monastery used to lead his bandit-monks on raids into the surrounding countryside. Up to 400 of them at one time. And after plundering their neighbours, they would retire to their monastery to continue the practice of their Buddhist faith.

History records other examples of lama-led commerce, avarice, and brutality. Perhaps a comparison can be drawn between the behaviour of these bandit-monks and the behaviour of some Christian medieval European soldier-monks and their crusades.

The uncomfortable truth for us westerners is that Tibetan Buddhism in 1950 was a theocracy which was intolerant of other religions, and which ruled in a manner not dissimilar to autocratic dictatorships elsewhere around the planet. Serfs, slaves, and superstition were a feature of this society as well as the well-known pathway to spiritual enlightenment. It was a cruel, unjust, feudal society.

Having said all this, and having experienced life among Tibetan people first hand, I know how deeply embedded Buddhism is in their hearts. These people live their faith today. Nobody could live among these folk and not be moved by their piety. Even the Han Chinese themselves are in awe of such deep spirituality.

But know this: In one way or another, Tibet has always been politically linked to China. It is also an historical fact that during the last days of the Qing Dynasty, western powers (e.g., Russia and Britain) conspired to acquire this part of Asia for themselves. Misty-eyed, sentimental Westerners should read their history.

This is not to say, however, that the Tibetan people should accept the political status quo. To reiterate; if we want to understand the Tibetan issue, we must first understand China. China is different, and one has to live here for many years before this fact really sinks in. I am not talking about observable cultural phenomena which are easy to identify. Rather, I am referring to the internal intellectual templates which guide Chinese thinking and behaviour.

China is a proud nation. A nation which remembers the humiliations of the last two centuries, and which is determined never again to allow foreign influence over domestic matters. And that includes the broader issue of human rights inside China as well as Tibet.

Lecturing China on human rights is not the way to go. Long-term political, economic, cultural, and social engagement is the way to go. In the end, change will come from within, not from without.

The heart of the matter in Tibet today is what some people describe as cultural repression. The violence we have witnessed in recent years (both sides) is culturally motivated on the one hand, and reactionary on the other. Two sides thinking differently.

Until this matter is addressed rather than repressed, there will never be peace on the roof of the world.

 

 

 

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