It is useful to keep the whole picture in mind, rather than blindly follow what the ‘vegetarian between meals’ would lead us to believe (see further Sautman). To begin with, there is the simple historical question. Although accounts differ in relation to Tibet, the reality is that this region has been subject to Chinese rule in various ways since at least the eighteenth century under the Qing dynasty (with Chinese claims to de jure rule since the Yuan dynasty in the thirteenth century). Claims to some form of independence hark back to an image of the feudal Tibetan empire from the seventh to the eleventh centuries.
What happened after the liberation of Tibet in 1951 by the PLA, which was supported a wide range of Tibetans? A comprehensive 17-point agreement was reached in 1951, approved by all lamas and the Dalai Lama himself. Subsequent CIA agitation, funding, arms and logistics led to reneging on the agreement and the fateful 1959 uprising, which failed to garner widespread support, especially among those Tibetans who had been abused under the former feudal system. The Dalai Lama and his entourage were assisted by the CIA to flee the Tibetan region. Eventually, the CIA wound up its well-publicised ‘covert’ activities in the 1970s, only to be replaced by the innocuous sounding National Endowment for Democracy in 1984 (instituted under Ronald Reagan). As Elizabeth Davis’s careful study indicates, ‘Allen Weinstein, the NED’s first acting president, observed that “A lot of what we [the NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA’. A range of other western government-sponsored bodies work together with the NED to undermine Chinese sovereignty.
Even more, the factionalism of the Tibetan diaspora is bewildering. Many have not lived in the Tibetan region for two generations and they spend as much time attacking each other as they spend in trying to garner cash and support from states keen to irritate China. This factionalism is by no means new, for the struggles between different groups in Tibet’s history often used torture, violence and displacement to assert their control.
What about China’s position? This boils down to two strategies. The immediate aim is security and peace in the Tibetan autonomous region. Apart from the CIA-sponsored uprising in 1959, another more recent example concerns the deadly 2008 riots in Lhasa, in which some Tibetans burned, looted and killed Han Chinese and Muslims. From a Chinese perspective, these acts are part of the ‘separatism, extremism and terrorism’ continuum.
The long-term aim is socio-economic improvement, a core feature of the ‘preferential policy [youhui zhengce]’ for all minority nationalities. Obviously, this takes time but we can already see the significant improvements in living standards, with massive infrastructure projects, favourable conditions for Tibetan businesses, and a host of other measures. The Tibetan region has one of the highest growth rates in China now, although it is belated in comparison with the eastern regions of China.
As I have observed on a number of occasions before, socio-economic improvement is the basis of a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights, which may be described as the right to economic well-being. While the Euro-American tradition focuses on civil and political rights, and uses these to irritate China, it neglects the whole other dimension of the right to economic wellbeing, which includes the rights to work and to development. The Chinese emphasis goes back in more immediate history to the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet of the early 1930s, with its capital in Ruijin. Here developed what may be called the ‘Ruijin ethos’: focus first on the people’s need for food, shelter, clothing and security; only when these are secured will they become communists. In the longer tradition, the Confucian ethos is strong, particularly with the desire for at least a xiaokang society, meaning that one is moderately well-off, healthy, and peaceful. This basic human right in China has actually been embodied in the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1976). Article 11(1) is relevant here, which mentions that state parties ‘recognize the rights of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions’. Notably, the United States has not ratified this covenant.
But does this mean civil and political rights are curtailed for militant Tibetans? If they engage in ‘separatism, extremism and terrorism’, yes. This is a security issue. But as Barry Sautman observes:
The point to stress is that there is no repression of Tibetans simply for being Tibetan. Nor does the Chinese government repress religion per se. Instead, Tibetans receive a range of preferential policies, and authorised religions in China receive state support. Where religious organisations pose no political threat, they are regulated by the state and can generally function openly, especially among ethnic minorities. The relation between religious organisations and the state is informed by longstanding Chinese traditions; separatism is another story. Under international law, states may make separatism illegal. The Chinese government, based on China’s history of cycles of territorial unity and disunity, makes use of that right.
On the matter of culture it is worth noting the most thorough treatment of the issue by Colin Mackarras, who observes, ‘what strikes me most forcefully about the period since 1980 or so is not how much the Chinese have harmed Tibetan culture, but how much they have allowed, even encouraged it to revive; not how weak it is, but how strong’.
Finally, two pieces from none other than the Dalai Lama himself. The first is a telegram sent to Mao in 1951, indicating support of the 17-point agreement, which included the statement: ‘The central authorities will not alter the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama‘.
The second is a poem he wrote in 1954 concerning Mao Zedong: