The Dalai Lama: Saint or Sinner?

Is he a saint?

Is he a saint?

It’s fair to say that across the Western world the Dalai Lama has a very positive public image. His talks and conferences are always well attended, his books become bestsellers and his appeal to Holywood celebrities is legendary. 

In the nineties there was even something of a ‘Tibet boom’ with a massive ‘Free Tibet’ concert/rally in 1996 featuring amongst others the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, several films released focusing on Tibet & the Dalai Lama (Little Buddha, Kundun, 7 years in Tibet, etc.) and Steven Seagal was recognised as a reincarnation of a past Buddhist master (a tulku).

Or a theocratic despot?

Or a theocratic despot?

In recent years however another more critical response towards the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism has become increasingly common and it is emanating largely from amongst the atheist and the skeptical communities. Since I’m involved in both communities and have spent quite alot of time looking into Tibet & Tibetan Buddhism I thought I might take a look at these criticisms in more detail and examine just how justified they are.

Leading this charge has been, the ever vocal, Christopher Hitchens whose main criticisms of the Dalai Lama are laid out in this article. Hitchens is one of the most vocal critics but he is certainly not alone.

Some other examples of recent critiques from well known skeptics include Brian Dunning’s ‘Should Tibet be Free?’ episode of Skeptoid, Yau-Man Chan’s blog entry titled ‘Dalai Lama: Freedom Fighter or just a Great Salesman?’ and Penn & Teller’s ‘Holier than Thou’ episode of the popular TV show ‘Bullshit’.

The points raised in these critiques are not entirely new and have been cropping up in internet articles for many years- some examples can be seen here and here. However, they have been gaining wider support and I personally have noticed critiques of the Dalai Lama and Buddhism in general becoming increasingly common on online atheist & skeptical forums. 

There have, of course, been critical perspectives before these, with the most obvious examples emanating from the Chinese government and from certain (controversial) religious splinter groups. However, these earlier critiques have (at least until recently) generally been regarded as lacking credibility. The Chinese government and Tibetan religious splinter groups were typically regarded as biased commentators with axes to grind and ulterior motives underlying their critiques. The new wave of skeptical and, to a lesser extent, atheist criticism in comparison, tends to be regarded as somewhat more reliable but is this really the case? Are the criticisms levelled against the Dalai Lama fair or are they misrepresentations?

Before examining the criticisms I suppose it would be a good idea to make my own background and biases clear. I’ve been interested in Buddhism for a long time and although Tibetan Buddhism has never really appealed to me in a practical sense, I have studied the Tibetan tradition in some detail. In fact, I spent two years at university studying classical Tibetan (before deciding it wasn’t for me) and have spent many more years writing essays and researching Tibetan Buddhist history and practice (my undergraduate degree was in Study of Religions). As such, I’m quite familiar with Tibetan Buddhism and have myself been particularly intrigued by the idealised and romanticised portrayal of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism found throughout the Western media. So you might expect that I’m already predisposed to agree with the critics but let’s see…

Criticism No.1: The Dalai Lama’s ruled an oppressive feudal and theocratic regime in Tibet and wants Tibet back to regain his priviledges!

This criticism is probably the most common and it appears in some form or other in almost every article critical of the Dalai Lama. The reason for this is quite straightforward; the myth of a paradise ruled over by a benevolent God-king wherein all the population were spiritually minded and happy is so ludicrous and obviously false that it paints an irresistable and deserving target for critics to shatter.

The reality of Tibet pre-Chinese invasion is that it was a very underdeveloped feudal society with such wonderful features as severe inequality and widespread poverty, extremely brutal punishments for minor transgressions and no equality between the sexes. That the real history of Tibet goes largely unreported is a shame and one that deserves to be highlighted however how the reality of Tibets past reflects on the Dalai Lama is another issue.

Personally, I do not see how a single man can be held responsible for the structure of Tibetan society when he himself was only enthroned at the age of fifteen- one month prior to the Chinese invasion of Tibet- and then ‘ruled’ for about nine years under Chinese supervision. He was also not the ipso facto ruler of all Tibetan society that he is often portrayed in that, while it is true that he and the Gelugpa sect, which he heads, had probably the largest share of power in Tibet, there were other large sects with their own monastaries, their own lands and their own leaders who most of the time acted independently.

As a result, the ability of this particular Dalai Lama to reform Tibetan society seems, to me at least, to have been actually very constrained. This does not mean he should share no responsiblity for the inequalities of Tibetan society pre-Chinese invasion but I think the amount of blame that is placed on his shoulders by critics is typically disproportionate.

Furthermore, criticisms of how Tibetan society was organised back in the 1950’s do not necessarily apply to the Tibetan society that the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile have been advocating for many decades. The Dalai Lama himself despite often playing up to the romantic image of Tibet also seems to have been quite candid about acknowledging the problems inherent in old Tibetan society and seems to be genuinely keen to redress them.

Skeptic’s could point out that the democratic government proposed and the suggestion that the Dalai Lama himself will step down from a role of political authority are simply nice sounding rhetoric. However, the reality is that nobody can really know for sure that he doesn’t actually desire what he says he does. And from my perspective, given his advanced age and the activities he has been involved in for decades it seems that he is either sincere or one of the most cunning propagandists the world has ever met.

Criticism No.2: He is a ruthless dictator look at his treatment of the worshippers of Dorje Shugden

This criticism is complicated, and it is heavily intertwined with Tibetan Buddhist politics and splinter sects which really require quite a lot of time to really get to grips with. The heavily simplified version of this story is:

  • The Dalai Lama criticised the veneration of Dorje Shugden in the 1970’s and suggested the practice be abandoned.
  • In the 1990’s the Dalai Lama made several public statements condemning the practice, banning his followers from practicing it and sugesting that if his words were not heeded he may choose to live a shorter life.
  • Throughout the 1990’s and the 2000’s the Dalai Lama continued to condemn the practice and various allegations of persecution where made by Dorje Shugden supporters. There was also assasinations of officials critical of Dorje Shugden worship and finally in 2008 a co-ordinated campaign to completely remove the practice was instigated by the Tibetan government in exile with the support of the Dalai Lama. 

The official reasons provided for these actions were:

1) The Dalai Lama had upon investigation decided that Dorje Shugden was a ‘worldly protector’ inappropriate for veneration rather than an enlightened ‘dharma protector’ as some of those who venerated him maintained.

2) Dorje Shugden was a sectarian figure particularly prominent in the Gelugpa sect and his worship thus encouraged unnecessary divisions in the Tibetan exile comunity which now featured a somewhat centralised religious leadership that desired to appear unified and not encourage sectarian divisions.

However other potential motivations are:

1) The deity is a wrathful deity with a characteristically unappealing description and the emphasis on his worship may have damaged the reputation of Tibetan Buddhism in the West so an attempt was made to quietly retire the practice.

2) The practice was central to the New Kadampa Tradition a splinter sect of Tibetan Buddhism founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in England in 1991. This sect was seen as unorthodox and provided a challenge to the established Tibetan traditions authorities. Banning the practice may have been a way of testing to see how compliant the NKT would be.

Regardless of the motivations there definitely is a real controversy here and critics have been quick to point to allegations of abuse of the right to religious freedom and the alleged, but widely reported, persecution of those who continue to engage in the practice. And here I have to side with the critics, this is a religious dispute and it definitely is tinged by sectarian politics but the Dalai Lama certainly does not come out smelling like roses in this exchange. From his statements, it’s clear that he has repeatedly leveraged the widespread devotion felt towards him to try and further his particular religious dogma and whether or not his motives were originally pure the issue is now so clouded in politics that supporting a non-negotiable ban on the practice and persecution of it’s supporters seems like the decision of a dictator rather than a peaceful spiritual figure.

Criticism No. 3: He is publicity hungry and is willing to endorse anyone who offers him support!

Two figures often raised in support of this point are Steven Seagal and Shoko Asahara. Starting with the worst of the two first, Shoko Asahara was the leader of Aum Shinrikyo, a religious cult in Japan that carried out a series of murders and famously released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in the mid 90’s. Shoko Asahara also visited the Dalai Lama, donated about $1.2 million dollars to the Tibetan government in exile and received an ‘endorsement’ from him that featured frequently in Aum Shinrikyo material.

All of this is true however I think it is only with the advantage of hindsight that we can criticise the Dalai Lama for providing an endorsement to such a figure. It’s worth considering, for instance, that the Dalai Lama’s only interaction with Asahara is likely to have come during his visit and is very unlikely to have involved anything more than mutual congratulations. Considering that Aum Shinrikyo was also endorsed by a number of academics who actually spent time studying the group it seems a little unfair to judge the Dalai Lama too harshly on this point.

As for Steven Seagal, well, that’s not really the Dalai Lama’s fault. He was recognised by Penor Rinpoche the head of the ‘rival’ Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Penor has developed somewhat of a reputation for being a bit too loose with his tulku recognitions and indeed the choice of an ageing action star with a famously large ego seems to confirm this. Still, this is something that is largely out of the Dalai Lama’s control and so is more a point of criticism of Tibetan Buddhism in general than the Dalai Lama specifically.

More generally the Dalai Lama’s courting of the Western media may seem distasteful but in reality it seems to very much be a two way street. The exoticisation of Tibet is not all down to the Dalai Lama and long before he was releasing books there were already stacks of novels and films that had portrayed Tibet as a utopian paradise. He is also a political figure fighting for a particular cause (Tibetan quasi-independence) so it touches me as somewhat naieve to expect him to turn down positive publicity. 

In conclusion…

The recent criticisms of the Dalai Lama are basically are mixed bag. Some are more valid than others. However, I think it’s fair to point out that in a desire to rectify the overly favourable portrayals most recent critical pieces have swung too far in the opposite direction which has resulted in the Dalai Lama being portrayed as a Fu-Manchu-like cunning villain beguiling the West with his exotic lies. This, as should be clear, is definitely an unrealistic exaggeration. Some of the more recent critiques particularly those based on Christopher Hitchens work also seem to be based on a general anti-religion position which makes a balanced assesment unlikely. Coming to negative conclusions is one thing but starting from that point and interpreting everything into that framework is quite another.

A more realistic picture is simply that the Dalai Lama is neither wholly perfect nor wholly bad. He does have some conservative views on sex, he has made poor decisions in regards endorsements and his government is not as enlightened and selfless as it is often portrayed however to me that doesn’t negate the fact that he is also generally an advocate for human rights, a majoritively tolerant and moderate religious voice and a famous supporter of peaceful protest. Simply put he is a human not a perfect saint and not a nefarious villain. He may be a high profile human with significant religious and political roles but he remains human nonetheless.

Oh and for an excellent balanced examination of Western perceptions of Tibet I heartily recommend Donald Lopez’s book ‘Prisoners of Shangri La‘. It covers the history of the West’s relationship with Tibet and the creation of the various myths surrounding the country as well as the developments of the modern era and makes a fascinating read!

34 comments

  1. Very interesting article. Was totally unaware that the Dalai Lama came to power a month before the Chinese invasion. Puts some perspective on things. Was also unaware of the complexities of the power situation in Tibet prior to the invasion. Had kind of always imagined him as an autocrat. Would be interested in finding out more about the political side of things in Tibet back then.

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  2. I was quite surprised when I started reading research about Tibetan society before China’s invasion as well. I remember one article that was describing how each major monastery had regiments of ‘punk monks’ who basically functioned as a kind of unofficial army that protected the monastery against invaders and attacked rival monasteries. Not the image I had in my mind before I started looking into the history!

    If I can hunt it out I’ll put up a summary of it because it was a really interesting article.

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  3. The function of Dorje Shugden has always been the glorification of Tzong Ka Pa’s peculiar Madhyamika and the furtherance of one tradition (previously the Gelug, now the NK’T’). Thr deity has been used for highly sectarian purposes which are no longer congruent with the purposes of the contemporary Tibetan establishment. The ban however is not as demonic as you suppose. The fact is, the deity is known to actively supress the religious freedom of those Gelug practitioners who wish to augment their practices with those of other traditions. Thats the point-it restricts relgious freedom. So buy banning the deity, the Dalai Lama is simply creating a situation whereby others have MORE relgious freedom, not less. Ok perhaps a few tens of thousands of Shugdenpas for a couple of generations, slowly dwindling, but compare that to millions of Tibetan Buddhists being freed from the religious opression that dominated their faith within Tibet since the Gelug came to power
    In short, it is a ban on the restricition of relgious freedom, not a ban on relgious freedom as it has been portrayed.

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  4. I am not an atheist. I had nothing but admiration for the Dalai Lama until I saw the film “unmistaken child”. The film shows the taking of a two year old child from his parents and home and placing him in a monastery. Now, I don’t know if this child is a reincarnated soul or not, but I think that is beside the point. The point is, what kind of heartless soul could take such a small child from his family? What kind of arrogance to think he had the right to take this child? I know that the Dalai Lama was taken as a small child and I know that oftentimes the abused turns into the abuser. How can he condone such cruelty to this family? Is the parents love for their child so inconsequential to the Dalai Lama’s wants? It seems he doesn’t hold the mother/child bond in very high regard. He talks such beautiful words abot love and compassion and ending human suffering, but they are only words. Don’t judge a man by his words, judge him by his actions, is that not true? His actions were reprehensible. And you sir, in your article you don’t talk about slaves. Did the Dalai Lama own slaves? Did he do anything to make the Tibetan peoples life more bearable. He may have been only a young man when he took power, but he was supposed to be a great reincarnated, enlightened soul. His young life was spent [supposedly] learning to be a compassionate human being. Did he leave his 1,000 room palace and share his good fortune with the people of Tibet? I haven’t found any evidence of good deeds by this man. But you sir, you have studied this man, and all you can say is “he wasn’t particuliarly good and he wasn’t particuliarly bad”. That is really not much of a recommendation.

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  5. Unfortunately the truth is rarely as black and white as we would like it to be. My post above was largely emphasising this point as the popular media portrayals of the Dalai Lama nearly always paint him in a positive or negative extreme.

    Your willingness to research the Dalai Lama and adjust your view accordingly is admirable but it seems to me that you are still falling foul of the unfortunate trap of having to label him as either ‘evil’ or ‘good’.

    For instance, you take issue with the incarnate tulku system as heartless but I think you are judging it from the perspective of someone who a) probably doesn’t believe in Tibetan Buddhism and b) who has probably no experience with traditional Tibetan culture and life. Furthermore, you seem to blame the Dalai Lama for condoning the tulku system but it is a feature of Tibetan Buddhism that he did not invent and more importantly it is a feature of Tibetan Buddhism which Tibetan Buddhists believe in! On top of this, I sincerely doubt the system functions in Dharmasala or in Tibet in the same way it would back in the 1930’s. So you might be crusading against nothing. How many child tulku’s has the Dalai Lama recommended be removed from their family since he came into power? Is the Dalai Lama even in a position where it is possible for him to end the practice if it still exists? These are questions worth considering and researching the answer to before damning the man.

    As per slaves, Tibetan society was feudal so all the large monasteries would have had indebted labourers and servants. Whether the Dalai Lama would have reformed this situation is hard to know because as soon as he gained any real power the Chinese used military pressure to exert influence/take control of the Tibetan government. I think it is a bit unfair to judge him purely for growing up in a feudal society though and it is also worth noting that he has been a strong progressive voice on most social issues for decades now.

    In terms of finding good deeds by the man I think if you look properly you will find plenty. Whether they meet your standards to make him ‘good’ is another issue.

    Regardless though I think that trying to decide on whether he is all good or all bad is setting yourself up for creating an unrealistic image.

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  6. Excuse me but Of course I thought of the Dalai Lama as being all good, why wouldn’t I? Did this man not spend his whole life studying and learning how to be an enlightened being? Of course I expect him to be all good otherwise he is no better than the rest of us. They took him when he was four years old. From that age on did they not teach him about compassion and ending human suffering. And yes he is only one man but Mother Theresa was only one woman and look what she accomplished. One example of what one person can accomplish, so please don’t use the argument that he was only one man. He is either this great reincarnated, enlightened soul or he is just like the rest of us, which is it?
    As for slaves, just because this system was in place before he came to power does not mean he has to continue the practice. Did not your so called lesser enlightened souls in the United States fight and die to end slavery?
    Yes, the Dalai Lama does condone the taking of small children from their parents. And you, as informed as you are, I don’t understand why you don’t know this. And please, don’t even try to tell me that the Tibetan mothers are content and happy with this horrific practice. A mother is a mother is a mother. So don’t even go there. Watch the film “Unmistaken child.” It’s the saddest thing I ever saw. So much for ending human suffering. What, does the suffering of poor Tibetan mothers not count. Not to mention the suffering of that poor little child. And why, as informed as you are do you not know how many have been taken? Are these mothers not honoured or remembered in anyway? For heaven’s sake, they gave up their child, what greater sacrifice is there, and I bet as hard as you try you will not find one mother’s name.
    And yes the Dalai Lama does talk, his words are so beautiful, why do you think I became interested in Buddhism. But that’s all they are, just words. Don’t judge a man on what he says, judge a man on what he does. Well, he can talk all he wants about ending human suffering and compassion but as long as he continues to steal children from heartbroken mothers, it’s just talk.
    Stop making excuses for the fact that the Dalai Lama has done nothing to chance the sad sorry lot of the poor Tibetan people.

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  7. As I said in my last reply and my original post judging someone on a two point scale of either being ‘a saint’ or ‘a sinner’ is very likely to doom your chances of developing a realistic perspective of the person.

    This seems to be the reason why you have swung from the position of revering the Dalai Lama as an enlightened and compassionate being to a ruthless tyrant who hates mothers and supports slavery!

    As regards Mother Teresa, I suggest you read Christopher Hitchen’s book on her as it will provides another illustrative example of the perils that come with placing people on pedestools.

    It’s also fair to say that Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama are rather difficult to compare due to their radically different situations. The Dalai Lama was raised in the Tibetan monastic tradition but he assumed power only AFTER the Chinese invasion of Tibet. So right from the start he was a ruler with only symbollic power who was constrained by a constant Chinese political presence which controlled a vastly superior military force. Eventually after there was a popular uprising in Tibet against the Chinese occupation the Dalai Lama fled to India and within a few years he presented a democratic constitution for Tibet which he has been promoting since. In fact for decades now he has been promoting democracy, human rights and peace. Now I agree that his record is certainly not perfect and you may even have a valid argument in regards the unethical nature of the tulku system, but I get the strong impression that you are not making an unbiased assessment of the man and instead are letting your own cultural background and your emotional reaction to a film determine your position. That’s your choice of course but as I discuss above, I don’t expect humans to be perfect even when they are revered religious humans and I also don’t think it’s entirely appropriate to expect all cultures to hold the exact same views in regards childhood, and what it properly entails, as we do in the West.

    As for slavery, is slavery rampant in the Tibetan community in exile? Not that I am aware of. This is the only community the Dalai Lama has any direct control over. He has also frequently voiced his support of universal human rights and the constitution he promotes is against slavery. Expecting him to have changed Tibetan traditional society all by himself before he even took power is ridiculous.

    It also highlights that you haven’t done much proper research as if you had you would know that the Dalai Lama was not the single source of all political power in Tibet. There are a number of Tibetan Buddhist sects and to a large extent they operated independently in pre-invasion Tibet. So sorry, but your expectations for what the Dalai Lama could have achieved are unrealistic. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t valid issues to be taken with some of his actions/positions but asking that he transform Tibet from a feudal society single handedly when the Chinese were in military control of Tibet is a bit too much.

    As far as the unmistaken child. You might like to know that the child identified was actually the nephew of the monk responsible. I doubt it will make a difference to you but it might illustrate the point that basing your entire perspective on a single film might not be a great idea. Have you actually done any research into the tulku system or how people react to it beyond just watching the film?

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  8. I concede. You win. I am not a worthy opponent. You out educate me and you write much better than I do. I knew nothing about Tibet or Buddhism. All I knew was what came out of the Dalai Lamas mouth. And I liked what I heard. And I believed what I heard, without question. As for writing, before I saw the “Unmistaken Child”, I couldn’t even write a postcard. It was a kind of a phobia, I guess. But the Film was just so sad, it made me angry and it devastated me. I just wanted to write everywhere, “Dalai Lama, you are nothing but a fraud, a liar, a fake.” You were supposed to be the kindest soul living. You gave us hope that we could be better people. We paid good money to listen to you spout on about peace and harmony and compassion and love. For heaven’s sake, the man had followers, he could have accomplished so much. He could have been instrumental in promoting equality among the sexes. If you think it is a small thing to be treated like a second class citizen, you would be wrong. From what I have read, the female monks don’t get the same respect as the male monks. Very few woman hold positions of power. The women monks are poorer. Is there an enlightened soul on this planet that doesn’t know that women are equal to men? Does the Dalai Lama know this? If he knows this, then couldn’t he have done something to change their lot? He has only been the Dalai Lama for how many years now, what, he hasn’t had enough time? When I saw the mother in the Film, she seemed so powerless. Are there not things you just know in your heart, that are just universally wrong? In an Ideal world, would a child be taken from his mother, his family? I thought the Dalai Lama promised us the possibility of an ideal world. No, I didn’t have the guy on a pedestal, I simply believed the words that came out of his mouth. And I most certainly do expect a superior enlightened soul to be above reproach. Is it too much to ask a superior enlightened soul to be honest, that’s all, if you are honest all the time, with pure thoughts, how can you get in trouble? How can anyone doubt you? As for Mother Theresa, I’m not sure I want to hear anything bad about her. The woman was hands on taking care of thousands of very unfortunate souls. Of course I expect her to have a bad day. She is human. She’s not the Dalai Lama. What does Dalai Lama stand for “Ocean of Wisdom” or some such thing. It’s easy to sit around all day and talk beautiful words, but if he had been caring for thousands of poor, unfortunate souls, I wonder how beautiful his words would be. The woman was human. She never professed to be anything other than a woman who did all she could to care for as many people as she could. The woman made a difference.
    As for slavery, I was thinking from the age of six years to fifteen years, the Dalai Lama lived at the palace where there were slaves. At what age do you think a person would be enlightened enough to be aware that slavery is wrong? He had a month of power, did anything change in that month? What was the first order of the day? Like I said, he hasn’t done much for the females.

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  9. Maya: Mother Teresa wanted the poor to suffer, because she thought that would take both them and her closer to God.

    Chris Kavanagh: Did he ever try to change the country? He sat in some sort of power position until 1959, did he try anything between the time he lost the actual power to the Chinese until 1959 when he lost all the remnants of it?
    Has he admitted the cruelty of the pre-Chinese Tibet? Has he taken a stance against the pre-Chinese Tibet?

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  10. Magnus> Good questions. It’s been quite a while since I looked into the history so I might be off base but the impressions I have are as follows:

    “Did he ever try to change the country?”
    – Yes he did try and implement some progressive policies mainly in an attempt to modernise the country and keep it somewhat independent but he faced a lot of resistance from conservative elements including in his own Gelugpa sect.

    “Did he try anything between the time he lost the actual power to the Chinese until 1959 when he lost all remnants of it?”
    – I believe so. However, I think the majority of Tibetan political life during that period was focused on trying to control/develop relations with China. Hence, when you look back at histories of the period the major developments of Tibet all involve treaties being signed with the Chinese government. I believe there were also a number of social policies that the Chinese government pushed through during this time. I also suspect that even if the Dalai Lama had not been interested in social reform the CCP’s theoretical focus on peasants and revolution would have likely made reforming Tibet’s feudal society a priority.

    “Has he admitted the cruelty of the pre-Chinese Tibet? Has he taken a stance against the pre-Chinese Tibet?”
    – As far as I am aware he has admitted that there was much cruelty in the old Tibetan society and that the social systems were unfair and needed to be reformed. From what I have seen such admissions have mainly been along the variety of ‘Yes Tibet was not perfect and we had many problems but we were taking steps to solve them but such problems do not justify what the Chinese have done to our culture’. He also tends to point out that although there was much injustice in old Tibet there was also much to be admired.

    For all of the above I’d suggest doing some independent research because I am working largely from memory and I don’t feel overly confident about my answers. Might be time to do some more research when I get time!

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  11. I am a Tibetan. I know Tibetan people’s mentality. If a child is recognised as a reincarnated being, then his parent will feel very fortunate for that. And this particular parent or family will also be treated very well. Many reincarnated beings were born in very poor families.

    Let go to the issue of Dojee Shugden (DP) worship.
    In Tibetan Buddhism, there are four major sects. The practice of worshiping DP was quite popular in Gelug sect. So those who worship DP believe that other sects, particularly Nyingma sect, should be abandoned and condemned. After the death of 13th Dalai Lama and before the enthronment of the 14th Dalai Lama, in Tibet, this DP cult converted many Nyingma monasteries into their sects with force.

    This cult causes unnecessary division among Tibetan Buddhism. Even in their own sect, because of their activities associated with Chinese government, this sect is being regarded as a kind of traitor. Long before, most Tibetan youngsters do not know much about this issue. However, after their secret activities with Chinese government became public, all Tibetans consider them as traitors.

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  12. This article does not say how bad the Tibetan governments practice of human rights violations were among some of the worst in the entire world , that it would have virtually been impossible for the Dalia Lama NOT to have known about these abuses.

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  13. interesting piece, and generally accurate as far as i know.
    wandered around tibet some in 1985-1987, saw some things firsthand (but spoke no tibetan, though i learned mandarin well enough). even met israel epstein, then prc’s foremost apologist for taking over tibet, which was fascinating — in person he was a delightful and thoughtful fellow, although his books seemed too one-sided and doctrinaire. i’m not spiritual myself, but there was a power in what the average tibetan on the street did and said by way of worship — an incredible commitment that impressed the hell out of me. there’s no question that old tibet was as you describe it -could add that the wheel was outlawed (making the average peasant’s or working-man’s life harder) for religious reasons until 13th dalai lama wanted a car. yet no question either about severe wrongs done by chinese. my own sense of it is that chinese, fresh from revolution in china, sure they were doing right in their extremes, missed something beautiful in tibetan buddhism that perhaps could have been retained.
    anyway, good and thoughtful post.

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  14. How can we judge the Tibetans, it was not our country taken over and forced in to submission and to learn another language or starve. And are we better now in our own country than in the 50s. Materialism is all we see not the truth. The Dalai Lama is a man of peace, Love and compassion is his religion. Why do people try to find fault with what is good in the world and try to justify the bad?

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  15. Tibet has been a part of China since the Ming Dynasty. So how could anyone say what happened in 1959 is an invasion????

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  16. Many of my views regarding Tibet and The Dalai Lama and all of Asia were formulated during and as a result of the 24 years that I spent living, working and travelling around Asia. Basically I would sadly have to say that all are corrupt and all can not be trusted. This is not true of the common people that one can develop a degree of understanding and rapport with, but I would say that it is true in all of the countries of the region among those who strive for power or currently have power. Issues regarding the ruling of Tibet and the treatment of it’s people and Tibet-China relations can and have been found between countries and within countries from ancient times to the present day. A main aspect of this is that ethnic groups tend to look down on other ethnic groups while at the same time fighting among themselves and looking down on other members of their own ethnic group and countrymen. It is a mess and it may be best for westerners to not be involved or take sides. Regarding the spiritual dimensions of The Dalai Lama, well one could and might say that he is only one messenger of The Dhamma of The Buddha and there are many, many others teachers who deliver the teachings of The Dhamma of The Buddha in a more concise, meaningful and humble manner………..

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  17. Great post in general. The main issue I have is the whole “he was just a child before he was forced out of Tibet” thing. One can’t have their cake and eat it. He is either a reincarnated Buddhist deity ruler, or he is just a human being like the rest of us. There is supposedly no “supposed” in Tibetan Buddhism. So if he wants the rest of us to believe he’s the holiness he proclaims to be, he’ll have to take responsibility for all his predecessors. Or, let’s just treat him as the human in the game of thrones as the rest of the political leaders in the world, and stop deify him–which I think is partially your point anyway.

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  18. I have never read about Dalai Lama, so I would not judge him whether he is a Saint or Sinner. But I believe in the Living GOD, Jesus Christ who taught us to be careful with a wolf in a sheep clothes. If this man Dalai Lama is just a celebrity, then he cannot be a Saint. Sinner? Only the Lord Jesus Christ the living who has all authorities to judge and to save knows.

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  19. John Kimbrough’s comment above is by far the most sensible one so far.

    There are no saints in politics. The Dalai Lama is a political figure who has been mass-marketed as a religious/ spiritual icon, not only for the benefit of his cause, but also to advance the agendas and interests of his sponsors. It is hardly a coincidence that whenever the West feels the need to poke the Chinese in the eye, the ever-obliging Holiness can be counted upon to materialize in front of fawning cameras in short order to perform his threadbare “I am but a simple monk” routine (e.g., the almost embarrassingly inept one seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVXhyvgXf-E – Evidently, committing a few of his ‘daily’ prayers to memory was too much to ask of His Holiness for a two-minute recital in front of his Senate patrons). Even his vaunted 1989 Nobel peace prize was awarded in an obvious effort to berate the Chinese for the events of Tiananmen Square that year, which had absolutely nothing to do with him or his cause. In fact, while the Nobel committee went out of its way to “emphasize the fact that the Dalai Lama in his struggle for the liberation of Tibet consistently has opposed the use of violence”, historical evidence shows that his resistance against Chinese rule didn’t actually turn “peaceful” until his CIA sponsors pulled the plug on the Khampa guerrilla program following Nixon’s trip to Beijing, leading the Nepalese to follow suit by disarming the rebel fighters based inside their borders, thus depriving His Holiness of the means of holy violence that he had so readily condoned (if not welcomed) for more than a decade.

    As a universal symbol of peace and compassion, isn’t it a little odd that His Holiness has had so little to say in public about all the wars and slaughter that had taken place (and are still taking place daily) around the world over the last two decades? Either his compassion and commitment to peace are of surprisingly limited supply and scope, or the man knows too well which team he is playing for, and would only pipe up for the direct benefit of his sponsors. Contrast his behavior with that of the current Pope, for instance, and one begins to wonder how can his admirers not come to the same realization that “Maya” above did – that this man does not belong on the pedestal that they had created for him in their mind – unless they are too emotionally invested in the myths themselves to critically examine those beliefs.

    Tenzin Gyatso is neither a saint nor a villain; he is a shrewd politician of unexceptional intellect, a product of circumstances who knows his place and what he is expected to do to stay there; his fate and fortunate are a reflection of shifting geopolitical exigencies rather than spiritual revelations. Had China not been ‘lost’ to the Communists, but remained firmly in the hands of pro-US Nationalists, Tibet would still be exactly where it is today – as an integral part of China, but there would have been no CIA-sponsored insurrection, and the Dalai Lama would have been a non-entity politically, even if he had been an actual saint.

    Just as short-sighted Western meddling in Ukrainian politics inadvertently triggered the Russian annexation of Crimea earlier this year. The relentless encroachment on Chinese sovereignty by Western imperial powers, Russia and Japan from the 19th Century onward set in motion a complex chain of events that made Tibetan annexation all but inevitable. If there is any lesson to be learned, it’s that people who choose to engage in foreign intervention really need to know what they are doing and what they are getting themselves into, because unlike in the movies and on TV, the world is not divided into permanent “good guys” and “bad guys”, only competing interests that form complex webs of interdependency. Allies of today can become mortal enemies of tomorrow when their interests diverge; victims of yesterday’s horrors can turn into enthusiastic perpetrators of the same crimes today if given the opportunity. Short term advantages are never the end of the story, but often the trigger of unforeseen long tern consequences, which are ‘unforeseen’ not for a lack of clues, but due to a shortage of willingness to see things from more than just the most appealing perspective(s).

    Right or wrong, Tibet has been internationally recognized as sovereign Chinese territory for a very long time. There is no legal ambiguity in its current status (unlike, say, Crimea, or Israel/Palestine). It is no more “occupied” by China than Hawaii is “occupied” by the US (or Crimea was “occupied” by Ukraine prior to the recent upheaval). Both territories were seized through questionable means using self-serving rationale (the colonial conquest of the Kingdom of Hawaii was in many ways far less defensible than what the Chinese did to Tibet, which was to prevent an administratively autonomous state from achieving de jure independence under hostile foreign influences), and the situation today is no more reversible in one instance than the other, short of a major war that nobody is looking forward to fighting.

    This is a cold hard fact.

    When the Dalai Lama goes, then what? His supporters are passionate people who seem to believe they have a monopoly on truth and compassion, but behave more like members of a personality cult, violently resistant to anything that could challenge their righteous conceit, preferring echo chambers that reinforce and amplify their faith and prejudice to critical assessment of unvarnished evidence, lest they become hamstrung by nuance and ambiguity. Consequently, knowingly or not, they are convenient tools to cudgel the Chinese with whenever China fails to toe the line assigned to it by the self-appointed “international community”; yet in the final analysis, they offer little more than false hopes to the independence-minded Tibetans, whose struggles they encourage and instigate through political and material support, almost exclusively via the Dalai Lama vehicle.

    Guess who in this arrangement will lose the most in the long run.

    It won’t be the Chinese, who are busy integrating Tibetan infrastructure with the rest of their country, making any future split increasingly unlikely. It won’t be the Dalai Lama, who will take his prestige and privilege to his grave. It won’t be the politicians, who can sexy up their pro freedom credentials by doing nothing more than taking a selfie with the sainted Lama. It won’t be the media, who never miss an opportunity to paint a complex issue in dramatic black and white. And it won’t be the “Free Tibet” crowd, who can always pat themselves on the back for having had the compassion and fortitude to have “done something” against pure evil, even though many of them have only the vaguest idea of what lies beneath the benevolent platitudes and insidious accusations, or what their ‘activism’ can actually achieve.

    If everyone took John Kimbrough’s advice, the world might become a more stable place, if not a more peaceful one, though many people who make a living off of the instability will be out of a job.

    Like

  20. @ Mrangu6
    I do not possess the language to match your eloquence, but for someone who knows the situation well I must say you’re spot on in your description of the cult of the DL, especially the part about his supporters ‘who seem to believe they have a monopoly on truth and compassion’.

    Like

  21. It’s no secret that the Chinese government sees
    propaganda as a key weapon in its efforts to
    battle the movement for Tibetan rights and
    independence. Luckily for Tibetans, Beijing’s
    Orwellian rants – for example labeling the Dalai
    Lama a “serpent” and a “wolf in monk’s robes” –
    have bordered on the hilarious. That is, until
    recently. Beijing’s propaganda strategy is
    shifting to a greater utilization of Chinese and
    Western scholars and hand-picked Tibetan
    spokespeople. A leaked document from the Chinese
    Communist Party’s Ninth Meeting on Tibet-
    Related External Propaganda in 2001 stated,
    “Effective use of Tibetologists and specialists is
    the core of our external propaganda struggle for
    public opinion on Tibet.” Beijing is also starting
    to send out propaganda tours of carefully
    selected groups of its Tibetan officials – always
    with a Chinese escort. In order to address these
    recent moves, Students for a Free Tibet has
    deconstructed Beijing’s favorite propaganda
    points justifying China’s invasion and continuing
    occupation of Tibet.
    “Tibet has always ‘belonged’ to China”
    This is Beijing’s favorite argument, though the
    exact moment when Tibet supposedly became
    “part” of China keeps changing; it’s variously
    said to have happened in the seventh century,
    the 13th century, the Qing Dynasty, or simply
    “always.” It’s hard to do justice to two thousand
    years of Tibetan history in a few paragraphs,
    and the suggested resources at the end of this
    document give much more detail than we can put
    here:
    · The seventh century: Beijing used to claim that
    the marriage of Tibet’s King Srongtsen Gampo to
    Chinese Tang Dynasty Princess Wencheng in 641
    A.D. marked the “union of the Tibetan and Han
    Chinese nationalities.” It stopped claiming this
    when it was repeatedly pointed out that
    Wencheng was junior to Srongtsen Gampo’s Nepali
    wife, Princess Brikuti, and that the Tang emperor
    was forced to give his daughter because of the
    strength of the Tibetan empire. In fact, the
    Tibetan army sacked and briefly occupied the
    Tang capital in 765 A.D., and the 822 A.D. peace
    treaty forced the Chinese to treat the
    “barbarian” Tibetans as equals.
    · The 13th century: Beijing claims that Tibet
    became part of China during the Yuan Dynasty in
    the mid-13th century. The Yuan was actually a
    Mongol empire, with Chinggis Khan and his
    descendents conquering China and nations from
    Korea to Eastern Europe. For China to claim Tibet
    based on this would be like India claiming Burma
    since both were part of the British Empire. The
    Mongols never ruled Tibet as an administrative
    region of China, and Tibet was given special
    treatment because Tibet’s Sakya lamas were the
    religious teachers of the Mongol emperors. By the
    fall of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, Tibet had again
    become in charge of its own affairs.
    · The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911): Beijing is
    opposed to past Western and Japanese
    imperialism, but sees nothing wrong in claiming
    Tibet based on the Manchu Qing Empire. This
    claim doesn’t stand up either. The Manchu rulers
    of China were Buddhists, and Tibet’s Dalai Lamas
    and the Manchu emperors had a special priest-
    patron relationship called Cho-Yon whereby China
    committed to providing protection to the largely
    demilitarized Tibetan state. Chinese nationalists
    may see this as sovereignty, but it wasn’t. As
    the relationship became strained, China at
    various times exercised influence and sent armies
    into Tibet – but so did Nepal during this time.
    China expanded its influence in Tibet after 1720,
    as a powerful country dealing with a weaker
    neighbor. It later tried to occupy Tibet by force,
    violating the Cho-Yon relationship, but with the
    fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Tibetans
    expelled the Chinese and the 13th Dalai Lama
    proclaimed Tibet’s complete independence. Until
    the Chinese invasion of 1950-51, Tibet enjoyed
    full sovereignty as defined under international
    law: it had a territory, a population, a
    government exercising effective control, and the
    ability to enter into international relations (such
    as the 1914 Simla Convention with Britain, trade
    delegations to the West, and neutrality in World
    War II).
    · 1951: China claims sovereignty over Tibet from
    before 1951, but this is an important date. This
    is when after defeating Tibet’s small army, China
    imposed the Seventeen Point Agreement on the
    Tibetan government, demanding that Tibet
    “return” to Chinese sovereignty (raising the
    uncomfortable question of why such a surrender
    treaty was needed unless Tibet was a country
    independent of China in the first place). This
    Agreement was legally invalid because of duress,
    but the Tibetan government had little choice but
    to try to coexist with China under its provisions.
    It became clear that Beijing had no intention to
    live up to its promises, and the Tibetan
    government fully repudiated the document during
    China’s brutal suppression of the 1959 Tibetan
    uprising.
    · “Always”: Do we even need to respond to this?
    Irish Ambassador to the U.N. Frank Aiken said it
    best in the U.N.’s debate on Tibet in 1959:
    “Looking around this assembly, … I think how
    many benches would be empty in this hall if it had
    always been agreed that when a small nation or a
    small people fall in the grip of a major power no
    one could ever raise their voice here; that once
    there was a subject nation, then must always
    remain a subject nation. Tibet has fallen into the
    hands of the Chinese People’s Republic for the
    last few years. For thousands of years, … it was
    as free and as fully in control of its own affairs
    as any nation in this Assembly, and a thousand
    times more free to look after its own affairs than
    many of the nations here.”
    “Old Tibet was a backwards, feudal society and
    the Dalai Lama was an evil slaveholder”
    Beijing (as well as sympathetic Western scholars
    such as Michael Parenti, Tom Grunfeld and Anna
    Louise Strong) asserts that “pre-liberation”
    Tibet was a medieval, oppressive society
    consisting of “landowners, serfs and slaves.”
    Tashi Rabgay, a Tibetan scholar at Harvard,
    points out that these three alleged social classes
    are arbitrary and revisionist classifications that
    have no basis in reality. There were indeed
    indentured farmers in old Tibet. There were also
    merchants, nomads, traders, non-indentured
    farmers, hunters, bandits, monks, nuns,
    musicians, aristocrats and artists. Tibetan
    society was a vast, multifaceted affair, as real
    societies tend to be. To try to reduce it to three
    base experiences (and non-representative
    experiences at that) is to engage in the worst
    kind of revisionism.
    No country is perfect and many Tibetans
    (including the Dalai Lama) admit that old Tibet
    had its flaws and inequities (setting aside
    whether things are better under Chinese
    occupation). But taking every real or imagined
    shortcoming that happened in a country over a
    600-year period and labeling it the “way it was”
    is hardly legitimate history. Any society seen
    through this blurry lens would come up short. And
    in many ways, such as the elimination of the
    death penalty, Tibet was perhaps ahead of its
    time. The young 14th Dalai Lama had begun to
    promote land reform laws and other
    improvements, but China’s take-over halted these
    advances. It is instructive to note that today the
    Tibetan government-in-exile is a democracy while
    China and Tibet are under communist
    dictatorship.
    The crucial subtext of Beijing’s condemnation of
    Tibet’s “feudal” past is a classic colonialist
    argument that the target’s alleged backwardness
    serves as a justification for invasion and
    occupation. These are the politics of the colonist,
    in which the “native” is dehumanized, robbed of
    agency, and debased in order to make occupation
    more palatable or even necessary and “civilizing.”
    China has no more right to occupy a “backward”
    Tibet than Britain had to carry the “white man’s
    burden” in India or Hong Kong.
    “China ‘peacefully liberated’ Tibet, and Tibetans
    today are happy under Chinese rule”
    Beijing’s line is that the Tibetan people, and
    particularly the peasantry, welcomed the
    “peaceful liberation” of Tibet and that it was
    they themselves who “overthrew the landlords.” In
    fact, China’s People’s Liberation Army decimated
    the 5,000-strong Tibetan army in October 1950 at
    Chamdo, eastern Tibet. There’s no question that
    some Tibetans initially greeted the Chinese (the
    communists claimed they were only there to “help
    develop” Tibet); that such welcomes were in the
    vast minority is equally clear. Tibetan histories
    of Tibet, such as Tsering Shakya’s Dragon in the
    Land of Snows and W.D. Shakabpa’s Tibet: A
    Political History, corroborate this. The late
    Panchen Lama’s courageous 70,000-character
    secret petition to Chairman Mao summarizes how
    the “liberation” negatively affected Tibetans of
    all walks of life.
    Indeed it was the Tibetan peasantry, the very
    group the Chinese “liberation” was said to have
    helped, who formed the core of the popular
    resistance to the Chinese occupation. By 1959, a
    guerilla resistance movement called Chushi
    Gangdruk (“Four Rivers, Six Ranges”) that
    started in eastern Tibet had spread nation-wide.
    The resistance reached a symbolic culmination on
    March 10, 1959, when thousands of Tibetans
    surrounded the Dalai Lama’s Norbulinka Palace to
    act as human shields to protect him from a
    rumored Chinese kidnapping plot (hardly the acts
    of a people longing to be rid of an oppressive
    Tibetan regime).
    The armed resistance ended in the 1970s, at the
    urging of the Dalai Lama, but substantial popular
    resistance remains. This resistance has taken
    many forms over the years: pro-independence
    demonstrations, postering, mass non-
    cooperation, economic boycott, and risking the
    perilous Himalayan crossing to live as refugees
    self-exiled from their own homeland. Ronald
    Schwartz has written a book, Circle of Protest,
    analyzing ways in which Tibetans have used
    religion to express covert political messages.
    Chinese writer Wang Lixiong provides another
    analysis in an article entitled Tibet: The People’s
    Republic of China’s 21st Century Underbelly. Wang
    opposes Tibetan independence, but believes there
    is a risk of Beijing succumbing to its own
    propaganda. He recognizes the strength of
    Tibetan nationalism and pro-independence
    sentiment, and writes, “the military[‘s] role in
    sovereignty is only like a rope, which can tie
    Tibet to China, but cannot keep our bloodlines
    together over the long term.”
    “Tibetans are better off now than they were
    before the ‘peaceful liberation'”
    This incorrectly assumes three things: [1] that
    Tibetans are incapable of developing without
    Chinese intervention (a modern version of the
    “white man’s burden”); [2] that Beijing’s
    developmental priorities and ideas of progress are
    what Tibetans want; and [3] that material
    development somehow excuses the colonialist
    occupation of Tibet. Let’s take these in order:
    [1] To imply that Tibetans are incapable of
    developing their own country is insulting,
    condescending and chauvinistic. Nor is it proper
    to compare apples and oranges: Tibet five
    decades ago cannot be compared with today,
    since a free Tibet would not have existed in a
    vacuum in the intervening years. One only has to
    look at the model success of the Tibetan refugee
    community to wonder how much better life in
    Tibet could be if Tibetans were actually in charge
    of their own country.
    [2] Yes China has developed Tibet, but urban
    Tibetans only benefit marginally and rural
    Tibetans barely benefit at all. Tibetans without
    Chinese language skills and connections are left
    to fend for themselves as second-class citizens in
    their own country. China’s own statistics show
    Tibet’s per capita income falls below that of all
    Chinese provinces, and vast areas of rural Tibet
    lack basic healthcare and education. Beijing’s
    overarching priority is tying Tibet to China by
    moving in Chinese colonists to the urban areas
    and creating a Tibetan economy dependent on
    resource-exploitation and state subsidies. It is
    spending huge amounts of money on
    infrastructure to solidify its control, such as a
    railroad to Lhasa on which Beijing will spend more
    than what it has put towards healthcare and
    education in the entire 50+ years it has occupied
    Tibet. Some scholars such as Hong Kong-based
    Barry Sautman argue that these policies are
    beneficial to Tibetans and aren’t colonialism
    because China isn’t following the same
    demographic strategy as previous colonial powers.
    Nevertheless, Tibet today is a vast resource-
    extraction colony and its urban areas are filled
    with Chinese settlers. According to the UNDP in
    2000, real GDP per capita in Tibet is $169, as
    opposed to $680 for China as a whole and $4,000
    in Shanghai.
    Adult Literacy is 38% as opposed to 81% in China.
    Maternal mortality is 50 per 10,000 as opposed to
    9 per 10,000 in China. All these show that China’s
    much-vaunted “development” is skewed by
    political priorities (securing control, building
    infrastructure) and isn’t benefiting Tibetans.
    [3] Beijing would never argue that just because
    Hong Kong under British rule grew to become one
    of the world’s major economic centers and
    enjoyed one of the highest living standards in
    Asia, this somehow justified British imperialism.
    It seems hypocritical for it to use exactly this
    line of reasoning for Tibet, whether factually
    valid or not.
    “China has already granted Tibetans autonomy”
    This argument is emerging as one of Beijing’s
    new favorites, a way of combating the Dalai
    Lama’s moderate proposals for a compromise
    solution. In its latest White Paper, Regional
    Ethnic Autonomy in Tibet, Beijing claims that it
    has given Tibetans substantial autonomy rights
    already and that this means the “Tibet question”
    is solved. The reality is that this alleged
    autonomy is crippled by severe limits and by
    Beijing’s ultimate control.
    Autonomy in the so-called “Tibet Autonomous
    Region” is extremely limited, is granted or
    retracted at Beijing’s will, and is based on
    power-relationships rather than clearly defined
    rights. Most fundamentally, it’s hard to speak of
    “autonomy” when the government is controlled by
    a non-democratic, communist party dictatorship
    that prohibits independent institutions or
    organizations. Beijing’s overriding concern in
    Tibet is “stability” (meaning fighting the
    independence movement) and all other concerns
    are subordinate. As a result, Beijing retains
    huge formal and informal ability to dictate
    policies in “hard” issue areas such as politics and
    law. There is a limited flexibility in “soft” issue
    areas such as culture and economics, but even
    this is subject to Beijing’s ultimate power as
    shown for example by the strict monastery
    controls and incentives for Chinese settlers that
    Tibetans themselves would not willingly enact.
    Tibet’s lack of real autonomy is further
    underscored by looking at who the actual
    decision-makers are. Ultimate power lies in
    Beijing. Tibetans do occupy some figurehead
    positions such as governor of the “Tibet
    Autonomous Region,” but these officials are
    largely considered to be Beijing’s puppets. Beijing
    doesn’t trust the Tibetan cadres at lower levels,
    and is constantly trying to root out their private
    religious devotion and loyalty to the Dalai Lama.
    As a result, real power is exercised by Chinese
    officials in Beijing and Tibet including Tibet’s
    communist party chairman, who has never been a
    Tibetan. The importance of the communist party
    can’t be over-emphasized, because ultimate
    power in China comes through this body.
    Beijing’s unconvincing claims of Tibetan autonomy
    can’t paper over the Tibetan people’s unrealized
    right to self-determination. Even the U.N.
    General Assembly explicitly recognized this right
    in its 1961 resolution on Tibet (Res. 1723(XVI)).
    This right means Tibetans have the legal right
    freely to determine their own political status,
    and freely to pursue their economic, social and
    cultural development. Self-determination is a
    complicated issue, but to put it briefly: Tibet’s
    history as a sovereign country and China’s
    continuing and widespread violations of Tibetans’
    fundamental political, economic and other human
    rights give the Tibetan people the right to choose
    their own political destiny.
    [An interesting note: Until very recently, Beijing
    referred to “national regional autonomy,” for
    example in the Seventeen Point Agreement it
    forced on Tibet in 1951. In the past few years,
    Beijing has instead been talking about “regional
    ethnic autonomy,” even rewriting history by
    altering the Seventeen Point Agreement in its
    contemporary textual references and web sites.
    This shift appears to be a belated realization
    that recognizing Tibetans (and other so-called
    minority groups like Uighurs) as a “nationality”
    gives support to their demands for self-
    determination. Oops! Some analysts also believe
    that if autonomy is redefined as an “ethnic”
    privilege, it will become easier for Beijing to
    justify taking away all pretense of autonomy as
    Chinese immigration shifts the ethnic balance.]
    “Tibetans in exile, especially the Dalai Lama, are
    a bunch of aristocrats seeking to reestablish the
    old regime”
    The notions that the Tibetan refugee community
    longs to reestablish an aristocracy has nothing to
    do with the real aspirations of the Tibetan
    freedom movement. Currently there are over
    150,000 Tibetans living in exile around the world;
    to characterize this group as “former
    aristocrats” is ludicrous when one considers their
    numbers and diverse backgrounds from Tibet.
    Tibetans never saw their country as perfect and
    the Tibetan government-in-exile is not
    advocating reestablishing the system that existed
    before 1959 (nor would it be possible). The Dalai
    Lama has declared that he won’t hold a political
    position in a free Tibet – despite that the vast
    majority of Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet
    would probably elect him in a heartbeat – and has
    laid out guidelines for a democratic free Tibet
    (see http://www.tibet.com/future.html ). The
    government-in-exile is a democracy run by a
    prime minister (currently Samdhong Rinpoche) and
    parliament elected by universal suffrage in the
    refugee communities. The movement for Tibetan
    independence permeates all segments of Tibetan
    refugee society, as anyone who has spent time in
    the Tibetan refugee settlements in India or
    attended a Tibetan gathering in the West can
    attest.
    “The Dalai Lama is a US government puppet out to
    ‘split’ China”
    Beijing claims that the Dalai Lama’s status as a
    “Western pawn” is proved by CIA funding to the
    Tibetan resistance fighters in the 1950s and ’60s.
    Former CIA agents Kenneth Knaus and Tom Laird
    have both written books on the CIA’s involvement
    in the Tibetan guerilla resistance movement,
    which movement was never controlled by the
    pacifistic Dalai Lama. These books and other
    historical documents and testimony show that the
    Tibetan resistance was very much an indigenous
    reaction by Tibetans to China’s invasion of their
    homeland. Tibetans were willing to take any help
    against so large an occupying force, and the
    CIA’s view of Tibet’s utility in a global war
    against communism doesn’t detract from the
    legitimacy of the Tibetan cause. The elites of the
    US and other liberal democracies now prioritize
    trade with China, and much of their pressure to
    act on Tibet comes from grassroots public
    sympathy.
    “Human rights are China’s internal affair”
    Even if Tibet weren’t an illegally occupied country
    and therefore a subject of legitimate
    international concern, the world still has a
    legitimate interest in Beijing’s human rights
    abuses in Tibet and China. Certain human rights
    issues, like the prohibitions on genocide and
    torture, are jus cogens (peremptory norms of
    international law) that may never be violated.
    Other human rights issues are covered by the
    various international conventions that China has
    signed and/or ratified. The increased global focus
    on fighting terrorism, moreover, makes injustice
    anywhere harder to ignore and gives the world
    even more of a stake in finding a lasting,
    peaceful solution to the problems in Tibet.
    Often directed at Western Tibet supporters:
    “Anyone who hasn’t been to Tibet has no
    legitimacy in talking about it”
    This is often said by someone who them self may
    never have been to Tibet, or whose own motives
    and interests are suspect. It is a line designed to
    perpetuate an unjust status quo by de-
    legitimizing a maximum number of people who
    could possibly challenge the injustice. Going to
    Tibet would undoubtedly be informative, and all
    Tibet supporters who can go should; visitors are
    usually struck by Tibet’s natural beauty, the
    warmth of its people, and a pervading sense of a
    land under military occupation. But you don’t
    need to go to Paris to know the Eiffel Tower
    exists, and you don’t need to be jailed in Tibet’s
    Drapchi Prison to know that political prisoners
    are tortured there.

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  22. For more information, the resources below are
    good places to start

    Tibetan government-in-exile:
    · Tibet: Proving Truth from Facts, http://
    http://www.tibet.com/WhitePaper/index.html
    · Tibetan Autonomy and Self-Government: Myth
    or Reality?, Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy
    Research Centre, New Delhi, India, 2000.
    Chinese government:
    · Tibet – Its Ownership and Human Rights
    Situation, http://news.xinhuanet.com/
    employment/2002-11/18/content_633181.htm
    · Regional Ethnic Autonomy in Tibet, http://
    news.xinhuanet.com/english/2004-05/23/
    content_1485519.htm
    Other Governments and United Nations
    Resolutions on Tibet:
    · http://www.tibetjustice.org/materials/
    index.html
    Non-governmental organizations:
    · Tibet Information Network: http://
    http://www.tibetinfo.net
    · Tibetan Center for Human Rights and
    Democracy: http://www.tchrd.org
    Other Authors:
    · Tsering Shakya, Dragon in the Land of Snows: A
    History of Modern Tibet Since 1947, Columbia
    University Press, 2001. (A definitive history of
    modern Tibet by a pre-eminent Tibetan scholar.)
    · Warren Smith, Tibetan Nation: A History of
    Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations,
    Westview Press, 1998. (A comprehensive history of
    Tibet.)
    · Panchen Lama, 70,000 Character Petition (The
    Secret Report of the Panchen Lama), published by
    the Tibet Information Network as A Poisoned
    Arrow, December 1997, http://
    http://www.tibetinfo.co.uk/pl-preface.htm
    · Kenneth Knaus, Orphans of the Cold War:
    America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival,
    PublicAffairs, 1999. (A history of the CIA
    involvement in the Tibetan resistance movement.)
    · Ron Schwartz, Circle of Protest: Political Ritual
    in the Tibetan Uprising, Columbia University
    Press, 1994. (Analyzes ways in which Tibetans
    have used religion to express covert political
    messages they cannot express outright.)

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  23. A LIE REPEATED – THE FAR LEFT’S FLAWED
    HISTORY OF TIBET

    By Joshua Michael Schrei

    “A lierepeated a hundred times becomes the
    truth.”
    -Chairman Mao

    As a lifelong activist who has worked on human
    rights issues around the globe, I hold the view
    that the best representatives of a culture are its
    people; that people create their own history, and
    in the case of the colonized or the oppressed that
    history is often rewritten by the oppressor. I do
    not assume that simply because a country is
    communist or socialist or capitalist that its
    practices toward its own people or its foreign
    policies are more or less honorable; beyond all the
    rhetoric, the reality of a situation can always be
    measured by the affected people themselves.
    The Tibet issue is one that the far left has found
    to be somewhat of a conundrum, for the simple
    reason that most other popular human rights
    struggles can be easily linked to a larger struggle
    against U.S. or European imperialism. Therefore
    these struggles – be it in Palestine, or East
    Timor, or Colombia, fit nicely into the larger –
    and often rather myopic – worldview of the
    leftist.
    However, Tibet is a case in which the struggle for
    basic rights and nationhood is being carried out
    against a communist government, so it has
    brought with it a host of questions for the
    leftist, who naturally leans towards socialism or
    communism as an ideological example of a system
    that stands in contrast to the ‘imperialist west’.
    China, the country that invaded Tibet in 1950,
    has stood as one such example- though the
    Chinese government’s practices over the last 53
    years and its current bent towards totalitarian
    capitalism would tend to defy any labeling as a
    positive example. Nonetheless, China’s history of
    socialism and revolution remains as something of
    an inspiration for the Western left, and
    therefore certain historians- predominantly
    scholars with some form of Marxist or Maoist
    agenda- have seen the current popularity of the
    movement for Tibetan statehood and have taken
    it upon themselves to give a glimpse into the grim
    reality of ‘old Tibet.’
    The most recent historian to embrace this view of
    ‘old Tibet’ is Dr. Michael Parenti, a Yale scholar
    who, in the course of his career, has written on
    a variety of populist causes. To be fair, Parenti
    stops short -barely- of condoning the Chinese
    occupation. He does however, cast a decidedly
    unflattering view of life in pre-1950 Tibet.
    In his writing on Tibet, Parenti shares something
    in common with all of his predecessors -Anna
    Louise Strong, A. Tom Grunfeld, and Roma and
    Stuart
    Gelder among them- in that his writing on Tibet
    is essentially argumentative. He is not writing in
    order to give an unbiased history of a nation, he
    is writing in order to prove a point. In this case,
    the point he is trying to prove is that the society
    of ‘old Tibet’ was a terrible place, and that the
    resistance movement that is so visible today is
    essentially a movement to re-establish this
    despicable regime.
    In Parenti’s words, old Tibet was “a social order
    that was little more than a despotic retrograde
    theocracy of serfdom and poverty, so damaging
    to the human spirit, where vast wealth was
    accumulated by a favored few who lived high and
    mighty off the blood, sweat, and tears of the
    many. For most of the Tibetan aristocrats in
    exile, that is the world to which they fervently
    desire to return. It is a long way from Shangri-
    La.”
    I have chosen to dissect this thesis because it
    houses many of the common arguments presented
    by Chinese government propagandists on Tibet,
    as well as many of the arguments that modern
    day Marxists and Maoists regularly hurl at Tibet
    activists on internet chat rooms and at protests.
    As we will see, the flawed premise of this thesis
    illuminates how the far left has gone woefully off
    the mark in its efforts to undermine the
    legitimate struggle for Tibetan rights and
    statehood.
    Again, I am a firm believer in people’s history.
    And the core problem with Parenti’s position is
    that it is simply at odds with the statements,
    testimony, and shared history of the Tibetan
    people themselves – the people Parenti is
    supposedly defending. The view of Tibet that
    Parenti ascribes to has been commonly put
    forward by Chinese government officials –
    particularly the ones in the ministry of
    propaganda. Once upon a time it was a view
    embraced by a handful of British historians –
    most of them turn of the century explorers and
    colonists in their own right. But it has always
    been an outsider’s view, completely divorced from
    the reality of how Tibetans of all walks of life
    view their own society and their own history.
    In his descriptions of old Tibet, Parenti
    predominantly draws on the work of four
    historians – Anna Louise Strong, A. Tom
    Grunfeld, and Roma and Stuart Gelder. The fact
    that all of these historians had a romantic
    predilection towards Maoism and drew mostly on
    Chinese government statistics should surely be
    cause for concern as far as their legitimacy as
    source material. One certainly wouldn’t trust the
    Indonesian government’s party line on Aceh or
    East Timor. Or, for that matter, the U.S.
    government’s continued assertion that the Iraqi
    people welcome the current American occupation.
    Such manipulations of public sentiment, in which
    an occupation is presented as ‘the will of the
    people,’ are – as a rule – only employed to further
    the agenda of the occupier.
    For the most part, Parenti and the handful of
    historians who have adopted the view of old Tibet
    as a despotic feudal theocracy have had little if
    no contact with actual Tibetans either in or
    outside Tibet. Therefore, they have no real way
    of gauging the sentiments of the Tibetan people.
    Neither Parenti, Strong, Grunfeld, nor the
    Gelders speak Tibetan – or Chinese for that
    matter- so the body of historical literature on
    the Tibet issue that is available to them is
    extremely limited. Tom Grunfeld never went to
    Tibet until after his book was published. Anna
    Louise Strong – a diehard Marxist – was given a
    tightly monitored Chinese government tour of
    Lhasa and then went on to proclaim that “a
    million Tibetan serfs have stood up! They are
    burying the old serfdom and building a new
    tomorrow!” One might say that one doesn’t need
    to go to Paris to know the Eiffel tower exists.
    However, before dismissing an entire culture’s
    history as despotically repressive it is perhaps
    worth speaking to a few of its representatives.
    Instead, Grunfeld repeatedly draws on the
    writings of a handful of British colonial explorers,
    who – as explorers often do – wrote down every
    piece of suspicious folklore and hearsay as fact.
    Grunfeld’s source material for his depictions of
    Tibetans as cannibals, barbarians, and
    superstitious fanatics is no more credible than
    are the testimonials of early European explorers
    to Africa who spun yarns of three-headed
    natives. None of these depictions are
    corroborated by traditional Tibetan, Chinese, or
    Indian histories, which of course were not
    available to Grunfeld because of his lack of
    interest in learning the local language.
    Grunfeld also makes extensive use of the writings
    of Sir Charles Bell, who he quotes regularly and
    with no apparent regard for context. Bell’s
    stance was actually that Tibetans had been
    brutalized by the Chinese army and that Tibet
    was an independent nation of far greater
    ‘character’ than its neighbor. This seems to elude
    Grunfeld, who chops up Bell’s sentences in order
    to isolate the worst and most sensational aspects
    of Tibetan society and present them as fact.
    Grunfeld also makes cultural blunders that would
    make freshmen history students squirm. As
    award-winning author Jamyang Norbu points out
    in his brilliant essay The Acme of Obscenity ,
    Grunfeld even mistranslates the Tibetan word for
    ‘Tibet’!
    Parenti does little better in his treatment of
    history, erroneously stating that the first Dalai
    Lama was installed by ‘the Chinese army’. One
    would presume that a Yale Ph.D. would know the
    difference between Chinese and Mongols. But
    apparently, in the Parenti-Grunfeld-Strong
    school of history, one word is as good as another
    and a Chinese is as good as a Mongol, as long as
    the point gets across.
    With such evisceration of history as common
    practice it quickly becomes obvious that none
    these historians’ writings on Tibet exist to
    illuminate true Tibetan history. In fact, neither
    Grunfeld, nor Strong, nor Parenti seem remotely
    interested in the specifics of the culture they’re
    discussing.
    For example, as Tashi Rapgey points out in her
    dissection of Tom Grunfeld’s ‘Making of Modern
    Tibet’, the three social classes that Grunfeld and
    Strong lump Tibetans into – landowners, serfs,
    and slaves – have no relation to the actual
    breakdown of Tibetan society. It is a completely
    arbitrary classification that has no basis in
    reality-Tibetan society was never classified along
    these terms. Certainly a historian writing on the
    caste system in India would not reclassify Indian
    society according to their own liking or invent
    names to suit their own vision?
    There were indeed indentured farmers in old
    Tibet. There were also merchants, nomads,
    traders, non-indentured farmers, hunters,
    herders, warlords, bandits, monks, nuns,
    musicians, theater actors and artists. Tibetan
    society was a vast, multi-faceted affair, as
    societies tend to be. To reduce it to three base
    experiences – and non-representative experiences
    at that – is to engage in the worst form of
    reductionism.
    Not only are Strong and Grunfeld’s breakdowns of
    Tibetan society grossly
    miscategorized, their observations and criticisms
    are entirely removed from chronological and
    temporal reality. Folklore from hundreds of years
    ago, local myths, explorer’s whimsy, and selective
    historical incidents are presented all together as
    static truth. Every single bad thing, every
    monstrosity real or imagined that occurred in
    Tibet between 1447 and October 6, 1950 is ‘how it
    was’ in ‘old Tibet.’ Fundamentally, this is not
    history. It is the crudest form of argumentative
    politics, drawing on selective quotes from non-
    native history – quite often the history of the
    occupiers themselves – and presenting it as fact.
    In fact the entire notion of ‘old Tibet’ or Tibet
    under the Dalai Lamas as a static is erroneous.
    Life under the 13th Dalai Lama was drastically
    different that life under the 6th or the 5th. By
    the time the 13th Dalai Lama came along, for
    example, the Tibetan government had banned the
    death penalty – it was one of the first countries
    in the world to do so. But somehow, in the mind
    of Grunfeld and Parenti and Strong, Tibetans are
    to be held accountable for the actions of their
    distant predecessors.
    That there was an imbalance of wealth in Tibet is
    quite true (There still is, only now the Chinese
    are the wealthy ones). Tibetans waged war,
    robbed each other, had strict laws and engaged in
    corporal punishment like all societies have done
    at various points in their history. But what is
    insidious about highlighting solely these aspects
    of Tibetan society is that these historians –
    Strong and Grunfeld particularly; Parenti is
    somewhat excused from this particular outrage-
    seem to be using ‘how it was’ in ‘old Tibet’ as a
    justification for invasion and occupation, just as
    the United States used the ‘savagery’ of the
    native populations as an excuse for their
    liquidation. This is the politics of the colonist to
    the core, in which the native is dehumanized and
    debased in order to make occupation more
    palatable, even necessary, or ‘civilizing.’ Strong
    does not even conceal her glee at the ‘smashing’
    of old Tibet. Politics aside, its rather frightening
    to think of celebrating the demise of a culture
    that one hasn’t had any direct contact with,
    whose existence one has only read about in books.
    The romanticism that historians like Strong and
    Grunfeld hold for the Chinese invasion and
    occupation of Tibet and the smashing of the old
    ways is based on an inherently flawed
    presumption that the invasion was some kind of
    people’s revolution. The Chinese government line,
    which Strong and Grunfeld and even Parenti seem
    to have bought into -is that the Tibetan people,
    and particularly the Tibetan peasantry, welcomed
    the occupation and in fact that it was they
    themselves who ‘overthrew the landlords.’ Such a
    supposition has no basis in fact.
    The Chinese army rolled into Chamdo in Eastern
    Tibet in October of 1950 and decimated the 8,000-
    man Tibetan fighting force that was assembled to
    resist them. That there were Tibetans who
    initially greeted the arrival of the Chinese is
    without question; that these Tibetans were the
    vast minority is also without question. Legitimate
    histories of Tibet, such as Tsering Shakya’s
    ‘Dragon in the Land of Snows’ corroborate this
    fact.
    Whatever romantic picture the Chinese
    government’s propaganda department paints of
    enslaved peasants casting off the bonds of
    feudalism, there is little in the way of factual
    evidence to support this. Most of the evidence
    produced by Beijing comes in the form of
    testimonials recorded by party cadres, whose
    questionable nature as a source of objective
    information should not even have to be
    mentioned, especially coming from a government
    that excels in ‘extracting testimonials.’ These
    testimonials are written in such propaganda-
    speak that it is nearly impossible to read them
    with a straight face; even more impossible to
    imagine anyone actually uttering the words.
    Oddly enough, in contrast to the Chinese
    government line that it was the Tibetan
    peasantry who readily embraced communism,
    communism was in fact much more popular – as it
    is in this country – among the educated elite. The
    Tibetan communist party was a creation of sons
    of wealthy aristocrats; the Tibetan peasantry on
    the other hand were the ones who eventually
    formed the brunt of resistance to Chinese
    government rule.
    Whatever the case, Tibetan opinion towards
    Beijing quickly cooled after the signing of the
    17-point agreement in 1951, and certainly was
    not favorable by 1959, when a popular Tibetan
    uprising threatened China’s very grip on the
    nation. This resistance was for the most part
    carried out by Khampa tribesmen in Eastern
    Tibet, who had suffered some of the most brutal
    treatment at the hands of the Chinese
    government. That these fighters were for a time
    funded by the CIA does not – as Parenti seems to
    presume – represent some kind of trump card
    that de-legitimizes the aims, aspirations, and
    existence of the Tibetan resistance movement.
    The CIA used the Tibetans just as it has it used
    nationalist movements in dozens of countries
    around the world; with little thought for the local
    people and as a means of waging their own cold
    war. The Tibetan resistance fighters, who came
    from poor frontier villages in Eastern Tibet, were
    happy to have anyone on their side. They had no
    way of knowing the larger political framework
    that they had been sucked into. Ironically, it was
    the Dalai Lama who put an end to this resistance,
    by calling on the fighters to drop their arms and
    embrace nonviolent means of conflict resolution.
    As for the reality of the subsequent Chinese
    occupation, which every legitimate human rights
    organization in the world has labeled with terms
    like ‘cultural genocide’, it should hardly need
    further exposition. One of the most telling
    historical documents of the time is the Panchen
    Lama’s 70,000 word treatise to Chairman Mao on
    behalf of the Tibetan people. Not only is this
    document considered by serious historians to be
    one of the only reliable texts from that time
    period, it illuminates the extraordinary kow-
    towing that was necessary in order for even an
    elevated Chinese official such as the Panchen
    Lama to speak to Chairman Mao at that time.
    Apparently, Mao was not interested in listening
    to the day-to-day problems of the ‘serfs’ he
    ‘liberated’. The Panchen Lama was sent to prison
    for suggesting that people in Tibet were
    starving; the average Tibetan peasant who
    offered the same criticism to his local Chinese
    official did not fare nearly as well.
    In his article Parenti again quotes Tom Grunfeld
    – whose idealism of the cultural revolution should
    automatically remove him from use as an unbiased
    source of historical data on the Chinese
    occupation of Tibet – and asserts that ‘slavery
    and unpaid labor disappeared under Mao’. This
    sentence simply has no place in any legitimate
    historical writing. Perhaps Parenti would like to
    sit down and have a chat with the relatives of
    the thousands of Tibetans who were worked to
    death by Chinese soldiers at the infamous Borax
    mine in Changthang. I’ve met them myself, and
    they are far more deserving of a platform on
    Tibetan history and cultural issues than Parenti.
    Mao’s forced sedentarization of Tibetan nomads
    was certainly not a liberation; nor was the
    government-enforced switch to growing foreign
    cereal crops which resulted in widespread famine
    in many regions of Tibet.
    But again, the true testament to the fact that
    Tibetans have been far from content under
    Chinese rule lie in the actions of the people
    themselves. Ever since the Chinese invasion and
    occupation there has been substantial popular
    resistance to Chinese rule in Tibet. This
    resistance has taken many forms over the years –
    leafleting, public demonstration, mass non-
    cooperation, economic boycott, and armed
    uprising are all forms of protest have been
    practiced by Tibetans inside Tibet, at the risk of
    their own lives.
    The Chinese government has faced phenomenal
    opposition from the Tibetan people, certainly far
    more opposition than the Lhasa government ever
    faced from its own population, which does not do
    much to further the argument that ‘old Tibet’ was
    a terribly repressive society. Nor does the fact
    that Tibetan refugees continue pour out of Tibet
    at a rate never seen prior to 1959. In a classic
    case of uninformed conjecture, Parenti supposes
    that Tibetan refugees never left prior to 1959
    because the ‘systems of control’ were so deep and
    that Tibetans were ‘afraid of amputation’. Any
    quick glance at a map of Tibet, with its vast,
    unpatrolable borders, or any basic knowledge of
    the structure of Tibetan society would quickly
    reveal that Tibetans – should they have wanted
    to escape their ‘feudal masters’ – would have had
    little problem doing so.
    But perhaps there is no more telling testament to
    the Tibetan people’s sentiment towards their own
    culture than the fact that in the early 1980’s-
    when the Chinese government finally relaxed some
    of its draconian policies towards Tibet- the first
    thing Tibetans set about doing is rebuilding and
    repopulating monasteries – the very symbols of
    ‘old Tibet.’ The next thing they did was take to
    the streets and protest for freedom and for the
    Dalai Lama’s return. This is not the behavior of a
    people who are trying to cast off their old ways.
    It sounds more like a people who are trying to
    get their culture back.
    This brings up again the essential flaw in
    Parenti’s reasoning-it is not based on the
    experience of Tibetans. The actuality is that
    there is now and always has been a people’s
    movement of Tibetans- in fact the vast majority
    of Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet- who
    overwhelmingly support the Dalai Lama and more
    specifically are in favor of Tibetan statehood.
    This movement cannot simply be dismissed as
    incidental, or foreign-backed, or primarily
    aristocratic in nature. The argument that the
    Tibetan resistance is driven by aristocrats is
    fairly essential for Parenti et al because without
    it they would be forced to recognize the
    existence of this movement-and the existence of
    such a movement would suggest that perhaps the
    Tibetan people themselves are more enamored of
    the Dalai Lama than they ever were of Mao.
    The Tibetan resistance, both historically and
    currently, has been made up of Tibetans from
    across the social spectrum. The Khampa fighters
    in the late 50s and early 60s were certainly not
    aristocrats, nor was Thrinley Chodron, a nun who
    led a bloody resistance battle against Chinese
    forces in 1969. The Tibetans who took to the
    streets and were gunned down in the late 80s
    were not former aristocrats. Nor are the
    hundreds of Tibetans currently languishing in
    Drapchi prison for expressing their desire for
    statehood.
    Currently, there are over 150,000 Tibetans living
    in exile around the world. There are nomads-in-
    exile, farmers-in-exile, truck drivers-in-exile.
    To characterize this entire group as aristocrats
    or former aristocrats is ludicrous. In New York
    City alone, there are nearly 5,000 Tibetan
    refugees. I’m quite certain that Ngawang
    Rabgyal at the Office of Tibet, who is charged
    with helping this refugee community find jobs in
    the outer reaches of Queens, would raise an
    eyebrow at the description of Tibetan refugees
    as ‘aristocrats.’
    The notion that the Tibetan community in exile
    longs to return to a ‘Shangri-la’ and re-establish
    their aristocracy is a banal and uninformed
    argument that has nothing to do with the real
    and stated aspirations of the Tibetan freedom
    movement. First of all, Tibetans never called
    their country Shangri-La; it was an outsider,
    James Hilton, who first did that. They never saw
    their country as a paradise and the Tibetan
    community is certainly not seeking to reestablish
    the same political system that existed in
    pre-1959 Tibet (nor would it be possible). The
    Dalai Lama has all but abdicated his position as
    future leader of Tibet – despite the fact that
    98% of Tibetans both in and outside Tibet would
    elect him in a heartbeat – saying that he would
    rather attend to his religious duties than be a
    political leader. The Tibetan Kashag is now made
    up of democratically elected officials and the
    Tibetan Government-in-Exile –- which, whether
    Parenti cares to acknowledge their existence or
    not, is a legitimate entity charged with the
    welfare of 150,000 refugees – has already
    outlined a democratic structure for the future
    government of Tibet.
    The movement for Tibetan statehood permeates
    all segments of Tibetan society. Nomads in
    western Tibet, herders in Changtang, farmers in
    Amdo, merchants in Lhasa– the vast majority of
    Tibetans are vocal – as much as they can be –
    about their nationalist aspirations. Anyone who
    has spent time around Tibetans inside or outside
    Tibet knows this as fact. This fact does not have
    to be footnoted; it is experiential history.
    By way of personal testimony, before I ever
    became involved in the Tibetan political struggle I
    went to Tibet myself. I was there during a
    period of martial law and at certain sensitive
    locations I had to be escorted by Chinese guides,
    who made a half-hearted attempt to show me the
    ‘feudal torture chambers’ of old Tibet and a
    statue of a liberated serf ‘breaking the chains of
    bondage’; the guides barely seemed to believe it
    themselves. But even they could not produce
    Tibetan citizens who would rail against the Dalai
    Lama or speak of how they had ‘cast off the
    bonds of
    feudalism’. I know of no traveler to Tibet who
    has heard this type of testimony. There are
    Tibetans in government positions in Lhasa who
    will give you this line; and there are probably
    some Tibetans in Tibet who believe it. But again,
    for the vast majority of Tibetans, this is simply
    not part of the their experience. Get any Tibetan
    nomad, farmer, peasant, or monk a few hundred
    yards away from their local party cadre and the
    first thing they’ll do is ask for a picture of the
    Dalai Lama; the second thing they’ll do is ask you
    to help them free their country.
    And there’s the core of the matter: ‘old Tibet’,
    the Tibet that existed pre-1959, simply does not
    represent to the average Tibetan what it does to
    Michael Parenti, Tom Grunfeld, and Anna Louise
    Strong. Scholars like Parenti and Grunfeld and
    Strong, with limited source material and no
    firsthand experience, see old Tibet as a horrible
    place; but the bottom line is they’re not Tibetan.
    And if Tibetans themselves don’t see their past as
    a past of feudal lords and merciless repression,
    then do they really need scholars like Parenti to
    tell them what their past is all about?
    Saying debasing things about a culture is
    certainly not extraordinarily difficult; seen
    through the lens that Parenti and Grunfeld apply
    to Tibet, most if not all societies would come up
    short, as would many resistance movements. The
    real story then, is not what these historians have
    to say, but why they have chosen to say it in the
    way they say it.
    Many Tibetans do welcome commentary and
    criticism on aspects of their society; I have
    certainly been privy to many heated arguments
    on old Tibet and on the future direction of
    Tibetan politics. But that is because I have taken
    the time to really get to know Tibetan society.
    Perhaps what is most striking about the history
    that Parenti and Grunfeld and Strong present is
    the tone with which they speak of Tibetan
    culture, without ever having experienced it. The
    facts they deliver are clearly not being presented
    in order to help Tibetan people. They are fairly
    serious charges, and as objective as the authors
    pretend to be, these charges are delivered with
    venom.
    Oddly, Parenti – like Grunfeld – seems taken
    aback at the emotional response that his writing
    has evoked among Tibetans and their supporters.
    It would seem fairly obvious to anyone with any
    common sense that dismissing an entire culture –
    particularly one in dire peril -and making
    statements that run completely contrary to
    everything the vast majority of its people know
    from firsthand experience would illicit an
    emotional response. Perhaps these scholars are
    surprised because they have forgotten that words
    carry weight, and that their actions actually
    have tangible results in the real world. In the
    Tibet movement, the results have been clearly
    measurable – Tibetan activists, who should be
    focused on returning basic rights to a people
    whose lack of freedoms is documented by every
    major human rights organization in the world,
    instead find themselves in the position of having
    to defend the actions of a bygone society. Former
    torture victims are accosted by nineteen year old
    American college students who have never been to
    Tibet, never met a Tibetan, and surely never had
    anyone in their family tortured with electric
    cattle prods. This, for a people who are in a very
    real struggle for rights, is not only extremely
    upsetting, it serves to forward the agenda of
    their oppressor.
    It is no secret that the Chinese government
    views propaganda as a key weapon in its efforts
    to undermine the movement for Tibetan rights
    and statehood. Chinese state run media – whose
    use of manufactured and manipulated history is
    indisputable – regularly debases and assails
    Tibetan culture and specifically the Dalai Lama,
    who is dismissed with regularity – and relish. The
    Tibetan refugee population is treated with equal
    disdain, the Tibetan government-in-exile, which,
    again serves the very real function of looking
    after the welfare of 150,000 refugees and
    lobbying international institutions for rights and
    recognition, is dismissed entirely. Luckily for
    Tibetans, Beijing’s Orwellian rants about Tibet –
    labeling the Dalai Lama a “serpent” and “the chief
    villain” – have bordered on the hilarious. That is,
    until recently. Now the war of words has spilled
    over into more legitimate circles.
    Recognizing that Tibetans and the Tibetan
    struggle are generally well-perceived in the
    west, and seeking to win the war of perception,
    Beijing’s propaganda strategy has now grown,
    with regular meetings on external and internal
    Tibet-related propaganda. One key element of
    the new propaganda strategy is to make greater
    use of Tibet scholars, both Chinese and Western.
    In 2001 a leaked Chinese Government memo from
    the Chinese Communist Party’s Ninth Meeting on
    Tibet-Related External Propaganda stated
    “Effective use of Tibetologists and specialists is
    the core of our external propaganda struggle for
    public opinion on Tibet…”
    With this as the political backdrop, levying ill-
    researched and unsubstantiated charges at
    Tibetan culture – in fact the very charges often
    employed by their Chinese occupiers to
    delegitimize their entire society – is a dangerous
    game indeed. It is one thing to offer criticisms
    of a culture or religion that is not fighting for
    its very survival. It is quite another to rewrite
    the history of a people who are already the
    victims of a propaganda war at the hands of one
    of the largest propaganda machines in the world.
    What surprises me most about the far left’s
    flawed take on Tibet is how quickly a piece of
    propaganda turns into ‘scholarship,’ how a piece
    of hearsay becomes fact if given a footnote. Mao
    said ‘a lie told a hundred times becomes the
    truth.’ Sadly, in the case of the new Tibet
    ‘scholarship’, a lie footnoted once has already
    become truth. A pool of bad information now
    exists, ready for any scholar with an agenda to
    draw from and appear legitimate. Few will bother
    to look beneath the surface, at the highly
    questionable source of this information-colonists,
    oppressors, and outsiders, writing a history that
    they have no place writing. And what gets lost in
    the mix, as always, is the voice of the Tibetan
    people themselves.
    There is one statement in Parenti’s thesis that
    summarizes how completely disconnected he is
    from any kind of Tibetan reality. In his thesis,
    he states that old Tibet was a society that was
    ‘damaging to the human spirit.’ Any person who
    has spent any time with the Tibetan people would
    laugh at the irony. Being with Tibetans of all
    walks of life, inside and outside of Tibet, one is
    always struck by the incredible, contagious spirit
    of Tibetan culture. From the Khampa drinking
    songs to the picnics that are the preferred
    activity of all Tibetans, Tibetan society is known
    for its passion and exuberance. This spirit is
    something that grows directly from the culture
    that Parenti is so intent on debasing. This spirit
    is what the Chinese government has tried so
    desperately to crush – making the singing of
    freedom songs illegal and prohibiting traditional
    Tibetan festivals. The struggle against
    totalitarianism is precisely a struggle for spirit,
    and I’m willing to wager that a populist like Mr.
    Parenti would find far more joy drinking chang
    and singing songs with a party of exiled Tibetans
    than he ever would at a Chinese cadre meeting;
    sadly, he won’t ever get to find out. He’s chosen
    his bedfellows, and more power to him. In the end
    it is the Tibetan people who will be the arbiters
    of their own fate. By the time that fate is
    decided Parenti will be long gone, onto some other
    issue, and Tibetans will be no worse off because
    of it.

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  24. A LIE REPEATED – THE FAR LEFT’S FLAWED
    HISTORY OF TIBET

    By Joshua Michael Schrei

    “A lierepeated a hundred times becomes the
    truth.”
    -Chairman Mao

    As a lifelong activist who has worked on human
    rights issues around the globe, I hold the view
    that the best representatives of a culture are its
    people; that people create their own history, and
    in the case of the colonized or the oppressed that
    history is often rewritten by the oppressor. I do
    not assume that simply because a country is
    communist or socialist or capitalist that its
    practices toward its own people or its foreign
    policies are more or less honorable; beyond all the
    rhetoric, the reality of a situation can always be
    measured by the affected people themselves.
    The Tibet issue is one that the far left has found
    to be somewhat of a conundrum, for the simple
    reason that most other popular human rights
    struggles can be easily linked to a larger struggle
    against U.S. or European imperialism. Therefore
    these struggles – be it in Palestine, or East
    Timor, or Colombia, fit nicely into the larger –
    and often rather myopic – worldview of the
    leftist.
    However, Tibet is a case in which the struggle for
    basic rights and nationhood is being carried out
    against a communist government, so it has
    brought with it a host of questions for the
    leftist, who naturally leans towards socialism or
    communism as an ideological example of a system
    that stands in contrast to the ‘imperialist west’.
    China, the country that invaded Tibet in 1950,
    has stood as one such example- though the
    Chinese government’s practices over the last 53
    years and its current bent towards totalitarian
    capitalism would tend to defy any labeling as a
    positive example. Nonetheless, China’s history of
    socialism and revolution remains as something of
    an inspiration for the Western left, and
    therefore certain historians- predominantly
    scholars with some form of Marxist or Maoist
    agenda- have seen the current popularity of the
    movement for Tibetan statehood and have taken
    it upon themselves to give a glimpse into the grim
    reality of ‘old Tibet.’
    The most recent historian to embrace this view of
    ‘old Tibet’ is Dr. Michael Parenti, a Yale scholar
    who, in the course of his career, has written on
    a variety of populist causes. To be fair, Parenti
    stops short -barely- of condoning the Chinese
    occupation. He does however, cast a decidedly
    unflattering view of life in pre-1950 Tibet.
    In his writing on Tibet, Parenti shares something
    in common with all of his predecessors -Anna
    Louise Strong, A. Tom Grunfeld, and Roma and
    Stuart
    Gelder among them- in that his writing on Tibet
    is essentially argumentative. He is not writing in
    order to give an unbiased history of a nation, he
    is writing in order to prove a point. In this case,
    the point he is trying to prove is that the society
    of ‘old Tibet’ was a terrible place, and that the
    resistance movement that is so visible today is
    essentially a movement to re-establish this
    despicable regime.
    In Parenti’s words, old Tibet was “a social order
    that was little more than a despotic retrograde
    theocracy of serfdom and poverty, so damaging
    to the human spirit, where vast wealth was
    accumulated by a favored few who lived high and
    mighty off the blood, sweat, and tears of the
    many. For most of the Tibetan aristocrats in
    exile, that is the world to which they fervently
    desire to return. It is a long way from Shangri-
    La.”
    I have chosen to dissect this thesis because it
    houses many of the common arguments presented
    by Chinese government propagandists on Tibet,
    as well as many of the arguments that modern
    day Marxists and Maoists regularly hurl at Tibet
    activists on internet chat rooms and at protests.
    As we will see, the flawed premise of this thesis
    illuminates how the far left has gone woefully off
    the mark in its efforts to undermine the
    legitimate struggle for Tibetan rights and
    statehood.
    Again, I am a firm believer in people’s history.
    And the core problem with Parenti’s position is
    that it is simply at odds with the statements,
    testimony, and shared history of the Tibetan
    people themselves – the people Parenti is
    supposedly defending. The view of Tibet that
    Parenti ascribes to has been commonly put
    forward by Chinese government officials –
    particularly the ones in the ministry of
    propaganda. Once upon a time it was a view
    embraced by a handful of British historians –
    most of them turn of the century explorers and
    colonists in their own right. But it has always
    been an outsider’s view, completely divorced from
    the reality of how Tibetans of all walks of life
    view their own society and their own history.
    In his descriptions of old Tibet, Parenti
    predominantly draws on the work of four
    historians – Anna Louise Strong, A. Tom
    Grunfeld, and Roma and Stuart Gelder. The fact
    that all of these historians had a romantic
    predilection towards Maoism and drew mostly on
    Chinese government statistics should surely be
    cause for concern as far as their legitimacy as
    source material. One certainly wouldn’t trust the
    Indonesian government’s party line on Aceh or
    East Timor. Or, for that matter, the U.S.
    government’s continued assertion that the Iraqi
    people welcome the current American occupation.
    Such manipulations of public sentiment, in which
    an occupation is presented as ‘the will of the
    people,’ are – as a rule – only employed to further
    the agenda of the occupier.
    For the most part, Parenti and the handful of
    historians who have adopted the view of old Tibet
    as a despotic feudal theocracy have had little if
    no contact with actual Tibetans either in or
    outside Tibet. Therefore, they have no real way
    of gauging the sentiments of the Tibetan people.
    Neither Parenti, Strong, Grunfeld, nor the
    Gelders speak Tibetan – or Chinese for that
    matter- so the body of historical literature on
    the Tibet issue that is available to them is
    extremely limited. Tom Grunfeld never went to
    Tibet until after his book was published. Anna
    Louise Strong – a diehard Marxist – was given a
    tightly monitored Chinese government tour of
    Lhasa and then went on to proclaim that “a
    million Tibetan serfs have stood up! They are
    burying the old serfdom and building a new
    tomorrow!” One might say that one doesn’t need
    to go to Paris to know the Eiffel tower exists.
    However, before dismissing an entire culture’s
    history as despotically repressive it is perhaps
    worth speaking to a few of its representatives.
    Instead, Grunfeld repeatedly draws on the
    writings of a handful of British colonial explorers,
    who – as explorers often do – wrote down every
    piece of suspicious folklore and hearsay as fact.
    Grunfeld’s source material for his depictions of
    Tibetans as cannibals, barbarians, and
    superstitious fanatics is no more credible than
    are the testimonials of early European explorers
    to Africa who spun yarns of three-headed
    natives. None of these depictions are
    corroborated by traditional Tibetan, Chinese, or
    Indian histories, which of course were not
    available to Grunfeld because of his lack of
    interest in learning the local language.
    Grunfeld also makes extensive use of the writings
    of Sir Charles Bell, who he quotes regularly and
    with no apparent regard for context. Bell’s
    stance was actually that Tibetans had been
    brutalized by the Chinese army and that Tibet
    was an independent nation of far greater
    ‘character’ than its neighbor. This seems to elude
    Grunfeld, who chops up Bell’s sentences in order
    to isolate the worst and most sensational aspects
    of Tibetan society and present them as fact.
    Grunfeld also makes cultural blunders that would
    make freshmen history students squirm. As
    award-winning author Jamyang Norbu points out
    in his brilliant essay The Acme of Obscenity ,
    Grunfeld even mistranslates the Tibetan word for
    ‘Tibet’!
    Parenti does little better in his treatment of
    history, erroneously stating that the first Dalai
    Lama was installed by ‘the Chinese army’. One
    would presume that a Yale Ph.D. would know the
    difference between Chinese and Mongols. But
    apparently, in the Parenti-Grunfeld-Strong
    school of history, one word is as good as another
    and a Chinese is as good as a Mongol, as long as
    the point gets across.
    With such evisceration of history as common
    practice it quickly becomes obvious that none
    these historians’ writings on Tibet exist to
    illuminate true Tibetan history. In fact, neither
    Grunfeld, nor Strong, nor Parenti seem remotely
    interested in the specifics of the culture they’re
    discussing.
    For example, as Tashi Rapgey points out in her
    dissection of Tom Grunfeld’s ‘Making of Modern
    Tibet’, the three social classes that Grunfeld and
    Strong lump Tibetans into – landowners, serfs,
    and slaves – have no relation to the actual
    breakdown of Tibetan society. It is a completely
    arbitrary classification that has no basis in
    reality-Tibetan society was never classified along
    these terms. Certainly a historian writing on the
    caste system in India would not reclassify Indian
    society according to their own liking or invent
    names to suit their own vision?
    There were indeed indentured farmers in old
    Tibet. There were also merchants, nomads,
    traders, non-indentured farmers, hunters,
    herders, warlords, bandits, monks, nuns,
    musicians, theater actors and artists. Tibetan
    society was a vast, multi-faceted affair, as
    societies tend to be. To reduce it to three base
    experiences – and non-representative experiences
    at that – is to engage in the worst form of
    reductionism.
    Not only are Strong and Grunfeld’s breakdowns of
    Tibetan society grossly
    miscategorized, their observations and criticisms
    are entirely removed from chronological and
    temporal reality. Folklore from hundreds of years
    ago, local myths, explorer’s whimsy, and selective
    historical incidents are presented all together as
    static truth. Every single bad thing, every
    monstrosity real or imagined that occurred in
    Tibet between 1447 and October 6, 1950 is ‘how it
    was’ in ‘old Tibet.’ Fundamentally, this is not
    history. It is the crudest form of argumentative
    politics, drawing on selective quotes from non-
    native history – quite often the history of the
    occupiers themselves – and presenting it as fact.
    In fact the entire notion of ‘old Tibet’ or Tibet
    under the Dalai Lamas as a static is erroneous.
    Life under the 13th Dalai Lama was drastically
    different that life under the 6th or the 5th. By
    the time the 13th Dalai Lama came along, for
    example, the Tibetan government had banned the
    death penalty – it was one of the first countries
    in the world to do so. But somehow, in the mind
    of Grunfeld and Parenti and Strong, Tibetans are
    to be held accountable for the actions of their
    distant predecessors.
    That there was an imbalance of wealth in Tibet is
    quite true (There still is, only now the Chinese
    are the wealthy ones). Tibetans waged war,
    robbed each other, had strict laws and engaged in
    corporal punishment like all societies have done
    at various points in their history. But what is
    insidious about highlighting solely these aspects
    of Tibetan society is that these historians –
    Strong and Grunfeld particularly; Parenti is
    somewhat excused from this particular outrage-
    seem to be using ‘how it was’ in ‘old Tibet’ as a
    justification for invasion and occupation, just as
    the United States used the ‘savagery’ of the
    native populations as an excuse for their
    liquidation. This is the politics of the colonist to
    the core, in which the native is dehumanized and
    debased in order to make occupation more
    palatable, even necessary, or ‘civilizing.’ Strong
    does not even conceal her glee at the ‘smashing’
    of old Tibet. Politics aside, its rather frightening
    to think of celebrating the demise of a culture
    that one hasn’t had any direct contact with,
    whose existence one has only read about in books.
    The romanticism that historians like Strong and
    Grunfeld hold for the Chinese invasion and
    occupation of Tibet and the smashing of the old
    ways is based on an inherently flawed
    presumption that the invasion was some kind of
    people’s revolution. The Chinese government line,
    which Strong and Grunfeld and even Parenti seem
    to have bought into -is that the Tibetan people,
    and particularly the Tibetan peasantry, welcomed
    the occupation and in fact that it was they
    themselves who ‘overthrew the landlords.’ Such a
    supposition has no basis in fact.
    The Chinese army rolled into Chamdo in Eastern
    Tibet in October of 1950 and decimated the 8,000-
    man Tibetan fighting force that was assembled to
    resist them. That there were Tibetans who
    initially greeted the arrival of the Chinese is
    without question; that these Tibetans were the
    vast minority is also without question. Legitimate
    histories of Tibet, such as Tsering Shakya’s
    ‘Dragon in the Land of Snows’ corroborate this
    fact.
    Whatever romantic picture the Chinese
    government’s propaganda department paints of
    enslaved peasants casting off the bonds of
    feudalism, there is little in the way of factual
    evidence to support this. Most of the evidence
    produced by Beijing comes in the form of
    testimonials recorded by party cadres, whose
    questionable nature as a source of objective
    information should not even have to be
    mentioned, especially coming from a government
    that excels in ‘extracting testimonials.’ These
    testimonials are written in such propaganda-
    speak that it is nearly impossible to read them
    with a straight face; even more impossible to
    imagine anyone actually uttering the words.
    Oddly enough, in contrast to the Chinese
    government line that it was the Tibetan
    peasantry who readily embraced communism,
    communism was in fact much more popular – as it
    is in this country – among the educated elite. The
    Tibetan communist party was a creation of sons
    of wealthy aristocrats; the Tibetan peasantry on
    the other hand were the ones who eventually
    formed the brunt of resistance to Chinese
    government rule.
    Whatever the case, Tibetan opinion towards
    Beijing quickly cooled after the signing of the
    17-point agreement in 1951, and certainly was
    not favorable by 1959, when a popular Tibetan
    uprising threatened China’s very grip on the
    nation. This resistance was for the most part
    carried out by Khampa tribesmen in Eastern
    Tibet, who had suffered some of the most brutal
    treatment at the hands of the Chinese
    government. That these fighters were for a time
    funded by the CIA does not – as Parenti seems to
    presume – represent some kind of trump card
    that de-legitimizes the aims, aspirations, and
    existence of the Tibetan resistance movement.
    The CIA used the Tibetans just as it has it used
    nationalist movements in dozens of countries
    around the world; with little thought for the local
    people and as a means of waging their own cold
    war. The Tibetan resistance fighters, who came
    from poor frontier villages in Eastern Tibet, were
    happy to have anyone on their side. They had no
    way of knowing the larger political framework
    that they had been sucked into. Ironically, it was
    the Dalai Lama who put an end to this resistance,
    by calling on the fighters to drop their arms and
    embrace nonviolent means of conflict resolution.
    As for the reality of the subsequent Chinese
    occupation, which every legitimate human rights
    organization in the world has labeled with terms
    like ‘cultural genocide’, it should hardly need
    further exposition. One of the most telling
    historical documents of the time is the Panchen
    Lama’s 70,000 word treatise to Chairman Mao on
    behalf of the Tibetan people. Not only is this
    document considered by serious historians to be
    one of the only reliable texts from that time
    period, it illuminates the extraordinary kow-
    towing that was necessary in order for even an
    elevated Chinese official such as the Panchen
    Lama to speak to Chairman Mao at that time.
    Apparently, Mao was not interested in listening
    to the day-to-day problems of the ‘serfs’ he
    ‘liberated’. The Panchen Lama was sent to prison
    for suggesting that people in Tibet were
    starving; the average Tibetan peasant who
    offered the same criticism to his local Chinese
    official did not fare nearly as well.
    In his article Parenti again quotes Tom Grunfeld
    – whose idealism of the cultural revolution should
    automatically remove him from use as an unbiased
    source of historical data on the Chinese
    occupation of Tibet – and asserts that ‘slavery
    and unpaid labor disappeared under Mao’. This
    sentence simply has no place in any legitimate
    historical writing. Perhaps Parenti would like to
    sit down and have a chat with the relatives of
    the thousands of Tibetans who were worked to
    death by Chinese soldiers at the infamous Borax
    mine in Changthang. I’ve met them myself, and
    they are far more deserving of a platform on
    Tibetan history and cultural issues than Parenti.
    Mao’s forced sedentarization of Tibetan nomads
    was certainly not a liberation; nor was the
    government-enforced switch to growing foreign
    cereal crops which resulted in widespread famine
    in many regions of Tibet.
    But again, the true testament to the fact that
    Tibetans have been far from content under
    Chinese rule lie in the actions of the people
    themselves. Ever since the Chinese invasion and
    occupation there has been substantial popular
    resistance to Chinese rule in Tibet. This
    resistance has taken many forms over the years –
    leafleting, public demonstration, mass non-
    cooperation, economic boycott, and armed
    uprising are all forms of protest have been
    practiced by Tibetans inside Tibet, at the risk of
    their own lives.
    The Chinese government has faced phenomenal
    opposition from the Tibetan people, certainly far
    more opposition than the Lhasa government ever
    faced from its own population, which does not do
    much to further the argument that ‘old Tibet’ was
    a terribly repressive society. Nor does the fact
    that Tibetan refugees continue pour out of Tibet
    at a rate never seen prior to 1959. In a classic
    case of uninformed conjecture, Parenti supposes
    that Tibetan refugees never left prior to 1959
    because the ‘systems of control’ were so deep and
    that Tibetans were ‘afraid of amputation’. Any
    quick glance at a map of Tibet, with its vast,
    unpatrolable borders, or any basic knowledge of
    the structure of Tibetan society would quickly
    reveal that Tibetans – should they have wanted
    to escape their ‘feudal masters’ – would have had
    little problem doing so.
    But perhaps there is no more telling testament to
    the Tibetan people’s sentiment towards their own
    culture than the fact that in the early 1980’s-
    when the Chinese government finally relaxed some
    of its draconian policies towards Tibet- the first
    thing Tibetans set about doing is rebuilding and
    repopulating monasteries – the very symbols of
    ‘old Tibet.’ The next thing they did was take to
    the streets and protest for freedom and for the
    Dalai Lama’s return. This is not the behavior of a
    people who are trying to cast off their old ways.
    It sounds more like a people who are trying to
    get their culture back.
    This brings up again the essential flaw in
    Parenti’s reasoning-it is not based on the
    experience of Tibetans. The actuality is that
    there is now and always has been a people’s
    movement of Tibetans- in fact the vast majority
    of Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet- who
    overwhelmingly support the Dalai Lama and more
    specifically are in favor of Tibetan statehood.
    This movement cannot simply be dismissed as
    incidental, or foreign-backed, or primarily
    aristocratic in nature. The argument that the
    Tibetan resistance is driven by aristocrats is
    fairly essential for Parenti et al because without
    it they would be forced to recognize the
    existence of this movement-and the existence of
    such a movement would suggest that perhaps the
    Tibetan people themselves are more enamored of
    the Dalai Lama than they ever were of Mao.
    The Tibetan resistance, both historically and
    currently, has been made up of Tibetans from
    across the social spectrum. The Khampa fighters
    in the late 50s and early 60s were certainly not
    aristocrats, nor was Thrinley Chodron, a nun who
    led a bloody resistance battle against Chinese
    forces in 1969. The Tibetans who took to the
    streets and were gunned down in the late 80s
    were not former aristocrats. Nor are the
    hundreds of Tibetans currently languishing in
    Drapchi prison for expressing their desire for
    statehood.
    Currently, there are over 150,000 Tibetans living
    in exile around the world. There are nomads-in-
    exile, farmers-in-exile, truck drivers-in-exile.
    To characterize this entire group as aristocrats
    or former aristocrats is ludicrous. In New York
    City alone, there are nearly 5,000 Tibetan
    refugees. I’m quite certain that Ngawang
    Rabgyal at the Office of Tibet, who is charged
    with helping this refugee community find jobs in
    the outer reaches of Queens, would raise an
    eyebrow at the description of Tibetan refugees
    as ‘aristocrats.’
    The notion that the Tibetan community in exile
    longs to return to a ‘Shangri-la’ and re-establish
    their aristocracy is a banal and uninformed
    argument that has nothing to do with the real
    and stated aspirations of the Tibetan freedom
    movement. First of all, Tibetans never called
    their country Shangri-La; it was an outsider,
    James Hilton, who first did that. They never saw
    their country as a paradise and the Tibetan
    community is certainly not seeking to reestablish
    the same political system that existed in
    pre-1959 Tibet (nor would it be possible). The
    Dalai Lama has all but abdicated his position as
    future leader of Tibet – despite the fact that
    98% of Tibetans both in and outside Tibet would
    elect him in a heartbeat – saying that he would
    rather attend to his religious duties than be a
    political leader. The Tibetan Kashag is now made
    up of democratically elected officials and the
    Tibetan Government-in-Exile –- which, whether
    Parenti cares to acknowledge their existence or
    not, is a legitimate entity charged with the
    welfare of 150,000 refugees – has already
    outlined a democratic structure for the future
    government of Tibet.
    The movement for Tibetan statehood permeates
    all segments of Tibetan society. Nomads in
    western Tibet, herders in Changtang, farmers in
    Amdo, merchants in Lhasa– the vast majority of
    Tibetans are vocal – as much as they can be –
    about their nationalist aspirations. Anyone who
    has spent time around Tibetans inside or outside
    Tibet knows this as fact. This fact does not have
    to be footnoted; it is experiential history.
    By way of personal testimony, before I ever
    became involved in the Tibetan political struggle I
    went to Tibet myself. I was there during a
    period of martial law and at certain sensitive
    locations I had to be escorted by Chinese guides,
    who made a half-hearted attempt to show me the
    ‘feudal torture chambers’ of old Tibet and a
    statue of a liberated serf ‘breaking the chains of
    bondage’; the guides barely seemed to believe it
    themselves. But even they could not produce
    Tibetan citizens who would rail against the Dalai
    Lama or speak of how they had ‘cast off the
    bonds of
    feudalism’. I know of no traveler to Tibet who
    has heard this type of testimony. There are
    Tibetans in government positions in Lhasa who
    will give you this line; and there are probably
    some Tibetans in Tibet who believe it. But again,
    for the vast majority of Tibetans, this is simply
    not part of the their experience. Get any Tibetan
    nomad, farmer, peasant, or monk a few hundred
    yards away from their local party cadre and the
    first thing they’ll do is ask for a picture of the
    Dalai Lama; the second thing they’ll do is ask you
    to help them free their country.
    And there’s the core of the matter: ‘old Tibet’,
    the Tibet that existed pre-1959, simply does not
    represent to the average Tibetan what it does to
    Michael Parenti, Tom Grunfeld, and Anna Louise
    Strong. Scholars like Parenti and Grunfeld and
    Strong, with limited source material and no
    firsthand experience, see old Tibet as a horrible
    place; but the bottom line is they’re not Tibetan.
    And if Tibetans themselves don’t see their past as
    a past of feudal lords and merciless repression,
    then do they really need scholars like Parenti to
    tell them what their past is all about?
    Saying debasing things about a culture is
    certainly not extraordinarily difficult; seen
    through the lens that Parenti and Grunfeld apply
    to Tibet, most if not all societies would come up
    short, as would many resistance movements. The
    real story then, is not what these historians have
    to say, but why they have chosen to say it in the
    way they say it.
    Many Tibetans do welcome commentary and
    criticism on aspects of their society; I have
    certainly been privy to many heated arguments
    on old Tibet and on the future direction of
    Tibetan politics. But that is because I have taken
    the time to really get to know Tibetan society.
    Perhaps what is most striking about the history
    that Parenti and Grunfeld and Strong present is
    the tone with which they speak of Tibetan
    culture, without ever having experienced it. The
    facts they deliver are clearly not being presented
    in order to help Tibetan people. They are fairly
    serious charges, and as objective as the authors
    pretend to be, these charges are delivered with
    venom.
    Oddly, Parenti – like Grunfeld – seems taken
    aback at the emotional response that his writing
    has evoked among Tibetans and their supporters.
    It would seem fairly obvious to anyone with any
    common sense that dismissing an entire culture –
    particularly one in dire peril -and making
    statements that run completely contrary to
    everything the vast majority of its people know
    from firsthand experience would illicit an
    emotional response. Perhaps these scholars are
    surprised because they have forgotten that words
    carry weight, and that their actions actually
    have tangible results in the real world. In the
    Tibet movement, the results have been clearly
    measurable – Tibetan activists, who should be
    focused on returning basic rights to a people
    whose lack of freedoms is documented by every
    major human rights organization in the world,
    instead find themselves in the position of having
    to defend the actions of a bygone society. Former
    torture victims are accosted by nineteen year old
    American college students who have never been to
    Tibet, never met a Tibetan, and surely never had
    anyone in their family tortured with electric
    cattle prods. This, for a people who are in a very
    real struggle for rights, is not only extremely
    upsetting, it serves to forward the agenda of
    their oppressor.
    It is no secret that the Chinese government
    views propaganda as a key weapon in its efforts
    to undermine the movement for Tibetan rights
    and statehood. Chinese state run media – whose
    use of manufactured and manipulated history is
    indisputable – regularly debases and assails
    Tibetan culture and specifically the Dalai Lama,
    who is dismissed with regularity – and relish. The
    Tibetan refugee population is treated with equal
    disdain, the Tibetan government-in-exile, which,
    again serves the very real function of looking
    after the welfare of 150,000 refugees and
    lobbying international institutions for rights and
    recognition, is dismissed entirely. Luckily for
    Tibetans, Beijing’s Orwellian rants about Tibet –
    labeling the Dalai Lama a “serpent” and “the chief
    villain” – have bordered on the hilarious. That is,
    until recently. Now the war of words has spilled
    over into more legitimate circles.
    Recognizing that Tibetans and the Tibetan
    struggle are generally well-perceived in the
    west, and seeking to win the war of perception,
    Beijing’s propaganda strategy has now grown,
    with regular meetings on external and internal
    Tibet-related propaganda. One key element of
    the new propaganda strategy is to make greater
    use of Tibet scholars, both Chinese and Western.
    In 2001 a leaked Chinese Government memo from
    the Chinese Communist Party’s Ninth Meeting on
    Tibet-Related External Propaganda stated
    “Effective use of Tibetologists and specialists is
    the core of our external propaganda struggle for
    public opinion on Tibet…”
    With this as the political backdrop, levying ill-
    researched and unsubstantiated charges at
    Tibetan culture – in fact the very charges often
    employed by their Chinese occupiers to
    delegitimize their entire society – is a dangerous
    game indeed. It is one thing to offer criticisms
    of a culture or religion that is not fighting for
    its very survival. It is quite another to rewrite
    the history of a people who are already the
    victims of a propaganda war at the hands of one
    of the largest propaganda machines in the world.
    What surprises me most about the far left’s
    flawed take on Tibet is how quickly a piece of
    propaganda turns into ‘scholarship,’ how a piece
    of hearsay becomes fact if given a footnote. Mao
    said ‘a lie told a hundred times becomes the
    truth.’ Sadly, in the case of the new Tibet
    ‘scholarship’, a lie footnoted once has already
    become truth. A pool of bad information now
    exists, ready for any scholar with an agenda to
    draw from and appear legitimate. Few will bother
    to look beneath the surface, at the highly
    questionable source of this information-colonists,
    oppressors, and outsiders, writing a history that
    they have no place writing. And what gets lost in
    the mix, as always, is the voice of the Tibetan
    people themselves.
    There is one statement in Parenti’s thesis that
    summarizes how completely disconnected he is
    from any kind of Tibetan reality. In his thesis,
    he states that old Tibet was a society that was
    ‘damaging to the human spirit.’ Any person who
    has spent any time with the Tibetan people would
    laugh at the irony. Being with Tibetans of all
    walks of life, inside and outside of Tibet, one is
    always struck by the incredible, contagious spirit
    of Tibetan culture. From the Khampa drinking
    songs to the picnics that are the preferred
    activity of all Tibetans, Tibetan society is known
    for its passion and exuberance. This spirit is
    something that grows directly from the culture
    that Parenti is so intent on debasing. This spirit
    is what the Chinese government has tried so
    desperately to crush – making the singing of
    freedom songs illegal and prohibiting traditional
    Tibetan festivals. The struggle against
    totalitarianism is precisely a struggle for spirit,
    and I’m willing to wager that a populist like Mr.
    Parenti would find far more joy drinking chang
    and singing songs with a party of exiled Tibetans
    than he ever would at a Chinese cadre meeting;
    sadly, he won’t ever get to find out. He’s chosen
    his bedfellows, and more power to him. In the end
    it is the Tibetan people who will be the arbiters
    of their own fate. By the time that fate is
    decided Parenti will be long gone, onto some other
    issue, and Tibetans will be no worse off because
    of it.

    Like

  25. A LIE REPEATED – THE FAR LEFT’S FLAWED
    HISTORY OF TIBET

    By Joshua Michael Schrei
    “A lie repeated a hundred times becomes the
    truth.”
    -Chairman Mao

    As a lifelong activist who has worked on human rights issues around the globe, I hold the view that the best representatives of a culture are its people; that people create their own history, and
    in the case of the colonized or the oppressed that history is often rewritten by the oppressor. I do not assume that simply because a country is communist or socialist or capitalist that its practices toward its own people or its foreign policies are more or less honorable; beyond all the
    rhetoric, the reality of a situation can always be
    measured by the affected people themselves.
    The Tibet issue is one that the far left has found to be somewhat of a conundrum, for the simple reason that most other popular human rights struggles can be easily linked to a larger struggle
    against U.S. or European imperialism. Therefore
    these struggles – be it in Palestine, or East Timor, or Colombia, fit nicely into the larger – and often rather myopic – worldview of the
    leftist.
    However, Tibet is a case in which the struggle for basic rights and nationhood is being carried out against a communist government, so it has brought with it a host of questions for the leftist, who naturally leans towards socialism or communism as an ideological example of a system that stands in contrast to the ‘imperialist west’.
    China, the country that invaded Tibet in 1950, has stood as one such example- though the Chinese government’s practices over the last 53 years and its current bent towards totalitarian capitalism would tend to defy any labeling as a
    positive example. Nonetheless, China’s history of socialism and revolution remains as something of an inspiration for the Western left, and therefore certain historians- predominantly
    scholars with some form of Marxist or Maoist agenda- have seen the current popularity of the movement for Tibetan statehood and have taken it upon themselves to give a glimpse into the grim
    reality of ‘old Tibet.’
    The most recent historian to embrace this view of ‘old Tibet’ is Dr. Michael Parenti, a Yale scholar who, in the course of his career, has written on a variety of populist causes. To be fair, Parenti stops short -barely- of condoning the Chinese
    occupation. He does however, cast a decidedly unflattering view of life in pre-1950 Tibet.
    In his writing on Tibet, Parenti shares something in common with all of his predecessors -Anna Louise Strong, A. Tom Grunfeld, and Roma and Stuart Gelder among them- in that his writing on Tibet is essentially argumentative. He is not writing in order to give an unbiased history of a nation, he is writing in order to prove a point. In this case, the point he is trying to prove is that the society of ‘old Tibet’ was a terrible place, and that the
    resistance movement that is so visible today is essentially a movement to re-establish this
    despicable regime.
    In Parenti’s words, old Tibet was “a social order that was little more than a despotic retrograde theocracy of serfdom and poverty, so damaging to the human spirit, where vast wealth was
    accumulated by a favored few who lived high and mighty off the blood, sweat, and tears of the many. For most of the Tibetan aristocrats in exile, that is the world to which they fervently desire to return. It is a long way from Shangri- La.”

    I have chosen to dissect this thesis because it houses many of the common arguments presented by Chinese government propagandists on Tibet, as well as many of the arguments that modern day Marxists and Maoists regularly hurl at Tibet activists on internet chat rooms and at protests.
    As we will see, the flawed premise of this thesis illuminates how the far left has gone woefully off the mark in its efforts to undermine the legitimate struggle for Tibetan rights and statehood.

    Again, I am a firm believer in people’s history. And the core problem with Parenti’s position is that it is simply at odds with the statements,
    testimony, and shared history of the Tibetan people themselves – the people Parenti is supposedly defending. The view of Tibet that Parenti ascribes to has been commonly put forward by Chinese government officials – particularly the ones in the ministry of
    propaganda. Once upon a time it was a view embraced by a handful of British historians –
    most of them turn of the century explorers and
    colonists in their own right. But it has always been an outsider’s view, completely divorced from the reality of how Tibetans of all walks of life view their own society and their own history.

    In his descriptions of old Tibet, Parenti predominantly draws on the work of four
    historians – Anna Louise Strong, A. Tom Grunfeld, and Roma and Stuart Gelder. The fact that all of these historians had a romantic
    predilection towards Maoism and drew mostly on Chinese government statistics should surely be cause for concern as far as their legitimacy as
    source material. One certainly wouldn’t trust the
    Indonesian government’s party line on Aceh or East Timor. Or, for that matter, the U.S. government’s continued assertion that the Iraqi people welcome the current American occupation.
    Such manipulations of public sentiment, in which an occupation is presented as ‘the will of the people,’ are – as a rule – only employed to further the agenda of the occupier.
    For the most part, Parenti and the handful of historians who have adopted the view of old Tibet as a despotic feudal theocracy have had little if
    no contact with actual Tibetans either in or outside Tibet. Therefore, they have no real way of gauging the sentiments of the Tibetan people.
    Neither Parenti, Strong, Grunfeld, nor the Gelders speak Tibetan – or Chinese for that matter- so the body of historical literature on the Tibet issue that is available to them is extremely limited. Tom Grunfeld never went to
    Tibet until after his book was published. Anna Louise Strong – a diehard Marxist – was given a tightly monitored Chinese government tour of
    Lhasa and then went on to proclaim that “a million Tibetan serfs have stood up! They are burying the old serfdom and building a new
    tomorrow!” One might say that one doesn’t need to go to Paris to know the Eiffel tower exists.
    However, before dismissing an entire culture’s history as despotically repressive it is perhaps worth speaking to a few of its representatives.
    Instead, Grunfeld repeatedly draws on the writings of a handful of British colonial explorers, who – as explorers often do – wrote down every
    piece of suspicious folklore and hearsay as fact.
    Grunfeld’s source material for his depictions of Tibetans as cannibals, barbarians, and
    superstitious fanatics is no more credible than are the testimonials of early European explorers
    to Africa who spun yarns of three-headed natives. None of these depictions are
    corroborated by traditional Tibetan, Chinese, or Indian histories, which of course were not available to Grunfeld because of his lack of interest in learning the local language.
    Grunfeld also makes extensive use of the writings
    of Sir Charles Bell, who he quotes regularly and with no apparent regard for context. Bell’s stance was actually that Tibetans had been brutalized by the Chinese army and that Tibet was an independent nation of far greater ‘character’ than its neighbor. This seems to elude Grunfeld, who chops up Bell’s sentences in order to isolate the worst and most sensational aspects
    of Tibetan society and present them as fact.
    Grunfeld also makes cultural blunders that would make freshmen history students squirm. As award-winning author Jamyang Norbu points out in his brilliant essay The Acme of Obscenity , Grunfeld even mistranslates the Tibetan word for ‘Tibet’!

    Parenti does little better in his treatment of history, erroneously stating that the first Dalai Lama was installed by ‘the Chinese army’. One
    would presume that a Yale Ph.D. would know the
    difference between Chinese and Mongols. But apparently, in the Parenti-Grunfeld-Strong school of history, one word is as good as another
    and a Chinese is as good as a Mongol, as long as the point gets across.
    With such evisceration of history as common practice it quickly becomes obvious that none these historians’ writings on Tibet exist to
    illuminate true Tibetan history. In fact, neither
    Grunfeld, nor Strong, nor Parenti seem remotely interested in the specifics of the culture they’re discussing.

    For example, as Tashi Rapgey points out in her dissection of Tom Grunfeld’s ‘Making of Modern Tibet’, the three social classes that Grunfeld and Strong lump Tibetans into – landowners, serfs, and slaves – have no relation to the actual breakdown of Tibetan society. It is a completely arbitrary classification that has no basis in reality-Tibetan society was never classified along these terms. Certainly a historian writing on the
    caste system in India would not reclassify Indian society according to their own liking or invent names to suit their own vision?

    There were indeed indentured farmers in old Tibet. There were also merchants, nomads,
    traders, non-indentured farmers, hunters, herders, warlords, bandits, monks, nuns, musicians, theater actors and artists. Tibetan
    society was a vast, multi-faceted affair, as societies tend to be. To reduce it to three base experiences – and non-representative experiences at that – is to engage in the worst form of
    reductionism.

    Not only are Strong and Grunfeld’s breakdowns of
    Tibetan society grossly
    miscategorized, their observations and criticisms are entirely removed from chronological and temporal reality. Folklore from hundreds of years ago, local myths, explorer’s whimsy, and selective historical incidents are presented all together as
    static truth. Every single bad thing, every monstrosity real or imagined that occurred in
    Tibet between 1447 and October 6, 1950 is ‘how it
    was’ in ‘old Tibet.’
    Fundamentally, this is not
    history. It is the crudest form of argumentative politics, drawing on selective quotes from non- native history – quite often the history of the occupiers themselves – and presenting it as fact.
    In fact the entire notion of ‘old Tibet’ or Tibet under the Dalai Lamas as a static is erroneous.
    Life under the 13th Dalai Lama was drastically different that life under the 6th or the 5th. By the time the 13th Dalai Lama came along, for example, the Tibetan government had banned the death penalty – it was one of the first countries in the world to do so. But somehow, in the mind
    of Grunfeld and Parenti and Strong, Tibetans are to be held accountable for the actions of their distant predecessors.

    That there was an imbalance of wealth in Tibet is quite true (There still is, only now the Chinese are the wealthy ones). Tibetans waged war,
    robbed each other, had strict laws and engaged in corporal punishment like all societies have done at various points in their history. But what is
    insidious about highlighting solely these aspects of Tibetan society is that these historians – Strong and Grunfeld particularly; Parenti is somewhat excused from this particular outrage-
    seem to be using ‘how it was’ in ‘old Tibet’ as a justification for invasion and occupation, just as the United States used the ‘savagery’ of the native populations as an excuse for their liquidation. This is the politics of the colonist to the core, in which the native is dehumanized and debased in order to make occupation more palatable, even necessary, or ‘civilizing.’

    Strong does not even conceal her glee at the ‘smashing’ of old Tibet. Politics aside, its rather frightening to think of celebrating the demise of a culture that one hasn’t had any direct contact with, whose existence one has only read about in books.
    The romanticism that historians like Strong and
    Grunfeld hold for the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet and the smashing of the old ways is based on an inherently flawed presumption that the invasion was some kind of people’s revolution. The Chinese government line, which Strong and Grunfeld and even Parenti seem to have bought into -is that the Tibetan people, and particularly the Tibetan peasantry, welcomed
    the occupation and in fact that it was they themselves who ‘overthrew the landlords.’ Such a
    supposition has no basis in fact.

    The Chinese army rolled into Chamdo in Eastern Tibet in October of 1950 and decimated the 8,000- man Tibetan fighting force that was assembled to resist them. That there were Tibetans who
    initially greeted the arrival of the Chinese is without question; that these Tibetans were the vast minority is also without question. Legitimate
    histories of Tibet, such as Tsering Shakya’s ‘Dragon in the Land of Snows’ corroborate this fact.

    Whatever romantic picture the Chinese government’s propaganda department paints of enslaved peasants casting off the bonds of
    feudalism, there is little in the way of factual evidence to support this. Most of the evidence produced by Beijing comes in the form of
    testimonials recorded by party cadres, whose questionable nature as a source of objective
    information should not even have to be mentioned, especially coming from a government that excels in ‘extracting testimonials.’ These testimonials are written in such propaganda-
    speak that it is nearly impossible to read them with a straight face; even more impossible to imagine anyone actually uttering the words.
    Oddly enough, in contrast to the Chinese government line that it was the Tibetan
    peasantry who readily embraced communism,
    communism was in fact much more popular – as it is in this country – among the educated elite. The Tibetan communist party was a creation of sons
    of wealthy aristocrats; the Tibetan peasantry on the other hand were the ones who eventually formed the brunt of resistance to Chinese
    government rule.

    Whatever the case, Tibetan opinion towards Beijing quickly cooled after the signing of the 17-point agreement in 1951, and certainly was not favorable by 1959, when a popular Tibetan uprising threatened China’s very grip on the
    nation. This resistance was for the most part carried out by Khampa tribesmen in Eastern Tibet, who had suffered some of the most brutal treatment at the hands of the Chinese government. That these fighters were for a time funded by the CIA does not – as Parenti seems to presume – represent some kind of trump card that de-legitimizes the aims, aspirations, and existence of the Tibetan resistance movement.

    The CIA used the Tibetans just as it has it used nationalist movements in dozens of countries around the world; with little thought for the local people and as a means of waging their own cold war. The Tibetan resistance fighters, who came from poor frontier villages in Eastern Tibet, were happy to have anyone on their side. They had no way of knowing the larger political framework that they had been sucked into. Ironically, it was the Dalai Lama who put an end to this resistance, by calling on the fighters to drop their arms and embrace nonviolent means of conflict resolution.

    As for the reality of the subsequent Chinese occupation, which every legitimate human rights
    organization in the world has labeled with terms like ‘cultural genocide’, it should hardly need further exposition. One of the most telling historical documents of the time is the Panchen
    Lama’s 70,000 word treatise to Chairman Mao on behalf of the Tibetan people. Not only is this document considered by serious historians to be
    one of the only reliable texts from that time period, it illuminates the extraordinary kow- towing that was necessary in order for even an elevated Chinese official such as the Panchen Lama to speak to Chairman Mao at that time.
    Apparently, Mao was not interested in listening to the day-to-day problems of the ‘serfs’ he ‘liberated’. The Panchen Lama was sent to prison for suggesting that people in Tibet were starving; the average Tibetan peasant who offered the same criticism to his local Chinese
    official did not fare nearly as well.

    In his article Parenti again quotes Tom Grunfeld
    – whose idealism of the cultural revolution should
    automatically remove him from use as an unbiased source of historical data on the Chinese occupation of Tibet – and asserts that ‘slavery and unpaid labor disappeared under Mao’. This
    sentence simply has no place in any legitimate historical writing. Perhaps Parenti would like to sit down and have a chat with the relatives of the thousands of Tibetans who were worked to death by Chinese soldiers at the infamous Borax mine in Changthang. I’ve met them myself, and they are far more deserving of a platform on
    Tibetan history and cultural issues than Parenti.

    Mao’s forced sedentarization of Tibetan nomads was certainly not a liberation; nor was the government-enforced switch to growing foreign cereal crops which resulted in widespread famine
    in many regions of Tibet.
    But again, the true testament to the fact that
    Tibetans have been far from content under Chinese rule lie in the actions of the people
    themselves. Ever since the Chinese invasion and
    occupation there has been substantial popular resistance to Chinese rule in Tibet. This resistance has taken many forms over the years – leafleting, public demonstration, mass non-
    cooperation, economic boycott, and armed uprising are all forms of protest have been practiced by Tibetans inside Tibet, at the risk of
    their own lives.

    The Chinese government has faced phenomenal opposition from the Tibetan people, certainly far more opposition than the Lhasa government ever faced from its own population, which does not do
    much to further the argument that ‘old Tibet’ was
    a terribly repressive society. Nor does the fact that Tibetan refugees continue pour out of Tibet at a rate never seen prior to 1959. In a classic case of uninformed conjecture, Parenti supposes
    that Tibetan refugees never left prior to 1959 because the ‘systems of control’ were so deep and that Tibetans were ‘afraid of amputation’. Any
    quick glance at a map of Tibet, with its vast, unpatrolable borders, or any basic knowledge of the structure of Tibetan society would quickly reveal that Tibetans – should they have wanted to escape their ‘feudal masters’ – would have had little problem doing so.

    But perhaps there is no more telling testament to the Tibetan people’s sentiment towards their own culture than the fact that in the early 1980’s- when the Chinese government finally relaxed some of its draconian policies towards Tibet- the first thing Tibetans set about doing is rebuilding and
    repopulating monasteries – the very symbols of ‘old Tibet.’ The next thing they did was take to the streets and protest for freedom and for the Dalai Lama’s return. This is not the behavior of a people who are trying to cast off their old ways.
    It sounds more like a people who are trying to get their culture back.

    This brings up again the essential flaw in Parenti’s reasoning-it is not based on the experience of Tibetans. The actuality is that there is now and always has been a people’s movement of Tibetans- in fact the vast majority of Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet- who
    overwhelmingly support the Dalai Lama and more specifically are in favor of Tibetan statehood.
    This movement cannot simply be dismissed as incidental, or foreign-backed, or primarily
    aristocratic in nature. The argument that the Tibetan resistance is driven by aristocrats is fairly essential for Parenti et al because without it they would be forced to recognize the
    existence of this movement-and the existence of such a movement would suggest that perhaps the Tibetan people themselves are more enamored of the Dalai Lama than they ever were of Mao.
    The Tibetan resistance, both historically and currently, has been made up of Tibetans from across the social spectrum. The Khampa fighters in the late 50s and early 60s were certainly not
    aristocrats, nor was Thrinley Chodron, a nun who led a bloody resistance battle against Chinese forces in 1969. The Tibetans who took to the streets and were gunned down in the late 80s
    were not former aristocrats. Nor are the hundreds of Tibetans currently languishing in Drapchi prison for expressing their desire for statehood.

    Currently, there are over 150,000 Tibetans living in exile around the world. There are nomads-in- exile, farmers-in-exile, truck drivers-in-exile.
    To characterize this entire group as aristocrats or former aristocrats is ludicrous. In New York
    City alone, there are nearly 5,000 Tibetan refugees. I’m quite certain that Ngawang
    Rabgyal at the Office of Tibet, who is charged with helping this refugee community find jobs in
    the outer reaches of Queens, would raise an eyebrow at the description of Tibetan refugees as ‘aristocrats.’

    The notion that the Tibetan community in exile longs to return to a ‘Shangri-la’ and re-establish their aristocracy is a banal and uninformed
    argument that has nothing to do with the real and stated aspirations of the Tibetan freedom movement. First of all, Tibetans never called
    their country Shangri-La; it was an outsider, James Hilton, who first did that. They never saw their country as a paradise and the Tibetan
    community is certainly not seeking to reestablish the same political system that existed in pre-1959 Tibet (nor would it be possible). The
    Dalai Lama has all but abdicated his position as
    future leader of Tibet – despite the fact that 98% of Tibetans both in and outside Tibet would elect him in a heartbeat – saying that he would rather attend to his religious duties than be a
    political leader. The Tibetan Kashag is now made up of democratically elected officials and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile –- which, whether Parenti cares to acknowledge their existence or not, is a legitimate entity charged with the welfare of 150,000 refugees – has already
    outlined a democratic structure for the future
    government of Tibet.

    The movement for Tibetan statehood permeates all segments of Tibetan society. Nomads in western Tibet, herders in Changtang, farmers in Amdo, merchants in Lhasa– the vast majority of Tibetans are vocal – as much as they can be –about their nationalist aspirations. Anyone who has spent time around Tibetans inside or outside Tibet knows this as fact. This fact does not have
    to be footnoted; it is experiential history.

    By way of personal testimony, before I ever became involved in the Tibetan political struggle I went to Tibet myself. I was there during a
    period of martial law and at certain sensitive locations I had to be escorted by Chinese guides, who made a half-hearted attempt to show me the ‘feudal torture chambers’ of old Tibet and a statue of a liberated serf ‘breaking the chains of bondage’; the guides barely seemed to believe it
    themselves. But even they could not produce Tibetan citizens who would rail against the Dalai Lama or speak of how they had ‘cast off the bonds of feudalism’. I know of no traveler to Tibet who has heard this type of testimony. There are
    Tibetans in government positions in Lhasa who will give you this line; and there are probably some Tibetans in Tibet who believe it. But again, for the vast majority of Tibetans, this is simply
    not part of the their experience. Get any Tibetan
    nomad, farmer, peasant, or monk a few hundred yards away from their local party cadre and the first thing they’ll do is ask for a picture of the Dalai Lama; the second thing they’ll do is ask you
    to help them free their country.

    And there’s the core of the matter: ‘old Tibet’, the Tibet that existed pre-1959, simply does not represent to the average Tibetan what it does to Michael Parenti, Tom Grunfeld, and Anna Louise
    Strong. Scholars like Parenti and Grunfeld and Strong, with limited source material and no firsthand experience, see old Tibet as a horrible
    place; but the bottom line is they’re not Tibetan.
    And if Tibetans themselves don’t see their past as a past of feudal lords and merciless repression, then do they really need scholars like Parenti to tell them what their past is all about?
    Saying debasing things about a culture is certainly not extraordinarily difficult; seen
    through the lens that Parenti and Grunfeld apply
    to Tibet, most if not all societies would come up short, as would many resistance movements. The
    real story then, is not what these historians have to say, but why they have chosen to say it in the way they say it.
    Many Tibetans do welcome commentary and criticism on aspects of their society; I have certainly been privy to many heated arguments
    on old Tibet and on the future direction of Tibetan politics. But that is because I have taken the time to really get to know Tibetan society.

    Perhaps what is most striking about the history that Parenti and Grunfeld and Strong present is the tone with which they speak of Tibetan culture, without ever having experienced it. The
    facts they deliver are clearly not being presented in order to help Tibetan people. They are fairly serious charges, and as objective as the authors pretend to be, these charges are delivered with
    venom.

    Oddly, Parenti – like Grunfeld – seems taken aback at the emotional response that his writing has evoked among Tibetans and their supporters. It would seem fairly obvious to anyone with any common sense that dismissing an entire culture –
    particularly one in dire peril -and making statements that run completely contrary to
    everything the vast majority of its people know from firsthand experience would illicit an emotional response. Perhaps these scholars are
    surprised because they have forgotten that words carry weight, and that their actions actually have tangible results in the real world. In the Tibet movement, the results have been clearly measurable – Tibetan activists, who should be focused on returning basic rights to a people whose lack of freedoms is documented by every major human rights organization in the world,
    instead find themselves in the position of having to defend the actions of a bygone society. Former torture victims are accosted by nineteen year old American college students who have never been to Tibet, never met a Tibetan, and surely never had anyone in their family tortured with electric
    cattle prods. This, for a people who are in a very real struggle for rights, is not only extremely upsetting, it serves to forward the agenda of their oppressor.

    It is no secret that the Chinese government views propaganda as a key weapon in its efforts to undermine the movement for Tibetan rights and statehood. Chinese state run media – whose use of manufactured and manipulated history is indisputable – regularly debases and assails Tibetan culture and specifically the Dalai Lama, who is dismissed with regularity – and relish. The Tibetan refugee population is treated with equal disdain, the Tibetan government-in-exile, which,
    again serves the very real function of looking after the welfare of 150,000 refugees and lobbying international institutions for rights and
    recognition, is dismissed entirely. Luckily for Tibetans, Beijing’s Orwellian rants about Tibet – labeling the Dalai Lama a “serpent” and “the chief villain” – have bordered on the hilarious. That is, until recently. Now the war of words has spilled
    over into more legitimate circles.

    Recognizing that Tibetans and the Tibetan struggle are generally well-perceived in the west, and seeking to win the war of perception, Beijing’s propaganda strategy has now grown, with regular meetings on external and internal Tibet-related propaganda. One key element of the new propaganda strategy is to make greater
    use of Tibet scholars, both Chinese and Western.
    In 2001 a leaked Chinese Government memo from the Chinese Communist Party’s Ninth Meeting on Tibet-Related External Propaganda stated “Effective use of Tibetologists and specialists is
    the core of our external propaganda struggle for public opinion on Tibet…”
    With this as the political backdrop, levying ill-
    researched and unsubstantiated charges at
    Tibetan culture – in fact the very charges often employed by their Chinese occupiers to
    delegitimize their entire society – is a dangerous game indeed. It is one thing to offer criticisms of a culture or religion that is not fighting for its very survival. It is quite another to rewrite
    the history of a people who are already the victims of a propaganda war at the hands of one of the largest propaganda machines in the world.

    What surprises me most about the far left’s flawed take on Tibet is how quickly a piece of
    propaganda turns into ‘scholarship,’ how a piece
    of hearsay becomes fact if given a footnote. Mao said ‘a lie told a hundred times becomes the truth.’ Sadly, in the case of the new Tibet
    ‘scholarship’, a lie footnoted once has already become truth. A pool of bad information now exists, ready for any scholar with an agenda to draw from and appear legitimate. Few will bother to look beneath the surface, at the highly
    questionable source of this information-colonists,
    oppressors, and outsiders, writing a history that they have no place writing. And what gets lost in the mix, as always, is the voice of the Tibetan people themselves.

    There is one statement in Parenti’s thesis that summarizes how completely disconnected he is from any kind of Tibetan reality. In his thesis, he states that old Tibet was a society that was
    ‘damaging to the human spirit.’ Any person who has spent any time with the Tibetan people would laugh at the irony. Being with Tibetans of all walks of life, inside and outside of Tibet, one is always struck by the incredible, contagious spirit of Tibetan culture. From the Khampa drinking songs to the picnics that are the preferred activity of all Tibetans, Tibetan society is known for its passion and exuberance. This spirit is something that grows directly from the culture that Parenti is so intent on debasing. This spirit is what the Chinese government has tried so desperately to crush – making the singing of freedom songs illegal and prohibiting traditional Tibetan festivals. The struggle against totalitarianism is precisely a struggle for spirit, and I’m willing to wager that a populist like Mr. Parenti would find far more joy drinking chang and singing songs with a party of exiled Tibetans than he ever would at a Chinese cadre meeting; sadly, he won’t ever get to find out. He’s chosen his bedfellows, and more power to him. In the end it is the Tibetan people who will be the arbiters of their own fate. By the time that fate is decided Parenti will be long gone, onto some other issue, and Tibetans will be no worse off because of it.

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  26. If you have heard the story about Chinese beggar eating their own dead child told by Dalai Lama, I am sure that you won’t treat him as a saint. I understand why he hates China, but his action of hatred demonstrates he is just like you and me and not any holier than average person. Many westerners tend to worship some so called eastern holy men without knowing much of their background and society they are from. It can become scandalous when their true character comes out.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. To “HH” and other Tibetens: Stop turning a blind eye to crimes done to westerners by Tibetens and/ore in Tibetan Buddhism. If you dont stop.. , why should anybody care about crimes done to the Tibetans, about freeing Tibet, ” HH” going back to Tibet, ore weather you live ore die ?

    Like

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