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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Who Are the Good guys?

June 1, 2008

The International Herald Tribune
By Slavoj Zizek
May 30, 2008

This article first appeared in Le Monde diplomatique. Distributed by
Agence Global.

All the media reports impose an image that goes like this: The
People's Republic of China, which illegally occupied Tibet in 1950,
engaged for decades in brutal and systematic destruction not only of
the Tibetan religion, but of the identity of Tibetans as a free
people. Recently the protests of the Tibetan people against Chinese
occupation were again crushed with brutal police and military force.
Since China is organizing the 2008 Olympic Games, it is the duty of
all of us who love democracy and freedom to put pressure on China to
return to the Tibetans what it stole from them. A country with such a
dismal human rights record cannot be allowed to whitewash its image
with the noble Olympic spectacle.

What are our governments going to do? Will they, as usual, cede to
economic pragmatism, or will they gather the strength to put our
highest ethical and political values above short-term economic interests?

While the Chinese authorities did no doubt commit many acts of
murderous terror and destruction in Tibet, some things disturb this
simple "good guys versus bad guys" image. Here are some points that
anyone passing judgment on recent events in Tibet should bear in mind:

Tibet, an independent country until 1950, was not suddenly occupied
by China. The history of its relations with China is long and
complex, with China often acting as a protective overlord - the
anti-Communist Kuomintang also insisted on Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

Before 1950, Tibet was no Shangri-la, but a country of harsh
feudalism, poverty (life expectancy was barely 30), corruption and
civil wars (The last, between two monastic factions, was in 1948 when
the Red Army was already knocking at the door).

Fearing social unrest and disintegration, the ruling elite prohibited
any development of industry, so all metal had to be imported from
India. This did not prevent the elite from sending their children to
British schools in India and transferring financial assets to British
banks there.

The Cultural Revolution that ravaged the Tibetan monasteries in the
1960s was not imported by the Chinese. Fewer than a hundred of the
Red Guards came to Tibet with the revolution, and the young mobs
burning the monasteries were almost exclusively Tibetan.

Since the early 1950s, there has been systematic and substantial CIA
involvement in stirring up anti-Chinese troubles in Tibet, so Chinese
fears of external attempts to destabilize Tibet are not irrational.

As television images show, what is going on now in Tibetan regions is
no longer a peaceful "spiritual" protest of monks as in Burma over
the last year, but also gangs burning and killing ordinary Chinese
immigrants and their stores. We should measure the Tibetan protests
by the same standards as we measure other violent protests: If
Tibetans can attack Chinese immigrants, why can't the Palestinians do
the same to the Israeli settlers on the West Bank?

The Chinese invested heavily in Tibetan economic development, as well
as infrastructure, education and health services. Despite undeniable
oppression, the average Tibetan has never enjoyed such a standard of
living as today. Poverty is now worse in China's own undeveloped
western rural provinces than in Tibet.

In recent years, the Chinese changed their strategy in Tibet:
De-politicized religion is now tolerated, often even supported. The
Chinese rely more on ethnic and economic colonization, rapidly
transforming Lhasa into a Chinese capitalist Wild West with karaoke
bars and Disney-like "Buddhist theme parks" for Western tourists.

What the media image of brutal Chinese soldiers and policemen
terrorizing the Buddhist monks conceals is a far more effective
American-style socioeconomic transformation. In a decade or two,
Tibetans will be reduced to the status of Native Americans in the
United States.

It seems the Chinese Communists finally learned the lesson: What is
the oppressive power of secret police, camps and Red Guards
destroying ancient monuments, compared to the power of unbridled
capitalism to undermine all traditional social relations? The Chinese
are doing what the West has always done, as Brazil did in the Amazon
or Russia in Siberia, and the United States on its own western frontiers.

A main reason why so many in the West have taken part in the protests
against China is ideological: Tibetan Buddhism, deftly spun by the
Dalai Lama, is a major point of reference of the New Age hedonist
spirituality that is becoming the predominant form of ideology today.
Our fascination with Tibet makes it into a mythic place upon which we
project our dreams. When people mourn the loss of the authentic
Tibetan way of life, they don't care about real Tibetans: They want
Tibetans to be authentically spiritual on behalf of us so we can
continue with our crazy consumerism.

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote: "If you are snagged in
another's dream, you are lost." The protesters against China are
right to counter the Beijing Olympics motto of "one world, one dream"
with "one world, many dreams." But they should be aware that they are
imprisoning Tibetans in their own dream. It is not the only dream.

If there is an ominous dimension to what is going on now in China, it
is elsewhere. Faced with today's explosion of capitalism in China,
analysts often ask when political democracy, as the "natural"
political accompaniment of capitalism, will come.

In a television interview a couple of years ago, the sociologist Ralf
Dahrendorf linked the growing distrust of democracy in post-Communist
East European countries to the fact that, after every revolutionary
change, the road to new prosperity leads through a valley of tears.

After the breakdown of socialism, one cannot directly pass to the
abundance of a successful market economy. The limited but real
socialist welfare and security have to be dismantled, and these first
steps are necessarily painful.

For Dahrendorf, this painful passage lasts longer than the average
period between (democratic) elections, so that the temptation is
great to postpone the difficult changes for the short-term electoral
gains. Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, pointed out
that democracy can only catch on in economically developed countries:
If developing countries are prematurely democratized, the result is a
populism that ends in economic catastrophe and political despotism.

No wonder the three formerly Third World countries that are the most
successful economically - Taiwan, South Korea, Chile - embraced full
democracy only after a period of authoritarian rule.

There is a further paradox: What if the promised democratic second
stage that follows the authoritarian valley of tears never comes?
This is the most unsettling thing about China. There is the suspicion
that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a reminder of our
past, the repetition of the process of capitalist accumulation, which
in Europe went on from the 16th to the 18th century, but a sign of the future.

What if the "vicious combination of the Asian knout and the European
stock market" proves economically more efficient than our liberal
capitalism? Might it signal that democracy, as we understand it, is
no longer a condition and motor of economic development, but an obstacle?

Slavoj Zizek is a philosopher at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.
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