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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Letter from China: Separating fact from image on Tibet

October 29, 2007

International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
October 26, 2007

SHANGHAI: As a Congressional Gold Medal was bestowed upon him in Washington recently, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California called him "a shining light for all those fighting for freedom around the world."

For an angry Zhang Qingli, the Communist Party boss of the Tibet Autonomous Region, he was "a person who seeks to split up his country, and doesn't even recognize his country."

The man, of course, is the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, who has lived in exile for nearly 50 years now, since fleeing his homeland in 1959.

One is tempted to ask how, after all these years, such divergent views persist. Zhang, sputtering in indignation over Washington's reception of the Tibetan spiritual leader, even went so far as to assert: "If the Dalai

Lama can receive such an award, there must be no justice or good people in the world."

One suspects that "the world outside of China," where the state is able to maintain perfectly rigid orthodoxy on the Tibet question, is what he really meant to say. Here, the view on Tibet and the Dalai Lama is clear

and leaves no room for discussion: Tibet has always been China's, period. And anyone who says differently is a vile "splittist."

Compared to this, the common American view of Tibet is toxin-free, which is not to say unproblematic. For outsiders, Tibet is reduced to a magical kingdom, and the red-robed Dalai Lama, with his ever-smiling

countenance and his wise and gentle homilies, fits perfectly.

Hollywood, which did much to create this image, has summarized it better than anyone, as in the opening words of Martin Scorcese's 1997 film "Kundun," which claims: "Tibetans have practiced nonviolence for over a

thousand years."

Tibet was heaven on earth until the Chinese Army stormed the place and took it over in 1950, in a campaign mapped out by Deng Xiaoping himself, according to this view, which conveys more hagiography than


With the possible exception of China's insistent claim that it has always controlled the place, nothing could be further from the truth.

As with most long-running disputes, the facts that underpin the Tibetan question are full of nuance and subject to competing interpretations. That no major party to this situation has been particularly generous in

acknowledging this has only reinforced the overall air of intractability.

China's rulers, accustomed to controlling the flow of information and ideas, and hence how history is taught, skim over - or edit out - parts of Tibet's past that are inconvenient to their narrative.

Tibet's formation as a recognizable nation began as far back as the fourth century. In the early seventh century, Tibetans, under Songtsen Gampo, converted to Buddhism and adopted a written language based on the

Ranjana script - both imported from India, it is worth noting.

Tibetans came to control much of their region, including parts of Nepal, Burma, India and present-day Xinjiang (China), and they did it the old-fashioned way, through warfare. They pointedly refused to defer to Tang

Dynasty emperors, and in the late eighth century even briefly captured Changan, the Chinese capital, leading to the negotiation of borders between the two states.

Effective Chinese control over Tibet didn't come until the late 18th century and even then was mostly supervisory. Early in the last century, even that began to fall apart, as did China's hold on other parts of its


To enhance their position in India, the British worked intermittently to reinforce the de facto Tibetan state, which China wiped out in 1950 amid since-flouted promises of "broad autonomy," and an understanding of this

leads to the second important acknowledgement.

Chinese insecurity is driven, and understandably so, by the involvement of Western powers on its periphery. Even as the People's Liberation Army marched into Tibet, Chinese troops were girding to repulse the United

States from the Korean peninsula.

Where President Truman saw Communism on the march, China's eyes were fixed on another prize: ending a so-called century of humiliation, which required establishing buffers of its own. The Dalai Lama's popularity

in the West arouses Chinese suspicions for much the same reason.

The third unpleasant fact is the ugly record of feudal rule by Tibetan lamas, which China naturally enjoys highlighting.

"Do you know how cruel the lamaism was?" asked Lu Xiuzhang, Tibet's former deputy chief of propaganda. "People were dismembered to be served up in ceremonies, and ordinary people were slaves." The

characterization may not be the fairest, but the man has a point.

Under Communist rule, though, this country committed widespread abominations of its own in Tibet, killing monks, destroying temples and causing famine, yet the only account you can get is of the march of progress

as investment pours in.

"Even though the Dalai Lama has agreed to give up the request for Tibet's independence, there's been no breakthrough," said Wang Lixiong, a Chinese author whose writing about the country's western regions have

caused his arrest. "China really doesn't have any intention to solve this issue."

Wang, like many others, believes China is content to play a game that involves meeting with delegations of exiled Tibetans when the demands of public relations require it, while patiently awaiting the Dalai Lama's


That might sound like playing a strong hand smartly, but is it really?

After all, well before the Chinese in Tibet, European colonists and South African whites asked: Why would black Africans prefer independence with poverty to association with deep-pocketed outside powers?

The answer is that self-respect and cultural integrity have no price.

Tibetan rules of reincarnation mean that the Dalai Lama dilemma may be deferred, but it is unlikely to go away, and neither are Tibetan dreams of being able to worship freely and exercise some measure of self-


Now may be as good as any time to talk.
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