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Book Review: Discussing Tibet, without the BS

August 14, 2008

Jamyang Norbu
Phayul
August 13, 2008

"China's Tibet? Autonomy or Assimilation"
Author - Warren W. Smith Jr.
Publisher - Rowman and Littlefield.
313pp

For a book dealing with Sino-Tibetan relations Warren Smith's new
work takes an unusual standpoint. It refuses to assume the currently
fashionable 'a plague on both your houses" attitude; i.e. to regard
the present problems of Tibet not just as originating from the harsh
policies of the Chinese government but from the blunders of the Dalai
Lama and the intransigence of exile Tibetans as well. Smith ignores
such standard red herrings as Tibetan "failure to engage with China",
or Tibetan "hopes for American support" and instead sees the
situation in stark and simple terms with Tibetans as victims and the
Chinese as the victimizers. This is not to say that the book lacks
objectivity or that Smith is taking sides. He is clearly aware of the
numerous mistakes and even cupidity of the Tibetans in their dealings
with China, but correctly sees these as secondary, sometimes even
irrelevant to the overpowering reality of China's brutal occupation
and relentless assimilation of Tibet.

Warren Smith is well known to many Tibetan readers (of the Indian
edition) of his masterful history, Tibetan Nation. For a book written
by a non-Tibetan it is one that quite consciously attempts to
understand and explain things from a Tibetan point of view. One
Tibetan reader has claimed to appreciate Tibetan Nation because of
its "tsampa smell." Lhasang Tsering la of the BOOKWORM in
Dharamshala, personally recommends Tibetan Nation to those seeking an
up-to-date one-volume history of Tibet.

So it should come as no surprise that the introductory chapters in
this new book, laying out the historical background, are impressively
thorough. It is evident that Smith's understanding of Tibetan history
is not only broad and objective, but is appreciative of the Tibetan
intellectual point of view. Quite a few experts tend to view Tibetan
history largely from a Chinese or left-ideological perspective while
some go to the other extreme of regarding Tibetan history and culture
as largely a product of Buddhism. Smith's work is a welcome corrective.

The first half of Smith's book, which deals with China's efforts to
assimilate Tibet and to rewrite Tibetan history to conform to this
new reality, is extremely useful because little has been published in
this regard. Warren Smith's accounts of Chinese propaganda efforts on
Tibet are detailed and accurate. He provides extensive analysis of
the works of China's propagandists on Tibet as Anna Louise Strong and
Israel Epstein. He also provides, on the book's website, detailed
critiques of Stuart and Roma Gelder's The Timely Rain, Han Suyin's
Lhasa,The Open City, and also the Chinese government's version of
Tibetan history, The Historical Status of China's Tibet. Although all
of this is from a previous era it provides an important and clear
picture of the continuity of Chinese propaganda effort and
demonstrates how vital Beijing regards the contributions of
pro-Chinese western journalists and academics in propagating and
legitimizing the official view of "China's Tibet".

The book also highlights Beijing's current propaganda programs and
the varying degrees of success it has had in spreading its "China's
Tibet" message to the outside world through China's own
Tibetologists, pliant academics in the West, cultural festivals,
theme parks, films, free DVD's and publications. Smith discusses the
seminal 1993 meeting of the External Propaganda Committee of the PRC
Propaganda Department where China's successful propaganda strategy on
Tibet was worked out and launched.

Smith also tackles China's propaganda efforts within Tibetan society,
and the impact that such misinformation has had, especially on the
younger generation. He provides detailed information of such
propaganda institutions as the Museum of the Tibetan Revolution and
it's most infamous and exhaustively invented exhibition of the
"evils' of old Tibetan society, The Wrath of the Serfs. Warren Smith
devotes a chapter to propaganda films, especially the feature film,
Serf, made by a PLA film company in 1963. This unapologetically
racist, debasing and viciously false representation of old Tibetan
society and culture was enormously significant for Chinese audiences
in the formation of their chauvinistic views about Tibet and China's
role there. The movie was shown all over China and Tibet.

Smith's coverage of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet is thorough and
provides an exclusive window on events through selective highlights
from the autobiography of Rinbur Tulku, who witnessed the destruction
of temples, monasteries and monuments in and around Lhasa. Rinbur
Tulku provides a detailed account not just of the destruction and
desecration, but also of the deliberate process by which Chinese
authorities systematically looted the shrines and temples of all
valuable jewelry, precious metals and objet d'art that were all
trucked to China before the supposedly chaotic destruction took
place. Smith also demonstrates that the events were not spontaneous
and chaotic as claimed by China's apologists in the West, and that
Tibetan participation in the destruction clearly came about due to
pressure and coercion.

Smith's coverage of the history of the Sino-Tibetan dialogue or
negotiations, and the lack of any kind of development in this regard,
is probably one of the most dispassionate, critical and detailed
accounts we have to date. This alone will make the book worth reading
for many students of Tibetan affairs. In a detailed and systematic
exposition Smith makes it clear that there is no hope of "genuine
autonomy" or "meaningful autonomy" for Tibet, as the Dalai Lama has
been advocating. He further explains that the very idea of even a
minimal autonomous status for Tibet was never one that had ever been
entertained with any degree of sincerity by Beijing, even when the
guarantee of autonomy was first undertaken by Chinese leaders at the
signing of the 17 Point Agreement in 1951. Smith effectively
underlines his contention with a hard-nosed exposition of the
doctrinal realities involved. "The ultimate goal of
Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist nationalities doctrine was not
autonomy, but assimilation. Autonomy in Marxist-Leninist theory and
practice was a temporary tactic intended to reduce minorities'
resistance to incorporation into Communist states."

Smith's book lacks a clear narrative thread and certain chapters read
like separate essays. This might be considered a virtue by those who
find it heavy going to read an academic work all the way through, and
prefer to sample sections of it at their convenience. Whichever way
one goes about reading it, the fund of information and insight to be
gained from this book ought to bring about a clear and disturbing
appreciation of what China actually intends to do about Tibet.

Warren Smith is not an optimist regarding the future of Tibet. He
nonetheless thinks that Tibetans might have a small (and only) chance
if they were to give up their hopes for an autonomous status under
China and assume responsibility for "the survival of their own
national identity and their national destiny." His final sentence is
a slap in the face of those who hold that the Tibet issue can only be
resolved through "negotiations", "a change of heart in Beijing", or
on China becoming a democracy. Smith let's us have it straight up.
"The final result of the Tibet issue will be that Tibetans themselves
will determine their fate, or they will be unable to do so."
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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