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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Are Tibetans happy? There's no way of knowing

April 13, 2009

The Globe and Mail (Canada)
April 11, 2009

CHENGDU, CHINA -- Last month saw the 50th
anniversary of what Tibetan activists like to
call Tibetan National Uprising Day, the day in
1959 when Tibetans in Lhasa revolted against
Chinese Communist Party rule. The rebellion was
crushed, the Dalai Lama fled to India and, for at
least a decade, things became a lot worse: Many
Tibetans - possibly more than a million - starved
to death during Chairman Mao's Great Leap
Forward, temples and monasteries were smashed
during the Cultural Revolution, and a large
number of people died in the violence.

Chinese officials are noticeably jumpy in this
year of anniversaries (20 years after Tiananmen).
Last month, I was in Chengdu, in Sichuan
province, where many Tibetans live. Even foreign
tourists who had no clue about the anniversary
were stopped in the streets by policemen looking
for signs of rebellion. The colourful Tibetan
district was cordoned off; not only was it
forbidden to take pictures, one couldn't even walk through.

The Chinese press, however, marked the
anniversary with effusive articles describing
Tibetan joy at being liberated from centuries of
feudalism and slavery. If the China Daily is to
be believed, "pre-Liberation" Tibet was a living
hell, and Tibetans are now grateful to be
citizens of the People's Republic of China.

Some probably are. Many are not. But if Chinese
propaganda paints too dark a picture of the
Tibetan past, Westerners who sympathize with the
Tibetan cause are often too sentimental.

The personal charm of the Dalai Lama, combined
with the Himalayan air of superior spiritual
wisdom, has promoted a caricature of a mystical,
wise and peace-loving people being crushed by a
brutal empire. It was not for nothing, however,
that quite a few educated Tibetans actually
welcomed the Chinese Communists in 1950. The
Buddhist clergy was seen, not without reason, as
hidebound and oppressive. Chinese communism promised modernization.

And that is what China's government delivered in
the past few decades. Lhasa, a sleepy, rather
grubby backwater only 30 years ago, is now a city
of huge public squares, shopping centres and
high-rise buildings, connected to the rest of
China with a high-speed railway line.

It is true that Tibetans, sparsely represented in
local government, may not have benefited as much
as the Han Chinese, whose presence in cities such
as Lhasa as soldiers, traders and prostitutes is
so overwhelming that people worry about the
extinction of Tibetan culture, except as an official tourist attraction.

Still, there is no question that Tibetan towns
are now more modern - in terms of
electrification, education, hospitals and other
public facilities - than they were before. This
is one of the arguments used by the Chinese to
justify Tibet's absorption into greater China.

This argument has a long history. Western (and
Japanese) imperialists used it in the early 20th
century to justify their "missions" to "civilize"
or "modernize" the natives. Taiwan, under
Japanese rule, was, in fact, more modern than
other parts of China. And the British brought
modern administration, as well as railways,
universities and hospitals, to India.

But most Europeans and Japanese are no longer so
convinced that modernization is sufficient
validation of imperial rule. Modernization should
be carried out by self-governing people, not
imposed by foreign force. Tibetans, in other
words, should be allowed to modernize themselves.

But the Chinese have another argument up their
sleeve. They are justly proud of their country's
ethnic diversity. Why should nationality be
defined by language or ethnicity? If Tibetans
should be allowed to break away from China, why
not the Welsh from Britain, the Basques from
Spain, the Kurds from Turkey, or the Kashmiris from India?

In some cases, the answer might be: Well, perhaps
they should. But ethnicity as the main marker of
nationality is a vague and dangerous concept, not
least because it leaves all minorities out in the cold.

So are people wrong to support the Tibetan cause?
Should we dismiss it as sentimental nonsense? Not
necessarily. The issue is not so much Tibetan
culture or spirituality or even national independence, but political consent.

In this respect, the Tibetans are no worse off
than other citizens of China. Historic monuments
are being bulldozed everywhere in China in the
name of development. Culture is being sterilized
and homogenized in all Chinese cities, not just
in Tibet. No Chinese citizen can vote the ruling party out of power.

The problem, then, is politics. The Chinese
government says Tibetans are happy. But without a
free press and the right to vote, there is no way
of knowing this. Sporadic acts of collective
violence, followed by equally violent oppression, suggest that many are not.

Without democratic reform, there will be no end
to this cycle, for violence is the typical
expression of people without free speech. This is
true not only for Tibet but also for the rest of
China. Tibetans will be free only when all
Chinese are free. In that sense, all citizens of China hang together.

* Ian Buruma is professor of human rights at Bard
College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. His latest book is The China Lover.

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