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<-Back to WTN Archives Response to Michael Parenti's article on Tibet
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World Tibet Network News

Published by the Canada Tibet Committee

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

4. Response to Michael Parenti's article on Tibet

July 21, 2003

To the Editor:

As a lifelong activist who has worked on human rights issues in the United
States, East Timor, Burma, Palestine, and Tibet, I am profoundly
disappointed by Michael Parenti's uninformed bludgeoning of Tibet's history.
(Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth, July 7, 2003) Dr. Parenti would do well
to read Tsering Shakya's excellent book 'Dragon in the Land of Snows', which
presents a position that both Tibetans-in-Exile and Chinese government
officials find difficult in its honesty. Or perhaps Parenti is averse to
hearing Tibetan history from actual Tibetans - the sources for his article
would certainly seem to indicate so.

In the article Dr. Parenti demonstrates his growing reliance on politically
correct buzzwords rather than well-documented historical fact in order to
prove his points, and in the end the obtuse, lowest common-denominator
parallels that he makes between vastly different situations only hurts his
credibility as a historian (as does relying on the Chinese government as a
source of unbiased historical data.)

For example, comparing the monastic system of old Tibet to that of medieval
Europe is to rely on the basest of parallels. In fact these two monastic
systems had radically different structures and the end result was so
dissimilar as to hardly be comparable at all. The statement that most monks
and lamas in positions of authority came from aristocratic families is
simply not true. The entire paradox of the Tibetan Tulku system is that
reincarnated lamas came from all strata of Tibetan society; the current
Dalai Lama is from a poor farming family in Amdo, and the current Karmapa
(for Parenti's information, the Karmapa is the third most powerful religious
figure in Tibetan Buddhism) is from a family of nomads in Kham. These
powerful leaders come from families with absolutely no political or social

In a series of sweeping generalizations, Parenti then characterizes 'life
under the Dalai Lamas' as static, failing to explore the marked differences
between the various Dalai Lamas. No mention is made, for example, of the
Thirteenth Dalai Lama's social reforms. Demonstrating a total lack of
interest in historical fact, Parenti goes on to confuse the fifth and sixth
Dalai Lama for the first and second!

As the article progresses, Parenti's assertions grow even less grounded in
reality until, by the time he presents the Chinese occupation of Tibet --
which all legitimate human rights groups in the world brand with terms like
'cultural genocide'-- as a 'liberation,' he has lost all credibility. To
back up his points, he cites Chinese government documents replete with
quotes from freshly liberated Tibetans whose names are the equivalent of
'Jane Doe.' He repeatedly quotes Tom Grunfeld, whose writings on Tibet draw
on the most racist Chinese government depictions of Tibetans as savage

If Dr. Parenti is interested in reading an unbiased perspective on the
situation in Tibet shortly after the Chinese 'liberation' perhaps he should
read 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.

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. The
assertion that slavery and unpaid labor disappeared under Mao is simply
ludicrous. Perhaps Mr. 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.

It is interesting to note that despite the assertions of a handful of
historians like Mr. Parenti that pre-1959 Tibet was a horribly repressive
society, mass migrations of Tibetan refugees to surrounding nations were
never seen prior to 1959 (despite the presence of a democratic nation with a
large ethnic Tibetan population directly across the border to the south),
nor was there any indication of famine on the scale that came shortly after.
Yet ever since 1959 refugees have continued to pour out of Tibet at an
alarming rate-- every year, thousands of Tibetan men, women, and children
risk life and limb to cross the Himalayas, where an uncertain future awaits
them. This begs the question: If the situation in Tibet was so rosy after
the 'liberation', why are people still leaving in droves? If it was as
horrendous as Parenti presents pre-1959, then why weren't people leaving

Tibet pre-1959 was obviously not an ideal society; and if Parenti did a
little research he would quickly discover that there are few in the Tibet
world these days who claim it was. Tibetans, like all other peoples, have
fought wars and experienced violent periods in their history. Many of the
highlands and mountain passes were populated by bandits and brigands; many
of the northern tribes were governed by brutal warlords. Similarly, Many
Native American cultures were extremely brutal prior to the U.S. occupation
of Native lands. Does that warrant their decimation? Many Native cultures
now have higher rates of literacy and better access to allopathic medicine
than they did a hundred years ago. Does that mean that the people are better
off today? The argument that 'those backward natives were better off being
liberated' is used time and time again to justify occupation; it is
surprising that Mr. Parenti would resort to using an argument that reeks of
the very colonialism that he decries in most of his other writings.

19th century British colonialists held two strikingly different views of
Tibet; the country was either presented as a mythical, idyllic Shangri-La or
as a land of feudal 'lamaists' presiding over cowering peasants from their
dark dingy monasteries. Neither of these views, of course, were accurate, as
they came from the perspective of outsiders, and quite often outsiders with
a colonial agenda. As Tsering Shakya illuminates in his brilliant essay
'Blood in the Snows' in the New Left Review, this colonialist worldview has
nothing to do with on-the-ground reality and is empowering for the colonist
because it 'essentially deprives the native of agency.' It paints the
average Tibetan as a superstitious, hapless victim, blind to his own
oppression. This is a classic Orientalist view and it is shocking that a
modern historian such as Parenti would succumb to it.

Presenting the worst aspects of a culture as the full spectrum is not sound
practice and Parenti should know it; as a historian, relying on government
propaganda from a government that is notorious for its lack of press
freedoms and concerted manipulations of public opinion is totally
inexcusable. The use of state-controlled information as a prime source calls
into question not only the credibility of the article but also Parenti's
credibility as a historian. Surely in presenting the history of an occupied
nation Parenti understands that sources outside of those provided by the
occupier must be utilized? Would Parenti rely solely on the Indonesian
governments assertions about East Timor and Aceh? Or the U.S. Government's
statements about Iraq for that matter? Yet in his article every piece of
Chinese government-sourced data is presented as fact, whereas every
counter-argument is treated as rumor or hearsay, even down to the existence
of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, an entity whose existence can be easily
verified with a quick trip to the New York City Yellow pages!

In the end, Parenti makes the classic academic's mistake of being completely
removed from the people he's supposedly trying to represent. Were he to
spend some time with the 'serfs' of Tibet both past or present he would hear
an entirely different story than the one he has presented in this article as
the truth. The farmers in rural Tibet who showed me scars from beatings they
endured in Chinese struggle sessions were not former aristocrats; the nomads
who are losing their grazing lands to toxic Chinese infrastructure projects
are certainly not better off today than they were 50 years ago. Nor are the
ordinary citizens who risked arrest and torture to hand me notes pleading
for UN intervention and for information on their imprisoned relatives. These
stories are not few and far between -- they make up a vast majority of the
Tibetan experience, both inside and outside Tibet. This is absolutely

The studies on Tibet are clear: Tibetan children are dangerously
malnourished; prisoners are routinely tortured; rape of female prisoners is
endemic in the Chinese prison system; alcoholism and gambling are rampant;
and Lhasa now has one of the highest prostitution rates in Asia. If this is
liberation then I've seen it before - on Pine Ridge reservation in South
Dakota. Don't try to tell me that 90% of Tibetans are better off now than
they were pre-1959; that's a f***ing pipe dream.

As well meaning as Michael Parenti may be in his efforts to shed light on
colonialism, violence, and oppression, in this case he is completely off the
mark. He has sacrificed historical fact and historical context in the
interest of forwarding an agenda and in the process has completely butchered
his subject matter. His attitude towards Tibet is typified by his response
to a Tibetan man who took issue with his article... Telling a Tibetan to go
read their own history is simply arrogant, and it exemplifies Parenti's
complete disregard for an issue that he has chosen, for no clear reason, to
write about. The fanbase that Parenti seems to increasingly pander to might
find this article illuminating; I'd find it humorous if it weren't so bloody

Joshua Schrei
Board of Directors
Students for a Free Tibet
108 St. Mark's Pl. #3
Brooklyn, NY 11217

"Effective use of Tibetologists and specialists is the core of our external
propaganda struggle for public opinion on Tibet... Tibetology research, in
consideration of the needs of our external propaganda, must support our
propaganda for public opinion. Tibetologists should produce effective
articles, ideas and materials for external propaganda. The basic aims of our
external propaganda are to counter the Dalai clique and anti-China western
forces' rumours, criticism and smear campaigns against our policies in Tibet
and to foil their subterfuge to split the motherland."

-from a leaked Chinese Government memo from the Chinese Communist Party's
Ninth Meeting on Tibet-Related External Propaganda, April 9, 2001

Articles in this Issue:
  1. Sikkim will not be an issue in Sino-Indian ties
  2. New momentum to China talks: PM
  3. Indian Communist Party's Delegation Visiting Tibet
  4. Response to Michael Parenti's article on Tibet
  5. U.N.:World can't afford rich China
  6. Tibet Simplifies Tourism Procedures for Taiwanese Tourists
  7. The world's next superpower

Other articles this month - WTN Index - Mail the WTN-Editors

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