2008/04/13

Unsolicited opinions

This week's essay is not about Spain, but a couple of other conflicts that affect all of us. I probably don't know any more about them than you do, but we have to try to find out enough to orient our responses or we'll all fall prey to the demagogues. These opinions are not political positions but are tentative, hypotheses open to revision in the light of new information or a logical rebuttal.

Tibet, China and the West
Have the Chinese "invaded" Tibet and are they oppressing the Tibetans, somewhat like the Americans in Iraq? I've read claims that the Chinese population now greatly outnumbers the ethnic Tibetan population of Tibet due to deliberate population transfer by Peking. ("Chinese" in this context means mainly Chinese-speaking Han, though Mongol, Uighur or other non-Tibetan Chinese are also in the region.) First, I doubt that this is true; most sources state that over 90% of the region's overwhelmingly rural population is Tibetan, though Han may be more numerous in specific urban areas. Second, even if it were true, I don't see how uncoerced labor migration, whether or not encouraged by the government, could be offensive to human rights.

We've also seen calls for negotiation by Peking with the Dalai Lama, billed as the "spiritual leader" of the Tibetans. Anybody who allows anybody else to lead his or her "spirit" --Pope, Patriarch, Grand Rabbi, Ayatollah, Lama or shaman -- has to that extent given up a claim to personal, responsible citizenship. I have no way of knowing how many of the monks protesting in Lhasa have truly surrendered their will to that distant, exiled figure; I suspect that the ringleaders among them are just using him as they would a flag, to rally people around their own chosen cause.

My conclusions: I think what motivates the protests is panic in the face of inevitable and necessary social change. Tibet is being forced into the modern world, of which the Han immigrants are willy nilly representatives. And those adventurous Han, struggling to make a decent living (as they understand it) in a strange land, are the first victims. Probably -- almost certainly -- the police have overreacted to the protesters, because that's what frightened policemen do.

Boycotting the Olympics won't do anybody any good. And demanding Tibetan independence of China is just loony -- it can't happen now, or probably for a very long time, and wouldn't do the Tibetans any good. The only way even its advocates conceive it is as another state run by a religious institution, and we have enough of those to deal with. That's something people are still trying to get free of here in Spain.

Encouraging Peking authorities to negotiate with a committee of the protesters there in the country is probably a good idea -- not with the Dalai Lama or any other exile group claiming jurisdiction over people who never elected them.

Some sources I found helpful:
Tibet’s history, China’s power by George Fitzherbert, Open Democracy
Tibet's Population Put at 2.84 Mln in Gov't Survey, All-China Women's Federation
How many ethnic Chinese live in Tibet (population transfer)?, TULARC
Tibet's Economy Depends on Beijing, by Anthony Kuhn, NPR

Victory in Iraq?
The problem with Petraeus' promise of eventual victory in Iraq is that, as he conceives it, it is not a victory of American values and it certainly is not a victory for Iraq. What he's talking about is a victory for the American Armed Forces as an institution. He and Bush want to postpone the embarrassment of televised defeat, and are willing to sacrifice thousands more Iraqi and U.S. bodies so that the brass and pols can save face.

The only argument against U.S. withdrawal is that we would leave the country in a bloody chaos. As though that weren't what our troops have created. So they should stay there and be part of that horrible bloody chaos? Just get out! There is no good solution, no clear way to reduce the violence without killing all the potential killers, i.e., producing more violence. Our military presence is the defeat of American values -- “liberty and justice for all" -- and a costly delay of victory for and by Iraqis.

3 comments:

Dirk van Nouhuys said...

About the brouhaha about China and Tibet, as in the case of the Israeli’s and the Palestinians, I am inclined to say with Mercutio, “a Plague on both your houses.”

The comparison with Iraq is just in some ways. China has done monstrous things in Tibet and the US has done monstrous things in Iraq. Both are worthy of protest. That does not mean that the Sadam administrations was nice and it does not mean that the feudal society of Tibet was nice. In fact for hundreds of years the vast majority of Tibetans have been surfs supporting a feudal aristocracy, which in includes the upper levels in the monasteries.

The good image of the Dalai Lama obscures these issues. He has spent most of his life outside Tibet. To do him great credit he has said that if he came to power in Tibet the first thing he would do would be to separate church form state. He has talked about brining democracy to Tibet. He seems like a nice guy. But that does not mean the society he came from is a rewarding way to live for the vast majority of it's members.

I think there's some confusion in people's minds between 'enlightened' in the 18th century philosophical and political sense and 'enlightened' in the contemporary Buddhist or pseudo-Buddhist sense. Some of the guys (sic) in the monasteries may have been enlightened in the Buddhist sense, and that was no doubt nice for them and of some value to the world as an example, but that does not make the lives of the serfs who supported them 'enlightened' in the political sense.

Tibet, by the way, is not a separate country that China invaded 50 years ago. Their history is much more complicated. Chinese weapons were first aimed at Tibet hundreds of years ago and Tibet has been wandering around in a grey zone, semi independent, semi an autonomous zone of China all that time. What has changed in recent years is the number of Chinese in Tibet and a policy of greater Chinese military presence and getting more Han Chinese to settle there.

Michel Parenti has a long and thoroughly footnoted article on this subject at: http://www.michaelparenti.org/Tibet.html

gef said...

Thanks, Dirk. I think you meant "serfs". I look at that Parenti article.

The Passing Scene said...

The Tibet situation has left me with a different set of reflections. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Tibet situation, there's no question the Chinese regime is highly oppressive and has long had the luxury of living in a world where the rulers largely control the flow of information. The great thing about the Olympics is that it exposes the Chinese tyrants to much the same kind of scrutiny that democratic regimes have long had to live with.

Geoff is right to suggest that there's no point in boycotting the Olympics. In fact it's a very good thing that they are going ahead as planned, because that means that the Chinese regime will remain in the eyes of the world, and exposed to the world's critique, for a good five months.

It's one of the good outcomes of globalization: Increasingly, the tyrants have no place to hide.

Chris Leo

Christopher Leo, PhD,
Professor, Department of Politics,
University of Winnipeg,
Winnipeg R3B 2E9.

Adjunct Professor,
Department of City Planning,
University of Manitoba.

Phone: 204.786.9396
Fax: 204.774.4134

Research-based blog: http://blog.uwinnipeg.ca/ChristopherLeo/