Few governments, international institutions or religious organisations missed the chance to condemn the Taliban militia for their wanton demolition of the massive rock-cut Buddha statues at Bamiyan in March 2001, even those, such as the United States, which had failed to deplore the devastation of the country by civil war during the previous decade. But there was one conspicuous absentee from this facile chorus of international protest. It took a long week after the defiant iconoclasts had carried out their threat before the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) published a statement in the English-language edition of its official newspaper expressing mild regret over the incident on behalf of the Chinese Buddhist Association – hardly an organisation representative of the party or government, but one which nonetheless functions exclusively in their interest.
Taliban vandalism had put the Chinese Communist Party in an embarrassing quandary: as a permanent United Nations Security Council member and ardent aspirant to world-power status, it was loathe to remain silent over such a flagrant violation of universal values, but to speak out would have been to risk attracting the aroused indignation of the international community towards its own, incomparably more heinous record. The muted press statement was a belated compromise masking this official discomfort, which it was hoped would go unnoticed in the wider world. Not for the first time in its dealings with China, the wider world unwittingly obliged.
The party leadership, and the Beijing regime at-large, is still in denial about the unspeakable crimes of the past against Tibet because it was never forced to own up to them and make amends. The party has retained power in the post-Mao era through the ruthless, relentless surveillance and intimidation of potential dissent, and in the last instance, as in the nation-wide student movement of 1989, by resorting to the use of massive state force. In the first decade of ‘liberalisation’ (prior to 1989), some reformist voices emerged within the top echelons of the leadership, but no clean break with the past was ever made. This has allowed the persistence of a certain neurotic, make-believe aura surrounding the official view of recent history.
In Tibet, for example, traditional settlements were typically clustered below the hilltop castles, or ‘Dzong’- s, of local rulers. Every Dzong in the country was destroyed after the 1950s occupation with one exception, Gyantse Dzong, which had been besieged and badly damaged during the 1904 British invasion. These days, this, the only surviving building of its kind in central Tibet, has been restored as an ‘anti-British museum’. At the Bezeklik caves in the Turfan oasis in east Turkestan, a modern cement monument commemorates the pillage of ‘Chinese’ cultural treasures by Western imperialists. German explorer Albert von le Coq had the abandoned cave’s frescoes removed and shipped back to Dresden shortly before the First World War. But for these European escapades, neither Gyantse Dzong nor the Bezeklik paintings would have survived the communist invasion and Maoist terror half a century later, but that is irrelevant. The point is that foreigners must take the blame for ransacking China, and the party must be credited with restoring her honour. It is well illustrated in the 1990s propaganda epic, ‘Birth of a Shooting Star’, a eulogy of China’s atom bomb programme in the early 1960s, wherein the shrewd, rough-edged but golden-hearted PLA commander (Li Xuejian) in charge of logistics rejects the designated test site at Dunhuang in the Gansu desert because of the threat to the nearby T’ang dynasty cave paintings. Rather than endanger China’s ancient heritage, he subjects himself and his men to the hardships of the Gobi at Lop Nor. To accuse revolutionary heroes of cultural insensitivity, the film admonishes us, is slanderous nonsense.
Outsiders have tended to assume that the wholesale desecration of temples and annihilation of traditional architecture and artefacts was a temporary phenomenon associated with the madness of the so-called Cultural Revolution after 1966, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Monasteries in eastern Tibet were systematically looted and destroyed from the early 1950s onwards. When Mao was briefly dislodged from power in 1961-62 following the disastrous outcome of the Great Leap Forward, one of the measures instituted by his opponents was an ordinance for the protection of listed national monuments, in an attempt to stem the already high tide of cultural cannibalism. What distinguished the period of the Cultural Revolution from earlier attacks, was the policy of forcing ordinary people everywhere, particularly the educated and the devout, to destroy their heritage themselves. Many refused and paid with their lives. Those who survived did so amid the rubble and ashes, and with the bitter knowledge that every vestige of their past, their collective identity and values, had been taken from them not simply by a marauding army, but by their own involuntary hands, or those of their relatives and neighbours, terrorised by fear and desperation. It was in this frame of mind that China and its subject peoples reemerged from decades of Maoist rule in the late 1970s.
Since then, the refusal of the party to loosen its grip on power has entailed that there is a similarly stubborn refusal to come to terms with the legacy of de-civilisation under communist party rule. In the case of Tibet, the state claims all the credit for the nominal re-construction efforts that have taken place since 1980, but except for the handful of ‘national monuments’ covered by the 1962 State Council ordinance, the funds (including taxes and bribes paid to predatory officials) and labour have been donated exclusively by ordinary people. Even where state funds were allocated, bureaucratic ‘leakage’ and sheer incompetence resulted in work so shoddy that fresh repairs became necessary within a few years, most notably in the much-vaunted 1991-94 restoration of the Potala palace. Or the great assembly hall at Ganden monastery built in the 1730s and pulled down by official order in 1969. The central government granted funds for rebuilding in the mid-1990s, work was completed in 2000, and already the foundations have begun to subside. Incidentally, most of the monks have meanwhile been expelled for resisting a draconian political re-education programme introduced in the same period.
Indeed, so far-fetched is the arrogance of current official presentations to the outside world on this issue that the PRC now routinely claims to have restored more Tibetan religious sites than were maintained by the Dalai Lama’s erstwhile ‘slave-owner’ government. To judge from a ‘white paper’ on ‘cultural preservation’ in Tibet put out on 22 June 2000 the central government has more than compensated for any losses “in such a special period as the Cultural Revolution” with lavish expenditure on the restoration of temples, the reprinting of Tibetan literature, the construction of a museum, the funding of Tibetan-language television broadcasts, and so on. The white paper on ‘development’ in Tibet (8 November 2001) refuses even to acknowledge such “special periods”. During his landmark visit to the region in 1980, party secretary Hu Yaobang issued a tentative apology to China’s Tibetan subjects for two decades of “leftist” misrule. But Hu’s outburst is now considered to have been quite uncalled for. ‘Development’ in Tibet, says the 2001 document, has been on a steady upward curve ever since ‘liberation’ in 1950.
What is evident is an echo of defensiveness, the sense of denial and insecurity underlying the self-satisfied, cocksure bravado of current propaganda, and indeed policy. The party feels justified in dismissing any and all criticism of its record because it has retained the monopoly on force and effectively silenced dissent (at least in such sensitive margins as Tibet). But the peoples of China and other subject territories of the PRC still live in the rubble, psychological or actual, of their former civilisations, and the reality is that no amount of force can erase the memory of what has been destroyed, no amount of ‘development’ can legitimise such destruction.