Notwithstanding years of Chinese rule Tibet remains Tibet. There is no grand: strategy to extinguish the nation but Beijing’s misinformed policies lead to the misplaced suspicion that there is.
All but one road to Lhasa comes from China. The remaining one, from Nepal, was also built by the Chinese. Given this overwhelming monopoly on the avenues leading to the centre of Tibet it is striking how limited the discussion is regarding the Chinese perception of, and attitudes towards, Tibet. In the numerous exile and international reportages concerning policy and implementation within occupied Tibet, the Chinese motivation is generally taken for granted: to suppress and, if possible, get rid of Tibetans. Whether Tibetans are denied the benefits of Chinese modernisation or whether they are subsumed by it, China is still accused of “attempting to exterminate Tibet’s unique way of life” (statement by Samdhong Rinpoche, Kalon Tripa: Head of the Central Tibetan Administration, Dharamsala. 2001). Rather than confine ourselves to this insular view, I think it is valuable to try and understand just who these “Chinese” are, what “China” is, and rethink the possibilities for discussion on the Sinification of Tibet.
Although trade between Tibet and China has continued for centuries, the vehicular roads leading to Lhasa are all constructions after 1950. These various highways are not only remarkable for sheer engineering determination but also for the political, social and economic change that followed their construction. As such they are a microcosm of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The first road to Lhasa (from Xining) was finished in 1954, and a second road from Sichuan was completed shortly after. This route from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, recently burst through a tunnel from the Chinese to the Tibetan side of Erlan Shan and the entire route to Lhasa is scheduled to be metalled by 2003. Judging by the rate of construction over the summer of 2002, it will in all likelihood be completed on time. Warehouses in the Sichuan town of Yan’an are stacked floor to ceiling with long bricks of tea, still packaged the way it was centuries ago for the long trek to Tibet. Yan’an is also the town in which the first Tibetan communists were trained after the long march in 1936 and thus, represents the ideological as well as economic beginnings of the Chinese incursion into Tibet.
Invasion and occupation by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) took place on horseback and by foot in 1950- 51, and road construction immediately followed. Over 30,000 Tibetans worked with the PLA in this initial construction and were paid generously in special Da yuan silver coins because they would not accept the new paper currency of the People’s Republic. This flow of silver marked the introduction of a cash-wage system in Tibet and this was the first time that ordinary Tibetans (in contrast to businessmen and officials) had access to disposable income. The discipline and fair generosity with which the occupying forces conducted themselves was widely acknowledged and may have played a part in the Tibetans’ initial attempts to cooperate with the communist Chinese. A couplet from that period is still remembered, “The Chinese are like our parents/ Silver Dayang falls like rain”. Sarcasm and ambivalence is evident even with this early song. The roads also allowed PLA troops to be supplied from the mainland rather than from the already strained local resources, which ensured that they were quickly and substantially reinforced when needed.
By the end of 1954, in the Siliguri-Chumbi Treaty, apart from other things India had signed away her unique trade and communication access to Tibet, and the Lhasa business community looked for opportunities to the east. The Dalai Lama drove out of Lhasa on the new road for his state visit to Beijing in 1954, and China consolidated its military, political and economic hold over Tibet. The era in which Tibet operated with de facto independence ended. The new dependence on China was constructed along with the highways to Lhasa.
Today, the same Da yuan coins are peddled as souvenirs along the road to Lhasa by Tibetan workers looking to make some extra cash. Small ramshackle towns have sprung up along the highways with shops and restaurants catering to the road-crews as well as truckers and travellers. The crews are made up of units numbering around 20 men and some women who get paid 10-20 yuan (roughly 1.2-2.4 USD) per day. In the eastern areas of Kham, which today fall under the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan and Qinghai, the work-units are often mixed Hui Muslim, Sichuan Chinese and Tibetans from different districts. Further west in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) there tends to be less integration and units are generally made up of all Tibetans or all Chinese from a similar background. Whether in the east or in TAR, it is striking that the workers, Tibetan or Chinese, are generally migrant workers from elsewhere. The Tibetans usually set up tents and the Chinese patch together shacks of scrap-wood and plastic tarpaulin on the side of the road; everyone moves when the construction or reconstruction is finished. Most of Tibet is wide-open grassland, high desert, or rugged mountains where habitation is minimal and the roads pass through long stretches of uninhabited landscape. The nomads about in the summer have little interaction with the road except for when they need to cross it.
When the road does reach habitation, it usually runs through the middle of a new road-town, or past a local village. Towns like Lhatse and Damshung are typical of the new settlements, with concrete buildings lining the road and doors facing traffic. Just across a river or open space is usually a traditional village with houses that face a courtyard and the sun. The new towns are overwhelmingly Chinese with Hui Muslim and Sichuan restaurants dominating them. The Chinese establishments are bright with full-length glass doors while a few Tibetan teahouses marked with heavy door-curtains are tucked dimly between. But even these are often run by Tibetans from elsewhere – a day or even weeks away on the road. The concrete towns all have bathroom-tile facades, big government complexes and public toilets and they use electricity, phones, running water, pool tables and blue-tinted glass. Slightly beyond where the road turns to dirt in the original village there is a stream for water, mud-brick courtyards, painted wood-framed windows, and dogs staked beside gateways.
Nali Xian was built at the end of the good road half a day’s drive from the district centre. It is the extremity of Chinese immigration and on the other side of the hill from the original town of Lha’i Dzong (not real names since the area is normally restricted). There is a vast community centre with about 10 pool tables and behind these is a row of restaurants all run by Chinese but with almost exclusively Tibetan clientele. The place with the best dumplings is run by a Muslim couple from Gansu who drifted here a year earlier from the main Lhasa highway. The rent was too high there, and in three years they could not save much money, so they moved to this more distant town to set up shop. Now they save a couple hundred yuan a month and should be able to move to a more comfortable city, maybe Lhasa or maybe back to Gansu, after a few more years of earning. They spend all day and night working in the small restaurant – a group of young Tibetan men playing pool yells for another plate of dumplings; some grandparents and kids dressed in rough wool chubas peek in and look around but do not order anything; a group of Tibetans from the police post takes a table and demands a variety of food in vast quantities; the lady of the establishment runs out to buy supplies, which have been trucked in from the main highway. Apparently it is impossible to hire porters since none are around. They are supposedly out gathering wood for the winter though many seem to be playing pool just outside. This is a remote capillary of the road system, but even here there is an evident segregation between those involved with the town system and those who are not. Chinese are making and saving money, Tibetans are lounging about and spending it. Officials (most are Tibetan) are transferred from one area to another and conscientiously spend government money. Locals are detached in their observations of this. This scene is strikingly persistent around lunchtime in towns ranging from Dartsedo (Chinese: Kangding) to Ngari (Chinese: Ali); the characters are stereotypes, but the relationships are illustrative.
There is no question that beginning with those first silver coins in 1951 vast amounts of money have gone towards the ‘development’ of Tibet. At first this development consisted of model socialist government projects designed to ‘liberate’, but today it consists of a slightly more sophisticated idea of promoting private enterprise and consumerism in a way similar to what has been accomplished in mainland China. In either case the programmes have been characterised by a lack of participation by, or significant benefit for, the vast majority of Tibetans who live in rural areas. 50 years after the roads were built, the disparity between Tibetans who have continued in the tradition of agricultural activity and the corridors of roadside and urban development remains a graphic feature of the socioeconomic landscape.
After the famine of the early 1960s induced by the Great Leap Forward, and the chaotic destruction of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960-70s, Beijing’s new leadership admitted grave mistakes and instituted comprehensive social, administrative and economic reforms at the end of the 1970s. The initial strategy directed administration into the hands of local officials, and during the 1980s this led to a dramatic rise in Tibetan cadres, the rebuilding and reactivation of monasteries, and a certain amount of optimism among Tibetans. However, the hands-off policy of the 1980s was not especially effective in terms of socio-economic development, and the political protests in Lhasa at the end of the decade indicated to Beijing that they had done something wrong.
The Chinese administration changed its stance again, and the 1990s were characterised by increased central government expenditure combined with more severe political restrictions. Efforts to develop Tibet during the last decade concentrated on large-scale centralised infrastructure projects, such as roads. And there was a pressure to keep things politically quiet. In 1994, the Third Work Forum on Tibet put forth 62 projects that have been widely criticised for their lack of local participation and effectiveness. The Fourth Work Forum in 2001 instituted 117 projects along much the same lines. But overall, the message is clear: Beijing will allocate money if Tibetans will keep quiet.
The billions of yuan that have poured into Tibet flow almost exclusively along the roadways, pool in the few towns along the way, and finally end up in the few major cities – Lhasa, Shigatse, Chamdo. A quick glance at a map of Tibet shows the limited extension of roads and also the limited extent of China’s development practices. The towns along the roadways and the three cities are the only places in which serious development has taken hold and consequently, these are also the only places where Chinese form a majority. The vast rural areas of Tibet, where the majority of Tibetans live, are not linked with the road and urban systems. Even where there is a road, uprooted workers who are able to dedicate long and continuous hours to work provide labour for construction projects while local populations take care of fields or livestock. The services that such a labour pool requires are also fulfilled by itinerant entrepreneurs who have the knowledge of and access to the necessary supply channels. The cash paid out on such projects is spent minimally on immediate sustenance and generally saved for investment or families elsewhere. Trucks make the gruelling drive from Xining or Chengdu to Lhasa laden with food staples, consumer goods and building supplies, then they turn around and rush all the way back empty for another load. What has developed is a tertiary economy and lifestyle that has little interaction with the local villages or populations and is utterly dependent on mainland goods. There are plenty of urban and itinerant Tibetans participating in this secondary commercial system but the huge majority live an agrarian life in areas without roads or even if they live beside a road, they have only minimal interaction with it.
In China, the urban boom of the eastern seaboard prompted, and depended on, the creation of a vast unskilled and mobile labour pool. With the reforms of the 1980s, and the dismantling of the Maoist era work unit system in favour of ‘household responsibility’, a free labour market came into being, which provided the human capital behind much of the economic growth of the last decade. But in recent years the over-saturated industrial cities of the east such as Heilongjiang, Jilin, Shanxi and Henan are full of unemployed and laid-off workers. The forced downscaling of state-owned industries pushed through by Prime Minister Zhu Rongji in the last five years has also contributed to the unemployed pool. The recent labour riots in northeast China combined with demonstrations in certain areas of rural western China demand the most urgent attention from Beijing and it is no secret that the administration is not reconciled on how to deal with them.
Following a lack of prospects elsewhere, millions of labourers from this unskilled floating population have already moved into Tibet. The same Sichuan woman who has no land, no skill or insufficient papers and connections to find work in a big city will join a road-crew in Tibet (or hair salons if she is young and urbane). She will have to work 12-16 hours a day, but there will be a place to sleep, food to eat, and money to save. The man who would otherwise be relegated to menial “shoulder-pole” status in mainland cities can move along the highways to Tibet and set up a little shop or restaurant of his own with a bare minimum of cash, without worrying too much about formalities. These are the Chinese that proliferate in Tibet, men and women (very few children or grandparents) who have already been marginalised by the same system in the mainland. They come to Tibet because there is opportunity and maybe a chance to save some money and set up a home somewhere. These Chinese do not come to preach Maoism or even Han-ism and are concerned about Tibetans only in as much as a Tibetan might endanger or increase their chances to make money. With some exceptions (notably greenhouse cultivators who have a local supply and demand), their opportunities depend on huge government-subsidised projects that fuel Tibet’s tertiary economy. Without these they would be left floating again and would drift to the next prospective region.
The path of development
To illustrate the selective assimilation of Tibetans into the new market and social system it is worth taking a glance at Kham and Amdo. Although the bulk of these eastern Tibetan areas have been incorporated into other Chinese provinces since 1956 their development has proceeded as an accelerated version of that outlined above. However, without the political paranoia that exists in the TAR, these areas of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces have been allowed more local autonomy and hence religious freedom. Although many Tibetans have drifted to cities or work crews, these areas are still predominantly rural and traditional life has not changed much despite the proximity and increased access to mainland economic and social systems. In fact, the overt cultural manifestations in the forms of monasteries, festivals, literature, and lifestyle suggest that these eastern areas have been able to assert their Tibetan traditions to a much greater extent than has been allowed in central Tibet. Looking at it another way, despite much greater contact and entwinement with mainstream Chinese systems, Tibetans in Amdo and Kham have not become Sinified. Rather, they have channelled their energy and whatever prosperity they get from the Chinese systems into reinforcing their own culture and identity. The most active monasteries are in the east, there are several celebrated lamas teaching to followings of thousands in Kham and Amdo, and the most dynamic Tibetan literary movement anywhere (including exile) is coming forth from Amdo. There is also a significant group of successful businessmen from Kham and Amdo operating in Chinese cities as well as Lhasa, but their home counties of Derge, Golok or Nangchen still have a reputation for being bastions of Tibetan Buddhism and traditional culture.
This indicates that socio-economic prosperity trucked in from China has not and will not “exterminate” cultural and religious identity within Tibet. Two aspects of this identity are troubling to Beijing: religion and a social system independent of mainland strictures. The largely repressive, but recently ambivalent relationship between the administration and Buddhist institutions is an all-important topic that has received almost exclusive attention internationally. It is worth noting that since 1980 the administration has worked with lamas and monasteries and seems resigned to the fact that nothing will go forth in Tibet without the allowance and support of Buddhist institutions. While monasteries are still destroyed (notably Khempo Jikhpun’s centre with upwards of 10,000 followers at Serta in 2001), they are being rebuilt officially and unofficially at a much faster rate with a vitality that clearly has not waned even after decades of Chinese occupation. The recent brutal crackdown on Chinese Falun Gong members illustrates that it is the organisational capacity of religion that Beijing fears, not Tibetan Buddhism itself.
In terms of social systems, it is clear that the roadways network has been unable to incorporate the bulk of Tibet into first its communist and now its capitalist agenda. Much of this has to do with flawed development policy but some of it also has to do with the Tibetans’ own priorities. As seen with the nomads around Nali Xian, making a significant amount of extra cash (the fee one would earn for five days’ walking with two yaks would be roughly equivalent to a month’s income for a road-worker) or cooperating with the officials is not going to take them away from a good game of pool. The various policies promoting Tibetan language, Tibetan quotas in schools and administrative positions, and less strict birth-control limits and enforcement also indicate that “extermination” is not an accurate assessment of the Chinese attitude. One could, and should, criticise the actual effectiveness of these affirmative action policies but one also should not ignore that they exist when, politically speaking, China need not make such gestures.
There is a sense among large administrative institutions (the UNDP no less than the Chinese Communist Party) that a standardised equation can be applied to measure the contentment of a society, and now Beijing is worried about unrest caused by drastic economic disparity. This is a valid fear in mainland China (as illustrated by recent labour riots and farmer protests), but I would propose that it is not necessarily a crucial concern in rural Tibet. Certainly Tibetans should have the means, and would probably choose (as many have) to gain a level of conventional prosperity not available to most of them at this time. But what the examples of Kham, Amdo, selective roadside and urban participation, and monastic reconstruction have shown is that cash prosperity, or the lack thereof, is not the foremost concern for most Tibetans. At a popular tourist restaurant in Lhasa, I overheard a group of Western rangeland specialists complaining that the nomads with whom they were working in Nagchu district did not want to accept the cash-generating plans these specialists had devised. The Tromsikhang marketplace in Lhasa sells a variety of butter and the most expensive is still Tibetan butter, out-pricing even that imported from Australia. Clearly the subsidies, taxation and market system favours commercial contact with the mainland. Yet there are Tibetans who refuse to be incorporated into the grand economic schemes of Chinese development even if it means remaining at a “subsistence level” lifestyle and not being able to buy noodles from Chinese restaurants. Economics does not account for these choices on the part of Tibetans, yet Beijing administration insisted on viewing the situation in economic terms.
Beijing takes a common sense view that a more economically and socially prosperous country will give rise to less political discontentment. The most serious protests since Tiananmen Square in 1989 have taken place in eastern cities during the last year and in each case the promise of increased employment, salaries, and benefits have quelled the discontent. Unfortunately the administration is divided on how to continue its modernisation drive while preserving stability and the power of the party. Now there is even less cohesion than usual amongst party elites who are struggling for their own positions leading up to the party restructuring scheduled for the end of 2002; the provincial administrations have become more assertive since Beijing has emphasised a decentralisation of economic policy; there is an increasingly strong and savvy business class; and, international business interests with WTO standards in mind have got into the act as well. All these factors have an influence on the policy-making process and there is no consensus on how China will proceed in the coming years. With regard to Tibet, it may be assumed that all these players would like to see the problems of rural poverty, urban unemployment and labour problems solved as quickly as possible. Shipping as many Chinese as possible off to the sparsely populated plateau, to lessen the burden on mainland resources and to kick-start economic activity in Tibet, might seem like a viable solution, but it is not.
Ironically, it is flaws in the development strategy in Tibet that have saved it from inundation. The fast track “develop the west” programmes that Beijing has been trying to push in Tibet since 1994 have been overwhelmingly unsuccessful in creating any real economic base for the Tibetans, or even Chinese immigrants. Since there is only a limited potential for tertiary development without a primary foundation, the qualitative and quantitative incorporation of Tibet into the commercial system can only be partial. Consequently also, Tibet can only sustain so many immigrants and no more. The Chinese who come to Tibet are often itinerant workers who will leave as soon as a better opportunity presents itself. The ones that stay remain in urban areas or beside the roads. They do not integrate with, and are not integrated into, the local society or primary agrarian systems. The Tibetans involved with the roadways are officials, truck drivers or businessmen who again are not linked to the primary agricultural system of a particular area. While the division between the ‘developed’ roadway and the ‘un-developed’ rural sphere means that most Tibetans live in what has been called ‘poverty’ and do not reap the benefits of modernisation that China flaunts in its urban centres, it also means that Chinese labour and entrepreneurs and the cloud of ‘Sinification’, which is greatly feared, stays clear of the vast extent of rural Tibet.
Which way forward?
Does the urban-rural economic imbalance signal an official disdain for rural Tibetans and a cynical desire on Beijing’s part to benefit only the urban areas that consist of a Chinese majority? China has the same problems with growth imbalance in its impoverished rural areas with totally Han populations, and the reforms of Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji have been widely criticised (by Chinese and the international community alike) for leaving much of the rural Chinese population behind. It may be that these economic-social policies simply follow the classic (much criticised but still prevalent) white elephant style of development that has been practiced with much the same results worldwide.
The current disparity between rural, “impoverished” Tibetans and urban, “developed” Chinese then, is a problem for the Beijing administration. It is neither the result of a coherent and successful policy, nor a carefully crafted plan to keep Tibetans down. The dominant point of view in Beijing is that Tibet has been a messy backyard that remains an embarrassment. No one in Beijing is terribly worried about international pressure regarding the situation (they know that the time for real international involvement regarding Tibet passed when the PLA built the roads almost 50 years ago), but they realise that a radically under-developed Tibet tarnishes the image of a new China.
Construction of the much hailed and hated Golmud-Lhasa railway was inaugurated in 2001 and has gained the attention of Tibet watchers worldwide as the most recent, and most grand, attempt to decimate Tibetan culture. However, it is more likely another major blunder on the part of planners in Beijing, not distinct in motivation, foresight or impact from the existing roadways and similar infrastructure projects (several new airports have also been announced). The roadways only provide a narrow corridor of development, Chinese immigration and relative prosperity on the way back and forth from Lhasa. The railway represents an extreme version of this with even less dispersion along the way. There is no question that it will significantly ease transport to and from Lhasa, but other than the cash opportunities involved with construction work it will have no direct bearing on the majority of Tibetans. The railways project suffers from the same tertiary development isolation as the roadways and as long as there is no primary economic substance in Tibet these projects are only scarring the surface. There is nothing produced in Tibet (other than medicine) that has a significant demand outside its borders. Even animal products – wool, dairy and meat – are consumed within Tibet’s borders and, as shown with butter prices, even here Tibetan commodities are not competitive with their Chinese (or imported) counterparts. The railway in and of itself will not create any substantial integration for Tibetans, or anybody else in Tibet, with the Chinese economy, and will only increase the disparity between primary rural and government-subsidised urban economies.
The main concern then, is how the railway will affect natural resource exploitation in central Tibet. At the moment there is no large scale industry in Tibet (the devastating timber harvesting in Kham has stopped; a chromate mine in central Tibet and illegal gold mines on the Chang Tang are exceptions), but the railway could change the economics of mineral extraction to an extent that might make it viable in the future. This would be an economic development that would not depend on subsidies, may well attract mainland private and foreign investment, and will have more long-ranging and widespread consequences that the roads, railway or airports cannot have. It is important for the TAR administration, run mostly by Tibetans beholden to Beijing, to devise creative ways in which they can control the development of these resources as other locales have retained control of their own economic prosperity (Shanghai and Shenzhen are striking examples). International expertise involved in Tibet directly may well be helpful in achieving this end. Foreign voices raised in mass protest against yet another Chinese incursion into Tibet come 50 years too late, provide no insight, and facilitate nothing other than paranoia.
The unrest that has occurred in Tibet, and that Beijing fears, has not been focused on socio-economic concerns but on religious and political rights. The pride that Tibetans feel purely on the basis of being Tibetan is only heightened with the consciousness of proximity to China and Chinese. While waiting for a landslide to be cleared this summer in Derge county, a young and obviously well-off policeman got out of his car and sauntered to the front of the line. As he walked past the various trucks and buses in his sunglasses and carelessly worn uniform he reached into his unbuttoned shirt collar and pulled out a rosary. He was not murmuring or turning the beads but seemed to consciously take out the rosary as a mark of his Tibetan-ness (he was thin, fair-skinned, and in uniform might have passed for Chinese). A friend from central Tibet commented that you would never see that in Lhasa – a figure of authority so ostentatious with his/her Buddhist identity. When even a young police officer takes the trouble to show he is Tibetan through a Buddhist ritual object it is clear that his identity has not faded with prosperity or entwinement with a Sinified administrative system. You would not see this in Lhasa because Tibetan officials in the TAR who are too overtly Buddhist do not get promoted.
In neither case – with suppression or prosperity – has the communist administration been successful in eradicating Buddhist belief or identity. The complaint by some Chinese administrators that whatever wealth Tibetans gather goes “up in smoke” during religious festivals is akin to the complaint by the foreign rangeland specialists that Tibetans will keep a yak and watch it die rather than sell it for slaughter and money. Policies that intend to curb religious tradition, as well as development practices that do not appreciate the local priorities are equally unsuccessful in bringing about genuine change. Instead of pretending to alleviate ‘poverty’ in Tibet with yet another grand white elephant such as the railway because they are worried about economic disparity, Beijing would do well to rethink its evaluation of the socio-economic priorities of Tibetans and instead find ways to accommodate their religious and cultural identity.
This may already be happening in a less than intentional way with the shift in Chinese popular opinion regarding Tibet. The Chinese images of Tibet, like the Western or South Asian images, have little to do with Tibet itself. They often contain a romantic ambivalence towards one extreme – barbaric – or the other – glorious. A recent Chinese film (released in 1996, a year before Hollywood productions Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet), Red River Valley aka From the Sacred Mountain, represents this attitude by portraying a stunning landscape, with stunning yaks, and stunning men and women who are not too shy to let down their tops (while the camera discreetly moves to back view). The good/ bad roles of Westerners (in the person of Younghusband and his fellow invaders) and Chinese (as an undercover arms dealer) are expectedly reversed but otherwise the role of Tibetans (and it is a role) is much the same as that put forth in Seven Years. Tibetans are a bit savage, but sexy and noble nonetheless. The portrayal of the Tibeto-Mongolian character “Do” in Ang Lee’s international hit, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, is also loyal to the stereotype. This exotic portrayal is played out in countless art magazines, travel publications and music videos avidly consumed throughout the mainland. The popular press and official image-makers of China (Xinhua Publications and CCTV) have left behind the Maoist rhetoric of banishing the “Four Olds” and are relishing the little bit of old left within the political boundaries of the “New China”.
Official statements by the Beijing administration also speak of this “brilliant and distinctive culture” (the white paper on modernisation, State Council of the People’s Republic of China, 2001). Whether or not it is sincere, Beijing wants to be seen as promoting, not hindering, Tibetan tradition. This is cultural appropriation at its best-worst; but at the popular level at least, Chinese are proud of their minorities, and especially their Tibetans. This imagining, if led in the right way, could certainly promote an appreciation for the alternative traditions and lifestyle of Tibetans in the same way that new-age popularity has led to an appreciation of alternate or ethnic styles from the Western point of view. This is a long way from the impressions of Mao after the Long March, when the cultural distinction of Tibetans shocked him so much he began devising plans to “liberate” the savage land. I do not suggest that twirling ribbons or yak dances are genuine traditions, but what this popularisation could mean is that a new generation of policy-makers in Beijing might lose some of their paranoia of under-developed and under-privileged Tibetans rising up in protest. They might understand that any Tibetan protest of Chinese occupation has little to do with socio-economic circumstances but is rooted in a very basic fact that Tibetans are not Chinese, and that they are not going to become Chinese regardless of being rich or poor, well educated or uneducated. Once this understanding has reached the policy makers in Beijing and Tibetan regions, they can begin to facilitate plans more appropriate to the needs of Tibetans. And thus, they will be more likely to promote at least goodwill and stability, though probably not integration, between Tibetans and their Chinese neighbours.
China and the Chinese are not monolithic in the way they are depicted worldwide in Tibet-related media and the general press. The central government certainly has interests and policies directed towards Tibet but it has admitted its lack of effectiveness in determining the outcome of those policies, and it has shifted its emphasis several times since the occupation. There is no big hand that manages all affairs in China and the days of revolution-method management passed with Mao. There is a certain self-absorption that leads Tibet-specialists to think that China has some insidious plan for eradicating Tibetans. “China” is rent with many of the same socio-economic disparities and problems that occur in Tibet. The prostitutes draped on the couch of the new hair salon in Ngari have drifted to a far-off, cold and desolate place because they need to make money and cannot find opportunities elsewhere. They are not related to Hu Jintao, the former Chairman of TAR and President Jiang Zemin’s expected successor, nor are they interested in converting Tibetans to socialism (unless they get paid in advance), but are resigned and also sometimes bitter towards the system that has brought them to this eventuality.
The Chinese still produce and package tea the way Tibetans like it, and while the tea moves out of Yan’an by the truckload nobody takes communism seriously anymore. The problem with China’s development of Tibet is not a special plan to destroy Tibetan culture but simply the lack of decent and consistent means that take this culture into account. Tibetans are also not a passive unit of “tradition” composting under Chinese domination; they are diverse, urban, rural, regional, institutional or marginal but definitely very much Tibetans, alive and in Tibet.
South Asia and the Tibetans of Tibet
On the map, Tibet is part of Central, East and South Asia. But, even as the rest of South Asia neglects Tibet, changes are afoot in the high plateau, brought about by a surge in economic activity and demographic shifts. With upcoming rail and highway links, the knot with the Chinese mainland is set to be that much tighter. The South Asian mainland has ignored its Tibetan hinterland, if we may call it that, forgetting the close geographical proximity (the Himalayan divide is no longer the barrier it once was) and historical links of culture and economy. True, India, Nepal and Bhutan have provided refuge to Tibetan exiles, but otherwise South Asia has sacrificed Tibet to China. Even in terms of hardheaded long-term strategic, cultural and economic cost-benefit considerations, this seems foolish. When the economic exploitation of Tibet begins in earnest, will we find that a better appreciation of Tibet, even as, if necessary, a singular entity with the People’s Republic, would have served ‘South Asian’ interests better? We tend to think of Tibet only in relation to the Himalayan rimland, but remember that it is inextricably linked to the Pakistani Punjab by the Karakoram highway, and is but a day’s drive from Rangpur in north Bangladesh if you take the road up from Siliguri.
Himal has had its gaze away from the ‘trans-Himalaya’ since it converted from a Himalayan to a South Asian magazine in the spring of 1996. With this issue’s special focus on Tibet and the Tibetans of Tibet (rather than the relatively small number living in exile), we are correcting this oversight. Himal hopes to continue to cover Tibet in the days to come, regarding it as much a part of South Asia as any other.