Democratic Propaganda Blinds All in Tibetan Controversy
Tibet--a land of mysticism tucked at the waist of the Himalayas where girls swing their long black braids and thick incense mingles lightly with monotone chanting from a choir of Buddhist monks. To the average American, this exotic land of the Far East recalls two additional figures: the Dali Lama and Brad Pitt in the hit movie Seven Years in Tibet. Of course, what ties these two figures together is the fundamental issue of Chinese occupation and subsequent oppression of Tibetans. In the western world, the Dali Lama has become synonymous with Chinese Communist oppression, and, Brad Pit, the symbol of the western discovery of such injustices in foreign lands. The picture is a familiarly black and white; evil and good. But where is the gray, the mush that is inevitably a part of any real life situation?
For a country that lives under the banner of democracy, the United States government seems to be doing exactly what it denounces as purely "communist" in the Tibetan problem. That is, they've taken on propaganda. In recent years, a sudden wave of human rights groups, student and government organizations have exhausted their vocal chords with passionate cries for “Free Tibet” and “Stop Chinese Imperialism.” Daily, college students across the country sign petitions protesting for religious freedom in Tibet, and numerous television documentaries and articles condemn the Chinese Communist government for its ruthless treatment towards Tibetans. But perhaps the most powerful proponent of such an image is the United States government that, in the Chinese perspective, never fails to wave the Tibetan human rights question in the face of Chinese diplomats. The Tibetan issue demands a closer examination.
The western portrayal of Tibetans as carefree, karma loving monks who struggle under an imperialistic communist China paints a far too idealistic picture of an exceedingly complex situation rooted in a history of misunderstanding, mistrust, and undue foreign interference. As in any conflict, two tongues tell two different stories. The United States is broadcasting the story through one set of tongue—that of the Dali Lama.
In 1951, the Chinese Communist Red Army marched into Tibet and took over this northern region without substantial resistance from Tibetans. This occurred immediately after a Tibetan delegation negotiating in Beijing was reportedly coerced into signing what is known as the “seventeen points” document by the Chinese government. This treaty declared Tibet to be a part of China while remaining largely autonomous.
The part of history that fell through the hole in western reporting, however, is the centuries old connection between China and Tibet. Historically, Tibet has always been an important buffer zone to other foreign invaders. During the Qing dynasty, the Chinese army once helped Tibet in driving out invading Nepalese. From 1728 to 1912, numerous imperial ambassadors known as “ambans” were stationed in Tibet to keep watch of the land while allowing it to maintain autonomy as well as religious freedom. As the Qing dynasty collapsed with dawn of western imperialism, Tibet regained a degree of its former freedom as central China shifted its attention to fighting off European and American looters. In response, Chinese nationalist leaders such as Sun Yat-sen cried out against western domination of China and rallied the Chinese in regaining their self-perceived historical right to Tibet. This call resonated in the mid-1900’s when Mao Ze Dong and the communist party took power. From the Chinese perspective, Tibet is a most crucial piece to the reunification of the motherland.
In the westerner’s eyes, Tibet can only be liberated if it is completely free from any entanglements with Beijing. In other words, the Chinese government must recognize Tibetan independence. This request seems hypocritical coming from a country whose very foundations are built upon the shoulders of imperialism. Didn’t Europeans enslave and slaughter hundreds of thousands native Americans for the sake of building America? If it is imperialism that is targeted, then should not the United States government give up the white house to the remaining Native Americans who are the rightful owners of this land? But this suggestion seems almost ridiculous. In fact, one may argue that there’s a stark difference between the two situations. First, Native Americans consider themselves American citizens whereas Tibetans do not identify themselves as Chinese. Secondly, most white Americans believe that the U.S. government is not suppressing any freedoms of the Native Americans whereas the Chinese government is accused of oppressing Tibetan Buddhism.
However, I find these arguments futile. The only difference is time. The Europeans conquered the Americas a few hundred years ago when the term “human rights” didn’t exist. In contrast, the Chinese conquered Tibet in a recent century when developed nations such as the United States have suddenly become the world watcher of human rights in developing countries. I ask, “At the time the Europeans conquered North America, did Native Americans consider themselves ‘American’? Were they not forced to relinquish their beliefs in order to become more ‘European?’” In the same sense, the Chinese could argue that over centuries, Tibetans would identify themselves as Chinese.
Of course, European imperialism doesn’t justify Chinese imperialism. Perhaps one of the strongest human forces is national identity. Losing that identity to another group of people is like a person losing his name and all of the personal connections that come with it. The Tibetans feel as if they lost their name. But so would the Chinese if they let go of Tibet, a land that in their eyes has always been a part of the motherland. The Chinese government should recognize that historical claim does not make Tibet a part of China, nor does it make Tibetans identify themselves as Chinese. At the same time, the United States government and various human rights organizations must first try to understand the complexity and extreme sensitivity ingrained in the very roots of the conflict. It is dangerous to condemn a country and label it as an evildoer without examining the situation through historical and, most importantly, cultural lenses. Essentially, the Chinese consider Tibet to be as much a part of the motherland as Americans see the states of Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, and California as a part of the United States, not as land taken from Mexicans.
Thus, the real Tibetan question is not whether to “free Tibet,” but rather, it is to “free the media.” Surely, before the United States government rallies its citizens to protect Tibet from Chinese bullying, it must first present an objective portrait of this long-standing historical conflict. Objective understanding comes first. Humanitarian intervention is blind without the former. For a country that boasts its hilltop democracy, it is imperative for the United States to pull itself away from lingering cold war sentiments towards China’s communist government and reveal not the truth but the second tongue. Will the United States ever let go of the Brad Pitt image?
Diana Fu is a freshman at the University of Minnesota. She is a collumnist for the Minnesota Daily. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally printed on Minnesota Daily on 9/24/02