Dharamsala: forging Tibetans’ future

Temtsel Hao
7 May 2009

The attitude of the authorities in the People's Republic of China (PRC) to the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetans is reminiscent of the response of Joseph Stalin when the Soviet dictator was advised to avoid conflict with the Catholic church: "How many divisions does the pope have?"

Beijing's routine contempt is echoed in Unhappy China, a bestselling work by a group of self-styled spokespersons for Chinese nationalism. One of the authors says that China has no need to argue with the west about whether Tibet was part of China historically or is part of present-day China legitimately: China just needs to make the fact clear that China occupied Tibet in 1959. What can the west do? The case for brutal realism and "hard power", in which actual control matters more than any moral or historical justifications, reveals a significant current of thought in contemporary China (see Song Xiaojun, Wang Xiaodong, Huang Jisu, Song Qiang & Liu Yang, Unhappy China [Jiangsu, People's Press, 2009]). Temtsel Hao is a journalist based in London, working for the BBC World Service

The answer to the updated version of Joseph Stalin's question is clear from a visit to Dharamsala in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile have been based since their flight from Tibet fifty years ago. Tibet's spiritual leader has not a single division, except for some (unarmed) bodyguards in his residence. Along the mountain road leading to Dharamsala, a visitor can see many soldiers - but they are Gurkha, and belong to Indian army garrisons stationed nearby. Indeed, many people come here precisely because Dharamsala represents the values preached by the Dalai Lama and embodied by the Tibetan exile communities: the harmony of Tibetan and Indian cultures, the quiet cultivation of the spirit, "soft power".

A Gurkha wood-sculptor told me that when Tibetans arrived in McLeod Ganj (the upper part of Dharamsala, site of the Dalai Lama's temple and residence) in 1960, the tiny British-built mountain-station had just three households. The presence of the Tibetans has brought tourism and economic prosperity to the region, and all locals have benefited. He worries that a settlement of the Tibet issue that led to Tibetan lamas leaving for their homeland would be bad for the local economy and jobs. Saransh, a Hindu writer in the area who grew up alongside the Tibetan community in Dharamsala, is also pessimistic about the Tibetans' possible return to their homeland; but he praises the ethnic harmony and cultural richness they have brought here. Among openDemocracy's articles on Tibet and China:

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2009)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

Donald S Lopez, "How to think about Tibet" (28 March 2008)

George Fitzherbert, "Tibet's history, China's power" (28 March 2008)

Dibyesh Anand, "Tibet, China, and the west: empires of the mind" (1 April 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

openDemocracy, "Chinese intellectuals and Tibet: a letter" (15 April 2008)

openDemocracy, "Tibet scholars and China: a letter" (22 April 2008)

Chang Ping, "Tibet: looking for the truth" (8 May 2008)

Fred Halliday, "Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

Woeser, "The Fear in Lhasa" (10 March 2009)

Tsering Shakya, "Tibet and China: the past in the present" (11 March 2009)

Li Datong, "China's Tibet: question with no answer" (16 April 2009)

The other side

The Tibetan presence in Dharamsala - "Little Lhasa" - has made it a global attraction for pilgrims, tourists and mountaineers. On the other side of the Himalaya, the closure of Lhasa itself to foreign tourists and journalists since the protests and ensuing crackdown in March 2008 has accentuated this trend. In the streets, cafes and restaurants of McLeod Ganj, Tibetan monks mingle with international tourists and "localised" foreigners who have spent many years in the monasteries and voluntary organisations here. Many of the latter wear Tibetan or Indian dress.

In the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and elsewhere in China, the views of exiled Tibetans and portraits of the Dalai Lama are political taboos. But in Dharamsala everything from the "other side" is available: TV news and propaganda on several different Tibetan-language Chinese channels, dramas and (again) propaganda programmes dubbed into Tibetan. Their original target audience is ethnic Tibetans living in the TAR and in neighbouring regions of the PRC where many Tibetans live (Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan - or in Tibetan, U-Tsang, Amdo and Kham).

Tibetan government-in-exile officials express confidence that Tibetans in Dharamsala won't be brainwashed by these Chinese TV channels, even that it is good for Tibetan communities to encounter Chinese arguments. Indeed, some young Tibetans in Dharamsala laughingly pointed out to me some absurdities in the propaganda TV programmes. The Tibetan officials, asked how they are going to deal with the Chinese government's heightened international PR offensive, expressed the belief that being open and honest is all they need to do.

Their resources may be puny compared to Beijing's, but they are confident that truth is on their side and that the Chinese government's campaign won't achieve the desired result. In evidence, the exile-government official Thubten Samphel cited a twelve-page advertisement extolling China's policies in Tibet that appeared in the Malawian newspaper the Daily Times in March 2009. Thubten Samphel said that the feature - paid for by the Chinese embassy in Lilongwe - had actually helped the Tibetan cause by "internationalising" the issue in distant Malawi, where only a few people were likely to have heard of Tibet.

The Tibetan equanimity is striking. Dharamsala is smaller than an average county town in China and possesses modest economic resources, yet there is a notable calm in face of the third largest economy and (probably) military power in the world. Some of this may derive from the regular stream of new arrivals from Tibet. The Chinese government has used a variety of means (from information-control to heavy investment in infrastructure and housing projects) to convince Tibetans that they are better off under its care. This has not stopped Tibetans from risking their lives on tough journeys across the Himalaya to begin the next phase of their lives as refugees. I met some of these Tibetans in a refugee reception-centre. Some wanted better education, some wanted to become monks in monasteries, some just wanted a better life; none wanted to return to their homeland while it was under Chinese control.

Many of the recent Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala speak Chinese. A favourite pastime of the younger ones is spending time in internet cafés, watching Chinese video-clips and taking advantage of the online chatting software popular among young Chinese that has been installed on the PCs. A visitor quickly gathers that Tibetans making international calls to their relatives and friends on the other side of Himalaya often talk in Chinese.

The young Tibetans in China who have been brought up in the Chinese educational system, including those who make their way to Dharamsala, are fluent in Chinese. Tsegyam, the Dalai Lama's secretary, told me that since the 1980s the Chinese authorities had pursued a large-scale programme intended to produce a new generation of pro-Chinese Tibetans. This has involved selecting numerous Tibetan children for teaching in special boarding schools in various Chinese provinces. The first Tibetan graduates of these schools are now in their 20s; many are very active in expressing their pro-Tibet nationalist feelings in Chinese online forums.

A world of difference

The senior Singaporean politician Lee Kuan Yew has suggested that the Chinese need only one thing to solve the Tibetan problem: time. "(The Chinese) need time to bring up a new generation (of Tibetans): speaking Chinese, thinking like Chinese and integrating...into China", said the former prime minister in an interview in April 2009. The evidence of the constant anti-Chinese protests in Tibetan regions of China, the continued flow of Tibetans into Dharamsala, and the social behaviour and attitudes of young Tibetans is that even those who "speak Chinese" do not necessarily "think like Chinese".

The assumptions in Lee Kuan Yew's words - that Chinese think alike, and that Tibetans can be assimilated - may be related to his longstanding faith in "Asian values". The view of the Hong Kong action-movie star Jackie Chan, who told a conference of business leaders that "Chinese people need to be controlled", reflects a similar belief. But many Chinese dispute the idea that authoritarianism is beneficial and that they should be expected to subdue their voices and accept infringement of their rights. To "think like Chinese", in their view, means thinking as free people.

Even the leftwing Chinese nationalists who produced Unhappy China combined their call for a greater assertion of China's national rights in the international arena with an emphasis that China needs "to improve human rights internally". In this they at least avoid the conceit of many of their western counterparts who negate human rights and civic rights for Chinese (and for others) just because it is Americans or other westerners who are making the call.  

A separate conceit afflicts those outsiders who do support human rights and civil rights for Chinese, but who tend to associate the issue with an outward-oriented politics of anti-colonialism and anti-west nationalism. In this they refuse to recognise that Tibetans - as well as other non-Chinese ethnic minorities - might have legitimate grievances in their own terms, independent of the geopolitics of China vs the west.

Some liberal intellectuals and writers in China share this blindspot, in that they too deny the autonomous existence of ethnic issues and minority rights. They argue that the Tibetan problem is the product of the Chinese communists' ideological folly in copying VI Lenin and Joseph Stalin's theories and policies on nationality. By recognising the reality of ethnic difference and promising a degree of self-determination and autonomy to the various "nationalities", Chinese communists created impossible problems of political management and control for themselves (see Li Datong, "China's Tibet: question with no answer", 16 April 2009).

The flaw in this view is that by loading responsibility for ethnic problems exclusively on the Chinese communists, it is unable to understand ethnic identities (except those of the Han Chinese) in terms of actual territorial, social and cultural differences. The implication is that a change of policy under a central government of another stripe would solve the Tibetan or other "problem".

But the experience of earlier Chinese regimes suggests that there is a large element of evasion here. Sun Yat-sen, "the founding father" of the Republic of China, believed that integration should be achieved by "assimilating all different peoples in China into one single nation".  He recommended "copying the United States" so that "Chinese, Manchus, Mongols, and Tibetans will be assimilated into one Chinese nation and form a nation-state." His successor Chiang Kai-shek did not even recognise the existence of distinct nationalities and said that all the different peoples within China were of the same stock.

This avoidance of the reality of difference, the legitimacy of ethnic identities, and the existence of collective grievances and aspirations thus has deeper roots in Chinese history. Many people inside and outside China of apparently different, leftwing or liberal, political views, have come to share it. This gives the agenda pursued by Chinese authorities in Tibet and other non-Chinese minority regions a free ride. 

A Chinese vacuum

Chinese leaders across four decades - from Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao - have all at times expressed very similar thoughts on ethnic problems, which reflect a mindset of what might be called economic and political reductionism. The idea that economic development in the minority regions, backed by a powerful state committed to an assimilationist agenda, would be enough to dissolve the problems there has not worked in Tibet or elsewhere.

The contrast between Chinese authorities' failures of understanding here and the mindset of the Tibetans in Dharamsala highlights the limits of Beijing's approach. Hu Jintao may have told the seventeenth congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2007 that China needed to increase its soft power, but this does not extend to the Tibetan issue. The designation of the 1959 events on 28 March 2009 as "Serf Emancipation Day" recycled the view of pre-1949 Tibetan society as trapped in theocratic slavery, several "stages" behind Chinese society itself in the Marxian "ladder" of social development. But the abandonment of Marxist ideology by the Chinese ruling party only emphasises its intellectual vacuity, the lack of a persuasive belief system that can compete with the one promoted by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Again, the striking imbalance of power is no comfort to a Chinese authority that sees the Dalai Lama as the source of the problem. For it is the Tibetans in Dharamsala who have completed the democratic reform of their model of government, including a separation of powers. This has even achieved some wider effect; the speaker of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, Penpa Tsering, told me that Bhutan had learned from the Dharamsala constitution in its own democratic experiment. China has bet the future of the Tibet issue heavily on the Dalai Lama's succession, but the Dalai Lama himself has put the succession issue in a more impersonal and democratic framework. "The question of Tibet is not a question of the future of the Dalai Lama", he says. In a global comparative democratic framework, who is "ahead" of who?

The shifting star

Dharamsala has a certain affinity with a Chinese location that similarly became a site of cultural attraction, political ideals and personal inspiration - and training of cadres to prepare them for the moment of transformation. This is the Yanan of the Sino-Japanese war era (1931-45). Edgar Snow's visit of 1936, recorded in Red Star Over China, inspired the pilgrimage of countless idealistic young Chinese to the Chinese communists' sanctuary in the Yanan caves.

The fifty years of communist rule in Tibet have seen thousands of mainly young Tibetans escape to Dharamsala, in many cases finding the sanctuary also a means of personal progress; Dharamsala has turned people from poor, rural Tibetan areas with little education and few career prospects in China into professionals (editors, scholars, government officials) whose horizons extend around the world.

Dharamsala today, like Yanan in the 1930-40s, faces its own "problem" of a powerful and unbending Chinese government. It has accumulated many assets during this fifty-year road (including the credit that accrues from the equivalents of Edgar Snow, which has contributed immensely to its soft power).  Perhaps the most important is the experience of generations of Tibetans who have helped to create and renew Tibetan identity and political institutions. They will be part of the future of Tibet. China's recognition of this, as Lee Kuan Yew might say, is but a matter of time.

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