Fight to the Last Tibetan
By Gwydion M. Williams
How the West has made life needlessly hard for Tibetans by repeated encouragement of separatist ambitions. Ambitions that are neither valid in International Law nor justified by the West’s own rules.
Britain has never apologised for the Opium Wars. The British government in the 1840s chose to kick down the door and intimidate the Chinese Empire. Undermine an old and self-contained state that had been content with its own way of life. Britain demanded trade, and would not accept the Chinese view that their sort of trade would be lethal for China’s existing values. Trade was imposed, and was indeed lethal for China’s existing values.
Britain also refused to try to rule and reshape China as they were ruling and reshaping India. The Empire felt overstretched, or rather the ruling stratum already had as much as it could handle without bringing in non-whites or Britons below the privileged ranks of the Upper Middle Class. Britain stopped short of trying to rule China as a whole, and also made sure that no other European power got the chance. But when China began to regenerate itself through the Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s, Britain and the other imperialist powers made sure that the Taiping lost.
The First Opium War (1839-42) could be seen as the start of the modern norm, what’s called Neo-Imperialism or Hegemonism. Rather than the advanced industrialised countries accepting the expense and responsibility of ruling pre-industrial countries, they kept weak governments in being. Such governments could be blamed for misgovernment, yet also prevented from actually looking after their own people.
The Chinese Empire in its last decades was a classic example of a weak government kept in being by foreign powers. The same was true of the western-style Chinese Republic that existed from 1911 to 1949. The Kuomintang (Guomindang) promised more when they took over in 1927-28, but they failed to deliver. China’s economic take-off began under Mao. [AO] If Deng raised the rate of growth, he was helped by US policies which let him keep protectionism and state regulation while freely accessing Western markets and technology.
Britain, France and the USA were the first three countries to get big benefits from the Opium Wars – the US with the Treaty of Wanghia and France with the Treaty of Whampoa, both negotiated in 1844. They got concessions that gave foreigners the right to rampage through China and disrupt it. They wanted to convert the Chinese to Christianity and they wanted to make them part of Western civilisation – a process we’d nowadays call ‘Cultural Genocide’.[AC]
Britain, France and the USA were also the countries where April 2008’s anti-China Olympic protests were the most successful. In those countries – and nowhere else in the world – the police failed to contain protestors who thought they had a right to disrupt the torch relay, normally a bland event of interest just to sports enthusiast and to patriots in the host country.
What the anti-China demonstrators thought they were achieving by attacking a small woman in a wheelchair is anyone’s guess. They should not have been surprised that they simply angered the vast majority of Chinese. Offended them to such a degree that it would now be almost impossible for China’ leaders to make major concessions to the Tibetan exiles, even if they could be persuaded that it was a good thing to do.
What actual principle is being upheld? You find ‘Free Tibet’ movements based in California – didn’t California once have its own native inhabitants? Can the Dalai Lama’s Californian fans please explain what happened to them?
You might also ask, on what basis can anyone say Tibet has a right not to be ruled from Beijing but it’s OK for Kashmir to be ruled from New Delhi? In as far as there is a difference, the advantage is with a Chinese Tibet, since no authorised outsider ever recognises Tibet as separate, whereas Kashmir was part of a single British India that was partitioned with great disorder in the late 1940s. The new Republic of India hung on to most of Kashmir, in part because it had a Hindu ruler and also because it was Nehru’s homeland. Free Tibet and Free Kashmir would be a logical expression of what some people claim to believe in.
(Myself, I think it would have been better if Kashmir had been allowed to join Pakistan, if that was the wish of the majority. But it would be very bad now if the Republic of India were weakened by loss of its fringe territories. The break-up of either China or India would be a massive tragedy, since neither state has any clean lines to split on.)
Anyone thinking of protesting might also have paused to wonder how a ‘Free Tibet’ would actually have developed, had it managed to break away from the Chinese Empire as the Mongolian Republic managed. It seems unlikely that the current Dalai Lama would still be alive – they have historically been short-lived when they actually ruled, sometimes even when they didn’t. The example of neighbouring Nepal makes one wonder if perhaps in some alternative time-track, a 15th Dalai Lama or even a 16th or 17th Dalai Lama would be fleeing a part-Communist Tibet that would be seeking to improve its relationships with People’s China.
I can understand the motives of the Free Tibet crowd. Even Sharon Stone had said some sensible things about the Iraq War, before her appalling remarks about the Chinese earthquake being some sort of Divine Punishment. (Though it would have been a very odd thing for a responsible Deity to do, since the area hardest hit included lots of ethnic Tibetans.) I can understand the sentiments of the Free Tibet crowd, but they need to see the wider picture. Including the way the USA has used Tibetans without caring how much they might get hurt.
At the start of the Second World War, opponents of the war suggested that ‘Britain would fight to the last Frenchman’. [Ap] In the event, ordinary Britons were serious about that war. Most of the work of actually defeating Nazi Germany was done by the Soviet Union, and a lot of the rest by the USA. But Britain did its part and there was a great deal of individual heroism.
In the case of Tibet, the overseas supporters risk nothing. Within Tibet, you have rioters who are only bold in the face of soft targets. There was also once a limited fight by some of the displaced ruling class of a Tibetan people called the Khampas, but that was closed down long ago. The outside world is not going to fight for Tibet, though they will happily ‘fight to the last Tibetan’ as a way of sniping at China.
Protestors can score easy points on Tibet in Western countries. But they do so at the expense of the main objective, the encouragement of pro-Western elements within China. Almost all of these are definite that Tibet is part of China. If they look into it, they find that the West’s own rules confirm this, and that no one is planning any general change that would give minority territories the right to secede.
The Neo-Cons may have schemed to rip away Tibet in the same way as they ripped Kosovo from Serbia. I’ve a definite memory of the topic being discussed at the time. But that was scheduled to happen after their planned success in Iraq and Iran and North Korea. Besides, China is a hundred times bigger than Serbia. China has nuclear weapons. China makes lots of cheap manufactured goods that the USA could not easily get from anywhere else.
The Dalai Lama could have used the 2008 Olympics to get the best possible deal for old-fashioned Tibetan values. Instead he has been used as part of a haphazard campaign against China that has broadly failed. After getting nowhere he seems to have opted for more of the same: he gives every sign of having learned nothing and forgotten nothing. One wishes there were some good news for Tibet’s better traditions, but really there isn’t.
Pre-1959 Tibet was no Shangri-la. For that matter, even though the Shangri-la of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon was based on Tibetan legends of Shambhala, his actual vision was very different and thoroughly racist. The long-lived elite were almost all of European origin:
“Chang replied: ‘Those of us in full lamahood number about fifty, and there are a few others, like myself, who have not yet attained to complete initiation. We shall do so in due course, it is to be hoped. Till then we are half-lamas, postulants, you might say. As for our racial origins, there are representatives of a great many nations among us, though it is perhaps natural that Tibetans and Chinese make up the majority’…
“In general we have found that Tibetans, owing to their being inured to both the altitude and other conditions, are much less sensitive than outside races; they are charming people, and we have admitted many of them, but I doubt if more than a few will pass their hundredth year. The Chinese are a little better, but even among them we have a high percentage of failures. Our best subjects, undoubtedly, are the Nordic and Latin races of Europe; perhaps the Americans would be equally adaptable, and I count it our great good fortune that we have at last, in the person of one of your companions, secured a citizen of that nation. [T]
This was a backward-looking vision even for 1933, a typical white-male fantasy at many levels:
“Until we reach an age when care is advisable, we gladly accept the pleasures of the table, while–for the benefit of our younger colleagues–the women of the valley have happily applied the principle of moderation to their own chastity.”
The creed of the elite is not Buddhist and the ‘common people’ are a mix of Tibetans and Han:
“The inhabitants seemed to him a very successful blend of Chinese and Tibetan; they were cleaner and handsomer than the average of either race.” [AM]
The real-world model for Hilton’s fantasy-novel is disputed, but the most popular location is the portion of Eastern Tibet that is now part of Yunnan. The mixed population with a large Han element would support such a location, a region that had not been ruled from Lhasa since the fall of the Tibetan Kingdom more than a thousand years ago.
Moving from fantasy to fact, Tibet comes across as superstitious and narrow even when described by sympathisers like Heinrich Harrer. In Seven Years In Tibet, he mentions that skiing was considered an insult to the mountain-gods and not allowed. The elite had rather constricted lives, but life for ordinary people was much narrower and less free.
I can’t find anything admirable in the traditional Tibetan custom of people prostrating themselves flat on the ground before their idols, not just once but repeatedly, thinking that by doing this they ‘gained merit’ for a better life in their next incarnation.
The Free Tibet crowd must believe that slavery, serfdom and a feudal system were necessary parts of what someone called Tibet’s “old, humanly rich, unprogressive culture”. They must think it was OK that 9 in 10 Tibetans were serfs. Find it acceptable that 1 in 20 was an actual slave. Be unconcerned that slaves and serfs had no legal protection against their lords, suffering oppression and mutilation without any redress. The Free Tibet crowd mostly don’t address these issues. You do get some evasive comments in the Dalai Lama’s autobiography and in the writings of Heinrich Harrer, Hollywood’s favourite SS man. On a return visit, he noted with irritation that servants were no longer as docile as they were in his day. (He himself was ranked as an aristocrat by the Tibetan elite when they decided to let him stay after his epic journey to Lhasa.)
Lots of visitors to Old Tibet said that the ordinary people were happy. Likewise lots of white visitors to the US South before their secession said the slaves were happy. In both Tibet and the USA, the former slaves said something very different, when they were finally free to speak.
The Free Tibet crowd would have trouble explaining why the Dalai Lama did nothing significant about Tibetan feudalism during the years he was ruling Western Tibet as an autonomous region of the People’s Republic. He made no serious reforms, apart from abolishing hereditary debts in 1953.[H] If the Dalai Lama remained the legitimate government after 1959, as he now claims, then the former serfs and slaves of Tibet must legally remain just that, because he’s still not done anything about it.
Feudalism in Western Tibet lasted till 1959, because Mao actually did respect the traditional autonomy of the territories governed from Lhasa. This moderate arrangement ended when a revolt was launched by members of the Tibetan elite who’d fled the end of feudalism in Eastern Tibet. Western Tibet had been left alone, apart from getting roads and an airport, which the Dalai Lama approved of. Eastern Tibet – Amdo and eastern Kham – had never been ruled by the Dalai Lama. Well before Mao took over, these territories had lost their official Tibetan identity and had become parts of various Chinese provinces. They remained rather lawless, but there was no legal right to autonomy until the Chinese Communists created various Autonomous Prefectures etc. for Tibetans and other minorities.
What the Chinese Communists did in Eastern Tibet was what any competent modern government would have done, ending lawlessness and carrying through a basic land reform. There were of course a lot of unhappy members of the displaced elite, including the Dalai Lama’s elder brother. (A man who was already a high Lama and a rising power when his little brother was ‘discovered’ for the top job.)
Western Tibet, the current Tibetan Autonomous Region, did have a long history of autonomy. But not independence. It hadn’t had a unified independent government for the last thousand years, though there were times when the region was fragmented and it’s hard to say that anyone ruled it.
For most of record history, there have been Tibetans but no Tibet. No independent political entity since the fall of the original Tibetan kingdom, which itself most likely defined Tibetan identity for a mix of mountain peoples. That kingdom lasted nearly 250 years, which was quite good for mediaeval politics. But there was no coherent follow-on. Left to themselves, Tibetans seemed content to view things locally. But for as long as it lasted, the Tibetan kingdom had been continuously intruding on the Tang Empire
Later centralisations were helped by outsiders – either Emperors of China or Mongols seeking to rule China’s Han core. No Chinese dynasty could feel secure unless it had some sort of control of the empire’s ‘Fringelanders’. This probably included some ethnic Tibetans, though identifying ancient peoples with any modern group is always hard. The inhabitants of Western Tibet were definitely ‘beyond the fringe’ in the eyes of Chinese rulers, too poor and too distant to matter. But once the Tibetan Kingdom made the connection in the era of the Tang Dynasty, they became part of the wider world that any Chinese ruler had to take notice of.
Had Tibetans organised their own centralised state under nominal Chinese overlordship, as had happened in Korea and Vietnam, this might have led on to a modern independent state. But in the early 1950s, Tibet was a zone of incoherence that would have been wide open to US interference, had the new rulers of China not established their own control.
‘Occupied Tibet’, said some of the protestors, and the Dalai Lama has said it as recently as 1987. Joanna Lumley – successor to Cathy Gale and Emma Peel in Britain’s spy-fantasy series The Avengers and a minor Bond Girl in the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – is currently a ‘big-name’ supporter of ‘Free Tibet’. She put it thus:
“But China invaded Tibet. It invaded it. So all this nonsense about them being the same country is absurd. It’s called Tibet. If it was part of China, it would be called China, wouldn’t it?” [G]
By that logic, Essex isn’t part of England and Tipperary can’t be part of Ireland. A lady born in what’s currently the Indian half of Kashmir ought to take a subtler view.[J] Of course she left very early, an offspring of the long-lasting British-in-India community that was dumped back home at independence. A lot of them took minimal notice of the ‘natives’ unless they actually had to administer them. While looking into the history of George Orwell, I was surprised to discover that he was born in Motihari in what is now Bihar.[K] Interestingly, this is also where Mahatma Gandhi started his ‘Satyagrah’ (Search for Truth). The farmers of the region were forced to sow either Opium or Indigo on part of their farm plots. Orwell’s father worked for the Opium Department, an entirely legal branch of Britain’s government of India. Modern biographers of Orwell show a predictable lack of interest in the matter: he was built up as a Cold War hero and it’s embarrassing to find him connected to the dirtier parts of European Imperialism. To attitudes that are far from dead: one book about Orwell that showed him being held by a small elderly black woman, presumably his nurse while he was in Motihari, but the book treats her as a non-person and labels it as Orwell (Eric Blair) as a baby. [L])
Orwell is noted for his loud complaints about other people being less than truthful. He was less than open about his own background, saying just that his father was a ‘civil servant’ rather than identifying him as an entirely legal narcotics boss within the British Imperial structure. We really need a new term, Bliaring, to label the incomplete and misleading truths spoken by Orwell / Blair and more recently by former Prime Minister Tony Blair.[M]
To get back to Tibet, the land we call Tibet had generally been on the fringes of the vast empire we call China. (I’ll detail later the names used by the people themselves.) This giant empire had different relations with a lot of countries on its fringes. Sometimes there was a vague overlordship which did not give the Chinese Emperor a role in choosing the next monarch, though it might be reported for confirmation. That was not the position in Western Tibet, which was much more closely bound whenever it had an identifiable government. Western Tibet was left to itself only when it was split between local rulers too weak and poor to be of interest to outsiders, or when the Chinese Empire was itself fragmented.
Western Tibet was unambiguously ruled as part of the Chinese Empire from 1720s – that’s longer than the history of the USA, longer than the constitutional continuity of most existing members of the United Nations. Even Britain only stabilised itself in 1688 after an successful invasion by William of Orange, the first fully successful invasion since 1066. As late as 1745, a bunch of enthusiastic Scottish Highlanders put the British state in real peril and might have changed world history if they’d not lost their nerve and turned back. So a political relationship that’s been solid since the 1720s must be treated as definitive.
When the Chinese Empire was incorporated into modern politics, Tibet was universally accepted as part of the Empire. No sovereign government or authorised international body has ever at any time accepted Tibet as sovereign.
(The “International Commission of Jurists” ruled in favour of Tibetan exiles, but they are a self-appointed body with no valid authority. International Cowboy Jurisprudence would be a more fitting name. They also failed to say definitely that it was independent: they merely criticised the way it was ruled.)
Until Tibet became an issue in the Cold War, most English-speakers accepted it as part of China. The British in India had some idea of detaching Western Tibet and adding it to British India. They pushed the idea that the Chinese Empire had ‘ suzerainty’ rather than actual sovereignty. But the famous 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was clear that this was not an independent country:
“Though the whole of Tibet is under the suzerainty of China, the government of the country is divided into two distinct administrations, the one under the rule of the Dalai Lama of Lhasa, the other under local kings or chiefs, and comprising a number of ecclesiastical fiefs. Both are directed and controlled by the high Chinese officials residing at Lhasa, Sining Fu; and the capital of the Chinese province of Szechuen [Sichuan]….
“The Anglo-Russian convention of 1907 determined the following conditions with respect to Tibet – the recognition of the suzerain rights of China and the territorial and administrative integrity of the country…
“In January 1908 the final instalment of the Tibetan indemnity was paid to Great Britain, and the Chumbi valley was evacuated. The Dalai Lama was now summoned to Peking, where he obtained the imperial authority to resume his administration in place of the provisional governors appointed as a result of the British mission. He retained in office the high officials then appointed, and pardoned all Tibetans who had assisted the mission.
“But in 1909 Chinese troops were sent to operate on the Szechuen frontier against certain insurgent lamas, whom they handled severely. When the Dalai Lama attempted to give orders that they should cease, the Chinese amban in Lhasa disputed his authority, and summoned the Chinese troops to enter the city. They did so, and the Dalai Lama fled to India in February 1910, staying at Darjeeling. Chinese troops followed him to the frontier, and he was deposed by imperial decree. The British government, in view of the apparent intention of China to establish effective suzerainty in Tibet, drew the attention of the government at Peking to the necessity of strictly observing its treaty obligations, and especially pointing out that the integrity of the frontier states of Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim must be respected. To the Dalai Lama, who had attempted to obtain British intervention at Peking, it was made clear that he personally had no claim to this, as the British government could only recognize the de facto government in Tibet.” [F]
It’s more than a thousand years since Tibet was ruled by an independent Lhasa-based ruler. Before that, there were Tibetan kings who ruled a large Central Asian empire and even managed to sack the capital of the Chinese Empire in the declining days of the Tang dynasty. But they also chose to be nominal subordinates of those Chinese Emperors, defining themselves as ‘Nephew’ with the Emperor as ‘Uncle’. That’s normal in feudalism: anybody might be waging war on anybody else, even their official overlord. Far from trying to separate from China, the Tibetans tried to grab what they could in the disorderly times of the later Tang Emperors. A Tibetan army captured the Chinese capital Chang’an in 763, at a time when the Tang dynasty was weakened by the 14-year An Shi Rebellion. Some sources say that they tried to establish a puppet emperor, though this did not succeed.
Feudalism is a wasteful and self-destructive system. When the Tibetan kingdom fell, it fragmented. I’ll detail this process later, along with several complex re-unifications. The Chinese government are correct to say that Tibet remained part of the fringes of the Chinese Empire, but you could argue about whether this amounted to sovereign rule for much of that period. But from the 1720s, things become much clearer. From 1727 to 1912, the Chinese Emperors appointed an official called an Amban to share power with various Tibetan dignities.[A] Though the Dalai Lamas were nominally God-Kings, very few had real power in this period. The 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Dalai Lamas all died young – it is widely believed that the last three were murdered by other Tibetans to stop them getting the power to which they were officially entitled.
Tibet’s first claim to be independent came in 1912. In 1904-5, the British had pushed up from India and occupied Lhasa after slaughtering a brave but badly-armed Tibetan army. The Lhasa government looked to the Chinese Emperor for protection. The Chinese Empire sent an army in 1909-10, but it behaved badly and alienated many Tibetans. In the complex politics that followed, the 13th Dalai Lama was driven into exile, complaining about the behaviour of the Amban and seeking to get the Emperor to control him – but the Emperor was a powerless child, the pathetic ‘Last Emperor’ who ended his days as a gardener in the People’s Republic. [N]
When the Chinese Empire collapsed and became the Chinese Republic in 1911-12, the 13th Dalai Lama staged a come-back and claimed to be ruler of an independent Tibet. But no one recognised Tibet’s independence, apart from a short-lived traditionalist Mongolian state that was overthrow in 1924 and was replaced by the Mongolian People’s Republic. At one time I was ready to believe the loudly-voiced claim that Western Tibet had functional independence from 1912 through to 1951: I am now confident that this is untrue. At the Simla Convention of 1913-14, the British tried to define the territory actually controlled by the Lhasa government as ‘Outer Tibet’, with ‘Inner Tibet’ being the former provinces of Kham and Amdo, which the Chinese Empire had digested into upland portions of regular provinces. Simla would have officially limited China’s authority in Western Tibet (Outer Tibet) to ‘suzerainty’ rather than sovereignty. The Lhasa government was willing to settle for this, but the Chinese Republic thought it too big a concession. The actual text says:
“Article 2. The Governments of Great Britain and China recognizing that Tibet is under the suzerainty of China, and recognizing also the autonomy of Outer Tibet, engage to respect the territorial integrity of the country, and to abstain from interference in the administration of Outer Tibet (including the selection and installation of the Dalai Lama), which shall remain in the hands of the Tibetan Government at Lhasa.
“The Government of China engages not to convert Tibet into a Chinese province. The Government of Great Britain engages not to annex Tibet or any portion of it.
“Article 3. Recognizing the special interest of Great Britain, in virtue of the geographical position of Tibet, in the existence of an effective Tibetan Government, and in the maintenance of peace and order in the neighbourhood of the frontiers of India and adjoining States, the Government of China engages, except as provided in Article 4 of this Convention, not to send troops into Outer Tibet, nor to station civil or military officers, nor to establish Chinese colonies in the country. Should any such troops or officials remain in Outer Tibet at the date of the signature of this Convention, they shall be withdrawn within a period not exceeding three months.” [E]
This was more than the even the weak and corrupt Chinese Republic could stomach. Britain’s scheme was rejected. There is a widespread belief that Britain’s next move would have been to annex ‘Outer Tibet’. If it was the plan then the First World War ruined it, along with many other British imperial schemes. At the time, most of the world was ruled by Europeans or European settlers. The three biggest exceptions were China, Japan and the Ottoman Empire (though there were others, including Ethiopia and Thailand).
In 1914, Japan was a British ally and useful in keeping Britain’s Far Eastern possessions safe. China had two governments claiming sovereignty over the whole country, and both of them were persuaded to join the Allied cause in World War One. Britain meantime was targeting the other major survivor, the Ottoman Empire. The motives, actions and the failure are detailed by Pat Walsh in his book Ireland’s Great War On Turkey. The First World War was sold to the public in both Britain and Ireland as an idealistic defence of poor little Belgium and valiant little Serbia, with Britain at that time supportive of a Serbian claim on Bosnia that was to be treated as criminal in the 1990s. But though the war was sold on those issues, a large proportion of Irish volunteers were directed to the blundering British assault at Gallipoli.
In the chaos after World War One, China remained fragmented. The 13th Dalai Lama ruled one of the fragments, but his government never got recognition as a legal government of a sovereign state.
After the 13th Dalai Lama died, the Chinese Republic played a role in the acceptance of the current Dalai Lama as the authentic successor. At the time, it was assumed by outsiders that Tibet’s attempt at independence had been abandoned and that they were settling for autonomy. When installing their new god-king, they flew the flag of the Chinese Republic and sung the central government’s National Anthem. It was seen as marking “the cordial friendship and political ties between Tibet and the central government”.[C]
That happened in 1940, during the Sino-Japanese war and also during the second Kuomintang-Communist alliance. The USA at that time wanted this partnership to continue – a lot of US citizens in China recognised that the Kuomintang were corrupt and the Communists efficient: it was not just left-wingers like Edgar Snow who drew this conclusion. Mao was willing to continue the coalition, but the Kuomintang refused and the USA gave them a lot of help in consolidating themselves in Chinese territory they had recovered when Imperial Japan surrendered. It was an unwise choice. By 1949 it was clear that the Communists were defeating the Kuomintang, and the Lhasa government reacted foolishly. Their smartest move might have been to have asked the new Republic of India to annex them, in the same way that the USA annexed Texas from Mexico at the Texan’s request. Instead they went back to their old claim to independence, which no one had ever recognised or was likely to recognise.
The Lhasa government may also have failed to realise that 110 years of weakness had ended and that China was strong again. But if the People’s Republic was the legitimate successor of the Kuomintang Republic – a point that the USA denied up until the 1970s – then Western Tibet was part of its heritage and its responsibility. No Chinese ruler could drop the claim to Western Tibet without outraging Chinese national feeling.
Mao did respect the traditional autonomy of Western Tibet, the part of Tibet ruled from Lhasa. Eastern Tibet was another matter: officially incorporated in various Chinese provinces. Western Tibet was allowed to be an exception, but Eastern Tibet was treated like other minority areas within Chinese provinces. That was the cause of the 1959 uprising.
Any self-respecting Chinese government had to restore the national dignity, including kicking the British Navy off the Yangtze in the famous ‘Amethyst Incident’. (One of the first occasion in more than a century that a Chinese government was able to assert control of its own territory against foreign powers.)
Any government that wanted to modernise China had to assert normal government authority over the whole country. Huge chunks of China had been functionally independent of the Chinese central government between 1911 and 1950. Sometimes there were two plausible claimants to be the ‘Chinese central government’, and warlords switched between them at will. Some of the warlords controlled a province or two for a good number of years and were almost independent rulers. But almost all of the regional rulers did accept that they were part of the Chinese Republic, Zhongguo. The Mongolian Republic held out, under Soviet protection. There were two attempts to set up an East Turkistan Republic in what is currently Xinjiang – separate efforts in different regions and with very different ideas of what the independent state should be. The most serious form of separatism in Manchukuo, recognised as an independent state by quite a few states in the 1930s and 1940s, though it was actually a Japanese puppet. Manchuria had been opened up to Han settlement in the mid-19th century, having previously kept closed as the sacred homeland of the ruling minority.
All of this is relevant to Tibet, because it was Chiang Kai-shek’s failure to respond to Japan’s take-over of a huge chunk of China that undermined his authority. So when Chiang Kai-shek lost power, there was not going to be much sympathy for a gimcrack government in Lhasa claiming to be independent, and seeking help from the USA at the same time as China was fighting them in Korea. Yet Mao’s initial approach was surprisingly moderate. That was normally his way: he would try a mild approach and only get harsh if moderate methods were failing to get the results he’d been hoping for.
Many people will have got their impression of the Tibet issue from the Hollywood film of Harrer’s Seven Years In Tibet. It is beautifully made drama and is said to give a real impression of the place, using footage filmed in a portion of the Andes that happens to resemble Tibet. An above-average drama – and also a pack of lies. Plausible but untruthful from beginning to end.
The first bit of nonsense happens when Harrer is about to set off on a mountaineering expedition to a peak in British India. He is hailed as a ‘German hero’ by a Nazi official, and replies “Thank you, but I’m Austrian”. To have said that in 1939 would have been extremely bold, since Austria had been part of Greater Germany since April 1938. Harrer says nothing about any such remark, and it is out of keeping with what he does admit to. He had made his name by being one of four climbers to make the first successful ascent of the notorious Eiger North Face (Nordwand in German.) His three fellow-climbers were not part of the 1939 expedition, even though two of them had started a day later and caught up. It may have helped that Harrer was by then a member of the SS, never a requirement for citizens of the Third Reich. SS membership was generally an honour given to committed and racially-pure Nazi supporters. He had also been a member of Nazi organisations before they were legal in Austria, or else he falsely claimed such membership.[V] With certainty, he gave no sign of anti-Nazi sentiments during the 1930s. He also did not voice them in his 1950s book, when a rejection of his past would have been a sign of sincere regret. I doubt Harrer ever did regret or wish to reject his past: he just said the minimum he could get away with when the matter was publicised in the 1990s.
The film simplifies later events – Harrer made two break-outs from the British internment camp, the first with an Italian general – but is not wildly misleading on that part of his history. It next wanders away from truth with a dramatic encounter with unnamed Tibetan bandits. Harrer’s own account is very different: a series of alarming but inconclusive meetings with people he calls ‘Khampas’:
“‘Khampa’ must mean an inhabitant of the eastern province of Tibet, which is called Kham. But you never heard the name mentioned without an undertone of fear and warning. At last we realised that the word was synonymous with ‘robber’.” [P]
Harrer was writing in 1953. Khampas fighting the Chinese Red Army were later defined as warriors of freedom rather than bandits objecting to being put out of business. Had Italy gone Communist, the Sicilian Mafia and its allies in the Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta might have done something similar – and there was a brief and insignificant attempt at Sicilian separatism using bandits for firepower. Regarding the Khampas, their history is a complex business which I will not examine here. Suffice it to say that the film invents events, having Harrer and his companion ride off safely on stolen horses. It’s absurd to think that real bandits or any sort of nomad would be so sloppy as to let their horses be stolen from an overnight camp.
Harrer in his book explains how he and his companion got some official Tibetan permits to travel by claiming they wanted to seek refuge in neutral Nepal, while all the time hoping to get to Lhasa. The film has him wave a Red Cross document to fool an official, who supposedly can’t tell the difference between Western typescript and Tibet’s own very distinctive alphabet.
The film’s account of his arrival in Lhasa and settling down is in line with Harrer, apart from a romance that owes nothing to anything he mentioned. The main wave of falsehoods come near then end, the point where the story ceases to be personal and becomes highly political, touching on issues still ‘live’ in the global struggle for power and identity.
The film shows shocking violence by the Chinese Army against Tibetans, including helpless non-combatants. This contradicts what people reported at the time. Harrer himself says:
“In 1910 the invading Chinese had plundered and burned when they came to Lhasa, and the inhabitants were paralyzed with fear that these outrages would be repeated. Nevertheless it is fair to say that during the present war the Chinese troops had showed themselves disciplined and tolerant. and Tibetans who had been captured and then released were saying how well they had been treated.” [Q]
Equally striking is the Chinese generals arriving for negotiations, being rude and trampling through a sacred mandala made of sand. Unforgettable if it had happened, which of course it did not. Nor were any Chinese negotiators reported as having said ‘religion is poison’, in the way the film shows. This remark is alleged to have been made by Mao in a private conversation with the Dalai Lama several years later. (And is probably false, as I detail in another article.)
All serious sources agree that the Chinese Army initially showed great respect for Tibetan religion and culture and would certainly not have trampled through a mandala. It is by comparison a minor invention the Chinese generals arrive by air, several years before Lhasa Gonggar Airport was constructed. The Chinese People’s Army have always been versatile, but actually they came by land across a country with no good roads. The Dalai Lama went by road and mountain trail when he attended the National People’s Congress in Beijing in 1954.
In the film, a broadcast by the new Communist government says that “the remote kingdom of Tibet is an integral part of the Chinese territory and must join the great new Republic.” They would certainly not have put it like that. There was in fact a pledge to “liberate Tibet and Taiwan”. The agreement under which the Lhasa government ruled till 1959 said “the Tibetan nationality is one of the nationalities with a long history within the boundaries of China” and speaks of the Local Government of Tibet, which shall return to the big family of the motherland. [R]
The whole sequence of negotiations and the installation of the Dalai Lama as ruler are out of sequence in the film. The 14th Dalai Lama was enthroned as the temporal leader of Tibet on 17 November 1950. A delegation was sent to Beijing and agreed the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet.[Q] Meantime the Dalai Lama had left Lhasa and took refuge on the border with India and Sikkim. The Dalai Lama said later that he disliked the agreement, but returned to Lhasa and for several years tried to work within its terms. He was even elected to be the Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the People’s Republic’s first National People’s Congress which he attended in 1954. That’s a detail that ‘Free Tibet’ biographers tend to leave out.[S]
The film makes Harrer’s son a key theme, but in the original book Harrer does not mention his wife or son. His autobiography explains that he had in fact been married and divorced, as the film shows. But his ex-wife’s new husband was killed in the war and Harrer’s son was raised by his ex-wife’s mother.[AA] Harrer gives brief details of his contact with his son, but nothing to support what the film shows. And while the film has the young Dalai Lama denying a father-son relationship between himself and Harrer, Harrer himself says it was just that.[AB]
That’s the film of Seven Years In Tibet – nice cinematography, shame about the facts. Typical of Hollywood’s approach to history: why be constrained by facts when the public are happy to swallow well-crafted lies? Besides, it is well-known that the US public will not stand for inconvenient truths. The epic Heaven’s Gate showed the sordid reality behind the USA’s Western myth, how the original idea of small independent farmers was shoved aside in favour of ranchers producing beef for the world market. The critics hated it and most of the public stayed away, producing financial disaster for United Artists. Even the Wikipedia at one time branded it as a “a highly fictionalized account of the Johnson County War”, though they failed to mention any specific detail that was wrong.[AL] The Internet Movie Database says that “the real James Averill never studied at Harvard, he attended Cornell”, which is hardly a major change. There is no flaw in Heaven’s Gate that isn’t common to all Westerns: it was punished for showing something like the truth, illustrating how the original idea of a Republic of free farmers was undermined.
Heaven’s Gate appeared and was panned in 1980, the same year that the US elected Reagan, offering smiles and lies and flattery to ordinary US citizens at the same time as he diverted money towards the rich. Ordinary US citizens have seen their level of income stagnate at 1970s levels, while the extra wealth went to the rich.[AE] This hasn’t happened anywhere else – Britain has got more unequal, but most Britons are much better off than they were in the 1970s. The development of the USA from the 1980s onwards shows the power of lies, and Seven Years In Tibet is one small part of it.
The other big factor in the Dalai Lama’s reputation is his being a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize? True, he won it in 1989, and it may have been a gesture intended to insult China in the aftermath of the crushing of the Tiananmen protests earlier that year. At the time, it looked like the whole of Leninism might be collapsing – in fact every Leninist state in Asia survived and most remain strong. The weakest is the Mongolian Republic, which had always looked to the Soviet Union and accepted a Western-style electoral system in 1990. The ruling Communists remain the largest single party, have been in power from 1990-1996, 2000-2004 and 2006 to the present (April 2010). Elections that they won in 2009 were accepted as broadly fair by international observers, even though the leader of the opposition called them a fraud and there were riots in response to this claim.[AG.]
Leninist rule collapsed in Middle-Europe, where it had been largely imposed by the Soviet army and where whatever popular support it had had was lost in the 1960s and 1970s. But the Communist Party of the Russian Federation was getting a quarter of the vote in the late 1990s, after it became clear that the reform process had backfired badly. It remains a significant electoral force, despite Putin’s reassertion of Russia’s independence. Russia has very much not rejected its Communist past, even though it’s quite possible that some other leader in 1917 could have led Russia on some other path. In China, the ‘Blue Republic’ that had succeeded the Empire was a dismal failure, as I’ll detail later. Mao’s heritage remains secure among the majority of Chinese. Western attempts to undermine it have been foolish.
The Nobel Peace Prize is not some abstract award that is above politic. Rather, it is controlled by the Norwegian Parliament – an odd arrangement stipulated by the will of Alfred Nobel, at a time when Norway and Sweden were still loosely linked in a political union. Nobel died in 1896, Norway became independent in 1905 after both sides contemplated war and the Swedes decided it was not worth it. The Peace Prize began in 1901 and remains in the gift of Norwegian politicians. They distance themselves by appointing a Committee, but is seems mostly composed of former parliamentarians and would reflect their broad world-view. [AH]
Norway remains in NATO and was involved in the US operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Norwegians have a very enlightened attitude about the welfare of their own people: they are not so enlightened when it comes to foreigners. They share the common European habit of preferring an ineffective government that seems to share western values to an effective government that has its own outlook and wants to go its own way.
And how noble is the Nobel Peace Prize? Past winners include Theodore Roosevelt (1906), a man who made his name in the Spanish-American War and who organised the secession of Panama from Columbia when Columbia put too high a price for cooperation in building the Panama Canal. Another winner was Woodrow Wilson in 1919, even though he had led the USA into the First World War after being elected on an apparent promise to stay out. Winner in 1925 was Austen Chamberlain, organiser of the Britain’s the First World War campaigns in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and a strong supporter of Britain’s Black-and-Tan war against Ireland under Lloyd George. Some of the other winners have better records, but they were all solidly from Europe and its overseas settlements until 1960, when Zulu leader Albert Lutuli won. He was President of the African National Congress, in South Africa, so presumably it was an effort to push white-ruled South Africa into moving into line with changing Western attitudes. Mahatma Gandhi had earlier been nominated five times but never got it, with no prize awarded in 1948, the year of his death. It has been claimed that the prize could not be awarded posthumously, but they did just this in 1961 for Dag Hammarskjold.
Adolph Hitler was seriously considered for the 1938 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Neville Chamberlain, who had kindly given Hitler everything he’d asked for in Czechoslovakia.[Z] If Hitler had held off waging war another year or two he might have got Peace Prize – instead he invaded Norway, which rather spoiled their view of him.
Henry Kissinger winning in 1973 has been widely considered as making the prize absurd. This wasn’t true in the light of past winners. The greater honour went to co-negotiator Le Duc Tho, who turned it down because there was still no peace at the time.[Y] Actual peace was obtained the next year, when Saigon was captured and renamed Ho Chi Minh City. But Le Duc Tho showed some dignity in refusing the gimcrack award, a distinction he shares with Jean-Paul Sartre, who refused the Literature Prize in 1964.
The prestige of the Nobel prizes is based on the three awards for science – one for Physics, one for Chemistry and one for ‘Physiology or Medicine’, which has mostly meant biology. These three science prizes are awarded by Swedes and are the most widely respected indicators of scientific excellence. Not perfect: there have been some controversies: for instance a Chinese born American physicist called Chien-Shiung Wu contributed to the work that won the 1957 Nobel Physics Prize for disproving parity, but did not share the prize, which is quite often split between three people, and was so split in both 1956 and 1958. Many people think that it made a difference that Chien-Shiung Wu was female. The same applies to the 1974 award for Pulsars: Jocelyn Bell Burnell was the first to notice something odd, but she was a female graduate student and got passed over. Fred Hoyle was one of those who protested at the time, and he did not get a share in the 1983 prize that got given to William Alfred Fowler for work based on Hoyle’s brilliant prediction of an energy level crucial to the synthesis of elements inside of stars. In Chemistry, Dmitri Mendeleev missed the 1906 prize by one vote, even though his Periodic Table was a basic advance. He might have got it later, but he died in 1907. [AJ] The science prizes have never been awarded posthumously
There is much less controversy over the Nobel Prize in Literature, mainly because no one can be confident about who does or does not merit it. Some of the winners were already famous, while others remain obscure despite their Nobel laurels. A lot of writers acknowledged to be great did not get it. Some winners including Sinclair Lewis and Pearl Buck are still read but no longer viewed as highly as they once were. It is much harder to know which writers will matter long-term than it is with scientists.
I’d also say that the Nobel Prizes have earned their status, for all their faults. Other prizes have just the same faults and are often considerably more biased. It’s the best standard there is for science. Even the peace prize makes sense if you see it as a reward for achieving peace rather than for life-long dedication to good causes. As for literature, a global standard not intended to favour any one language is bound to be tricky.
The same tolerance should not be shown towards the “Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences“, established and funded by the Bank of Sweden. They somehow persuaded the Nobel Committee to let dubious economists be given the glamour that was actually merited by the various scientists, writers and peace-makers. It has been awarded since 1969, and has lent credability to characters like Hayek and Friedman – I have detailed elsewhere why their theories are nonsense.[AK] The global financial system is now overstrained with alarming debts, because a lot of people were persuaded that wildly unrealistic theories had the soundness of real science.
To summarise, Nobel Prizes are distinguised but imperfect, reflecting a Swedish or Norwegian viewpoint rather than some Higher Truth. You don’t need to be very special or virtuous to win the Nobel Peace Prize, though some worthy winners have been selected to keep up the value of the award. It has also been used as a reward to politicians who make an important peace, even if their lifetime record is rather warlike.
I said all this well before the award of the 2009 Peace Prize to Obama, which led to a sudden rush of publicity for the fact that the prize is a gift of Norwegian politicians. I’d called it ‘The Nobel Prize for Pleasing Norwegian Parliamentarians‘ back in 2008, before Obama was even elected. I agree with those who said it was absurd giving it to Obama when he has not yet made any peace anywhere.
Since no peace has so far been made over Tibet, the assumption is that the Dalai Lama counts in terms of a lifetime’s virtuous living. Is this reasonable?
For most of his life, the Dalai Lama has allowed himself be used by the West as a minor front in a general campaign against People’s China. He has never dropped his 1959 claim that Tibet was always independent. This claim applies not just to the area which the Dalai Lamas officially ruled, but also to a vast ‘Greater Tibet’ that includes ethnically mixed areas that have been parts of Chinese provinces for a long time.
He has also never said ‘let Tibetans decide’: they might not choose him, given an independently-supervised election or referendum. He insists rather that he retains his authority as ruler. He has always kept open the option of saying that Tibet is sovereign and under Chinese occupation.
For the Dalai Lama to say he’s seeking autonomy leaves it open to him to claim something else if the time is right. The Chinese refuse to trust him without the sort of clear commitment that he has always avoided.
By international law, as defined by the West and now accepted by everyone, Tibet was part of the Chinese Empire from at least the 18th century. And it remained part of its successor states, since there is no established right of secession or self-determination even when the nature of the state changes profoundly. The notion of self-determination is mentioned in various international agreements, but always in a vague way that establishes nothing definite. Actual secession occurs when an existing state finds that the would-be secessionists are more trouble than they are worth. Or when a state is conquered and the conqueror chooses to carve it up.
It would be nice if we had a better system, but we don’t. The USA is currently the main obstacle to a better system. Given unique power in the 1990s, both Bush Senior and Clinton chose to be dishonest and greedy. Rather than reform anything, they used their power to break such laws as had been painfully established since the end of World War Two. They had the chance of peace, and preferred chaos.
If there were a realistic chance of some new global order that would let the various mountain peoples and other minority groups develop at their own pace and in their own way, then I’d support it. But that is exactly what Globalisation will not tolerate, for mountain peoples or for anyone else. Iraq was invaded and Yugoslavia encouraged to fragment, precisely because they were not sufficiently obedient to SubAmericanisation and had a hankering for living their own lives. If the US had not messed up so decisively in Iraq, it might have gone much further. One source claims:
“Since September 11, 2001, there has been a sea-change in US Intelligence attitudes, requirements and capabilities. Old operational plans have been dusted off and updated. Previous assets re-activated. Tibet and the perceived weakness of China’s position there will probably have been fully reassessed.” [AR]
My view of the wars launched after 9/11 is that they were intended to intimidate the developing world, with China the first large target. But if China ever yields, then other countries will be added the list, including the Republic of India. India’s left-wing democracy escaped the CIA plots that brought down similar regimes elsewhere in the world, perhaps because the USA saw India as a necessary balance against China. Perhaps they also feared the strength of Communism within India – Communist parties regularly win state elections in West Bengal and Kerala. The Republic of India is safe only as long as China is seen as the greater threat, and I suspect that Indian politicians realise this, or at least the smarter ones do. Their independence depends on the world being in balance. China shows no sign of wishing to radically change the balance and very definitely does not have the strength. China and India have a common objective in letting the gradual power-shift continue and have much to fear from US attempts at hegemony.
Both China and the Republic of India seek hegemony over the various minorities on their sovereign territory. This is a lesser evil than the prospect of a vulgar version of US values swallowing the whole world and stamping out all separate identities.
The Western media are keen to repeat the Dalai Lama’s charge of ‘Cultural Genocide’. I’ve not seen anyone at all give the actual background to the term, or why no one other than Beijing gets accused of it in the Western mass media. There is however a decent write-up at the Wikipedia.[AC]. The concept goes back as far as we have records of human opinions about culture. The term itself has been given some official sanction by the United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which also calls it ‘ethnocide’. The Wikipedia says:
“It should be noted that this declaration is only a draft. Were it to pass, it would be a “soft law” instrument and would not present binding legal obligations on UN parties.”
There is one bloody obvious reason why ‘Cultural Genocide’ isn’t going to be criminalised any time soon – the USA is the prime offender. Their official ideology in the 19th century was of a ‘melting-pot’ in which the original features of immigrants would be lost and a standardised sort of US citizen would emerge. There was also a strong feeling that these same standards should be spread to the rest of the world, making China just like Kansas City, SubAmericanising the rest of the world into an inferior copy of the USA’s own values. Where they have had influence, places like the Philippines and Cuba before Castro, they have been quite successful in doing just that.
Even on the limited matter of sovereignty and war, uniform rules applied impartially are just what the USA avoided during its brief 1990s dominance. Britain also played a foolish and wicked role in that period, snatching some small gains and not seeing that the process was bound to fail in the longer run. The US vision of a New World Order was one in which the USA gives orders and other countries obey them. The new-born Russian Republic listened for a time, slumped into poverty and weakness and then recovered. Some US idiots sneered at Russia as ‘Upper Volta with nuclear weapons’. They were then surprised when a recovering Russia viewed the USA as a false friend. They were even more surprised when Russia trashed Georgia after Georgia tried to wipe out South Ossetia. The USA made its disapproval clear, but Russia was not bothered at all.
Losing Russia also lost them China. In the early 1990s, there were undoubtedly many Chinese who saw 1989 as a lost opportunity to overthrow an ‘outdated’ Leninist system of the sort that had fallen in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But when Chinese with knowledge of world affairs saw the longer-term outcome, many of them changed their mind. The only positive gainers from the Soviet collapse were the nations of Middle Europe. (We used to call the region ‘Eastern Europe’, but in fact it fits very nicely with Western Europe and has maybe more in common with Western Europe than with its eastern neighbours.) When the Soviet Union collapsed, Middle Europe suffered economic damage but got cultural and political freedom in exchange. China already had this, Mao had successfully detached China from the Soviet bloc in 1959-1961.
Back in 1989, I was all for a collapse of decayed Leninist power and sorry that the assault on it had failed in China. This was a massive error on my part, though perhaps no one could have guessed at the time that the West would have behaved as badly as it did. The policies of the 1990s stand in stark contrast to the relatively wise and generous policies of 1945-1960. It took me some time to realise that the USA was being as wicked and stupid as it actually was.
I have no doubt that it would be a much worse world today, if China had succumbed to Globalisation and US domination in the 1990s. It would also have been a somewhat better world if Tibet’s distinctiveness had been better preserved. But as I’ll detail later, what went wrong was in large measure the Dalai Lama’s fault.
[C] Boy, 6, becomes 14th Dalai Lama in weird, ageless rites on Thursday. The Billings Gazette, February 18th 1940, found in an on-line newspaper archive.
[D] Wikipedia entry for the Yongle Emperor
[G] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/apr/12/television.pressandpublishing]. Joanna Lumley played a minor role identified as ‘The English Girl’ in the Bond film. She’s also the recorded voice that welcomes you to the AOL internet service in the UK.
[H] Page 86, Freedom in Exile: the autobiography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet, by the Dalai Lama. Hodder & Stoughton 1990. I give the name of the book as it appears, though it seems excessively long – there’s another Dalai Lama in Neasden, maybe? Quite possibly it is ghost-written, as are many books attributed to the famous. But if so, he should have got a better ghost to do the job for him.
[L] If I remember correctly, it was a hardback version of George Orwell: A Life by Bernard Crick. Not a bad book, but full of old-fashioned prejudices.
[M] The big 2003 demonstration had ‘Bliar’ as one of its slogans; I think it was one of the Trotskyist contributions. The term has been used occasionally since, but not regularly. We do need it, to identify statements that are not quite lies, but that are obviously intended to communicate a viewpoint that the communicator does not believe to be true.
[N] This was Puyi, the ‘Last Emperor’ featured in Bertolucci’s film of that name. He was made emperor in 1908, after the suspicious death of his uncle, the Guangxu Emperor who had tried to reform the Empire but had been made powerless by a coup in 1898
[P] Seven Years In Tibet, towards the end of chapter 5.
[Q] Seven Years In Tibet, towards the end of chapter 16.
[V] Heinrich Harrer, Beyond Seven Years in Tibet, Labyrinth Press 2007. Page 44
[Z] Tariq Ali, The ignoble Nobel, [http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/dec/07/usa.comment]
[AA] Heinrich Harrer, Beyond Seven Years in Tibet, page 145.
[AB] Ibid., page 153.
[AC] A 1994 draft of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples uses the phrase “cultural genocide” but does not define what it means. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_genocide]
[AG] “Opposition supporters allege the poll was rigged, although international monitors say it was free and fair.”. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7486794.stm]
[AK] Milton Friedman, Banker’s Pet [http://www.ltureview.com/user/print_article.php?id=400]. Also Hayek and the Liberalettes, currently not available on-line. Likewise Orwell on Hayek and Dickens, in which I quote some sharp insights that George Orwell made back in 1944.
[AL] This was true up to the 9th July 2008, when the article was re-worded. The movie seems to have fictionalised the character of James Averill, but it isn’t wrong about the main events.
[AM] Lost Horizon, Chapter 6.
[AO] See Angus Maddison’s The World Economy: Historical Statistics, OECD 2003. This is explained in much more detail in another article of mine.
[AP] [http://www.historians.org/Projects/GIroundtable/French/French1.htm], [http://artsweb.bham.ac.uk/vichy/empire.htm]