Thursday, April 26, 2007

Panchen Lama's 18th Birthday Banner Hang

Members of Students for a Free Tibet hang a banner Wednesday on a bridge over University Avenue connecting two buildings on the UW-Madison campus. Their banner calls for the release of the Panchen Lama of Tibet, an important spiritual and political leader detained by the Chinese government in 1995.

Plan to raise Tibet's flag here raises China's ire
Pat Schneider
The Capital Times
Published: April 26, 2007

It would mean a lot to Madison area Tibetans to see their flag fly over the City-County Building during a visit by the Dalai Lama next week, said Sherab Lhatsang.

"In Tibet, if you possess a Tibetan flag or honor the Dalai Lama, you can be locked up," Lhatsang said Wednesday.

Lhatsang is a leader in the local Tibetan community, estimated at more than 500 residents of Dane County. Many came to the United States through a resettlement program that followed the 1950 invasion of Tibet by China. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people.

The government of China, through its consul in Chicago, has objected to the city of Madison's plans to raise the flag over City Hall next week.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, Consul Zhiyuan Ji described himself as "astonished" that the Madison city government would take official action to welcome the Dalai Lama.

He is "not merely a religious figure, but a political exile who has long been engaged in activities of separating Tibet from China," Ji wrote.

Mayoral spokesman George Twigg said Wednesday that the city would go ahead with its welcome for the Dalai Lama.

"We have no plans to ask for any changes to any aspect of his visit," Twigg said.
The mayor, he said, declined to meet with the Chinese consul.

A resolution passed on a voice vote by the City Council on April 18 calls for a welcome for the Dalai Lama and "appropriate placements" of the Tibetan flag in his honor.

The suggestion is that the flag fly over the City-County Building, but since the building's operating rules allow only the U.S. flag to be flown, an exception would be required.

The City-County Liaison Committee will meet at 7:30 tonight in Room 201 of the City-County Building to consider an exception to permit the Tibetan flag to be flown.

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said his organization has taken no official position on the issue, but that fundamental separation of church and state must be preserved.

"Our government is a secular government. Since the Dalai Lama is a religious leader, we cannot use our government buildings or money to endorse him," Barker said.

Clearly, the Dalai Lama is a political leader as well as a religious leader. But so are many others, Barker said. "What about Pat Robertson? Would we fly a flag at the City-County Building to honor him? He's a political leader too."

"There should be a separation from religions you like as well as religions you don't like," he said.
"We would hope that the Dalai Lama himself would ask the flag not to be flown. He should be sensitive to the social conflict that arises when you mix religion and government," Barker said.

Lhatsang, who has been a leader in the Wisconsin Tibetan Association, said about 100 supporters, Tibetans and members of Students for a Free Tibet were on hand when the resolution honoring the Dalai Lama was approved.

"People were really moved when the resolution was approved," he recalled.

This is the second time in just weeks that the Chinese government has reacted to largely symbolic government measures in Wisconsin.

Last month, two representatives of the Chinese consulate visited state Rep. Joe Parisi, D-Madison, to express their displeasure of his sponsorship of a resolution commemorating a 1959 Tibetan uprising against China.

Hilary Edwards, Midwest coordinator for Students for a Free Tibet, said the Chinese government has of late demonstrated greater interest in such measures, as it tries to burnish its image before hosting the 2008 World Olympics by diverting attention from its relationship with Tibet.

"China is working hard at having a more presentable image to show the rest of the world," Edwards said.

"There's a lot of support for the Tibetan community in Wisconsin," she said.

Ji's letter, where he points to Wisconsin's growth of trade with China and advises careful reconsideration of the wisdom of welcoming the Dalai Lama, is nothing short of a threat, she said.

"I don't see how it could be interpreted as anything else," she said.


Anonymous said...

I love Tibet and Dalai Lama. I strongly recommend you reading this article carefully if
you truly love and want to help Tibet. As a Buddhist, I want to share with you that the most powerful thing in the world is clear mind and conscience. Tibetan will not be helped by ignorance, simplicity, naivete, stupidity, and lies.

thought it is quite a good comment by a western scholar.


The histories of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam are heavily
laced with violence. Throughout the ages, religionists have claimed a divine
mandate to massacre infidels, heretics, and even other devotees within
their own ranks. Some people maintain that Buddhism is different, that it
stands in marked contrast to the chronic violence of other religions. To be
sure, for some practitioners in the West, Buddhism is more a spiritual and
psychological discipline than a theology in the usual sense. It offers
meditative techniques that are said to promote enlightenment and harmony
within oneself. But like any other belief system, Buddhism must be judged
not only by its teachings but by the secular behavior of its proponents.

Buddhist Exceptionalism?
A glance at history reveals that Buddhist organizations have not been free
of the violent pursuits so characteristic of religious groups. In Tibet,
from the early seventeenth century well into the eighteenth, competing
Buddhist sects engaged in armed hostilities and summary executions.1 In the
twentieth century, in Thailand, Burma, Korea, Japan, and elsewhere,
Buddhists clashed with each other and with nonBuddhists. In Sri Lanka, armed
battles in the name of Buddhism are part of Sinhalese history.2

Just a few years ago in South Korea, thousands of monks of the Chogye
Buddhist order fought each other with fists, rocks, fire-bombs, and clubs,
in pitched battles that went on for weeks. They were vying for control of
the order, the largest in South Korea, with its annual budget of $9.2
million, its additional millions of dollars in property, and the privilege
of appointing 1,700 monks to various duties. The brawls partly destroyed the
main Buddhist sanctuaries and left dozens of monks injured, some seriously.
The Korean public appeared to disdain both factions, feeling that no matter
what side took control, “it would use worshippers’ donations for
luxurious houses and expensive cars.”3

But what of the Dalai Lama and the Tibet he presided over before the Chinese
crackdown in 1959? It is widely held by many devout Buddhists that Old
Tibet was a spiritually oriented kingdom free from the egotistical
lifestyles, empty materialism, and corrupting vices that beset modern
industrialized society. Western news media, travel books, novels, and
Hollywood films have portrayed the Tibetan theocracy as a veritable Shangri-

The Dalai Lama himself stated that “the pervasive influence of Buddhism”
in Tibet, “amid the wide open spaces of an unspoiled environment resulted
in a society dedicated to peace and harmony. We enjoyed freedom and
contentment.”4 A reading of Tibet’s history suggests a different picture.
In the thirteenth century, Emperor Kublai Khan created the first Grand Lama,
who was to preside over all the other lamas as might a pope over his
bishops. Several centuries later, the Emperor of China sent an army into
Tibet to support the Grand Lama, an ambitious 25-year-old man, who then gave
himself the title of Dalai (Ocean) Lama, ruler of all Tibet. Here is quite
a historical irony: the first Dalai Lama was installed by a Chinese army.
His two previous lama “incarnations” were then retroactively recognized as
his predecessors, thereby transforming the first Dalai Lama into the third
Dalai Lama.

To elevate his authority beyond worldly challenge, the first (a.k.a. third)
Dalai Lama seized monasteries that did not belong to his sect, and is
believed to have destroyed Buddhist writings that conflicted with his claim
to divinity. The Dalai Lama who succeeded him pursued a sybaritic life,
enjoying many mistresses, partying with friends, and acting in other ways
deemed unfitting for an incarnate deity. For this he was done in by his
priests. Within 170 years, despite their recognized status as gods, five
Dalai Lamas were murdered by their high priests or other courtiers.

Bitter hostility between competing Buddhist sects continued over the
centuries. In 1660, the fifth Dalai Lama was faced with a rebellion in Tsang
province, the stronghold of the rival Kagyu sect with its high lama known
as the Karmapa. The fifth Dalai Lama called for harsh retribution against
the rebels, directing the Mongol army to obliterate the male and female
lines, and the offspring too “like eggs smashed against rocks….In short,
annihilate any traces of them, even their names.”

In 1792, many Kagyu monasteries were confiscated and their monks were
forcibly converted to the Gelug sect (the Dalai Lama’s denomination). The
Gelug school, known also as the “Yellow Hats,” showed little tolerance or
willingness to mix their teachings with other Buddhist sects. In the words
of one of their traditional prayers: “Praise to you, violent god of the
Yellow Hat teachings/who reduces to particles of dust/ great beings, high
officials and ordinary people/who pollute and corrupt the Gelug doctrine.”
An eighteenth-century memoir of a Tibetan general depicts sectarian strife
among Buddhists that is as brutal and bloody as any of the wars of other
religions. This grim history remains largely unvisited by followers of
Tibetan Buddhism in the West.5

Shangri-La (for Lords and Lamas)
Religions have had a close relationship not only with violence but with
economic exploitation. Indeed, it is often the economic exploitation that
necessitates the violence. Such was the case with the Tibetan theocracy.
Until 1959, when the Dalai Lama last presided over Tibet, most of the arable
land was still organized into manorial estates worked by serfs. Even a
writer sympathetic to the old order allows that “a great deal of real
estate belonged to the monasteries, and most of them amassed great riches.”
Much of the wealth was accumulated “through active participation in trade,
commerce, and money lending.”4 Drepung monastery was one of the biggest
landowners in the world, with its 185 manors, 25,000 serfs, 300 great
pastures, and 16,000 herdsmen. The wealth of the monasteries rested in the
hands of small numbers of high-ranking lamas. Most ordinary monks lived
modestly and had no direct access to great wealth. The Dalai Lama himself “
lived richly in the 1000-room, 14-story Potala Palace,” and admits to
having owned slaves during his reign.5

Secular leaders also did well. A notable example was the commander-in-chief
of the Tibetan army, who owned 4,000 square kilometers of land and 3,500
serfs. He also was a member of the Dalai Lama’s lay Cabinet.7 Old Tibet has
been misrepresented by some of its Western admirers as “a nation that
required no police force because its people voluntarily observed the laws of
karma.“8 In fact. it had a professional army, albeit a small one, that
served as a gendarmerie for the landlords to keep order and hunt down
runaway serfs.

Young Tibetan boys were regularly taken from their families and brought into
the monasteries to be trained as monks. Once there, they became bonded for
life. Tashì-Tsering, a monk, reports that it was common for peasant
children to be sexually mistreated in the monasteries. He himself was a
victim of repeated rape, beginning at age nine.9 The monastic estates also
conscripted impoverished peasant children for lifelong servitude as
domestics, dance performers, and soldiers.

In Old Tibet there were small numbers of farmers who subsisted as a kind of
free peasantry, and perhaps an additional 10,000 people who composed the “
middle-class” families of merchants, shopkeepers, and small traders.
Thousands of others were beggars. A small minority were slaves, usually
domestic servants, who owned nothing. Their offspring were born into slavery
.10 The greater part of the rural population—some 700,000 of an estimated
total of 1,250,000—were serfs. Serfs and other peasants generally were
little better than slaves. They went without schooling or medical care. They
spent most of their time laboring for high-ranking lamas or for the secular
landed aristocracy. Their masters told them what crops to grow and what
animals to raise. They could not get married without the consent of their
lord or lama. And they might easily be separated from their families should
their owners send them to work in a distant location.11

One 22-year old woman, herself a runaway serf, reports: “Pretty serf girls
were usually taken by the owner as house servants and used as he wished.”
They “were just slaves without rights.”12 Serfs needed permission to go
anywhere. Landowners had legal authority to capture those who tried to flee.
One 24-year old runaway welcomed the Chinese intervention as a “liberation
.” He claimed that under serfdom he was subjected to incessant toil, hunger
, and cold. After his third failed escape, he was merciless beaten by the
landlord's men until blood poured from his nose and mouth. They then poured
alcohol and caustic soda on his wounds to increase the pain.13

The serfs were under a lifetime bond to work the lord’s land—or the
monastery’s land—without pay, to repair the lord's houses, transport his
crops, and collect his firewood. They were also expected to provide carrying
animals and transportation on demand.14 They were taxed upon getting
married, taxed for the birth of each child, and for every death in the
family. They were taxed for planting a tree in their yard and for keeping
animals. There were taxes for religious festivals, for singing, dancing,
drumming, and bell ringing. People were taxed for being sent to prison and
upon being released. Those who could not find work were taxed for being
unemployed, and if they traveled to another village in search of work, they
paid a passage tax. When people could not pay, the monasteries lent them
money at 20 to 50 percent interest. Some debts were handed down from father
to son to grandson. Debtors who could not meet their obligations risked
being placed into slavery sometimes for the rest of their lives.15

The theocracy’s religious teachings buttressed its class order. The poor
and afflicted were taught that they had brought their troubles upon
themselves because of their wicked ways in previous lives. Hence they had to
accept the misery of their present existence as a karmic atonement and in
anticipation that their lot would improve upon being reborn. The rich and
powerful of course treated their good fortune as a reward for, and tangible
evidence of, virtue in past and present lives.

Torture and Mutilation
In the Dalai Lama’s Tibet, torture and mutilation—including eye gouging,
the pulling out of tongues, hamstringing, and amputation—were favored
punishments inflicted upon runaway serfs and thieves. Journeying through
Tibet in the 1960s, Stuart and Roma Gelder interviewed a former serf, Tsereh
Wang Tuei, who had stolen two sheep belonging to a monastery. For this he
had both his eyes gouged out and his hand mutilated beyond use. He explains
that he no longer is a Buddhist: “When a holy lama told them to blind me I
thought there was no good in religion.”16 Since it was against Buddhist
teachings to take human life, some offenders were severely lashed and then
“left to God” in the freezing night to die. “The parallels between Tibet
and medieval Europe are striking,” concludes Tom Grunfeld in his book on

In 1959, Anna Louise Strong visited an exhibition of torture equipment that
had been used by the Tibetan overlords. There were handcuffs of all sizes,
including small ones for children, and instruments for cutting off noses and
ears, gouging out eyes, and breaking off hands. There were instruments for
slicing off kneecaps and heels, or hamstringing legs. There were hot brands,
whips, and special implements for disemboweling.18

The exhibition presented photographs and testimonies of victims who had been
blinded or crippled or suffered amputations for thievery. There was the
shepherd whose master owed him a reimbursement in yuan and wheat but refused
to pay. So he took one of the master's cows; for this he had his hands
severed. Another herdsman, who opposed having his wife taken from him by his
lord, had his hands broken off. There were pictures of Communist activists
with noses and upper lips cut off, and a woman who was raped and then had
her nose sliced away.19

Early visitors to Tibet comment about the theocratic despotism. In 1895, an
Englishman, Dr. A. L. Waddell, wrote that the populace was under the “
intolerable tyranny of monks” and the devil superstitions they had
fashioned to terrorize the people. In 1904 Perceval Landon described the
Dalai Lama’s rule as “an engine of oppression.” At about that time,
another English traveler, Captain W.F.T. O’Connor, observed that “the
great landowners and the priests . . . exercise each in their own dominion a
despotic power from which there is no appeal,“ while the people are “
oppressed by the most monstrous growth of monasticism and priest-craft.”
Tibetan rulers “invented degrading legends and stimulated a spirit of
superstition” among the common people. In 1937, another visitor, Spencer
Chapman, wrote, “The Lamaist monk does not spend his time in ministering to
the people or educating them….The beggar beside the road is nothing to the
monk. Knowledge is the jealously guarded prerogative of the monasteries and
is used to increase their influence and wealth.”20

Occupation and Revolt
The Chinese Communists occupied Tibet in 1951, claiming suzerainty over that
country. The 1951 treaty provided for ostensible self-government under the
Dalai Lama’s rule but gave China military control and exclusive right to
conduct foreign relations. The Chinese were also granted a direct role in
internal administration “to promote social reforms.” At first, they moved
slowly, relying mostly on persuasion in an attempt to effect change. Among
the earliest reforms they wrought was to reduce usurious interest rates, and
build a few hospitals and roads. “Contrary to popular belief in the West,
” writes one observer, the Chinese “took care to show respect for Tibetan
culture and religion.” No aristocratic or monastic property was confiscated
, and feudal lords continued to reign over their hereditarily bound peasants

The Tibetan lords and lamas had seen Chinese come and go over the centuries
and had enjoyed good relations with Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek and his
reactionary Kuomintang rule in China.22 The approval of the Kuomintang
government was needed to validate the choice of the Dalai Lama and Panchen
Lama. When the young Dalai Lama was installed in Lhasa, it was with an armed
escort of Chinese troops and an attending Chinese minister, in accordance
with centuries-old tradition. What upset the Tibetan lords and lamas was
that these latest Chinese were Communists. It would be only a matter of time
, they feared, before the Communists started imposing their collectivist
egalitarian solutions upon Tibet.

In 1956-57, armed Tibetan bands ambushed convoys of the Chinese Peoples
Liberation Army (PLA). The uprising received extensive assistance from the
US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), including military training, support
camps in Nepal, and numerous airlifts.23 Meanwhile in the United States, the
American Society for a Free Asia, a CIA front, energetically publicized the
cause of Tibetan resistance, with the Dalai Lama's eldest brother, Thubtan
Norbu, playing an active role in that group. The Dalai Lama's second-eldest
brother, Gyalo Thondup, established an intelligence operation with the CIA
in 1951. He later upgraded it into a CIA-trained guerrilla unit whose
recruits parachuted back into Tibet.24

Many Tibetan commandos and agents whom the CIA dropped into the country were
chiefs of aristocratic clans or the sons of chiefs. Ninety percent of them
were never heard from again, according to a report from the CIA itself,
meaning they were most likely captured and killed.25 “Many lamas and lay
members of the elite and much of the Tibetan army joined the uprising, but
in the main the populace did not, assuring its failure,“ writes Hugh Deane.
26 In their book on Tibet, Ginsburg and Mathos reach a similar conclusion:
“As far as can be ascertained, the great bulk of the common people of Lhasa
and of the adjoining countryside failed to join in the fighting against the
Chinese both when it first began and as it progressed.“27 Eventually the
resistance crumbled.

Enter the Communists
Whatever wrongs and new oppressions introduced by the Chinese in Tibet,
after 1959 they did abolish slavery and the serfdom system of unpaid labor,
and put an end to floggings, mutilations, and amputations as a form of
criminal punishment. They eliminated the many crushing taxes, started work
projects, and greatly reduced unemployment and beggary. They established
secular education, thereby breaking the educational monopoly of the
monasteries. And they constructed running water and electrical systems in

Heinrich Harrer (later revealed to have been a sergeant in Hitler’s SS)
wrote a bestseller about his experiences in Tibet that was made into a
popular Hollywood movie. He reported that the Tibetans who resisted the
Chinese “were predominantly nobles, semi-nobles and lamas; they were
punished by being made to perform the lowliest tasks, such as laboring on
roads and bridges. They were further humiliated by being made to clean up
the city before the tourists arrived.” They also had to live in a camp
originally reserved for beggars and vagrants.29

By 1961, the Chinese expropriated the landed estates owned by lords and
lamas, and reorganized the peasants into hundreds of communes. They
distributed hundreds of thousands of acres to tenant farmers and landless
peasants. Herds once owned by nobility were turned over to collectives of
poor shepherds. Improvements were made in the breeding of livestock, and new
varieties of vegetables and new strains of wheat and barley were introduced
, along with irrigation improvements, all of which reportedly led to an
increase in agrarian production.30

Many peasants remained as religious as ever, giving alms to the clergy. But
the many monks who had been conscripted into the religious orders as
children were now free to renounce the monastic life, and thousands did,
especially the younger ones. The remaining clergy lived on modest government
stipends, and extra income earned by officiating at prayer services,
weddings, and funerals.31

Both the Dalai Lama and his advisor and youngest brother, Tendzin Choegyal,
claimed that “more than 1.2 million Tibetans are dead as a result of the
Chinese occupation.”32 But the official 1953 census—six years before the
Chinese crackdown—recorded the entire population residing in Tibet at 1,274
,000.33 Other census counts put the ethnic Tibetan population within the
country at about two million. If the Chinese killed 1.2 million in the early
1960s then whole cities and huge portions of the countryside, indeed almost
all of Tibet, would have been depopulated, transformed into a killing field
dotted with death camps and mass graves—of which we have not seen evidence
. The thinly distributed Chinese military force in Tibet was not big enough
to round up, hunt down, and exterminate that many people even if it had
spent all its time doing nothing else.

Chinese authorities do admit to “mistakes,” particularly during the 1966-
76 Cultural Revolution when religious persecution reached a high tide in
both China and Tibet. After the uprising in the late 1950s, thousands of
Tibetans were incarcerated. During the Great Leap Forward, forced
collectivization and grain farming was imposed on the peasantry, sometimes
with disastrous effect. In the late 1970s, China began relaxing controls
over Tibet “and tried to undo some of the damage wrought during the
previous two decades.”34

In 1980, the Chinese government initiated reforms reportedly designed to
grant Tibet a greater degree of self-rule and self-administration. Tibetans
would now be allowed to cultivate private plots, sell their harvest
surpluses, decide for themselves what crops to grow, and keep yaks and sheep
. Communication with the outside world was again permitted, and frontier
controls were eased to permit Tibetans to visit exiled relatives in India
and Nepal.35

In the 1990s, the Han, the ethnic group comprising over 95 percent of China
’s immense population, began moving in substantial numbers into Tibet and
various western provinces. On the streets of Lhasa and Shigatse, signs of
Han preeminence are readily visible. Chinese run the factories and many of
the shops and vending stalls. Tall office buildings and large shopping
centers have been built with funds that might have been better spent on
water treatment plants and housing. Chinese cadres in Tibet too often view
their Tibetan neighbors as backward and lazy, in need of economic
development and “patriotic education.” During the 1990s Tibetan government
employees suspected of harboring nationalist sympathies were purged from
office, and campaigns were launched to discredit the Dalai Lama. Individual
Tibetans reportedly were subjected to arrest, imprisonment, and forced labor
for carrying out separatist activities and engaging in political “
subversion.” Some arrestees were held in administrative detention without
adequate food, water, and blankets, subjected to threats, beatings, and
other mistreatment.36

Chinese family planning regulations allow a three-child limit for Tibetan
families. (For years there was a one-child limit for Han families.) If a
couple goes over the limit, the excess children can be denied subsidized
daycare, health care, housing, and education. These penalties have been
enforced irregularly and vary by district. Meanwhile, Tibetan history,
culture, and religion are slighted in schools. Teaching materials, though
translated into Tibetan, focus on Chinese history and culture.37

Elites, Émigrés, and the CIA
For the rich lamas and lords, the Communist intervention was a calamity.
Most of them fled abroad, as did the Dalai Lama himself, who was assisted in
his flight by the CIA. Some discovered to their horror that they would have
to work for a living. However, throughout the 1960s, the Tibetan exile
community was secretly pocketing $1.7 million a year from the CIA, according
to documents released by the State Department in 1998. Once this fact was
publicized, the Dalai Lama’s organization itself issued a statement
admitting that it had received millions of dollars from the CIA during the
1960s to send armed squads of exiles into Tibet to undermine the Maoist
revolution. The Dalai Lama’s annual payment from the CIA was $186,000.
Indian intelligence also financed both him and other Tibetan exiles. He has
refused to say whether he or his brothers worked for the CIA. The agency has
also declined to comment.38

In 1995, the News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina, carried a frontpage
color photograph of the Dalai Lama being embraced by the reactionary
Republican senator Jesse Helms, under the headline “Buddhist Captivates
Hero of Religious Right.”39 In April 1999, along with Margaret Thatcher,
Pope John Paul II, and the first George Bush, the Dalai Lama called upon the
British government to release Augusto Pinochet, the former fascist dictator
of Chile and a longtime CIA client who had been apprehended while visiting
England. The Dalai Lama urged that Pinochet not be forced to go to Spain
where he was wanted to stand trial for crimes against humanity.

Today, mostly through the National Endowment for Democracy and other
conduits that are more respectable-sounding than the CIA, the US Congress
continues to allocate an annual $2 million to Tibetans in India, with
additional millions for “democracy activities” within the Tibetan exile
community. The Dalai Lama also gets money from financier George Soros, who
now runs the CIA-created Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other

The Question of Culture
We are told that when the Dalai Lama ruled Tibet, the people lived in
contented and tranquil symbiosis with their monastic and secular lords, in a
social order sustained by a deeply spiritual, nonviolent culture, inspired
by humane and pacific religious teachings. The Tibetan religious culture was
the social glue and comforting balm that kept rich lama and poor peasant
spiritually bonded together, to maintain those proselytes who embrace Old
Tibet as a cultural purity, a Shangri-La.

One is reminded of the idealized imagery of feudal Europe presented by
latter-day conservative Catholics such as G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire
Belloc. For them, medieval Christendom was a world of contented peasants
living in a deep spiritual bond with their Church, under the protection of
their lords.41 Again we are invited to accept a particular culture on its
own terms, which means accepting it as presented by its favored class, by
those at the top who profited most from it. The Shangri-La image of Tibet
bears no more resemblance to historic reality than does the romanticized
image of medieval Europe.

When seen in all its grim realities, Old Tibet confirms the view expressed
earlier in this book that culture is anything but neutral. Culture can
operate as a legitimating cover for a host of grave injustices, benefiting
some portion of a society’s population at great cost to other segments. In
theocratic Tibet, ruling interests manipulated the traditional culture to
fortify their wealth and power. The theocracy equated rebellious thought and
action with satanic influence. It propagated the general presumption of
landlord superiority and peasant unworthiness. The rich were represented as
deserving their good life, and the poor as deserving their mean lowly
existence, all codified in teachings about the karmic residues of virtues
and vices accumulated from past lives, all presented as part of God's will.

It might be said that we denizens of the modern secular world cannot grasp
the equations of happiness and pain, contentment and custom, that
characterize more traditionally spiritual societies. This is probably true,
and it may explain why some of us idealize such societies. But still, a
gouged eye is a gouged eye; a flogging is a flogging; and the grinding
exploitation of serfs and slaves is a brutal class injustice whatever its
cultural wrapping. There is a difference between a spiritual bond and human
bondage, even when both exist side by side

Many ordinary Tibetans want the Dalai Lama back in their country, but it
appears that relatively few want a return to the social order he represented
. A 1999 story in the Washington Post notes that he continues to be revered
in Tibet, but

…few Tibetans would welcome a return of the corrupt aristocratic clans that
fled with him in 1959 and that comprise the bulk of his advisers. Many
Tibetan farmers, for example, have no interest in surrendering the land they
gained during China's land reform to the clans. Tibet's former slaves say
they, too, don't want their former masters to return to power.
“I've already lived that life once before,” said Wangchuk, a 67-year-old
former slave who was wearing his best clothes for his yearly pilgrimage to
Shigatse, one of the holiest sites of Tibetan Buddhism. He said he
worshipped the Dalai Lama, but added, “I may not be free under Chinese
communism, but I am better off than when I was a slave.”42

Kim Lewis, who studied healing methods with a Buddhist monk in Berkeley,
California, had occasion to talk at length with more than a dozen Tibetan
women who lived in the monk’s building. When she asked how they felt about
returning to their homeland, the sentiment was unanimously negative. At
first, Lewis thought their reluctance had to do with the Chinese occupation,
but they quickly informed her otherwise. They said they were extremely
grateful “not to have to marry 4 or 5 men, be pregnant almost all the time,
” or deal with sexually transmitted diseases contacted from a straying
husband. The younger women “were delighted to be getting an education,
wanted absolutely nothing to do with any religion, and wondered why
Americans were so naive.” They recounted stories of their grandmothers’
ordeals with monks who used them as “wisdom consorts,” telling them “how
much merit they were gaining by providing the ‘means to enlightenment’—
after all, the Buddha had to be with a woman to reach enlightenment.”

The women interviewed by Lewis spoke bitterly about the monastery’s
confiscation of their young boys in Tibet. When a boy cried for his mother,
he would be told “Why do you cry for her, she gave you up - she’s just a
woman.” Among the other issues was “the rampant homosexuality in the
Gelugpa sect. All was not well in Shangri-la,” Lewis opines.43

The monks who were granted political asylum in California applied for Social
Security. Lewis, herself a devotee for a time, assisted with the paperwork.
She observes that they continue to receive Social Security checks amounting
to $550 to $700 per month along with Medicare and MediCal. In addition, the
monks reside rent free in nicely furnished apartments. “They pay no
utilities, have free access to the Internet on computers provided for them,
along with fax machines, free cell and home phones and cable TV.” In
addition, they receive a monthly payment from their order. And the dharma
center takes up a special collection from its members (all Americans),
separate from membership dues. Some members eagerly carry out chores for the
monks, including grocery shopping and cleaning their apartments and toilets
. These same holy men “have no problem criticizing Americans for their ‘
obsession with material things.”44

To support the Chinese overthrow of the old feudal theocracy is not to
applaud everything about Chinese rule in Tibet. This point is seldom
understood by today’s Shangri-La adherents in the West.

The converse is also true. To denounce the Chinese occupation does not mean
we have to romanticize the former feudal régime. One common complaint among
Buddhist followers in the West is that Tibet’s religious culture is being
undermined by the occupation. Indeed this seems to be the case. Many of the
monasteries are closed, and the theocracy has passed into history. What I am
questioning here is the supposedly admirable and pristinely spiritual
nature of that pre-invasion culture. In short, we can advocate religious
freedom and independence for Tibet without having to embrace the mythology
of a Paradise Lost.

Finally, it should be noted that the criticism posed herein is not intended
as a personal attack on the Dalai Lama. Whatever his past associations with
the CIA and various reactionaries, he speaks often of peace, love, and
nonviolence. And he himself really cannot be blamed for the abuses of the
ancien régime, having been but 15 years old when he fled into exile. In
1994, in an interview with Melvyn Goldstein, he went on record as favoring
since his youth the building of schools, “machines,” and roads in his
country. He claims that he thought the corvée (forced unpaid serf labor for
the lord’s benefit) and certain taxes imposed on the peasants were “
extremely bad.” And he disliked the way people were saddled with old debts
sometimes passed down from generation to generation.45 Furthermore, he now
proposes democracy for Tibet, featuring a written constitution, a
representative assembly, and other democratic essentials.46

In 1996, the Dalai Lama issued a statement that must have had an unsettling
effect on the exile community. It reads in part as follows:

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is
founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain
and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on
an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It
is also concerned with the fate of the working classes-that is the majority
—as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and
Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those
reasons the system appeals to me, and it seems fair… I think of myself as
half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.47

And more recently in 2001, while visiting California, he remarked that “
Tibet, materially, is very, very backward. Spiritually it is quite rich. But
spirituality can’t fill our stomachs.”48 Here is a message that should be
heeded by the well-fed Buddhist proselytes in the West who wax nostalgic
for Old Tibet.

What I have tried to challenge is the Tibet myth, the Paradise Lost image of
a social order that actually was a retrograde theocracy of serfdom and
poverty, where a favored few lived high and mighty off the blood, sweat, and
tears of the many. It was a long way from Shangri-La.

The parallels between Tibet and medieval Europe are striking,” concludes
Tom Grunfeld in his book on Tibet.

The Making of Modern Tibet
by A. Tom Grunfeld

A. Tom Grunfeld

Thanks to an extraordinarily successful public relations campaign. Tibet has
become the cause of the day. A clever play on the passions stirred by a
volatile mixture of nationalism and religion and the diminished stature of
the Beijing government after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre has creates a
Shangri-la in American popular culture. While it inflames emotions and
captures media attention, this illusory Tibet bears very little attention to
the Tibet of historical reality.

Meetings of Tibet supporters began to be held around the world, and a plan
was reached to create what came to be known as the Tibet Lobby. The plan was
put together by members of the Dalai Lama's government and their foreign
advisors. It called for the internationalization of the Tibet issue through
the recruitment of lobbying and public relations firms and by gaining media
attention and generating popular support on such issues as independence,
religious freedom, human rights and the environment; it was hoped that the
combination would force governments to pressure Beijing.

The details were straightforward: the Dalai Lama would travel more and make
the trips openly political, and support groups would be established in the
United States, to lobby governments on the Dalai Lama's behalf; peaceful
civil disobedience inside Tibet would be encouraged; and the Dalai Lama
would continue to call for talks that offered flexible terms to Beijing.

These efforts proved immensely successful, especially after the 1989
Tiananmen Square crackdown, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the
Dalai Lama that same year, and the Hollywood's elite's adoption of Tibet as
a cause. Support groups were established in dozens of countries, and
parliaments began passing resolutions that attacked Chinese human rights
abuses and expressed support for the Dalai Lama - and sometimes an
independent Tibet.

These efforts were especially successful in the United States, where members
of Congress, already angry at China over issues such as nuclear
proliferation, trade imbalances with the United States, prison labor, and
human rights, readily took up the Tibet cause as another cudgel in their
crusade against China. Congressional hearings were held, amendments
condemning "human rights violations" in Tibet and labeling it an "occupied
country" were added to bills unrelated to Tibet or China, and the Dalai Lama
was invited to speak at congressional hearings.

Hilary said...

In response to the comment left by the anonymous blogger:

I'm very happy that you are interested in learning more about Tibetan history and Buddhism. I also appreciate your love for Tibet and the Dalai Lama.

Speaking as someone who does want to work in unity with the Tibetan people, I think that you should explore a number of different sources for information on Tibetan history. When reading this article, I noted a number of factual mistakes, that I will not address at this time. Instead, I will post a number of responses to this article, from people who are more informed than I.

What I would like to focus on is the current state of Tibet and the Tibetan people.

We know that Tibet was an independent nation, and is currently under Chinese occupation. Regardless of the history you take to be true, since the invasion of 1959, the landscape and culture of Tibet has changed dramatically. Some could argue that some of these changes were for the better, but when a people is forced to change rather than given the opportunity to choose change, you cannot assume that you are in the right. There may be more roads and in some cases more schools (though not really provided by China for the Tibetan people), but this has come at a great cost. The situation in Tibet has been recognized as a cultural genocide, and approximately 1.5 million Tibetans have lost their lives as a direct result of Chinese occupation.

You've heard it all before, about the repression, the denial of basic human rights, torture in prisons, the rape of Tibet's natural resources. These certainly do not help the Tibetan people, just as the destruction of the ecosystem of the Tibetan Plateau and the cost to the water systems flowing from there has not benefited most of Asia which receives it's water from this area.

It's not a place that many Tibetans choose to be if they can help it.

Thousands of Tibetans try to leave Tibet every year to seek freedom or to reach the Dalai Lama every year. They risk their lives walking across the Himalayas to reach freedom in India or Nepal.

And the Chinese government is trying to keep them in. Last September (2006), the Chinese Armed Police shot two Tibetans who were part of a group that was fleeing to Nepal. We know how it happened, because it was caught on video. These Tibetans were shot in the backs. They gathered up as many from the group as the could, including young children, and brought them back into Tibet, to detention centers, where accounts say (from the detainees themselves) that they were tortured. The international community has done nothing to really make China accountable for this event, and the soldiers concerned were not prosecuted.

So that's why I fight for Tibet today. It may not have been exactly the Shangri-la that some Westerners would like to believe, but I can guarantee it is nothing like a Shangri-la today. Tibetans want their independence. Both in exile and in Tibet.

Hilary said...

A Lie Repeated - The Far Left’s Flawed History of Tibet

Click here to download and print.

By Joshua Michael Schrei

"A lie repeated a hundred times becomes the truth."
-Chairman Mao

As a lifelong activist who has worked on human rights issues around the globe, I hold the view that the best representatives of a culture are its people; that people create their own history, and in the case of the colonized or the oppressed that history is often rewritten by the oppressor. I do not assume that simply because a country is communist or socialist or capitalist that its practices toward its own people or its foreign policies are more or less honorable; beyond all the rhetoric, the reality of a situation can always be measured by the affected people themselves.

The Tibet issue is one that the far left has found to be somewhat of a conundrum, for the simple reason that most other popular human rights struggles can be easily linked to a larger struggle against U.S. or European imperialism. Therefore these struggles - be it in Palestine, or East Timor, or Colombia, fit nicely into the larger - and often rather myopic - worldview of the leftist.

However, Tibet is a case in which the struggle for basic rights and nationhood is being carried out against a communist government, so it has brought with it a host of questions for the leftist, who naturally leans towards socialism or communism as an ideological example of a system that stands in contrast to the 'imperialist west'.

China, the country that invaded Tibet in 1950, has stood as one such example- though the Chinese government's practices over the last 53 years and its current bent towards totalitarian capitalism would tend to defy any labeling as a positive example. Nonetheless, China's history of socialism and revolution remains as something of an inspiration for the Western left, and therefore certain historians- predominantly scholars with some form of Marxist or Maoist agenda- have seen the current popularity of the movement for Tibetan statehood and have taken it upon themselves to give a glimpse into the grim reality of 'old Tibet.'

The most recent historian to embrace this view of 'old Tibet' is Dr. Michael Parenti, a Yale scholar who, in the course of his career, has written on a variety of populist causes. To be fair, Parenti stops short -barely- of condoning the Chinese occupation. He does however, cast a decidedly unflattering view of life in pre-1950 Tibet.

In his writing on Tibet, Parenti shares something in common with all of his predecessors -Anna Louise Strong, A. Tom Grunfeld, and Roma and Stuart
Gelder among them- in that his writing on Tibet is essentially argumentative. He is not writing in order to give an unbiased history of a nation, he is writing in order to prove a point. In this case, the point he is trying to prove is that the society of 'old Tibet' was a terrible place, and that the resistance movement that is so visible today is essentially a movement to re-establish this despicable regime.

In Parenti's words, old Tibet was "a social order that was little more than a despotic retrograde theocracy of serfdom and poverty, so damaging to the human spirit, where vast wealth was accumulated by a favored few who lived high and mighty off the blood, sweat, and tears of the many. For most of the Tibetan aristocrats in exile, that is the world to which they fervently desire to return. It is a long way from Shangri-La."

I have chosen to dissect this thesis because it houses many of the common arguments presented by Chinese government propagandists on Tibet, as well as many of the arguments that modern day Marxists and Maoists regularly hurl at Tibet activists on internet chat rooms and at protests. As we will see, the flawed premise of this thesis illuminates how the far left has gone woefully off the mark in its efforts to undermine the legitimate struggle for Tibetan rights and statehood.

Again, I am a firm believer in people's history. And the core problem with Parenti's position is that it is simply at odds with the statements, testimony, and shared history of the Tibetan people themselves - the people Parenti is supposedly defending. The view of Tibet that Parenti ascribes to has been commonly put forward by Chinese government officials - particularly the ones in the ministry of propaganda. Once upon a time it was a view embraced by a handful of British historians - most of them turn of the century explorers and colonists in their own right. But it has always been an outsider's view, completely divorced from the reality of how Tibetans of all walks of life view their own society and their own history.

In his descriptions of old Tibet, Parenti predominantly draws on the work of four historians - Anna Louise Strong, A. Tom Grunfeld, and Roma and Stuart Gelder. The fact that all of these historians had a romantic predilection towards Maoism and drew mostly on Chinese government statistics should surely be cause for concern as far as their legitimacy as source material. One certainly wouldn't trust the Indonesian government's party line on Aceh or East Timor. Or, for that matter, the U.S. government's continued assertion that the Iraqi people welcome the current American occupation. Such manipulations of public sentiment, in which an occupation is presented as 'the will of the people,' are – as a rule – only employed to further the agenda of the occupier.

For the most part, Parenti and the handful of historians who have adopted the view of old Tibet as a despotic feudal theocracy have had little if no contact with actual Tibetans either in or outside Tibet. Therefore, they have no real way of gauging the sentiments of the Tibetan people. Neither Parenti, Strong, Grunfeld, nor the Gelders speak Tibetan - or Chinese for that matter- so the body of historical literature on the Tibet issue that is available to them is extremely limited. Tom Grunfeld never went to Tibet until after his book was published. Anna Louise Strong – a diehard Marxist – was given a tightly monitored Chinese government tour of Lhasa and then went on to proclaim that "a million Tibetan serfs have stood up! They are burying the old serfdom and building a new tomorrow!" One might say that one doesn't need to go to Paris to know the Eiffel tower exists. However, before dismissing an entire culture's history as despotically repressive it is perhaps worth speaking to a few of its representatives.

Instead, Grunfeld repeatedly draws on the writings of a handful of British colonial explorers, who - as explorers often do - wrote down every piece of suspicious folklore and hearsay as fact. Grunfeld's source material for his depictions of Tibetans as cannibals, barbarians, and superstitious fanatics is no more credible than are the testimonials of early European explorers to Africa who spun yarns of three-headed natives. None of these depictions are corroborated by traditional Tibetan, Chinese, or Indian histories, which of course were not available to Grunfeld because of his lack of interest in learning the local language.

Grunfeld also makes extensive use of the writings of Sir Charles Bell, who he quotes regularly and with no apparent regard for context. Bell's stance was actually that Tibetans had been brutalized by the Chinese army and that Tibet was an independent nation of far greater 'character' than its neighbor. This seems to elude Grunfeld, who chops up Bell's sentences in order to isolate the worst and most sensational aspects of Tibetan society and present them as fact. Grunfeld also makes cultural blunders that would make freshmen history students squirm. As award-winning author Jamyang Norbu points out in his brilliant essay The Acme of Obscenity, Grunfeld even mistranslates the Tibetan word for 'Tibet'!

Parenti does little better in his treatment of history, erroneously stating that the first Dalai Lama was installed by 'the Chinese army'. One would presume that a Yale Ph.D. would know the difference between Chinese and Mongols. But apparently, in the Parenti-Grunfeld-Strong school of history, one word is as good as another and a Chinese is as good as a Mongol, as long as the point gets across.

With such evisceration of history as common practice it quickly becomes obvious that none these historians' writings on Tibet exist to illuminate true Tibetan history. In fact, neither Grunfeld, nor Strong, nor Parenti seem remotely interested in the specifics of the culture they're discussing.

For example, as Tashi Rapgey points out in her dissection of Tom Grunfeld's 'Making of Modern Tibet', the three social classes that Grunfeld and Strong lump Tibetans into - landowners, serfs, and slaves - have no relation to the actual breakdown of Tibetan society. It is a completely arbitrary classification that has no basis in reality-Tibetan society was never classified along these terms. Certainly a historian writing on the caste system in India would not reclassify Indian society according to their own liking or invent names to suit their own vision?

There were indeed indentured farmers in old Tibet. There were also merchants, nomads, traders, non-indentured farmers, hunters, herders, warlords, bandits, monks, nuns, musicians, theater actors and artists. Tibetan society was a vast, multi-faceted affair, as societies tend to be. To reduce it to three base experiences – and non-representative experiences at that – is to engage in the worst form of reductionism.

Not only are Strong and Grunfeld's breakdowns of Tibetan society grossly
miscategorized, their observations and criticisms are entirely removed from chronological and temporal reality. Folklore from hundreds of years ago, local myths, explorer's whimsy, and selective historical incidents are presented all together as static truth. Every single bad thing, every monstrosity real or imagined that occurred in Tibet between 1447 and October 6, 1950 is 'how it was' in 'old Tibet.' Fundamentally, this is not history. It is the crudest form of argumentative politics, drawing on selective quotes from non-native history - quite often the history of the occupiers themselves - and presenting it as fact.

In fact the entire notion of 'old Tibet' or Tibet under the Dalai Lamas as a static is erroneous. Life under the 13th Dalai Lama was drastically different that life under the 6th or the 5th. By the time the 13th Dalai Lama came along, for example, the Tibetan government had banned the death penalty – it was one of the first countries in the world to do so. But somehow, in the mind of Grunfeld and Parenti and Strong, Tibetans are to be held accountable for the actions of their distant predecessors.

That there was an imbalance of wealth in Tibet is quite true (There still is, only now the Chinese are the wealthy ones). Tibetans waged war, robbed each other, had strict laws and engaged in corporal punishment like all societies have done at various points in their history. But what is insidious about highlighting solely these aspects of Tibetan society is that these historians -Strong and Grunfeld particularly; Parenti is somewhat excused from this particular outrage-seem to be using 'how it was' in 'old Tibet' as a justification for invasion and occupation, just as the United States used the 'savagery' of the native populations as an excuse for their liquidation. This is the politics of the colonist to the core, in which the native is dehumanized and debased in order to make occupation more palatable, even necessary, or 'civilizing.' Strong does not even conceal her glee at the 'smashing' of old Tibet. Politics aside, its rather frightening to think of celebrating the demise of a culture that one hasn't had any direct contact with, whose existence one has only read about in books.

The romanticism that historians like Strong and Grunfeld hold for the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet and the smashing of the old ways is based on an inherently flawed presumption that the invasion was some kind of people's revolution. The Chinese government line, which Strong and Grunfeld and even Parenti seem to have bought into -is that the Tibetan people, and particularly the Tibetan peasantry, welcomed the occupation and in fact that it was they themselves who 'overthrew the landlords.' Such a supposition has no basis in fact.

The Chinese army rolled into Chamdo in Eastern Tibet in October of 1950 and decimated the 8,000-man Tibetan fighting force that was assembled to resist them. That there were Tibetans who initially greeted the arrival of the Chinese is without question; that these Tibetans were the vast minority is also without question. Legitimate histories of Tibet, such as Tsering Shakya's 'Dragon in the Land of Snows' corroborate this fact.

Whatever romantic picture the Chinese government's propaganda department paints of enslaved peasants casting off the bonds of feudalism, there is little in the way of factual evidence to support this. Most of the evidence produced by Beijing comes in the form of testimonials recorded by party cadres, whose questionable nature as a source of objective information should not even have to be mentioned, especially coming from a government that excels in 'extracting testimonials.' These testimonials are written in such propaganda-speak that it is nearly impossible to read them with a straight face; even more impossible to imagine anyone actually uttering the words.

Oddly enough, in contrast to the Chinese government line that it was the Tibetan peasantry who readily embraced communism, communism was in fact much more popular - as it is in this country - among the educated elite. The Tibetan communist party was a creation of sons of wealthy aristocrats; the Tibetan peasantry on the other hand were the ones who eventually formed the brunt of resistance to Chinese government rule.

Whatever the case, Tibetan opinion towards Beijing quickly cooled after the signing of the 17-point agreement in 1951, and certainly was not favorable by 1959, when a popular Tibetan uprising threatened China's very grip on the nation. This resistance was for the most part carried out by Khampa tribesmen in Eastern Tibet, who had suffered some of the most brutal treatment at the hands of the Chinese government. That these fighters were for a time funded by the CIA does not – as Parenti seems to presume – represent some kind of trump card that de-legitimizes the aims, aspirations, and existence of the Tibetan resistance movement. The CIA used the Tibetans just as it has it used nationalist movements in dozens of countries around the world; with little thought for the local people and as a means of waging their own cold war. The Tibetan resistance fighters, who came from poor frontier villages in Eastern Tibet, were happy to have anyone on their side. They had no way of knowing the larger political framework that they had been sucked into. Ironically, it was the Dalai Lama who put an end to this resistance, by calling on the fighters to drop their arms and embrace nonviolent means of conflict resolution.

As for the reality of the subsequent Chinese occupation, which every legitimate human rights organization in the world has labeled with terms like 'cultural genocide', it should hardly need further exposition. One of the most telling historical documents of the time is the Panchen Lama's 70,000 word treatise to Chairman Mao on behalf of the Tibetan people. Not only is this document considered by serious historians to be one of the only reliable texts from that time period, it illuminates the extraordinary kow-towing that was necessary in order for even an elevated Chinese official such as the Panchen Lama to speak to Chairman Mao at that time. Apparently, Mao was not interested in listening to the day-to-day problems of the 'serfs' he 'liberated'. The Panchen Lama was sent to prison for suggesting that people in Tibet were starving; the average Tibetan peasant who offered the same criticism to his local Chinese official did not fare nearly as well.

In his article Parenti again quotes Tom Grunfeld - whose idealism of the cultural revolution should automatically remove him from use as an unbiased source of historical data on the Chinese occupation of Tibet - and asserts that 'slavery and unpaid labor disappeared under Mao'. This sentence simply has no place in any legitimate historical writing. Perhaps Parenti would like to sit down and have a chat with the relatives of the thousands of Tibetans who were worked to death by Chinese soldiers at the infamous Borax mine in Changthang. I've met them myself, and they are far more deserving of a platform on Tibetan history and cultural issues than Parenti. Mao's forced sedentarization of Tibetan nomads was certainly not a liberation; nor was the government-enforced switch to growing foreign cereal crops which resulted in widespread famine in many regions of Tibet.

But again, the true testament to the fact that Tibetans have been far from content under Chinese rule lie in the actions of the people themselves. Ever since the Chinese invasion and occupation there has been substantial popular resistance to Chinese rule in Tibet. This resistance has taken many forms over the years - leafleting, public demonstration, mass non-cooperation, economic boycott, and armed uprising are all forms of protest have been practiced by Tibetans inside Tibet, at the risk of their own lives.

The Chinese government has faced phenomenal opposition from the Tibetan people, certainly far more opposition than the Lhasa government ever faced from its own population, which does not do much to further the argument that 'old Tibet' was a terribly repressive society. Nor does the fact that Tibetan refugees continue pour out of Tibet at a rate never seen prior to 1959. In a classic case of uninformed conjecture, Parenti supposes that Tibetan refugees never left prior to 1959 because the 'systems of control' were so deep and that Tibetans were 'afraid of amputation'. Any quick glance at a map of Tibet, with its vast, unpatrolable borders, or any basic knowledge of the structure of Tibetan society would quickly reveal that Tibetans - should they have wanted to escape their 'feudal masters' - would have had little problem doing so.

But perhaps there is no more telling testament to the Tibetan people's sentiment towards their own culture than the fact that in the early 1980's- when the Chinese government finally relaxed some of its draconian policies towards Tibet- the first thing Tibetans set about doing is rebuilding and repopulating monasteries - the very symbols of 'old Tibet.' The next thing they did was take to the streets and protest for freedom and for the Dalai Lama's return. This is not the behavior of a people who are trying to cast off their old ways. It sounds more like a people who are trying to get their culture back.

This brings up again the essential flaw in Parenti's reasoning-it is not based on the experience of Tibetans. The actuality is that there is now and always has been a people's movement of Tibetans- in fact the vast majority of Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet- who overwhelmingly support the Dalai Lama and more specifically are in favor of Tibetan statehood. This movement cannot simply be dismissed as incidental, or foreign-backed, or primarily aristocratic in nature. The argument that the Tibetan resistance is driven by aristocrats is fairly essential for Parenti et al because without it they would be forced to recognize the existence of this movement-and the existence of such a movement would suggest that perhaps the Tibetan people themselves are more enamored of the Dalai Lama than they ever were of Mao.

The Tibetan resistance, both historically and currently, has been made up of Tibetans from across the social spectrum. The Khampa fighters in the late 50s and early 60s were certainly not aristocrats, nor was Thrinley Chodron, a nun who led a bloody resistance battle against Chinese forces in 1969. The Tibetans who took to the streets and were gunned down in the late 80s were not former aristocrats. Nor are the hundreds of Tibetans currently languishing in Drapchi prison for expressing their desire for statehood.

Currently, there are over 150,000 Tibetans living in exile around the world. There are nomads-in-exile, farmers-in-exile, truck drivers-in-exile. To characterize this entire group as aristocrats or former aristocrats is ludicrous. In New York City alone, there are nearly 5,000 Tibetan refugees. I'm quite certain that Ngawang Rabgyal at the Office of Tibet, who is charged with helping this refugee community find jobs in the outer reaches of Queens, would raise an eyebrow at the description of Tibetan refugees as 'aristocrats.'

The notion that the Tibetan community in exile longs to return to a 'Shangri-la' and re-establish their aristocracy is a banal and uninformed argument that has nothing to do with the real and stated aspirations of the Tibetan freedom movement. First of all, Tibetans never called their country Shangri-La; it was an outsider, James Hilton, who first did that. They never saw their country as a paradise and the Tibetan community is certainly not seeking to reestablish the same political system that existed in pre-1959 Tibet (nor would it be possible). The Dalai Lama has all but abdicated his position as future leader of Tibet – despite the fact that 98% of Tibetans both in and outside Tibet would elect him in a heartbeat – saying that he would rather attend to his religious duties than be a political leader. The Tibetan Kashag is now made up of democratically elected officials and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile –- which, whether Parenti cares to acknowledge their existence or not, is a legitimate entity charged with the welfare of 150,000 refugees – has already outlined a democratic structure for the future government of Tibet.

The movement for Tibetan statehood permeates all segments of Tibetan society. Nomads in western Tibet, herders in Changtang, farmers in Amdo, merchants in Lhasa– the vast majority of Tibetans are vocal – as much as they can be – about their nationalist aspirations. Anyone who has spent time around Tibetans inside or outside Tibet knows this as fact. This fact does not have to be footnoted; it is experiential history.

By way of personal testimony, before I ever became involved in the Tibetan political struggle I went to Tibet myself. I was there during a period of martial law and at certain sensitive locations I had to be escorted by Chinese guides, who made a half-hearted attempt to show me the 'feudal torture chambers' of old Tibet and a statue of a liberated serf 'breaking the chains of bondage'; the guides barely seemed to believe it themselves. But even they could not produce Tibetan citizens who would rail against the Dalai Lama or speak of how they had 'cast off the bonds of
feudalism'. I know of no traveler to Tibet who has heard this type of testimony. There are Tibetans in government positions in Lhasa who will give you this line; and there are probably some Tibetans in Tibet who believe it. But again, for the vast majority of Tibetans, this is simply not part of the their experience. Get any Tibetan nomad, farmer, peasant, or monk a few hundred yards away from their local party cadre and the first thing they'll do is ask for a picture of the Dalai Lama; the second thing they'll do is ask you to help them free their country.

And there's the core of the matter: 'old Tibet', the Tibet that existed pre-1959, simply does not represent to the average Tibetan what it does to Michael Parenti, Tom Grunfeld, and Anna Louise Strong. Scholars like Parenti and Grunfeld and Strong, with limited source material and no firsthand experience, see old Tibet as a horrible place; but the bottom line is they're not Tibetan. And if Tibetans themselves don't see their past as a past of feudal lords and merciless repression, then do they really need scholars like Parenti to tell them what their past is all about?

Saying debasing things about a culture is certainly not extraordinarily difficult; seen through the lens that Parenti and Grunfeld apply to Tibet, most if not all societies would come up short, as would many resistance movements. The real story then, is not what these historians have to say, but why they have chosen to say it in the way they say it.

Many Tibetans do welcome commentary and criticism on aspects of their society; I have certainly been privy to many heated arguments on old Tibet and on the future direction of Tibetan politics. But that is because I have taken the time to really get to know Tibetan society. Perhaps what is most striking about the history that Parenti and Grunfeld and Strong present is the tone with which they speak of Tibetan culture, without ever having experienced it. The facts they deliver are clearly not being presented in order to help Tibetan people. They are fairly serious charges, and as objective as the authors pretend to be, these charges are delivered with venom.

Oddly, Parenti - like Grunfeld - seems taken aback at the emotional response that his writing has evoked among Tibetans and their supporters. It would seem fairly obvious to anyone with any common sense that dismissing an entire culture - particularly one in dire peril -and making statements that run completely contrary to everything the vast majority of its people know from firsthand experience would illicit an emotional response. Perhaps these scholars are surprised because they have forgotten that words carry weight, and that their actions actually have tangible results in the real world. In the Tibet movement, the results have been clearly measurable - Tibetan activists, who should be focused on returning basic rights to a people whose lack of freedoms is documented by every major human rights organization in the world, instead find themselves in the position of having to defend the actions of a bygone society. Former torture victims are accosted by nineteen year old American college students who have never been to Tibet, never met a Tibetan, and surely never had anyone in their family tortured with electric cattle prods. This, for a people who are in a very real struggle for rights, is not only extremely upsetting, it serves to forward the agenda of their oppressor.

It is no secret that the Chinese government views propaganda as a key weapon in its efforts to undermine the movement for Tibetan rights and statehood. Chinese state run media - whose use of manufactured and manipulated history is indisputable - regularly debases and assails Tibetan culture and specifically the Dalai Lama, who is dismissed with regularity - and relish. The Tibetan refugee population is treated with equal disdain, the Tibetan government-in-exile, which, again serves the very real function of looking after the welfare of 150,000 refugees and lobbying international institutions for rights and recognition, is dismissed entirely. Luckily for Tibetans, Beijing's Orwellian rants about Tibet - labeling the Dalai Lama a "serpent" and "the chief villain" - have bordered on the hilarious. That is, until recently. Now the war of words has spilled over into more legitimate circles.

Recognizing that Tibetans and the Tibetan struggle are generally well-perceived in the west, and seeking to win the war of perception,
Beijing's propaganda strategy has now grown, with regular meetings on external and internal Tibet-related propaganda. One key element of the new propaganda strategy is to make greater use of Tibet scholars, both Chinese and Western. In 2001 a leaked Chinese Government memo from the Chinese Communist Party's Ninth Meeting on Tibet-Related External Propaganda stated "Effective use of Tibetologists and specialists is the core of our external propaganda struggle for public opinion on Tibet..."

With this as the political backdrop, levying ill-researched and unsubstantiated charges at Tibetan culture - in fact the very charges often employed by their Chinese occupiers to delegitimize their entire society - is a dangerous game indeed. It is one thing to offer criticisms of a culture or religion that is not fighting for its very survival. It is quite another to rewrite the history of a people who are already the victims of a propaganda war at the hands of one of the largest propaganda machines in the world.

What surprises me most about the far left's flawed take on Tibet is how quickly a piece of propaganda turns into 'scholarship,' how a piece of hearsay becomes fact if given a footnote. Mao said 'a lie told a hundred times becomes the truth.' Sadly, in the case of the new Tibet 'scholarship', a lie footnoted once has already become truth. A pool of bad information now exists, ready for any scholar with an agenda to draw from and appear legitimate. Few will bother to look beneath the surface, at the highly questionable source of this information-colonists, oppressors, and outsiders, writing a history that they have no place writing. And what gets lost in the mix, as always, is the voice of the Tibetan people themselves.

There is one statement in Parenti's thesis that summarizes how completely disconnected he is from any kind of Tibetan reality. In his thesis, he states that old Tibet was a society that was 'damaging to the human spirit.' Any person who has spent any time with the Tibetan people would laugh at the irony. Being with Tibetans of all walks of life, inside and outside of Tibet, one is always struck by the incredible, contagious spirit of Tibetan culture. From the Khampa drinking songs to the picnics that are the preferred activity of all Tibetans, Tibetan society is known for its passion and exuberance. This spirit is something that grows directly from the culture that Parenti is so intent on debasing. This spirit is what the Chinese government has tried so desperately to crush – making the singing of freedom songs illegal and prohibiting traditional Tibetan festivals. The struggle against totalitarianism is precisely a struggle for spirit, and I'm willing to wager that a populist like Mr. Parenti would find far more joy drinking chang and singing songs with a party of exiled Tibetans than he ever would at a Chinese cadre meeting; sadly, he won't ever get to find out. He's chosen his bedfellows, and more power to him. In the end it is the Tibetan people who will be the arbiters of their own fate. By the time that fate is decided Parenti will be long gone, onto some other issue, and Tibetans will be no worse off because of it.

Hilary said...

As a lifelong activist who has worked on human rights issues in the United
States, East Timor, Burma, Palestine, and Tibet, I am profoundly
disappointed by Michael Parenti's uninformed bludgeoning of Tibet's history.
(Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth, July 7, 2003) Dr. Parenti would do well
to read Tsering Shakya's excellent book 'Dragon in the Land of Snows', which
presents a position that both Tibetans-in-Exile and Chinese government
officials find difficult in its honesty. Or perhaps Parenti is averse to
hearing Tibetan history from actual Tibetans - the sources for his article
would certainly seem to indicate so.

In the article Dr. Parenti demonstrates his growing reliance on politically
correct buzzwords rather than well-documented historical fact in order to
prove his points, and in the end the obtuse, lowest common-denominator
parallels that he makes between vastly different situations only hurts his
credibility as a historian (as does relying on the Chinese government as a
source of unbiased historical data.)

For example, comparing the monastic system of old Tibet to that of medieval
Europe is to rely on the basest of parallels. In fact these two monastic
systems had radically different structures and the end result was so
dissimilar as to hardly be comparable at all. The statement that most monks
and lamas in positions of authority came from aristocratic families is
simply not true. The entire paradox of the Tibetan Tulku system is that
reincarnated lamas came from all strata of Tibetan society; the current
Dalai Lama is from a poor farming family in Amdo, and the current Karmapa
(for Parenti's information, the Karmapa is the third most powerful religious
figure in Tibetan Buddhism) is from a family of nomads in Kham. These
powerful leaders come from families with absolutely no political or social

In a series of sweeping generalizations, Parenti then characterizes 'life
under the Dalai Lamas' as static, failing to explore the marked differences
between the various Dalai Lamas. No mention is made, for example, of the
Thirteenth Dalai Lama's social reforms. Demonstrating a total lack of
interest in historical fact, Parenti goes on to confuse the fifth and sixth
Dalai Lama for the first and second!

As the article progresses, Parenti's assertions grow even less grounded in
reality until, by the time he presents the Chinese occupation of Tibet --
which all legitimate human rights groups in the world brand with terms like
'cultural genocide'-- as a 'liberation,' he has lost all credibility. To
back up his points, he cites Chinese government documents replete with
quotes from freshly liberated Tibetans whose names are the equivalent of
'Jane Doe.' He repeatedly quotes Tom Grunfeld, whose writings on Tibet draw
on the most racist Chinese government depictions of Tibetans as savage

If Dr. Parenti is interested in reading an unbiased perspective on the
situation in Tibet shortly after the Chinese 'liberation' perhaps he should
read the Panchen Lama's 70,000 word treatise to Chairman Mao on behalf of
the Tibetan people. Not only is this document considered by serious
historians to be one of the only reliable texts from that time period, it
illuminates the extraordinary kow-towing that was necessary in order for
even an elevated Chinese official such as the Panchen Lama to speak to
Chairman Mao at that time. Apparently, Mao was not interested in listening
to the day-to-day problems of the 'serfs' he 'liberated'. The Panchen Lama
was sent to prison for suggesting that people in Tibet were starving; the
average Tibetan peasant who offered the same criticism to his local Chinese
official did not fare nearly as well.

Mao's forced sedentarization of Tibetan nomads was certainly not a
liberation; nor was the government-enforced switch to growing foreign cereal
crops which resulted in widespread famine in many regions of Tibet. The
assertion that slavery and unpaid labor disappeared under Mao is simply
ludicrous. Perhaps Mr. Parenti would like to sit down and have a chat with
the relatives of the thousands of Tibetans who were worked to death by
Chinese soldiers at the infamous Borax mine in Changthang. I've met them
myself, and they are far more deserving of a platform on Tibetan history and
cultural issues than Parenti.

It is interesting to note that despite the assertions of a handful of
historians like Mr. Parenti that pre-1959 Tibet was a horribly repressive
society, mass migrations of Tibetan refugees to surrounding nations were
never seen prior to 1959 (despite the presence of a democratic nation with a
large ethnic Tibetan population directly across the border to the south),
nor was there any indication of famine on the scale that came shortly after.
Yet ever since 1959 refugees have continued to pour out of Tibet at an
alarming rate-- every year, thousands of Tibetan men, women, and children
risk life and limb to cross the Himalayas, where an uncertain future awaits
them. This begs the question: If the situation in Tibet was so rosy after
the 'liberation', why are people still leaving in droves? If it was as
horrendous as Parenti presents pre-1959, then why weren't people leaving

Tibet pre-1959 was obviously not an ideal society; and if Parenti did a
little research he would quickly discover that there are few in the Tibet
world these days who claim it was. Tibetans, like all other peoples, have
fought wars and experienced violent periods in their history. Many of the
highlands and mountain passes were populated by bandits and brigands; many
of the northern tribes were governed by brutal warlords. Similarly, Many
Native American cultures were extremely brutal prior to the U.S. occupation
of Native lands. Does that warrant their decimation? Many Native cultures
now have higher rates of literacy and better access to allopathic medicine
than they did a hundred years ago. Does that mean that the people are better
off today? The argument that 'those backward natives were better off being
liberated' is used time and time again to justify occupation; it is
surprising that Mr. Parenti would resort to using an argument that reeks of
the very colonialism that he decries in most of his other writings.

19th century British colonialists held two strikingly different views of
Tibet; the country was either presented as a mythical, idyllic Shangri-La or
as a land of feudal 'lamaists' presiding over cowering peasants from their
dark dingy monasteries. Neither of these views, of course, were accurate, as
they came from the perspective of outsiders, and quite often outsiders with
a colonial agenda. As Tsering Shakya illuminates in his brilliant essay
'Blood in the Snows' in the New Left Review, this colonialist worldview has
nothing to do with on-the-ground reality and is empowering for the colonist
because it 'essentially deprives the native of agency.' It paints the
average Tibetan as a superstitious, hapless victim, blind to his own
oppression. This is a classic Orientalist view and it is shocking that a
modern historian such as Parenti would succumb to it.

Presenting the worst aspects of a culture as the full spectrum is not sound
practice and Parenti should know it; as a historian, relying on government
propaganda from a government that is notorious for its lack of press
freedoms and concerted manipulations of public opinion is totally
inexcusable. The use of state-controlled information as a prime source calls
into question not only the credibility of the article but also Parenti's
credibility as a historian. Surely in presenting the history of an occupied
nation Parenti understands that sources outside of those provided by the
occupier must be utilized? Would Parenti rely solely on the Indonesian
governments assertions about East Timor and Aceh? Or the U.S. Government's
statements about Iraq for that matter? Yet in his article every piece of
Chinese government-sourced data is presented as fact, whereas every
counter-argument is treated as rumor or hearsay, even down to the existence
of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, an entity whose existence can be easily
verified with a quick trip to the New York City Yellow pages!

In the end, Parenti makes the classic academic's mistake of being completely
removed from the people he's supposedly trying to represent. Were he to
spend some time with the 'serfs' of Tibet both past or present he would hear
an entirely different story than the one he has presented in this article as
the truth. The farmers in rural Tibet who showed me scars from beatings they
endured in Chinese struggle sessions were not former aristocrats; the nomads
who are losing their grazing lands to toxic Chinese infrastructure projects
are certainly not better off today than they were 50 years ago. Nor are the
ordinary citizens who risked arrest and torture to hand me notes pleading
for UN intervention and for information on their imprisoned relatives. These
stories are not few and far between -- they make up a vast majority of the
Tibetan experience, both inside and outside Tibet. This is absolutely

The studies on Tibet are clear: Tibetan children are dangerously
malnourished; prisoners are routinely tortured; rape of female prisoners is
endemic in the Chinese prison system; alcoholism and gambling are rampant;
and Lhasa now has one of the highest prostitution rates in Asia. If this is
liberation then I've seen it before - on Pine Ridge reservation in South
Dakota. Don't try to tell me that 90% of Tibetans are better off now than
they were pre-1959; that's a f***ing pipe dream.

As well meaning as Michael Parenti may be in his efforts to shed light on
colonialism, violence, and oppression, in this case he is completely off the
mark. He has sacrificed historical fact and historical context in the
interest of forwarding an agenda and in the process has completely butchered
his subject matter. His attitude towards Tibet is typified by his response
to a Tibetan man who took issue with his article... Telling a Tibetan to go
read their own history is simply arrogant, and it exemplifies Parenti's
complete disregard for an issue that he has chosen, for no clear reason, to
write about. The fanbase that Parenti seems to increasingly pander to might
find this article illuminating; I'd find it humorous if it weren't so bloody

Joshua Schrei
Board of Directors
Students for a Free Tibet
108 St. Mark's Pl. #3
Brooklyn, NY 11217

"Effective use of Tibetologists and specialists is the core of our external
propaganda struggle for public opinion on Tibet... Tibetology research, in
consideration of the needs of our external propaganda, must support our
propaganda for public opinion. Tibetologists should produce effective
articles, ideas and materials for external propaganda. The basic aims of our
external propaganda are to counter the Dalai clique and anti-China western
forces' rumours, criticism and smear campaigns against our policies in Tibet
and to foil their subterfuge to split the motherland."

-from a leaked Chinese Government memo from the Chinese Communist Party's
Ninth Meeting on Tibet-Related External Propaganda, April 9, 2001

Articles in this Issue:

Sikkim will not be an issue in Sino-Indian ties
New momentum to China talks: PM
Indian Communist Party's Delegation Visiting Tibet
Response to Michael Parenti's article on Tibet
U.N.:World can't afford rich China
Tibet Simplifies Tourism Procedures for Taiwanese Tourists
The world's next superpower

Hilary said...

To the Editor:

Buddhism does not have a concept of God as implied in this article. The author, Michael Parenti, writes as if he knows little (if anything) about Buddhism, as is shown by his use of the phrases: "Tibetan theocracy," "incarnate deity," "their recognized status as gods," "Theocratic despotism" and "the Dalai Lama's feudal theocracy."

Buddhists refer to Buddhism as nontheistic. Some even deny that it is a religion, and this is accurate to the extent that it is not one in the sense of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam).

The author either does not know or understand this or feigns ignorance. The latter seems more likely in the case of a Yale Ph.D.

Unfortunately, these inaccuracies concerning the nature of Buddhism cast serious doubt on the accuracy of the article as a whole, rendering it effectively useless as a source of information. In order to ascertain the accuracy of any assertion in the article, one would have to conduct an independent research project.

This article has done little to educate either western Buddhists, who by and large are aware of the political situation in pre 1959 Tibet, or the western Left, who would do well to work cooperatively with the progressive sectors of all religious traditions to promote social justice.

Alexander M. Lemberg
Fort Collins, Colorado, USA - July 9, 2003


To the Editor:

Michael Parenti's article on Tibet is only one half of the story.

This began as a BRITISH covert operation, before even the 1949 revolution and before the CIA was officially created. It precedes Indian independence in August 1947.

It was realised the Dalai Lama had not yet been located, and British policy had long striven to replace the authority of the Chinese governor with either the Dalai Lama or the Ketchen Lama.

The key was that the child who became the present Dalai Lama's eldest brother, already and adult, was in British India and recruited as an agent. He was to play a significant role, returning to Tibet, in identifying his youngest brother as the latest incarnation of the Dalai Lama.

It was also in many ways the first major operation of the CIA on its creation and had been going on for some years before the coup attempt in 1958.

A CIA operations 8 man team brought out the Dalai Lama, lead by "Tony Pop," regarded by the brotherhood as one of their top covert special operations agents.

Richard Roper
Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England - July 13, 2003


To the Editor:

Michael Parenti's article on Tibet is filled with factual errors.

Among others, he attempts to dispute the death of 1.2 Million Tibetans by citing a Chinese statistic of 1.74 Million Tibetans in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Does he not realise that historical Tibet is about three times the size of TAR? Tibet, as Tibetans describe, is the entire Tibetan plateau including regions in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunan. The total population of Tibetans in all these regions is estimated at around 6 million. He describes Melvyn Goldstein as being "sympathetic" to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Independence -- a claim I am sure even Goldstein would deny -- as a Tibetan, I can say I do not consider Goldstein to be sympathetic to the Tibetan Independence or the Dalai Lama. Mr. Goldstein is one of the preferred American friend of the Chinese government who has unlimited access to Tibet. Mr. Parenti charges the Dalai Lama with all the ills of old Tibet as propagated by the Chinese government. Does Mr. Parenti realise that the Dalai Lama was only 15 when China invaded Tibet? Is he accusing the 15 year old Dalai Lama of all the social injustices in Tibet? Mr. Parenti claims that the exile community is primarily made up of the aristocratics' claims of old Tibet, has he looked at the Tibetan government in exile and the leadership in that? Not a single Kashag (the Cabinet) member nor the leadership group in the Tibetan Government in exile is of aristocratic background.

Nima Dorjee, P.Eng.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada - July 17, 2003

Anonymous said...

I'm a westerner.

I'm british.

I'm Welsh, Irish and Scottish.

I'm a Bretonic Celt.

For me, the environmental, spirtual and politcal root to which I owe my attitude and philosohpy of life is lost beyond recovery. I can never hope to live in an environment that will give that back to me. I practice my beliefs in isolation.

It's too late now by about 600 years.

The domination and oppression of Tibet by China is a sadly familiar tale.

One group of people who believe they are in posession of the truth and the 'only' way opresses the other.

Ad In Finitum

The Victors and their associates get to promote the 'History' that becomes 'The Truth'.

It has always been that way, and always will be, until we stop caring about 'winning'.

What do you win when you disenfranchise someone of their beliefs? Or their possesions? Or their culture, or dignity, or life?

You win the right to do differently.

That is all.


Chris J. Sumner

Anonymous said...

I think that with the call for the boycott of the Beijing Olympics because of the Chinese - Tibetan conflict, people in North America should be paying more attention to the colonial manifestations in our own backyard. I find it hypocritical that young Americans and Canadians are rallying for a "Free Tibet" while being quite content to parade around the privilege of usurping Aboriginal nations of their land, lives and resources. The 2010 Olympics is scheduled for Vancouver, BC, and many indigenous activists are calling for a boycott under the banner of "No Olympics on Stolen Land."

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