The Right to Exist
Sixty years ago this month, 23 May 1951 to be precise, a document was signed by the then Tibetan government which effectively removed Tibet’s right to exist as an independent nation. The so-called 17-point Agreement was forced upon Tibet at gunpoint following its invasion and occupation by the Chinese a year earlier. In the 60 years since the signing of that document (described at the time by Hugh Richardson, the last British representative to an independent Tibet, as a tendentious manifesto in which the Chinese took every opportunity to falsify history and justify the use of force) China, under the pretext of the liberation of the Tibetan people from feudal serfdom has sought to bring about the total collapse of Tibetan culture, its singular customs and belief systems.
Unsurprisingly, despite the enormous efforts made by the Chinese government to justify the invasion their claims scrupulously downplay any mention of Tibet’s long history of independent development, its unique society based on spiritual rather than materialistic values, and, crucially, its enormous, and largely underdeveloped mineral resources that include gold, titanium, copper, and coal. Such obfuscation is typically an essential weapon in any colonizer’s armory, as we shall see.
A Political Mythology
China’s invasion and occupation of Tibet can be seen as almost textbook in its execution once it is realized that throughout history the justification for the conquest of one country or culture by another (particularly where a self-proclaimed “civilized” power usurps the land and freedoms of indigenous or tribal peoples) follows a particular pattern, almost like a blueprint.
Before, during, and after military action the colonizer will seek to systematically diminish the demographic, cultural, and moral significance of the native people it is threatening. This is a political strategy as old and enduring as mankind’s need to flex its imperialist muscles. Such historical distortions are what historian Leonard Thompson has called “political mythology”. In his words, a political myth is “a tale told about the past to legitimize or discredit a regime.” Political mythology is therefore “a cluster of such myths that reinforce one another and jointly constitute the historical element in the ideology of the regime or its rival.” Thompson was discussing the origins of the South African system of apartheid, but his words could equally be used to describe tactics used by colonizing invaders since the beginnings of recorded history.
A common method of rationalizing the aggressor’s actions is to depict the victims as savages, or at the very least as benighted and resistant to progress. Because large populations are commonly associated with civilization and small populations with savagery it is expedient for the colonizing power to underestimate the actual numbers of those being colonized. Ideally the picture portrayed should be that of a small number of backward people living in a vast, undeveloped wilderness. The colonizer can then establish the myth that the conquered will actually benefit from their subjugation thanks to the progress initiated by their enlightened conquerors. This also serves to smother any retroactive moral scruples that might surface. By this time the colonizer has taken on the guise of intrepid pioneer, battling to preserve his hard won wedge of civilization against unwilling and dangerous savages.
A Moral Right
Once indigenous resistance has been crushed the colonizer can turn his attention to recording the history of his achievement for posterity. Official histories of such imperialist adventures will seek to blot out, distort, or restrict knowledge of those it has conquered. It is common for native populations in such historical accounts to be treated in the same way that the fauna and flora of the region are – in effect, consigned to the category of miscellaneous information.
When the natives have thus been banished from the collective memory, at least as people of numerical and cultural consequence, the settler group’s moral and intellectual right to conquest is claimed to be established without question. As the writer and revolutionary Frantz Fanon put it: “The colonialist…reaches the point of no longer being able to imagine a time occurring without him. His irruption into the history of the colonized people is deified, transformed into absolute necessity.” Before long indigenous peoples, fighting to preserve the remnants of their culture are maneuvered into the role of “agitator”, or “insurgent”, or “terrorist”.
While this or similar patterns can be found in almost any occupying power’s handbook from ancient history to the present day, it is useful to keep this “blueprint” in mind when searching for the facts about the Chinese “liberation” of Tibet– but more on that later.
An Expat Opinion
Some weeks ago, before the latest eruption of violent protest in the country someone mentioned a colleague of theirs who’d recently traveled to Tibet and returned with a number of firm opinions about what he’d seen. In his view Tibet had much improved since a previous visit several years earlier. The Chinese had built many roads and buildings and had thoroughly re-organized the place for the better. In the past, he said, Tibet had been governed by a “sect” of Buddhist monks who wanted nothing more than to sit around meditating all day while the people went hungry and had to walk or cycle everywhere. Now at least they had factories and offices to go to and roads to get them there. Some of them even had cars.
The remarks, only mildly irritating at the time stuck with me and annoyed me more and more as time went by. After a while I worked out why.
Firstly they were made by an expat European living in an ivory tower in Saudi Arabia and spending his tax-free dollars on the occasional “adventure holiday”. In Tibet, having swallowed the party line hook, line, and sinker he had seen with his own eyes just what a bit of totalitarian-style discipline and a healthy dose of capitalism can do for a backward culture, and had been suitably impressed.
Secondly, as the Chinese had invaded Tibet in 1950 it was unlikely that our traveler had any experience of the country before its occupation. Few people have, but some have at least made an attempt at discovering what it is that has been so thoroughly and systematically destroyed in that land. The information isn’t hard to find, you just need to remove your blinkers.
Thirdly, his remarks put me in mind of a certain black-humoured cliché which arose after the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and which still resurfaces from time to time. It goes like this: the Nazis may have occupied the country by force and murdered all the Jews, but at least they tidied the place up a bit and made the trains run on time.
It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks about how Tibet was governed before the Chinese occupation, that it was isolated, feudal, or backward in the eyes of those whose only yardstick is that of material wealth and “progress”. It doesn’t matter whether or not the Chinese believe that Tibet is historically a part of China, any more than it mattered what the Nazis believed about Poland when they invaded. What matters is that the Tibetan people fought hard against the Chinese invasion in 1950, rose up against the occupation in 1959, have battled to save their unique culture from total extermination, and now, 60 years after their independence was signed away are still willing to stand up to Chinese repression in order to re-establish their autonomy.
China seems to me rather like the barefaced liar who tells you to your face that he didn’t burgle your mother’s house and shit all over her living room carpet, when you know full well that he did. Unfortunately, the world being what it is it’s unlikely that this particular burglar will ever be punished or made to pay for his actions. And let’s face it, the world is full of easier targets.
A Falsified History
It is unthinkable at this time that China will ever contemplate a free and autonomous Tibet, and the Chinese people have come to believe the history they’ve been spoon-fed about their country’s relationship to the homeland of the Tibetan people. All the more reason why it’s so important that the truth not be buried under a landslide of historical distortion.
Speaking of which; you don’t have to search hard to find easily accessible Chinese propaganda concerning Tibet and its historical relationship with the Chinese. In fact you need look no further than Wikipedia and the various entries relating to Tibet. In particular, under the heading Incorporation of Tibet into the People’s Republic of China you’ll find a definitive example of falsified history written in almost perfect, if rather wooden English, and last amended on – yes, you’ve guessed it –23 May 2011. Remember the blueprint?
Once you’ve read the entry you might, in the interest of balance, like to contact Wikipedia about it, or better still, go to any of the following websites, let them know how you feel about what you’ve read, and join the movement to free Tibet.
www.tibet.net : The official website of the Tibet Government in Exile
www.freetibet.org : Campaign for an end to Chinese occupation of Tibet
www.savetibet.org : International Campaign for Tibet