Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Struggle for Tibet

Getting good information about Tibet can be difficult: one the one hand, there's Chinese media censorship to get around, but on the other, we also have to avoid the Western tendency to exoticize and to fetishize Tibet and the Dalai Lama. As Joshua pointed out earlier this month, the Dalai Lama is seen as a "hero and saintly man," but he is also the spiritual leader of a society that was, under his rule, both feudalistic and theocratic.

In The Struggle in Tibet (Verso, 2009), Wang Lixiong (a Chinese dissident intellectual) and Tsering Shakya (a Tibetan exile now teaching at the University of British Colombia) attempt to analyze Tibetan struggle without falling into either what they call a Chinese colonialist line or a Western exoticization line. Their opening two essays reproduce a debate between them (turning on the legacy of the Cultural Revolution) first published in the New Left Review in 2002, and the additional contributions analyze various facets of Tibetan religion (although some of the arguments are left wanting...) and Chinese imperialism, up through the Tibetan demonstrations that began in March 2008.

The goal of the book is to assess the Tibetan struggle 'on the ground.' While neither reside in Tibet (Wang travels there intermittently) they both strive to address concerns indigenous to the larger region. In this regard their collection of essays is successful and informative; I recommend it (as a non-expert myself) to anyone looking to challenge their views on the relationship between Tibet and China. There are three things of note:

First, Wang's essays can be frustrating at points, especially the first, which betrays, as Shakya calls it, a colonialist's attitude toward Tibet; his interpretations of religious need  are often oversimplified.  Nevertheless, Wang's contributions document his radicalization, as he comes to call for Tibetan cultural autonomy and to argue that the Chinese bureaucracy's mismanagement of the region puts its independence on the agenda because Tibetans have realized that China will be unable to resolve the 'Tibet Question.' Note, however, that this argument isn't directly framed as a call for complete independence, rather it's a call for democratic reform in China if the government wishes to implement 'national unity.'

Second, while both authors address Chinese economic interest in the Tibet region, their analyses could have been developed further. Both note the improved infrastructure in Tibet and 'accumulation by dispossession' that is occurring there, especially, as Shakya notes, with the discovery of large mineral deposits (p. 198), but neither does more than sketch how this could be self-managed by Tibetans to avoid extra-regional expropriation (see also Wang's discussion of ecology on pp 160-168).

Finally, while both acknowledge the Dalai Lama as the spiritual leader of Tibet, neither expressly calls for him to return as a political leader. In fact, Shakya argues that there is a "huge social and cultural gap" between Tibetans in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the exile community in India and the West (p. 215). It's also important to note that the exile groups in India receive funding from the National Endowment of Democracy, which, despite Shakya's claim that this "does not translate into an ability to mobilize" in the People's Republic of China, has a long record of meddling in the politics of what the US considers to be hostile or rogue states. Certainly, being a border region between China and India, and then an interest with national resources between two imperial powers can't help the local struggle for autonomy. Nevertheless, The Struggle in Tibet provides a solid foundation to build subsequent responses to these issues.

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