Democratic propaganda blinds all in Tibetan controversy

TBy Diana Fu

tibet is a land of mysticism tucked into the waist of the Himalayas where girls swing their long black braids and thick incense mingles with the chanting of Buddhist monks. To the average American, this exotic land of the Far East recalls two additional figures – the Dalai Lama and Brad Pitt in the movie “Seven Years in Tibet.” Of course, what ties these two figures together is the fundamental issue of Chinese occupation and subsequent oppression of Tibetans. In the western world, the Dalai Lama has become synonymous with Chinese Communist oppression, and Brad Pitt has become the symbol of the western discovery of such injustices in foreign lands. The picture is familiarly black and white, evil and good. But where is the gray, the mush that is inevitably a part of any real life situation?

For a country that lives under the banner of democracy, the U.S. government seems to be doing exactly what it denounces as purely “communist” in the Tibetan problem. That is, it’s taken on propaganda. In recent years, a sudden wave of human rights groups and student and government organizations has exhausted their members’ vocal chords with passionate cries to “Free Tibet” and “Stop Chinese Imperialism.” Daily, college students across the country sign petitions protesting for religious freedom in Tibet, while numerous television documentaries and articles condemn the Chinese communist government for its ruthless treatment toward Tibetans. But perhaps the most powerful proponent of such an image is the United States government that, in the Chinese perspective, never fails to wave the Tibetan human rights question in the face of Chinese diplomats. The Tibetan issue demands a closer examination.

The western portrayal of Tibetans as carefree, karma-loving monks who struggle under an imperialistic communist China paints a far too idealistic picture of an exceedingly complex situation rooted in a history of misunderstanding, mistrust and undue foreign interference. As in any conflict, two tongues tell two different stories. The United States broadcasts the story through one tongue – that of the Dalai Lama.

In 1951, the Chinese Communist Red Army marched into Tibet and took over this northern region without substantial resistance from Tibetans. This occurred immediately after a Tibetan delegation negotiating in Beijing was reportedly coerced into signing what is known as the “17 Points” document by the Chinese government. This treaty declared Tibet to be a part of China while it remained largely autonomous.

The part of history that fell through the hole in western reporting, however, is the centuries old connection between China and Tibet. Historically, Tibet has always been an important buffer zone to foreign invaders. During the Qing dynasty, the Chinese army once helped Tibet in driving out invading Nepalese. From 1728 to 1912, numerous imperial ambassadors known as “ambans” were stationed in Tibet to keep watch of the land while allowing it to maintain autonomy as well as religious freedom. As the Qing dynasty collapsed with the dawn of western imperialism, Tibet regained a degree of its former freedom as central China shifted its attention to fighting off European and American looters. In response, Chinese nationalist leaders such as Sun Yat-sen cried out against western domination of China and rallied the Chinese in regaining their self-perceived historical right to Tibet. This call resonated in the mid-1900s when Mao Ze Dong and the communist party took power. From the Chinese perspective, Tibet is a most crucial piece to the reunification of the motherland.

In the westerner’s eyes, Tibet can only be liberated if it is completely free from any entanglements with Beijing. In other words, the Chinese government must recognize Tibetan independence. This request seems hypocritical coming from a country whose very foundations are built upon the shoulders of imperialism. Didn’t Europeans enslave and slaughter hundreds of thousands Native Americans for the sake of building America? If it is imperialism that is targeted, then should not the U.S. government give up the White House to the remaining American Indians who are the rightful owners of this land? But this suggestion seems almost ridiculous. In fact, you could argue that there’s a stark difference between the two situations. First, American Indians consider themselves American citizens, while Tibetans do not identify themselves as Chinese. Secondly, the U.S. government doesn’t suppress the freedoms of the American Indians, while the Chinese government is accused of oppressing Tibetan Buddhism.

I, however, find these arguments futile. The only difference is time. The Europeans conquered the Americas a few hundred years ago when the term “human rights” did not exist. In contrast, the Chinese conquered Tibet in a recent century when developed nations such as the United States have suddenly become the world watcher of human rights in developing countries. When the Europeans conquered North America, did American Indians consider themselves “American?” Were they not forced to relinquish their beliefs in order to become more “European?” In the same sense, the Chinese could argue that over centuries, Tibetans would identify themselves as Chinese.

Of course, European imperialism doesn’t justify Chinese imperialism. Perhaps one of the strongest human forces is national identity. Losing that identity to another group of people is like a person losing his name and all of the personal connections that come with it. The Tibetans feel as if they lost their name. But so would the Chinese if they let go of Tibet, a land that in their eyes has always been a part of the motherland. The Chinese government should recognize that historical claim does not make Tibet a part of China, nor does it make Tibetans identify themselves as Chinese. At the same time, the U.S. government and various human rights organizations must first try to understand the complexity and extreme sensitivity ingrained in the very roots of the conflict. It is dangerous to condemn a country and label it as an evildoer without first examining the situation through historical and, most importantly, cultural lenses. Essentially, the Chinese consider Tibet to be as much a part of the motherland as Americans see the states of Texas, New Mexico, Nevada and California to be parts of the United States, not as land taken from Mexico.

Thus, the real Tibetan question is not whether to “free Tibet,” but rather, to “free the media.” Surely, before the U.S. government rallies its citizens to protect Tibet from Chinese bullying, it must first present an objective portrait of this long-standing historical conflict. Objective understanding comes first. Humanitarian intervention is blind without the former. For a country that boasts its hilltop democracy, it is imperative for the United States to pull itself away from lingering Cold War sentiments towards China’s communist government and reveal not the truth but the second tongue. Will the United States ever let go of the Brad Pitt character?