Published: April 17, 2008
BEIJING — Not far from National Stadium, the city’s mammoth, just-finished Olympic arena, another construction project is still facing an Olympic deadline. The building, sheathed in a green construction tent, will house Beijing’s first museum exclusively dedicated to Tibet.
Inside, curators will display antiquities, dynastic records and reproductions to demonstrate China’s dominion over Tibet as far back as the 13th century. Many experts question China’s historical claims, but few clouds of doubt are likely to darken the museum. Even the Dalai Lama is being edited out of the narrative.
“He will not appear after 1959,” said Lian Xiangmin, a Chinese scholar involved in the museum, referring to the year the Tibetan spiritual leader fled to India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. “This is a Tibet museum, and we don’t recognize him as part of Tibet anymore.”
History is often interpreted to meet the political objectives of whichever government is doing the interpreting. The historical relationship between Tibet and China is replete with claims, disputes and caveats. But the ruling Communist Party does not hesitate to eliminate any uncertainty and use history as a political tool to validate its hold on Tibet.
Yet if the party’s unflinching line on Tibet’s historical status has effectively quashed any domestic dissenting views, it also has fueled Tibetan resentment. The authorities are now suppressing the largest outbreak of anti-Chinese unrest in Tibet in two decades, a violent uprising that many Tibetans trace, in part, to seething anger over cultural and religious repression.
Buddhist monks who led initially peaceful protests last month outside Lhasa were partly complaining about the “patriotic education” campaigns that required them to denounce the Dalai Lama and submit to history lessons about China’s rightful control over the region. Last week, monks at Drepung monastery outside Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, reportedly protested a new round of patriotic education.
Across China, schoolchildren are taught that Tibet is an inalienable part of the country. Tour guides in Lhasa must follow approved versions of history. Dissenting scholars have been marginalized, censored and, in a handful of cases, imprisoned. Questioning official history can expose scholars to accusations of separatism. A Tibetan scholar, Dolma Kyab, has been jailed since 2005 after writing an unapproved history of Tibet.
“History is linked to legitimacy,” said Tashi Rabgey, director of the Contemporary Tibetan Studies Initiative at the University of Virginia. “The problem for Beijing is that their presence on the Tibetan Plateau has never been legitimized. And their attempt to control history is an effort to do that.”
Many scholars say that narrative oversimplifies history to support contemporary political and territorial claims. Historians generally agree that the relationship between China and Tibet became fully intermingled during the Yuan Dynasty, from the 1270s to 1368. The dispute is over the nature of the relationship.
The Tibetan government in exile says Buddhist lamas established a “priest-patron” relationship under which they became spiritual advisers to the Yuan rulers without sacrificing Tibetan self-rule or independence — an arrangement replicated in the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, which lasted from 1644 to 1912.
Chinese scholars say this logic is disingenuous. They point to records detailing how Tibet was subject to certain laws of the Yuan and Qing rulers — a paper trail they say proves not just that Tibet is an inalienable part of China but also that Chinese emperors had the authority to select the Dalai Lama.
Elliot Sperling, a leading Tibet specialist at Indiana University, said both sides massage their interpretations. He said Tibet cannot be regarded as truly independent during the Yuan and Qing dynasties, given that records show Tibet as subservient to Chinese rules and policies.
But Dr. Sperling said China’s claim to unbroken control of Tibet was also dubious. During the Ming dynasty, from 1368 to 1644, Tibet had scant connection to Chinese rulers, he said. And describing the Yuan and Qing dynasties as “Chinese” overlooks the fact that each took power after what was at the time viewed as a foreign invasion: Mongols established the Yuan; Manchus invaded and founded the Qing.
“What China doesn’t want to deal with is the fact that the Mongols had an empire,” said Dr. Sperling, director of Tibetan Studies at Indiana University’s department of Central Eurasia Studies. “It wasn’t a Chinese state. It was an empire.”
In this context, some scholars consider Tibet’s past relationship with China more akin to that of a vassal state. China’s government relinquished any remaining control over Tibet after the fall of the Qing in 1912. The current Dalai Lama, and his predecessor, ruled Tibet until 1951, when Mao invaded in what China maintains was a “peaceful liberation” that freed Tibetans from a feudal theocracy.
“We know that Tibetans and some Western scholars say that Tibet was an independent state during this period, but we don’t agree,” said Mr. Lian, the scholar with the research center.
Wang Lixiong, a dissident scholar in Beijing who has challenged some of the Communist Party’s historical claims, said imperial China regarded itself as the center of the world and had little concern about the political status of subservient neighbors like Tibet. But he said modern political needs had made this approach an inconvenient legacy.
“Now we are in a Westernized political situation,” said Mr. Wang, who is married to Ms. Woeser and is now banned from being published in China. “We have this definition of sovereignty, so we fight over every inch of territory.”
Robert Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University, said Tibet scholars inside China often did excellent work. But he said many scholars in China avoided specializing in Tibetan history after the 13th century because of the political overtones — and potential risks. He said one book was banned for including a sentence that questioned the official view that an eighth-century Tibetan king was half Chinese.
Mr. Barnett said that passengers arriving at the Lhasa airport from Nepal sometimes had their bags searched for unapproved books or photographs. “Managing accounts of history there and eradicating any sign that Tibet was separate from China is an official industry,” Mr. Barnett said in an interview conducted by e-mail.
Mr. Lian, the scholar at the Tibetology Institute, said plans were still evolving for the new Tibet museum complex. Officials are aiming for a pre-Olympic grand opening, but he noted that the project had hit delays. “We’re not going to rush it,” he said.
Asked about the importance of history, Mr. Lian paused.
“Why is history important?” he repeated. “By looking into history, we can see the future.”
NYT/Matthew Forney, a former Beijing bureau chief for Time, is writing a book about raising his family in China.
As is clear to anyone who lives here, most young ethnic Chinese strongly support their government’s suppression of the recent Tibetan uprising. One Chinese friend who has a degree from a European university described the conflict to me as “a clash between the commercial world and an old aboriginal society.” She even praised her government for treating Tibetans better than New World settlers treated Native Americans.
It’s a rare person in China who considers the desires of the Tibetans themselves. “Young Chinese have no sympathy for Tibet,” a Beijing human-rights lawyer named Teng Biao told me. Mr. Teng — a Han Chinese who has offered to defend Tibetan monks caught up in police dragnets — feels very alone these days. Most people in their 20s, he says, “believe the Dalai Lama is trying to split China.”
Educated young people are usually the best positioned in society to bridge cultures, so it’s important to examine the thinking of those in China. The most striking thing is that, almost without exception, they feel rightfully proud of their country’s accomplishments in the three decades since economic reforms began. And their pride and patriotism often find expression in an unquestioning support of their government, especially regarding Tibet.
The most obvious explanation for this is the education system, which can accurately be described as indoctrination. Textbooks dwell on China’s humiliations at the hands of foreign powers in the 19th century as if they took place yesterday, yet skim over the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s as if it were ancient history. Students learn the neat calculation that Chairman Mao’s tyranny was “30 percent wrong,” then the subject is declared closed. The uprising in Tibet in the late 1950s, and the invasion that quashed it, are discussed just long enough to lay blame on the “Dalai clique,” a pejorative reference to the circle of advisers around Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Then there’s life experience — or the lack of it — that might otherwise help young Chinese to gain a perspective outside the government’s viewpoint. Young urban Chinese study hard and that’s pretty much it. Volunteer work, sports, church groups, debate teams, musical skills and other extracurricular activities don’t factor into college admission, so few participate. And the government’s control of society means there aren’t many non-state-run groups to join anyway. Even the most basic American introduction to real life — the summer job — rarely exists for urban students in China.
Recent Chinese college graduates are an optimistic group. And why not? The economy has grown at a double-digit rate for as long as they can remember. Those who speak English are guaranteed good jobs. Their families own homes. They’ll soon own one themselves, and probably a car too. A cellphone, an iPod, holidays — no problem. Small wonder the Pew Research Center in Washington described the Chinese in 2005 as “world leaders in optimism.”
As for political repression, few young Chinese experience it. Most are too young to remember the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 and probably nobody has told them stories. China doesn’t feel like a police state, and the people young Chinese read about who do suffer injustices tend to be poor — those who lost homes to government-linked property developers without fair compensation or whose crops failed when state-supported factories polluted their fields.
Educated young Chinese are therefore the biggest beneficiaries of policies that have brought China more peace and prosperity than at any time in the past thousand years. They can’t imagine why Tibetans would turn up their noses at rising incomes and the promise of a more prosperous future. The loss of a homeland just doesn’t compute as a valid concern.
Of course, the nationalism of young Chinese may soften over time. As college graduates enter the work force and experience their country’s corruption and inefficiency, they often grow more critical. It is received wisdom in China that people in their 40s are the most willing to challenge their government, and the Tibet crisis bears out that observation. Of the 29 ethnic-Chinese intellectuals who last month signed a widely publicized petition urging the government to show restraint in the crackdown, not one was under 30.
Barring major changes in China’s education system or economy, Westerners are not going to find allies among the vast majority of Chinese on key issues like Tibet, Darfur and the environment for some time. If the debate over Tibet turns this summer’s contests in Beijing into the Human Rights Games, as seems inevitable, Western ticket-holders expecting to find Chinese angry at their government will instead find Chinese angry at them.
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