Should Tibet Be Free?

The well-written original article was published in

Misinformation and fantasy surrounds the popular Tibet notions.

Filed under Fads

Skeptoid #111
July 29, 2008

Perhaps an equally important question is “Should a science podcast take on a political topic?” For a long time, listeners have been sending me requests to do an episode about Tibet, and for a long time I’ve been putting the requests into a folder and keeping it stored away. This is Skeptoid, not Politicaloid, and my purpose is not to advocate one side or the other in political questions where you have two sides that are perfectly valid to different groups of people. But the more requests I’ve received, the more I’ve realized that there is a lot of misinformation, if not true pseudoscience, surrounding Tibet. There is, undoubtedly, a set of popular pop-culture beliefs out there, based entirely upon made-up crap that bears little resemblance to reality.

Mind you, I’m not saying “Hey, you’ve heard one side, let me give you the other side,” because that’s the job of a political commentator. What I’m saying today is “Here is the reality of Tibet, go forth and form whatever opinion you like,” but base it on reality, not on made-up metaphysical nonsense. I’m encouraging you to apply skepticism to the reasons you may have heard for freeing Tibet.

Like most Americans, I grew up watching video of the Chinese army taking howitzers and destroying the massive centuries-old Tibetan monasteries in 1959, and that’s an indisputable crime against history, religious freedom, and the dignity of Tibetans. And then I watched video of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, in his red and yellow robes, speaking words of wisdom and brotherhood and freedom and peace. And I’ll freely admit: For nearly all of my life, this was the extent of my knowledge of the Tibet situation: Violence and cruelty from the Chinese; innocence and beauty from the Tibetans. I believe that many Westerners, including many who fervently wave Free Tibet placards, have little knowledge of the situation any deeper than that. But isn’t it likely that there’s more to it than that? Isn’t it equally disrespectful of the Tibetans as it is of the Chinese to attempt to encompass who and what they are with those tiny little pictures?

A complete history lesson is impossible, but here’s a quick overview of the points relevant to today’s discussion. China and Tibet have a long and complicated history. In 1950, China invaded to assert its claim, and ruled by trying to win hearts and minds, building roads and public utilities, and allowing the Tibetan system of feudal serfdoms to remain largely intact. In 1959 the Tibetan ruling class revolted, prompting a Chinese crackdown that sent the Dalai Lama and most other Tibetan aristocrats into exile in India, where they remain to this day. The former serfs became ordinary Chinese citizens, and Tibet is now an “autonomous region” in China, a status that many describe as actually less autonomous than an ordinary Chinese province. From his palace in India, the Dalai Lama now travels the world in a private jet, hobnobbing with the wealthy and powerful, fundraising, and writing highly successful books on metaphysics.

Recently there were some anti-China, pro-Tibet protests in Nepal, a neighboring independent nation. This is illegal in Nepal, and the authorities have been cracking down on it. Why does Nepal side with China on this issue? Because they depend heavily on Chinese aid to survive, and this is a requirement that China imposes, though they call it a “request”. At first glance you might be shocked that an independent nation would give up its freedom of speech to make a deal with the devil, but that’s an easy opinion to form when you’re not hungry. It makes sense for Nepal to agree to these terms, because their back is against the wall: They need China’s aid. As for China imposing this condition? Well, that’s one for you to chalk up in your column of “Things China Needs to Reconsider”.

So, why doesn’t China simply give Tibet the same treatment they give Nepal — let them be an independent nation, give them aid, and just require them to say only nice things about them? Well, Nepal has long been an independent nation; Tibet hasn’t. The history of China’s rule over Tibet is exceptionally complicated and goes back many centuries. Anyone who tells you that either Tibet is historically part of China, or that Tibet is historically free, is making a disingenuous oversimplification. Personally, I choose to discount this subject completely, and not because it’s too intricate to make a clear decision. I discount it because practically every square inch of land on the planet has been taken over militarily or annexed or stolen in one way or another from one people by another people. We don’t give California back to the Spanish, and we don’t give Italy back to Norway [So many people have asked me about this that I’ll clarify. Italy, like the rest of Europe, was repeatedly sacked by Vikings. – BD]. Ancient history is not the way to settle current border disputes. To find a meaningful settlement that makes sense for people today, you have to consider Tibet to be a current border dispute. So while we’re chalking up China’s claim of ancient possession in the column of “Things China Needs to Reconsider”, let’s also chalk up Tibet’s claim of ancient autonomy in the column of “Things Tibet Needs to Shut Up About”.

And once we open up that column, we find it’s a Pandora’s Box. Advocates of a free Tibet make a long list of charges against Chinese oppression, largely centered upon a loss of rights and freedom. This claim makes anyone familiar with Tibetan history cough up their coffee. The only people who lost any rights under Chinese rule are Tibet’s former ruling class, themselves guilty of cruelty and oppression of a magnitude that not even China can conceive. The vast majority of Tibetans, some 90% of whom were serfs, have enjoyed a relative level of freedom unheard of in their culture. Until 1950 when the Chinese put a stop to it, 90% of Tibetans had no rights at all. They were freely traded and sold. They were subject to the worst type of punishments from their lords, including gouging out of eyes; cutting off hands, feet, tongues, noses, or lips; and a dozen horrible forms of execution. There was no such concept as legal recourse; the landowning monk class was the law. There was no such thing as education, medical care, sanitation, or public utilities. Young boys were frequently and freely taken from families to endure lifelong servitude, including rape, in the monasteries. Amid all the pop-culture cries about Chinese oppression, why is there never any mention of the institutionalized daily oppression levied by the Dalai Lama’s class prior to 1959?

Free Tibet advocates also point to the destruction of Tibetan culture. This charge is particularly bizarre. The only art produced in Tibet prior to 1950 was limited to the output of a few monks in each monastery, principally drawings of monasteries. New literature had not been produced in Tibet for centuries. Since the 1959 uprising, art and literature in Tibet have both flourished, now that the entire population is at liberty to produce. Tibet even has its share of well known poets, authors, and internationally known artists now.

Make no mistake about China’s history of human rights failings: China’s “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution” programs from 1958 through 1976 were as disastrous for Tibet as they were for the rest of China. There can never be any excuse for the deliberate widescale destruction of life, liberty, and property during those years. Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans, and tens of millions of Chinese, lost their lives during this misguided pretense at “reform”. This was a phase that China went through, and it’s arguable that Tibet would have been spared this torment if they had been independent at the time. But for your average Tibetan in the field, a serf with no rights, living and working and dying at the whim of his lord, were those decades really worse than they would have been without China? There’s no way to know, but to a skeptical mind, it’s not a slam-dunk that China’s Cultural Revolution was harder on Tibet than Tibet’s ruling class had always been in the past.

If we think back to our list of red flags to identify misinformation, cultural campaigns and celebrity endorsements should always trigger your skeptical radar. Few campaigns are as near and dear to the hearts of Hollywood activists as “Freeing Tibet”. Notable Tibet advocates include Sharon Stone, Richard Gere, Paris Hilton, and the great political science scholar Lindsay Lohan. Journalist Christopher Hitchens notes that “when on his trips to Hollywood fundraisers, [the Dalai Lama] anoints major donors like Steven Segal and Richard Gere as holy.” Being anointed as holy probably does great things for your social standing within Hollywood, but it should not be considered evidence of expertise. I’ll bet that if you asked either Steven Segal or Paris Hilton to lecture on the events of the Lhasa Uprising of 1959, you’d find that neither knows even the most basic information about the cause they so passionately advocate. Just because Hollywood celebrities promote a viewpoint doesn’t mean they’re qualified to do so, something that (unbelievably) still seems to escape most people.

Furthermore, the people shouting loudest about freeing Tibet don’t seem to be aware that that’s not even what the Dalai Lama wants from China. He’s not seeking full independence, Nepal style; rather he would like to achieve the same status as Hong Kong, which is a “special administrative region”. This would give them full economic benefits without having to become a regular province, something along the lines of a US territory. So here’s a note to all the Hollywood celebrities: If you really want to support the Dalai Lama, ditch your “Free Tibet” signs and paint some up that say “Change Tibet from an Autonomous Region to a Special Administrative Region”. It’s not as good of a sound bite, and it’s a change that would have little practical impact on Tibetans; but it would allow the Dalai Lama to return to his aristocratic lifestyle and his 1000 room palace at Potala.

So to all those who so heatedly call for the freeing of Tibet, first consider whether you have the expertise to know whether Tibet is best served as an autonomous region or as a special administrative region. Understand exactly what implications such a change may have upon the economics and the daily lives of its citizens, or maybe even entertain the possibility that it’s a decision best left to Tibetans.

1 Comment

Filed under China, History, Religion, Tibet

One response to “Should Tibet Be Free?

  1. Ngawang

    I am extremely offended by your atrocious statements that are based on no real evidence and a couple of facts that were misguidedly depicted. Tibet, historically, was never a part of China. Tibet had 41 kings and the first king, Nyatri Tsenpo, supposedly a lost prince from India, began his reign in the 127 BC. The absolute monarchy ended because the last king was assassinated by his half brother. After that, the political power was distributed among various remnants of imperial Tibet and the regional warlords. Then, Tibet was briefly taken over by Mongolia. Soon, the King of the Mongols, Kublai Khan, learned Buddhism from the Tibetan Sakya Lama. Over time, he gradually gave Tibet freedom from the Mongolian rule, out of respect towards the Lama. The Lamas were seen as a leader of the country from that period. In Tibet, Lamas governing the country is not a matter of status and power. It is more because Tibetans believe and respect their Lamas. We have faith in them. Tibet is an isolated country, surrounded by mountains and before the age of globalisation, it wasn’t often that people traversed the land. That is why Tibet was politically amateur and inexperienced; undeveloped. Slavery still existed in Tibet. But it was a relatively peaceful and religious country. There weren’t any major civil wars. It was (and is still) a country with vast expanses and immense natural resource. When the 13th Dalai Lama was given the political power, he had to go to exile twice. Once because of British invasion and the other, Chinese. That was when he realised the importance of international politics. Because he learned that other countries were trying to invade Tibet, he saw it important that Tibet declared its independence. That was why he created the Tibetan National Flag. The Chinese officials apologised for their political interference later. He declared Tibet’s independence from China in 1913, after being exiled for 3 years. Tibetan postage stamp ad banknotes also started being issued. He realized the issues that Tibet faced so he built hospitals. He took action against corrupt officials, he abolished capital punishment and reduced corporal punishment. He introduced secular education system, electricity, telephones and motorcars to Tibet. During his lifetime, he tried to make Tibet a better country but as he neared the end of his life, he foresaw the misfortune that was going to befall Tibet. The Chinese military started edging in towards Tibet’s eastern borders in 1949. Due to the political unrest, the next Dalai Lama was enthroned as the temporal ruler of Tibet at the age of 15 in 1950. When he was young, he was impressed by communism and how it sought to bring equality to everyone. Therefore, he started discussing it with China’s then political leader, Mao Zedong. Mao, as an exemplar of communism, promised to support him improve conditions in Tibet. Afterwards, he was invited to India for the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. During his visit to India, he got the opportunity to learn about Democracy and how the public benefited from the freedom it provided. He started envisioning democracy in Tibet. In 1956, people in the east started rebelling against the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese military force. Presumably, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans died. He sent letters to Chairman Mao, enquiring about the things that were taking place in Tibet. The Chairman did not reply. On 10th of March, there was an uprising in Tibet and he had to flee Tibet for his safety. During his last meeting with chairman Mao, Mao told him that religion is poison.
    There was another important Lama at the time, the 10th Panchen Lama. He played a big role in promoting ad conserving the Tibetan culture and language. He built schools and gave education to many uneducated children. He encouraged people to learn Tibetan and preserve their language. After the Dalai Lama’s departure, the Chinese officials gave orders to destroy monasteries, burn scriptures and put restriction upon the practice of Buddhism. They didn’t allow schools to teach Tibetan language to Tibetan children. He stayed in Tibet after the uprising to support the Tibetans in Tibet. In 1962, he gave a 70,000 character document to the officials discussing the injustice that was being done to Tibetans and the suppression faced by them. Mao dismissed it and they began publicly humiliating the Panchen Lama and eventually imprisoned him. He was only 26 years of age then. He was released in 1977 and held under house arrest until 1982. He was politically rehabilitated after that. In 1989, he deliver a speech in Tibet in which he stated, “Since liberation, there has certainly been development, but the price paid for this development has been greater than the gains.” After five days, at the age of 51, he supposedly died of a heart attack. In 2011, the Chinese dissident named Yuan Hongbing declared that Panchen Lama was poisoned to death and the assassination was conducted by Hu Jintao and his accomplices. He had to seek asylum afterwards.
    The Chinese government address the Tibetan rebels as separatists. I’d say they are just humans who are calling out these corrupt officials to give human rights to Tibetans. Any political activity results in them being imprisoned and tortured. Political Activists ‘mysteriously disappear’. They don’t have a right to freedom of speech and expression; the basic human rights. There is no freedom of press in contemporary China either. Everything is monitored. Mention the Tibetan issue and you’ll be interrogated and imprisoned. People in democratic countries don’t realize how bad life would be if they were deprived of these rights.
    Until now, since 2009, more than 142 Tibetans have self-immolated themselves. It is sad that no one is paying heed to the rising cases of self immolation. The Chinese officials even call them separatists. These people sacrifice their lives so that the world would hear their voices and cry for human rights in Tibet.
    In 2007, a self-taught Tibetan cameraman, Dhondup Wangchen, started filming a documentary in which Tibetans in Tibet speak about their views on human rights situation in Tibet. He smuggled the video out of Tibet and sent his family to India. After the short film was released, Dhondup Wangchen was imprisoned for six years and his assistant for seven months. In prison, they were forced to do manual labour. They were also put through solitary confinement. His assistant stated that they were tortured in prison. Dhondup Wangchen also contracted Hepatitis and was denied medical attention. Lawyers who defended him in court were threatened. After appeal from the Amnesty International and protest from people all over the world, he was finally released in 2014 but is still under the watch of the Chinese authorities. This story depicts the harsh reality of people who try to voice their political opinion in Tibet.
    Recently, on 12th of July (2015), there was an announcement of the death of a Tibetan Lama, Trulku Tenzin Delek. He was a highly respected Tibetan religious leader and also an advocate of of Tibetan Culture and Identity. He strived to develop educational, social, medical and religious institution in eastern Tibet. He built a school for orphans and children from poor backgrounds, oversaw the construction of a old people’s home and built seven monasteries. He encouraged Tibetans, who were struggling to keep their identity as a Tibetan under the harsh policies of the Chinese authority. Because of his influence in his community and his devotion towards the 14th Dalai Lama, he was seen as a threat by the Chinese authority. In 2002, Tulku Tenzin Delek was accused of a bomb attack in Sichuan. Him and his 28 year old assistant were wrongfully arrested without any proof against them. His assistant was executed shortly afterwards and he was sentenced to death. Human Rights Experts stated that the case against him was erroneous and the trial wasn’t fair. He was sentenced to imprisonment for life. It has been widely known that he was suffering from a heart condition amongst other things, and that he had been denied serious medical attention for several years by the Chinese authorities. Tulku’s relatives had been given Sunday July 12 as the day when they could visit him after being denied repeated requests for visits since 2013. However his sisters were not allowed to see Rinpoche on Sunday and were later in the day informed that he had died that same day. His relatives and devotees requested that they hand them his body so that they could conduct a proper Buddhist funeral service for him but the Chinese authority denied them and cremated Tulku Tenzin Delek in prison without an autopsy. This arose suspicions of them having tortured the Tulku. This outrageous act led to protests and the Chinese security opened fire on the Tibetan protestors. Throughout his imprisonment, Tulku Tenzin Delek had stated that he was innocent and that he was being framed. He “was not even allowed medical parole and last wish of followers to see him”.
    China continues to persecute whoever expresses cultural, political or social views. And this kind of treatment to people in Tibet is unacceptable and intolerable.
    I might have emphasized on the issues in Tibet, but it is no secret that even in China, people face these problems. Such is the case of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
    You speak lowly of the man who refound over 200 monasteries in India to preserve Tibetan Buddhist teachings. He is the patron of 8 Tibetan schools which gives education to so many Tibetan children in exile and has been doing so for 54 years. I wonder where you find such motivation to demoralize a compassionate Lama.
    Yes, there are some Tibetans who still want a free Tibet. But rather than discussing if whether Tibet should be free or not, I think you should pay attention to the maltreatment of Tibetan people in their own country. People fled Tibet because there was Chinese oppression in Tibet. Certainly, no one wants to become a refugee. It is not about people who just want their own country and their own political “power”. These protests happen because Tibetans are deprived of their basic human rights. And it is very saddening that no country is brave enough to speak up for Tibet because of the economical power that China is. Tibet has its own history, culture, language, tradition and identity. China happens to a a big, neighbouring country so of course there would be involvement in Tibetan history. But this doesn’t give them the right to restrict Tibetans from learning their own language, practising their own culture and religion. You easily slammed those who protested for a free Tibet, but you forgot to address the suppression that Tibetans face. Please, get your facts right and don’t portray the assumptions you make about Tibet and its people as facts. You know very little about it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s