Why Tibet?

Curious that the business pages of The Age (9 April) should run an article by journalist Michael Backman musing on the Tibet protests and the western attitude towards Chinese suppression of Tibetan culture. It was an ambiguous piece, seemingly recognising the Tibetan right to exist, while casting doubt on the motives of westerners romantically, aka irrationally, supporting such a ‘medieval’, theocratic culture. If nothing else, the location of this article in the business pages did serve to remind us that Tibet is about issues beyond human rights. Indeed, geopolitical interests loom large here, intimately connected as they are to the rise of China as an economic superpower, the US battle for hearts and minds (in a very old ideological battle), and the Australian establishment’s usual craven attitude to making mega-bucks wherever it can. Of course, this is why the article appeared where it did. Investors need this kind of reconnaissance of incidents in hot spots that might affect policy or cause problems on the ground.

This is not to say that Backman was not making pertinent observations. Even the implication of western romanticism, in the negative sense, may have some element of truth about it, at least in so far as some Tibet supporters and western Buddhists may never have thought about the structures of power in pre-1951 Tibet, or those still operating amongst the Tibetan leadership today. Of course, it is as well to be careful: to make real assessments of the structures in operation, not simply fall prey to good feelings about the Dalai Lama’s espoused pacifism or react in knee-jerk horror when a situation is complex. At another level, of course there is an element of romanticism here, and in a positive sense — just as there is in any support ever given to causes of this kind, as hope must have a springboard, and in the West at least the ‘human spirit’ has been enacted in romantic terms for a good two centuries. Even if we in the comfortable West sometimes ventriloquise our own desires onto other places and peoples, the spirit observed in others’ struggles against huge odds makes the possibility of change real for all and can provide genuine lessons in ethical identification with the hopes and struggles of others.

As an article in our next issue will make clear, the struggle in Tibet has been long and hard, and very courageous, and so much of this story has not been fully told in the West. We certainly don’t have to take up the rights of Tibetans in the narrow and largely dismissive terms attributed to activists by Backman. The real issue is that, just as the broad Left has stood up for struggles against colonialist if not totalitarian regimes in all sorts of places, including our own place, the Tibetan situation calls for radical agitation. The Chinese justification for its policies of translocation of Han families into Tibet replicates the justifications so often given by powers holding that they are bringing light and civilisation to backward places and peoples: the Javanese in West Papua, Europeans in Indigenous Australia, Israelis in Palestine. China has to see that modernisation is not a justification for the sacrifice of another’s life-giving culture. Across the Left–Right divide of modernity there have always been the problematic issues of culture and the person; that is, they remained untheorised; unthought, until fairly recently in new social and cultural theory. Marxism at base, whether of the now statist and pro-market Chinese version or any other, always suffered from the same Enlightenment blind spots that modern western liberal capitalism did — supremacist inclinations built on the success of material production and rationalist hubris, both with their inbuilt incapacity to understand the fullness of human being as culturally constituted.

It is a pity that the very many western supporters of Tibet — all over the world, as the Olympic torch relay coverage has shown — probably do not see it this way. Tibet has a special significance for them, and the western adoption of both the Dalai Lama and Buddhism in large numbers must surely be part of this exceptionalism. In this context the complexity of the China–Tibet situation should be required food for thought for all. That the Dalai Lama did receive monetary support from the CIA for some period of time in the 1970s should alert everyone to the big games that have been, and are now being played out even more earnestly, around China and the protection and projection of US ‘interests’. The chance that Tibetans may be pawns in more than one power play should not be forgotten.

Alison Caddick is an Arena Publications editor.

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