Saturday, July 12, 2008

Tsering Shakya - Tibetan Questions

Tibetan Questions is the title of an interview with Tsering Shakya over New Left Review. He offers a rather different view of Tibet, more influenced by history and politics, than we normally get in the West. I found this to be a very interesting interview.

Tsering Shakya was born in Lhasa in 1959. His father, the headmaster of a small Tibetan-language private school, died while he was still a child. The family was divided by the onset of the Cultural Revolution: an older brother and sister were strongly committed leftists, while another brother was imprisoned for opposition to it. In 1967, his mother left for Nepal with Shakya—her youngest child—and her other daughter. Shakya attended a Tibetan school in the northern Indian town of Mussoorie for several years; in 1973, he won a scholarship to a boarding school in Hampshire, and then continued his studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Between 1983 and 1990 he worked on anti-racist campaigns with Labour-run municipal councils in London. During the 1990s Shakya produced his outstanding history of Tibet since 1947, The Dragon in the Land of Snows, published in 1999. He also translated the autobiography of Buddhist monk Palden Gyatso (Fire Under the Snow, 1997), and co-edited the first anthology of modern Tibetan short stories and poems (Song of the Snow Lion, 2000). He now teaches at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and is currently working on a study of modern Tibetan literature.

In 2002 NLR published an exchange between Shakya and the Chinese dissident writer Wang Lixiong—a discussion that broke taboos on both sides. In ‘Reflections on Tibet’ (NLR 14), Wang emphasized Tibetan participation in the Cultural Revolution, and sought to explore the paradoxes of PRC rule in the region. Shakya’s response (‘Blood on the Snows’, NLR 15), by contrast, foregrounded recurrent Tibetan resistance to Beijing, and the colonial nature of the latter’s dominion over the Plateau.




Your landmark history of modern Tibet, The Dragon in the Land of Snows, suggests a broad four-part periodization for developments since 1951. During the first period, 1951–59, the Chinese Communist Party sought to work in alliance with Tibet’s traditional ruling class under the Seventeen-Point Agreement: a ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement, with autonomous rule by the Dalai Lama’s government. After the flight of the Dalai Lama and the crushing of the 1959 rebellion, the second stage, 1960–78, saw the extension of Communist reforms on the Plateau and the redistribution of monastic and aristocratic lands, accelerating with the collectivizations and mass mobilizations of the Cultural Revolution. Following 1980, there was an era of much greater liberalization and ‘Tibetanization’ under Hu Yaobang, accompanied by open-door trade and migration policies—followed by a clampdown after 1989. Looking back, how would you characterize the situation in Tibet in the 1980s, under Hu Yaobang?

The 1980s reforms were welcomed by Tibetans, who saw them as a major transition, and still regard Hu as one of China’s best leaders. At the time, many said that things had never been so good. It marked the start of a period which people thought would bring a certain cultural and economic autonomy for themselves as individuals, and for the Tibetan region as a whole. It was seen as an opportunity to revitalize traditional cultures—the first noticeable sign of this being when people reverted to wearing traditional Tibetan clothes, instead of the blue overalls. Economically, the region also now emerged from a period of real deterioration, running from 1960 to 1980, which was even worse than the years leading up to 1959. The slump was partly due to a total mismanagement of the region’s production, which had been drastically altered by the imposition of communes and co-operatives; these were disastrous for the indigenous economy. They were disbanded under Hu’s reforms, and traditional systems were revived. Living standards returned to what they had been before 1960, a change that was naturally welcomed by the Tibetan Plateau’s overwhelmingly rural population: at this time, 95 per cent were engaged either in herding or in agricultural production.

Click here to open a larger version of this picture in a new window

So what accounts for the protests in the late 80s?

The immediate trigger was the growing tension between the monasteries and the Communist Party. The government had expected the reforms to bring increased consumer spending, but in many cases people simply put the extra money they had towards rebuilding the monasteries. There was a big expansion in the number of monks, and in some rural areas there were more people going to monasteries than to local schools. The government was concerned at this growth, and also about the monasteries’ funding: they received large quantities of donations which they did not have to account for. By the mid-80s, leftists in the cp were pointing to these developments as an example of Hu’s liberal policies going wrong, and the government moved to restrict the number of monks and gain control of monastic finances. This created opposition, and it was the monasteries and conservative elements that were the main groups leading the protests in the late 1980s.

At the time, people were turning strongly to religion—something they were denied during the Cultural Revolution, but that they now had access to. There was a powerful impulse to fight for greater tolerance of religious practices. But the protests were also responding to changes taking place in Tibetan society under the reforms. There was a major debate at the time about the directions Tibet could take in the future—traditionalists believing that we must revert to time-honoured ways in order to preserve Tibet; younger, college-educated people feeling that it will only survive if we abandon such traditions, and seek a modernized Tibetan culture, creating new identities, new literature and art. In this view, it was Tibetan Buddhism and its traditions that had hampered the creation of a Tibetan identity that might have better resisted conquest and subjugation; and it was a new, stronger identity that was needed to overcome Tibet’s current condition. This indigenous critique of the Tibetan past—a self-examination mainly proposed by the younger, educated elite and writers—was seen by the conservatives as somehow a disguised attack by the Chinese on Buddhism. The two groups were not just divided by age, though: there were many young people who shared the conservative view. In general, those educated in the monastic community or through the traditional system were much more conservative than those who went to universities and colleges. These students did not join in the protests at all. Even now, many college-educated people tend to think the 80s protests were unnecessary—that the reforms were taking Tibet in the right direction, and the demonstrations did great damage in altering that course.

To what extent were the protests of the late 1980s stimulated from outside—by the Dalai Lama’s addresses to the us Congress and European Parliament?

The 1980s were a sort of opening for Tibetans—those inside Tibet were allowed to travel to India and go on pilgrimages to see the Dalai Lama. They established new links with the Tibetan diaspora and political leadership, and became much more aware of the organized politics of the Tibetan question. At the same time, the Dalai Lama’s speeches to the European Parliament and the us Congress gave them a sense that there was more support for the Tibetan issue in the international community than really existed. Western countries would make statements about some social issues, but their desire to engage China as it emerged from isolation in the 1980s meant that Tibet was never going to be a major obstacle for Beijing.

How would you characterize Chinese policy following the imposition of martial law in 1989–90?

There had been concerns within the Chinese leadership about the direction of the reforms: some felt Hu Yaobang’s policies were too extreme and were undermining China’s position in Tibet. When the monks’ demonstrations began in the late 80s, the hardliners saw it as proof that more liberal policies had led to heightened Tibetan nationalism, encouraging demands for independence. The period from the imposition of martial law to the present has seen a dramatic change in how Beijing deals with Tibet. There were to be no more compromises; Tibet was to be brought under tighter administrative control, and its infrastructure integrated more closely with the rest of China. The Plateau had been isolated from China by poor roads and communications, and the prc leadership believed that the separate provisions made for Tibet in the 1980s accentuated its difference from the rest of the country. So the first policies adopted under Hu Jintao, Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region from 1988 to 92, were aimed at economic integration—establishing infrastructural links by building roads, opening the Qinghai–Tibet railway, improving telecommunications and so on. Billions of dollars have been spent on the development of the region since 1990.

This means that the Chinese government is to some extent justified when it says that the Tibet Autonomous Region can only survive through government subsidies. The Regional government cannot even raise enough money to pay salaries to its own employees; its ability to levy taxes is very weak at present. All the major infrastructural initiatives—railways, roads, power systems—have been dependent on injections of funds from the central government. This chronic dependence on the centre is one of Tibet’s biggest problems—the region has no economic clout to negotiate with Beijing and has to follow its directives, because it is essentially the Central government’s money that is paying for the Region’s development.

Read the rest of the interview.

No comments: