Freedom, Money, China and Tibet – Rocco Sulkin argues that Western intellectual thought is moving to agree with China over its stance on Tibet. But should it be so hasty?
In his article No Shangri-La (London Review of Books 24 April 2008), Slavoj Žižek argues that the western media has imposed a romanticised and rose-tinted view of Tibet on us, emphasising its spirituality and geographic beauty. In Žižek’s view, we are seldom exposed to the facts about Chinese investment in Tibet’s economic development, infrastructure, education and health services. It is very tempting to agree with him. However, as I shall argue, he is wrong to draw the conclusion from this investment that China’s annexation of Tibet is in some way legitimate. It does not necessarily follow that because the western media is bias that the Chinese are in the right.
The Chinese attempt to justify the invasion of Tibet in many deplorably inadequate ways. Firstly they argue that since Tibet was never internationally recognised as a separate country China in 1949 breached no international law by sending in her armies to gain control of the territory. If Tibet were simply a mark on a map there might not be too much wrong with this claim but it does not account for the reality of the bloody invasion and occupation: killing humans and destroying freedom.
Secondly they claim that continued Chinese control of Tibet is simply the same relationship as Britain’s control over her empire and that Chinese forces will leave Tibet when there is a French exodus of Canada and every Dutch citizen leaves South Africa. But here they miss the progress of the last century. Britain and o ther European powers no longer keep territories against their will or inhibit the freedom of action or speech in their colonies. Thanks to a development of ideas and an open international discourse we have realised that occupations, like the Chinese occupation of Tibet, are illegal. This is something the Chinese must recognise too.
Philosophically the Chinese justify the rape of Tibetan culture during the cultural revolution of the 1960s as part of a communist resistance against religion as an opiate that stifles the true way of life. But this is to misinterpret the communist resistance of religion in two ways. When Marx declared that religion was the ‘opium of the people’ he was not speaking of Tibetan Buddhism, he was speaking of Christianity. Furthermore he wanted to make religion less powerful because he believed that it was stifling freedom of speech and opinion. What he hoped by minimising the control of state religion was to increase an independence of thought that would ultimately lead to better ideas and a better way of governing. To destroy a religious culture and then to maintain strict rules on freedom of speech (to speak the name of the Dalai Lama in Tibet is a public offence) is to work counter to Marx’s proposal to a gross extent.
Even if the Chinese have interpreted Marx correctly that does not mean that Marx is right. Materialistic development of intellectual ends does not necessarily correlate with human happiness. To remove the spiritual side of life is to deny much of what makes us human and to violently deny a rich Tibetan culture its rights of religious satisfaction is plainly wrong.
Finally, the Chinese argue, as Žižek does, that they have massively improved the quality of life in Tibet since it came under Chinese state control. It is true that much of Tibetan industry has been mechanised but this is often at the expense of traditional jobs and social roles. It is also the case that the Chinese have built hospitals and schools, but often these improvements are made in predominantly Chinese areas and are there to make the lives of Chinese immigrants more comfortable. China has also, at great cost, built the highest railway in the world into Tibet but it has never fully shaken off claims that this is not to aid Tibetans but mainly for Chinese tourists interested in poking their noses into the remains of a once proud culture.
Even if the Chinese have created a better quality of life for some Tibetans, does this mean that China should have, in some sense, the right to control the province, dehumanising Tibetans by destroying their culture in the process? I think it is obvious that they should not.
I believe it is clear, then, that the Chinese cannot justify their invasion of Tibet in any way. However, if Žižek is right and we have been fed a bias story about Tibet by the western media then it is nothing to the story the Chinese have been made to swallow. From the cultural elite to the working classes, Chinese citizens have been warped entirely into the view that Tibet is a petulant and backward child, ungrateful for the help that gracious China has given it in advancing its own fiscal station in the world. Portrayal in China of the recent Tibetan demonstrations has been of heavily armed Chinese troops heroically quelling riots of anti-Chinese ethnic violence. The Chinese media have called the eloquent and mild Dalai Lama everything from ‘a beast with a black heart,’ to ‘pure evil.’ Ask the average Chinese on the street what he thinks about the Olympic protests and he’ll answer that he doesn’t know anything about them; either because he is kept in genuine ignorance by a virtually omnipotent state media or because he doesn’t want to refer to events, the very mention of which, might incriminate him in some subversive thought.
Reading Žižek’s article and watching the tide of liberal academic opinion run against the traditional western position on Tibet is as repugnant as listening to academics claim, in the wake of 9/11, that the Americans had it coming to them. There seems to be some insecurity in liberal, Western thought that triggers a heavy and inappropriate lean towards relativism to the extent that adopting an opposing intellectual position seems as natural as it is, to me, intuitively perverse.
There is nothing in the debate about Tibet which should shake us from our core beliefs about life, freedom and happiness. There is no justification for the annexation of a free province by a superpower no matter how much that superpower improves local quality of life by mechanisation and financial investment. We should never let money buy our freedom and we should never encourage a world where the incentive of financial gain causes others to sell theirs.
The two battle lines that are clearly drawn in this conflict of ideologies penetrate deeper than the flash point of Tibet in which they have been expounded. On one side is a ruthless, material, and brutal march towards a secular but financially successful consumerism. On the other side is a courageous resistance for the freedom and spirituality of the human soul. Of course these battle lines are often shaded in grey and in some instances the margin of ‘right’ must be altered to accommodate for the greater good; but with the case study of Tibet the facts seem clear to me. An old culture with a strong identity of free people is in danger of being completely obliterated in its own homeland by a bullying state who tries to justify its crime with claims of improved quality of life. We must reply that no quality of life can be improved by shackling the minds and souls of a people, and we must encourage western governments to take a stand against ruthless, materialistic imperialism now, when it matters most.