[Prior to the 19th century] there was no keen competition for group allegiance. By contrast, peoples today are everywhere much more apt to be cognizant of their membership in a group with its own mythical genesis, its own customs and beliefs, and perhaps its own language, which in toto differentiate the group from all others and permit the typical individual to answer intuitively and unequivocally the question, “What are you?” The spontaneous response, “I am Luo” rather than Kenyan, or “Bengali” rather than Pakistani, does not bode well for the architect of a nation-state.
— Walker Connor, Ethnonationalism (1994)
Two big news stories of the past few days, from places far apart, and as different as two places could possibly be, tell us useful things about the age we live in.
In Lhasa, the capital city of Chinese-occupied Tibet, there were demonstrations on March 10. The Chinese authorities responded clumsily, Tibetans reacted with riots, and the image of their nation that the Chinese communists have been so carefully fostering preparatory to the Summer Olympics took a punch to the gut.
The Lhasa demonstrations are customary at this time of year. Usually they are small events, easily and savagely crushed by the Chinese police. This year, however, the Chinese were handicapped by their desire that nothing unsightly take place in their realms during the run-up to the Summer Olympics. They have been striving mightily, at great expense, to present themselves to the world as the legitimate rulers of a happy and prosperous nation, marching forward in unity and harmony into the radiant future. The sight of Tibetans torching Chinese stores is an unwelcome departure from the script.
Another new feature of this year’s disturbances was the use of China’s railroad into Tibet, completed just last year, to bring in reinforcements for the colonial garrison. Nobody acquainted with the Maoists and their methods ever had much doubt about the motivation for building the railroad, but there is some glum satisfaction in seeing our fears confirmed.
The reason for Tibetan unrest at this time of year is historical. March 10 marks the anniversary of the 1959 uprising, whose timeline can be read here. In very brief: The Chinese military command, who had been garrisoning Lhasa since their 1951 invasion, decided they had had enough of the Dalai Lama, and ordered him to report unescorted to their camp. (In a very Tibetan touch, we are told that the 23-year-old pontiff “was preoccupied with taking his Final Master of Metaphysics examination” at the time. There’s an exam I should like to take!) The plain intention of the Chinese was to either kidnap the Dalai Lama or kill him. When this news got into the streets, tens of thousand of Tibetans formed a protective barrier around the Dalai Lama’s residence.
The Chinese responded by shelling the residence and the crowd with their howitzers. On March 17, under fire, the Dalai Lama managed to escape from the residence in disguise. He made his way over the Himalayas and crossed into India on March 31. He has been unable to return to Tibet since then
March 17 may be St. Patrick’s Day to you. To a Tibetan, it is the day his nation’s spiritual leader, its very personification, was forced to flee for his life from Tibet’s enemies.
There is now a huge literature on Tibet’s recent history. I reviewed some of it for NRO here. As I pointed out in that piece, the current Chinese position is basically Brezhnevian: “What we have, we hold.” The Chinese Communists have a somewhat more refined approach to propaganda than old Leo, however. They have worked up a literature of their own in support of their position, and their spokesmen are very experienced and skillful at fielding complaints about their invasion and occupation of Tibet.
- They rattle off dates and the names of emperors to whom the Tibetan rulers of old paid tribute in varying degrees. “See, they all acknowledged China’s sovereignty!” Since the Chinese emperors claimed sovereignty over the entire universe, and demanded identical tribute from, for example, Britain, this is not very persuasive.
- They say, what is perfectly true (though of course somewhat difficult to square with the line about Tibet always having been a part of China) that old Tibet was a place of great poverty and much injustice, whose ruling classes often dealt cruelly with their own people. “We liberated the Tibetan people from oppression!” they crow, and teach this to their children in China’s schools. A sufficient answer to this point was given by the Ottoman-ruled Greek spokesman in Byron’s poem: “Our masters then / Were still, at least, our countrymen.”
- They point to incidents like the British Younghusband expedition of 1904. They have to magnify the significance of these events grotesquely to make any kind of argument, though. Probably 99 percent of Tibetans never knew the 1904 expedition had taken place. It had no lasting consequences, and was in fact an initiative of the Indian Viceroy’s, disapproved of by the British government and press.
- If all else fails, your ChiCom spokesman loses his temper and tells you you are “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” — you callous wretch! — by allying yourself with “splittists,” and can no longer be considered a “friend of China.” That last is no idle threat for professional scholars, whose work may suffer severely if they can’t get Chinese visas.
The response of an actual Tibetan to all this bluster is simple and straightforward. He will just say, with some passion: “But we are not Chinese!”