China – 3: Lessons from Tibet

China has a problem in Tibet. What can South Asians learn from it?

A lot, if we want and can keep our prejudices out of the way.

Reflect on the following:

There is no enemy country intervening in Tibet. There are no militants infiltrating from across international borders into Tibet. There are no Muslims in Tibet. There are no rogue leaders in Tibet. China has poured immense amount of development money into Tibet.

And yet, there is a problem in Tibet. Why? Is it because Tibetans are ignorant, ungrateful and unaware of what is good for them?

Or is it because very few countries in the world have figured out how to co-exist with ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities? Tibet is proof of this assertion because there are virtually no confounding factors involved.

China has a similar problem with the Uighur population but the religion of the people and the alleged links to global Islamic terrorism create barriers to understanding. Tibet should remove any doubts that the sensitivity and sympathy that is needed to accommodate minorities does not come easily or naturally to human beings.

The developed countries are by no means free of this malady. One needs only consider the history of the Roma people who have suffered indignities, discrimination, and violence across Europe. (South Asians need to be aware of the Roma because of their migration from the Indian subcontinent over a thousand years ago.)

It is thus no surprise that there has been virtually endless conflict across the world over the issue of minority rights. It may be politically convenient to find excuses and rationalizations for the actions of one’s own government but in the end they are little more than excuses and rationalizations. The real reason remains the inability to find a way to live on equal terms with minorities and to resist the temptation of using them as scapegoats in times of stress.

In the abstract, it should not be hard to understand that groups considering themselves distinct, for whatever reason, wish their identities to be acknowledged and to be respected. They find it humiliating that others can think of aspects of their culture as tradable commodities that can be bartered away for promises of material development. They resent the condescension that goes with attempts to buy their loyalty with political concessions. They are hostile to attitudes that assess their existence and importance only in terms of larger strategic interests.

It is insensitivity to this acknowledgement of identity and its acceptance on equal terms that generates grievances and disaffection in groups just as it would in individuals who are treated as inferiors or as lesser beings. And such disaffections and grievances, when they are ignored, generate the conditions that encourage manipulation by adventuresome elements inside or outside sovereign countries.

South Asians need to think soberly about the lessons from Tibet. Human beings are not a means to an end no matter how strategic, important, or obvious the end might seem. We have to strive for a non-hierarchical society in which no individual is inherently better or more privileged than another. Every human being must have equal protection and the freedom to pursue his or her beliefs and lawful interests without fear of coercion. Only then will be able to advance towards a world without discrimination.

A slide show on the Uighurs can be seen here. The commentary is superficial but some sense of issues can be gleaned.


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13 Responses to “China – 3: Lessons from Tibet”

  1. Anil Kala Says:

    I don’t get the drift of this piece. Are you suggesting the Chinese are using Tibetans, belittling them or treating them as lesser citizens?

    It is a strange paradox. We want exclusivity as well as group. No matter how considerate and helpful outsiders are we still would like our own nation, province, mohalla and so on and once we get it we want a confederation for security. Breaking up Soviet Union, and then formation of CIS, nations queuing up to join European Union are examples of this. And then there is this organic desire to keep the clan from breaking up and in order to keep it intact we are willing to apply Kautilya’s “saam” “daam”, “dand”and “bhed”

    These traits are embedded very deep in humans therefore this formation of groups and breaking up of groups with various degree of violence will continue for a long time.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Anil: I don’t have enough information to know why there is unhappiness in Tibet but its existence seems reasonably clear. I think there is a whole spectrum between exclusivity and being treated with respect. For example, there seems no justification for the practice that various majorities have commonly used of not allowing the language of a minority group to be used in schools. This can really be considered an aspect of cultural genocide. Perhaps if a minority feels secure it might not want a nation of its own.

      It would be useful for most readers if you elaborate a little on the Kautilya paradigm.

  2. Anil Kala Says:

    Its a pretty common usage here in India. “saam” -> samjhanaa( convince) “daam” -> khareed lenaa( compensate with money), “dand” -> use stick and “bhed”-> machinations

  3. Vinod Says:

    SA, you may find this helpful (I certainly did) –

  4. Vinod Says:

    SA, this may be a more informative link

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: The links make it clear that the respective claims to the legal status of Tibet are complex and disputed. Obviously we can’t rule on the legality and resolve the dispute. The point I wish to highlight is that majority-minority relationships across the globe continue to be marked by conflict. Why is this the case and what principles need to be followed to improve the relationships? Is part of the problem that we continue to think in this conceptual paradigm that divides human beings into monolithic majorities and minorities? Is it appropriate to think that some people should accept material development and give up certain rights that they wish to retain? Who is to make such a determination?

  5. Vinod Says:

    SouthAsian, the conflict between majorities and minorities is, in my view, a result of a supplanted democratic political system and the ideology of nationalism. A democratic system brings about a consciousness of the ‘rule of the majority’, which implicitly carries with the idea of a minority. Majority and minority constructs are also an essential concepts in the nation state’s democratic paradigm. When the 3rd world countries were getting their independence the only model they knew of governance was that of a nation state with a democratic setup. But a democratic setup requires an active and informed citizenry to be meaningful, which itself required an egalitarian culture. My guess is Political theorists when conceptualizing ‘rule of majority’ did not have ethnic majorities in mind, but that of a majority of a pool of opinions. When nation states were formed in Europe they were also formed along an identity that was shared by everybody. But when the colonies gained independence they tried to form nation states where there was no single identity shared by everyone. They also did not have a relatively egalitarian society. They were in fact split quite sharply along religious, linguistic and ethnic lines. I think it was a very different nation state design project in the colonies. The boundaries of these colonies were not formed taking into account any shared sense of history. It was dictated more by the administrative area of particular colonizer who was vacating. It suddenly brought together people who did not see other of the same stock. But all of them felt they had a chance at power. Historical prejudices, antagonisms and rivalries were abound. Having striven to get independence from the easily identifiable “common enemy”, it was a far more daunting task to deal with “enemies” that have always been neighbours. A nation state was anyway drawn up in a hotch potch way hoping that the “tyranny of the majority” would be somehow contained. The rest is, as they say, history.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: I agree. This is a complex issue and we are paying the price of accepting a borrowed model without thinking much about its implications for regions like South Asia. One needs to distinguish between democracy as a mechanism to choose representatives and the rules of the game (embodied in a constitution) that govern relations among constituent elements of a federation. We have had a lopsided focus on the first while neglecting the second. Democracy by itself cannot address the issues of small minorities because they do not represent enough votes to be electorally significant. I will try and find a source to elaborate on this or write a post myself.

  6. Vinod Says:

    The way forward lies in adopting a more humanistic view of other cultures, understanding multiplicities of identities, decentralization of government and collaboration between autnomous regions. The outsourced governance or the “Hong Kong model” may be an option where two communities that simply cannot get along with each other have to somehow stay together.

  7. Vikram Says:

    Vinod and South Asian, here is an interesting analysis of the riots in Tibet, it reiterates your point about development rhetoric not being enough to overcome the destruction and denial of self-respect.

  8. SouthAsian Says:

    Vikram: If one is restricted to a single-word characterization of the phenomenon then colonialism is not a bad description. It can be plausibly argued that West Pakistan treated East Pakistan as a colony and the status of Balochistan today is not much different. The reactions should have been quite predictable. Humiliation (perceived or real) is a very powerful motivator and it cannot be pacified by the calculus of costs and benefits.

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