Twofish's Blog

February 9, 2007

Why the Dalai Lama is wrong

Filed under: asian am, china, law, tibet — twofish @ 5:53 am

Here is a very sad article on the end of Tibet

There is a deep connection between Tibetan Buddhism and the anti-war hippie culture of the 1960’s.  The Dalai Lama has this very attractive message about how non-violence and ideas can overcome political repression.

It’s unfortunately that his message is not consistent with reality.

The reality is that power matters, and power comes from guns, money, and ideas.  War and violence is horrible, and peace is a wonderful goal.  But to have a just peace, you need to be constantly thinking and preparing for war.  If you don’t have guns, you don’t have money, and you don’t have ideas, then you end up at the sufference of others, and this is not a good thing because you’ll be subject to their agendas which may not be your own.

Power is scary.  Power is dangerous.  There is a very real possibility that by picking up the gun, and figuring out how to make the money, and thinking about the ideology of power, you end up destroying yourself.  But the alternative of rejecting power, leads only to subservience at the hands of others.  It is unfortunately that the world works this way, but it is true.

One more insight….

I’m Han Chinese, and not Tibetan, and it’s not my responsiblity to figure out what it means to be Tibetan in the 21st century.  I do have a lot of sympathy for ethnic minorities figuring out how they fit in a majority society, because that’s one of the big struggles of my life.  There are two dangers which I’ve had to deal with.  One is this idea that one can “preserve” a culture.  One preserves dead bodies.  If something is alive, it changes and grows and adapts.  If you don’t change and grow then what happens is that your culture simply becomes a museum piece for tourist to gawk at, meanwhile the skills and ideas that are powerful get held by others.  To be Chinese-American means more than eating dim sum and having dragon dances, it means learning to coding C++ so that you can make money.

The other danger that I’ve had to deal with is the temptation of thinking that you can separate yourself from the majority community or the idea that by being involved with the majority community one becomes “less” of a minority.  In the United States, Chinese-Americans make up such a small minority that an effort at “separatism” would be suicidal.  Instead, by learning English, by learning American history, by becoming part of the national community, one has more social resources to develop and grow a minority culture, and being part of a national community which is a part of the global community, one strengthens the culture rather than weakens it.



  1. Agree with your assessment on power.

    Let me sketch a possible medium term scenario:

    Spring 07, US attacks Iran;
    Summer 07, India financial market crashes(oil price spike being the catalyst);
    Spring 08, Hillary, Giuliani win primary;
    Summer 08, terrorist attack, possible a blue state city;
    Spring 09, President Guiliani takes office; US starts to withdraw from Middle East;
    2010 – 2012, ME still deep in mess, world wide recession with sustained peaked oil price, possible financial crisis originated from dollar crisis;
    2012 – 2015, US president propose “peaceful reunification” between Taiwan and China; in exchange China promise to stabilize dollar.
    2015, CCP declares the success of “first stage of modernization”.

    Question: How should I construct a trade with this scenario?

    Comment by Anonymous — February 9, 2007 @ 7:46 pm

  2. I think you’re mistaken, but I respect your opinion.

    Comment by Dan — March 23, 2007 @ 7:19 pm

  3. Could you go into more detail as to why you think I am wrong?

    I looked at your blog, and it has a good summary of the Tibetan nationalist view of history. The annoying thing about history, however, is that there are multiple interpretations of the past, each of which describe the past equally well. The view of history that wins is determined by power, and power comes from guns, money, and ideas. The victors write the history books, and so it is important that a person be able to amass power.

    Most Chinese-Americans don’t quite realize this, but this is the reason that their parents are so insistent that the study hard, and enter good colleges, and learn to interact in mainstream American society. This is the reason why the United States spends US$400 billion on weapons each year and why the PRC spends US$70 billion on its army. Without power, you end up begging, and in the cold dark world of international politics, begging leaves you nowhere. You need to be willing to fight and die. First with ideas, then with money, and then if you have to with guns.

    I have a great deal of sympathy for Tibetans who are trying to preserve and grow a minority culture in a majority population since the issues they face are similar to the issues that I face as a Chinese-American. It’s not my place to tell a Tibetan how they should construct their identity, but I can talk about how I talk about how I construct mine.

    First it is important for me not to reject the majority identity or the majority community, but to instead become an integral part of that community and that identity. I am an American, and I have all of the rights and responsibilities that are part of that identity. National identities are tremendously complex, and both the United States and China have had the challenge of creating communities out of diverse people. I salute the flag, love the Constitution, and I think of people like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison as my forefathers. The American Revolution and the American Civil War are part of my history, and the fact that my skin looks a little different is an unimportant detail. I’ve incorporated a lot of the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X in my own thinking, because we are part of the same national community.

    The important part is that by becoming part of the American national community, I manage to perserve and defend my identity as a Chinese. I vote. I participate in issues of national importance. I do what I can to make the United States a better country. Being more American allows me to be more Chinese, because as an American, I get to write part of the history book.

    The second thing is not to suffocate the Chinese identity by making it a museum piece. The thing that concerns me about the Tibetan identity is that it has become so wedded to the idea of Buddhist and the Dalai Lama, that this could be stiffling. As either a Chinese or an American, I can be Buddhist or anti-Buddhist, I can be traditional or anti-traditional, I can love or hate punk rock. Because I have these choices, I can grow and adapt. In my view of the world, being a blogger and an astrophysicist is deeply connected with my Chinese identity, because I derive inspiration for the ideal of the Confucian scholar-bureaucrat. At the same time, I’m not trapped by the past, I can look at the past and at tradition, and say “this is silly and stupid, we need to do things another way.”

    One thing that I’ve noticed is that superficially all minority cultures look the same to tourists. You have the exotic dances, the bright colored clothes, the funny food, and the wise fortune cookie sage advice from ancient masters. You look at how Han Chinese tourists look at Tibet, and it’s remarkably similar to how white American tourists look at Chinatown, and this is because those images say more about the tourist than about the culture they are looking at. The average American that goes to Chinatown is looking to get away from the office, and wants to see the dragon dances, dim-sum, and chopsticks.

    But for a culture to survive and grow it has to be defined not just in tourist stereotypes. Chinese culture involves stock markets, space rockets, plastic molding machines, corporate board rooms, and discussions about industrial restructuring. The danger is that if you define a culture only in terms of wise sayings from ancient masters, you deprieve a culture of the guns, money, and ideas it needs to remain vital.

    The other thing that I disagree with you is that you seem to be forcing on a model of the 19th century nation-state onto Tibet which I don’t think is helpful. If you look at history, the idea that people are defined into clear nations with clear political boundaries is the exception and not the rule. Most of the time, national identities are full of ambiguities, exceptions, and strange ironies. The idea of “China” as a nation-state was basically invented in the 19th century with the nation-state was invented, and there are interesting stories behind that. The Manchus weren’t ethnically-Han, but they invented a pan-ethnic identity that included them and the majority Han Chinese which created the basis for the current Chinese identity. National identities are constructed and are constantly being reconstructed. History is constantly being written and rewritten. The Chinese identity is both very old and very new.

    The idea that a certain status has existed since “time immemorial” is usually a historical myth, but because something is new doesn’t render it “inauthentic.” The way I’ve constructed my identity would have been impossible in the 1960’s and very odd as of the 1980’s, but globalization makes it less silly that it once was. The idea of China in 1960 is different that it was in 1980 which is different than it was in 2000 which is different than it will be in 2020. The idea of what “China” means is influenced by classical Chinese literature, the struggles of the Manchus for legitimacy, German romanticism in the 19th century, Soviet thinking of the early 20th, and I’m bringing into the picture American ideas and ideals and a lot of the ideas of French post-structuralism and the ideas of the Texas frontier. The Chinese national identity will feed off of these ideas and grow.

    I worry about that the Tibetan identity will be trapped in the past, and be unable to adapt.

    Again, I’m interested in your specific reactions.

    Comment by twofish — March 24, 2007 @ 3:35 am

  4. “Without power, you end up begging, and in the cold dark world of international politics, begging leaves you nowhere. You need to be willing to fight and die. First with ideas, then with money, and then if you have to with guns.”

    Might is right, why even argue?

    Comment by Amban — May 28, 2007 @ 10:56 pm

  5. Indeed.

    Connecting this with the other discussion. Might doesn’t come just from guns, but also ideas, and being able to master the details and minuitae of international law is a source of power.

    Comment by twofish — May 28, 2007 @ 11:39 pm

  6. “I’m Han Chinese, and not Tibetan”

    that says it all.

    Comment by juan — August 28, 2008 @ 12:53 am

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