Twofish's Blog

May 12, 2008

Great articles on Tibet

Filed under: china, dalai lama, tibet — twofish @ 5:10 am

The great thing about the internet is that you can find in-depth, thoughtful articles that tell you thing that you didn’t know before. The bad thing is that you have to go through a lot of trouble to find them. Anyway here are two articles.

Trying to understand what is going on is like putting together pieces of the puzzle. The reason I like these two articles is that they “fit” into pieces of the puzzles that I already know about. I don’t know that much about Tibetan exile politics, however I do have first hand knowledge of Han Chinese exile politics, and what it’s like on in the inside of a Buddhist temple. I’ve also met people from the National Endowment for Democracy (and been highly unimpressed). A few comments:

  • happy people do not become Buddhist monks or nuns. People who are content with their life and satisfied with their material standard of living, just don’t become Buddhist monks. People who do become Buddhist monks and nuns tend to do so because of some huge trauma. I’m guessing that as a result Tibetan monasteries are filled with angry young youths.
  • I’ve also seen how devoted people can be to their Lamas. I’m pretty sure that any efforts by the Tibetan regional government to try to reduce the connections between monasteries and the high Lamas are going have a rather bad counterreaction.
  • Finally, one of the interesting parallels is between religion and language. I’m pretty sure that in a generation or two, most of the Tibetan exiles in India would have melted into the general population, but religion is one area were you can keep a culture alive. The reason this matters to me is that one reason I’m trying to make sure that my kids are Buddhist is so that they maintain knowledge of Chinese growing up in the United States, so naturally I’m sympathetic to a Tibetan parent who is trying to keep their kids interested in Buddhism so that they keep the culture in either China or India. One group of people that I’ve studied where this has been successful are the Amish, who have managed to keep alive Pennsylvania Dutch since this the language they use to separate themselves from the outside world, which they call “English.”
  • I’m also fascinated with “priesthoods” and the point that you just don’t become a high lama by reading books makes sense to me. The reason why is that physicists form a “priesthood” and you have the same sort of dynamics among scientists and mathematicians that you have among high lamas. When you get a Ph.D., you don’t merely learn a skill, you become in a very real sense part of a “priesthood.”

One piece of the puzzle that I’m missing is interviews with people from within the Tibetan regional government. Particularly ethnic Tibetan officials. There are two assumptions that people seem to be making with regard to Tibet. One is that the ethnic Tibetan officials in Tibet are “puppets” of the central government, and second that the anti-Dalai Lama impulse is coming from Beijing. Based on similar situations, I suspect that the actual reality might be much more complex. One thing that was the case with Soviet officials is that it turned out that the regional officials actually did have quite a bit of power, and second that non-Russian officials in the Soviet Union tended to try to be “redder than red” and “more Russian than Russians.”  This also seems to be the case with African-American Republicans, and looking at Tibet, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a “Clarence Thomas effect” among ethnic Tibetan officials in the Communist Party. Again, this is all guesswork, but part of the purpose of making up these hypothesis is so that you can see where your preconceptions are wrong if you do manage to get some new hard evidence.

One other thing to point out that people have missed. There is this idea that Chinese have been brainwashed by the Communist Party and those outpouring of nationalism is an example of people mindlessly repeating government propaganda. The trouble with this explanation is that I haven’t really seen any Han Chinese who hate the Dalai Lama and think that he really is this evil demon that the People’s Daily makes him out to be. The hatred and anger has been directed at the Western media (particularly CNN), the anti-Olympic demonstrations, but not so much at the Dalai Lama. The worst thing that I’ve heard anyone say about the Dalai Lama is that he is a puppet of American intelligence agencies, but even there, the anger is directed at the CIA.

Also, you have to approach politics with a sense of humor and irony if you aren’t going to go insane. One thing that amused me when I read the article on Tibetan exiles was the degree to which the monasteries in India have been funded by overseas Chinese. This is funny to me, since I’ve given not a small amount of money to Buddhist charities, and I’m amused by the thought that I may have given more help and money to the Tibetan independence struggle than the CIA has.

March 29, 2008

Notes on the Dalai Lama’s Appeal to the Chinese People

Filed under: china, dalai lama, politics, tibet — twofish @ 8:56 am

Communications is difficult. As someone who lives on the border between many cultures, I realize how difficult it is too communicate. What sounds to someone like a gentle statement can sound to like a threat or worse.

I was thinking about that as I was reading the Dalai Lama’s statement. I’m sure he meant well, but he actually said all of the wrong things, and to someone within the Chinese government, this letter seems to confirm all of their paranoid suspicions about the Dalai Lama.

I’m reminded of the appeals that the PRC government made to Taiwan in the late-1990’s. They said all of the wrong things, and ended up making people in Taiwan mad. One thing that happened around 2003, is that when the Communist Party and the KMT started talking, people from Taiwan were actually able to help the CCP not say things that would offend people in Taiwan, and in most cases this meant saying nothing at all.

What is a little disconcerting about the Dalai Lama’s letter is that its obvious that he doesn’t have any communication with Han Chinese that would help him shape his message to avoid offending people.

The first problem is that the letter is in English. This is a problem since most Chinese do not read English. This an even bigger problem in that there are many different terms for Chinese in Chinese and it is vitally important that you use the right one. When he uses the term Chinese, does he mean “han zu”, “hua ren”, “zhonghua minzu”, or “zhong guo ren”? When he uses the term peoples, does he mean “min zu,” “zong zu”, or “ren min”?

Coming up with your official translation is important since if you rely on someone else to do the translation they are going to use any ambiguities to make you look good or bad. By using different Chinese words for “Chinese” and “people”, I can make the Dalai Lama look like a wonderful saint or an evil racist. If the Dalai Lama publishes the letter in English, and the Chinese government translates it, guess which words they will use…..

Also if you try to write in Chinese, you *have* to make these sorts of decisions which makes you think about what you are trying to say. The Dalai Lama is trying to say “I am not a separatist” but if you try writing the letter in Chinese, you have to think about how exactly “I am not a separatist” and I think someone who tries this exercise will quickly discover that he letter makes no sense at all in Chinese….

The first thing I would do is to change the title and make it “An Appeal to the citizens of the People’s Republic of China” The problem with appealing to the “Chinese people” is that it brings up the issue of whether Tibetans are Chinese or not, where as talking about PRC citizens avoids that issue.


In the light of the recent developments in Tibet, I would like to share with you my thoughts concerning relations between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples, and make a personal appeal to all of you.

Game over.

The view of most people in China is that there is one Chinese “tribe” (zhonghua minzu), and that Tibetans and Han Chinese are member ethnicities of that tribe. The second you talk about “Tibetan and Chinese peoples” most people in China will think “yes the government is right, the Dalai Lama is a splitist. It’s basically like saying “the Navaho and American people” or worse yet saying “I want a dialogue between Blacks and Americans”

Now obviously, I don’t expect Tibetan nationalists to accept this view of things, but if you are trying to make an “appeal” then its a bad idea to offend people in paragraph one. The reaction of most Chinese reading this would be “yep, the government is right all along about the Dalai Lama.”

The way I would phrase it would be to make an “Appeal to the Citizens of the People’s Republic of China” and start by quoting the PRC constitution that all nationalities within the PRC are equal and deserve cultural protection. While one can get into disputes about whether “Tibetans are Chinese” one can avoid the issue by saying that most Tibetans are citizens of the PRC and deserve the rights of PRC citizens.

Also, once you argue that “Tibetans” and “Chinese” are separate “peoples” then the “right of self-determination” takes over, and it is hard to argue that Tibet shouldn’t be independent.

I am deeply saddened by the loss of life in the recent tragic events in Tibet. I am aware that some Chinese have also died.

Wow. I’m four sentences into this statement, and he has already offended the people he is trouble to appeal to twice, and already confirmed himself as an “evil splitist.” The statement should have read:

I am deeply saddened by the loss of life in the recent tragic events in Tibet.


He goes on

Chinese brothers and sisters, I assure you I have no desire to seek Tibet’s separation. Nor do I have any wish to drive a wedge between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples.

These two statement are contradictory within the framework of the people reading it. If Tibetans and Chinese are separate peoples, then by the right of self-determination, you *are* seeking separation. This can be rewritten to read

I have no desire to seek Tibet’s independence from the People’s Republic of China, nor to I have any wish to undermine ethnic harmony between the different nationalities (min zu) within the People’s Republic of China.


This statement

I urge the Chinese leadership to exercise wisdom and to initiate a meaningful dialogue with the Tibetan people.

should be rewritten

I urge the Central Government of the People’s Republic of China to exercise wisdom and to engage in dialogue to guarantee the rights of the Tibetan people (min zu) as stated in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.


This statement

The state media’s portrayal of the recent events in Tibet, using deceit and distorted images, could sow the seeds of racial tension with unpredictable long-term consequences.

should be deleted. It just gets you into an argument that detracts from the main point.


He then goes into a discussion of history. Probably not a good idea. Again you just get into an useless argument with the people you are trying to convince.


This is a particularly bad statement:

In 1974, following serious discussions with my Kashag (cabinet), as well as the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker of the then Assembly of the Tibetan People’s Deputies, we decided to find a Middle Way that would seek not to separate Tibet from China,

Very, very bad idea since it implies that the Tibet Government-in-Exile is a legitimate government.

In 1974, following discussions with my advisors and representatives of the Tibetan exile community, we decided that it would be futile to promote Tibetan secession.

The problem with this statement is, what happens in 2014 if you change your mind. Also, “middle way” between “what” and “what”?


This statement

My representatives met many times with officials of the PRC. Since renewing our contacts in 2002, we have had six rounds of talks. However, on the fundamental issue, there has been no concrete result at all.

It’s unclear here what is the fundamental issue.


This statement

I had hoped President Hu Jintao’s recent statement that the stability and safety of Tibet concerns the stability and safety of the country might herald the dawning of a new era for the resolution of the problem of Tibet. It is unfortunate that despite my sincere efforts not to separate Tibet from China, the leaders of the PRC continue to accuse me of being a “separatist”.

I know the Dalai Lama means well, but this letter confirms exactly why people within the PRC view him as a separatist. He sees the “Tibetan people” and the “Chinese people” as separate, and once you view the two as separate, the independence is the natural, logical result. If you translate the letter into Chinese, then you end up offending a lot of people that he is trying to appeal to, and confirming most of the invective that the Chinese government has been directing toward him.



Chinese brothers and sisters – wherever you may be – with deep concern I appeal to you to help dispel the misunderstandings between our two communities. Moreover, I appeal to you to help us find a peaceful, lasting solution to the problem of Tibet through dialogue in the spirit of understanding and accommodation.
The big misunderstanding here is the term Chinese. Most Chinese see the term Chinese (“zhonghua minzu”) as a broad term include many different nationalities of which Tibetans are one. This entire letter implicitly and explicitly challenges that view, and if you challenge the view that “Tibetans are Chinese” then you lose the support of people like me. My own view is that “Tibetans are Chinese” in the same way that “Navaho are American” but I have this personality quirk in that when I get offended, I can remain calm enough to explain why I’m offend. Most people will just start screaming at you.
Rather than challenging this view, my advice to the Dalai Lama is to make sure that any appeals that you give are neutral to this issue, and then invoke the idea that “since most Tibetans are citizens of the PRC they are entitled to the rights under Article 4 the Constitution of the PRC including the right to “to use and develop their own spoken and written languages, and to preserve or reform their own ways and customs.”
The trouble with this letter is that it *confirms* the statements of the PRC government. Although the Dalai Lama says he opposes political secession, he does see Tibetans as “separate” from the Chinese national community. The trouble with this view is that people in China think (with good reason) this sort of separate identity is going to lead to political secession eventually. I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way, but the fact that he signed his name to this means that he clearly has not been talking to the people he really needs to convince.

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