Being open-minded about Tibet

Sanne van Oosten

Tibet is a emotional subject in the West, many people care much about the fate of the Tibetan people and will gladly take to the streets to voice that stance. They see the Chinese as civilization-killers who have no respect for the sovereignty of the Tibetan people. Having grown up in the West I feel inclined to share that viewpoint, but when traveling through China I decided to try to put all my predispositions aside and try to see the issue from the Chinese point of view. This is how that turned out.

Every Chinese person we felt safe to discuss this subject with, we asked what they thought about it. We told them about how people feel about it in the West and told them that we were really interested in the Chinese point of view on the subject. The answers we got usually had something to do with three main arguments.

The first argument is that when the Chinese took over Tibet in the fifties it embodied all the features of a backwards society. It was ruled by monks who didn’t care about the well-being of the people and accumulated as much wealth as possible for their temples. True, the Tibetan temples show much wealth, even though the Tibetan people aren’t generally all that affluent. This means that a greater proportion of the already limited income of the Tibetan people was going towards their temples, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes by force.

We have heard many Chinese proudly say that thanks to the appearance of the Chinese they are somewhat more free from such restrictive practices. Not only that, the Tibetan economy is growing at a much higher rate than the general Chinese economy, which is also growing at quite some speed. The Chinese emphasize how they are giving the Tibetans opportunities through encouraging migration and tourism (Chinese tourism, mind you! Western tourists are faced with expensive permits and guides encouraging most Westerners to opt out of visiting) to Tibet

Second, another argument used by the Chinese is that Tibet was once part of China’s tributary system. The Tibetan people paid tribute to the Chinese and recognized their inferiority compared to their powerful neighbor in trade, relations and diplomacy. This historical past means that it is China’s right to claim the land as its own, as it once was, to a certain extent.

Thirdly, the most honest argument we heard: China needs Tibet for their natural resources such as strategic mining and water. At least this argument is straightforward. It isn’t trying to sugarcoat the truth, it isn’t mobilizing common sentiments about Tibet in their disadvantage, it’s just true. China needs Tibet. Especially when it comes to water this is painfully apparent. China is known for their pollution, but the worst pollution has taken place in the water. By the time the water of the Yellow River, the Yangtze River or the Pear River reaches the sea it is so polluted that it can hardly be cleaned enough to make it passable as drinking water. The Tibetan mountains offer the headwaters of so many different river, and access to this means access to the most valuable tap of drinking water available. Still, it doesn’t make it right. The Tibetan people don’t want to be part of China and want to hold on to their traditions. They don’t want to be freed from alleged backwardness and they don’t want history to repeat itself. They just want to hold the sovereignty for their own land.

The economy might be growing, yes, but who is benefiting? Of course mostly the urban Han Chinese, not the Tibetan people. Chinese tourism to Tibet is also growing and bringing up more money for the Tibetan economy, but yet again, who benefits? You gotcha, Han Chinese. The Tibetans are standing still while the people around them are growing in affluence. So even though the Chinese are saying they’ve freed the Tibetan from backwardness, they are actually helping them be confronted with their relative poverty.

And what about the tributary system argument? So many countries were once part of the tributary state system, including Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. Are we seeing China claim these countries as well?

So there you have it. I know I’m somewhat brainwashed when it comes to Tibet, but after trying and trying to understand the other side of the story I have to say, I’m sticking to the common Western convictions. There are no arguments to make what is happening in Tibet right, only excuses. The civilization of the Tibetan people is being diluted to extinction and there is nothing to make it right.

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