A lie repeated a hundred times becomes the truth.
— Chairman Mao
As a lifelong activist who has worked on human rights issues around the globe, I hold the view that the best representatives of a culture are its people; that people create their own history, and in the case of the colonized or the oppressed that history is often rewritten by the oppressor. I do not assume that simply because a country is communist or socialist or capitalist that its practices toward its own people or its foreign policies are more or less honorable; beyond all the rhetoric, the reality of a situation can always be measured by the affected people themselves.
The Tibet issue is one that the far left has found to be somewhat of a conundrum, for the simple reason that most other popular human rights struggles can be easily linked to a larger struggle against U.S. or European imperialism. Therefore these struggles — be it in Palestine, or East Timor, or Colombia, fit nicely into the larger — and often rather myopic — worldview of the leftist.
However, Tibet is a case in which the struggle for basic rights and nationhood is being carried out against a communist government, so it has brought with it a host of questions for the leftist, who naturally leans towards socialism or communism as an ideological example of a system that stands in contrast to the ‘imperialist west’.
China, the country that invaded Tibet in 1950, has stood as one such example — though the Chinese government’s practices over the last 53 years and its current bent towards totalitarian capitalism would tend to defy any labeling as a positive example. Nonetheless, China’s history of socialism and revolution remains as something of an inspiration for the Western left, and therefore certain historians — predominantly scholars with some form of Marxist or Maoist agenda — have seen the current popularity of the movement for Tibetan statehood and have taken it upon themselves to give a glimpse into the grim reality of ‘old Tibet.’
The most recent historian to embrace this view of ‘old Tibet’ is Dr. Michael Parenti, a Yale scholar who, in the course of his career, has written on a variety of populist causes. To be fair, Parenti stops short — barely — of condoning the Chinese occupation. He does however, cast a decidedly unflattering view of life in pre-1950 Tibet.
In his writing on Tibet, Parenti shares something in common with all of his predecessors — Anna Louise Strong, A. Tom Grunfeld, and Roma and Stuart Gelder among them — in that his writing on Tibet is essentially argumentative. He is not writing in order to give an unbiased history of a nation, he is writing in order to prove a point. In this case, the point he is trying to prove is that the society of ‘old Tibet’ was a terrible place, and that the resistance movement that is so visible today is essentially a movement to re-establish this despicable regime.
In Parenti’s words, old Tibet was “a social order that was little more than a despotic retrograde theocracy of serfdom and poverty, so damaging to the human spirit, where vast wealth was accumulated by a favored few who lived high and mighty off the blood, sweat, and tears of the many. For most of the Tibetan aristocrats in exile, that is the world to which they fervently desire to return. It is a long way from Shangri-La.”
I have chosen to dissect this thesis because it houses many of the common arguments presented by Chinese government propagandists on Tibet, as well as many of the arguments that modern day Marxists and Maoists regularly hurl at Tibet activists on internet chat rooms and at protests. As we will see, the flawed premise of this thesis illuminates how the far left has gone woefully off the mark in its efforts to undermine the legitimate struggle for Tibetan rights and statehood.
Again, I am a firm believer in people’s history. And the core problem with Parenti’s position is that it is simply at odds with the statements, testimony, and shared history of the Tibetan people themselves — the people Parenti is supposedly defending. The view of Tibet that Parenti ascribes to has been commonly put forward by Chinese government officials — particularly the ones in the ministry of propaganda. Once upon a time it was a view embraced by a handful of British historians — most of them turn of the century explorers and colonists in their own right. But it has always been an outsider’s view, completely divorced from the reality of how Tibetans of all walks of life view their own society and their own history.
In his descriptions of old Tibet, Parenti predominantly draws on the work of four historians — Anna Louise Strong, A. Tom Grunfeld, and Roma and Stuart Gelder. The fact that all of these historians had a romantic predilection towards Maoism and drew mostly on Chinese government statistics should surely be cause for concern as far as their legitimacy as source material. One certainly wouldn’t trust the Indonesian government’s party line on Aceh or East Timor. Or, for that matter, the U.S. government’s continued assertion that the Iraqi people welcome the current American occupation. Such manipulations of public sentiment, in which an occupation is presented as ‘the will of the people,’ are — as a rule — only employed to further the agenda of the occupier.
For the most part, Parenti and the handful of historians who have adopted the view of old Tibet as a despotic feudal theocracy have had little if no contact with actual Tibetans either in or outside Tibet. Therefore, they have no real way of gauging the sentiments of the Tibetan people. Neither Parenti, Strong, Grunfeld, nor the Gelders speak Tibetan — or Chinese for that matter — so the body of historical literature on the Tibet issue that is available to them is extremely limited. Tom Grunfeld never went to Tibet until after his book was published. Anna Louise Strong — a diehard Marxist — was given a tightly monitored Chinese government tour of Lhasa and then went on to proclaim that “a million Tibetan serfs have stood up! They are burying the old serfdom and building a new tomorrow!” One might say that one doesn’t need to go to Paris to know the Eiffel tower exists. However, before dismissing an entire culture’s history as despotically repressive it is perhaps worth speaking to a few of its representatives.
Instead, Grunfeld repeatedly draws on the writings of a handful of British colonial explorers, who — as explorers often do — wrote down every piece of suspicious folklore and hearsay as fact. Grunfeld’s source material for his depictions of Tibetans as cannibals, barbarians, and superstitious fanatics is no more credible than are the testimonials of early European explorers to Africa who spun yarns of three-headed natives. None of these depictions are corroborated by traditional Tibetan, Chinese, or Indian histories, which of course were not available to Grunfeld because of his lack of interest in learning the local language.
Grunfeld also makes extensive use of the writings of Sir Charles Bell, who he quotes regularly and with no apparent regard for context. Bell’s stance was actually that Tibetans had been brutalized by the Chinese army and that Tibet was an independent nation of far greater ‘character’ than its neighbor. This seems to elude Grunfeld, who chops up Bell’s sentences in order to isolate the worst and most sensational aspects of Tibetan society and present them as fact. Grunfeld also makes cultural blunders that would make freshmen history students squirm. As award-winning author Jamyang Norbu points out in his brilliant essay ‘The Acme of Obscenity,’ Grunfeld even mistranslates the Tibetan word for ‘Tibet’!
Parenti does little better in his treatment of history, erroneously stating that the first Dalai Lama was installed by ‘the Chinese army’. One would presume that a Yale Ph.D. would know the difference between Chinese and Mongols. But apparently, in the Parenti-Grunfeld-Strong school of history, one word is as good as another and a Chinese is as good as a Mongol, as long as the point gets across.
With such evisceration of history as common practice it quickly becomes obvious that none these historians’ writings on Tibet exist to illuminate true Tibetan history. In fact, neither Grunfeld, nor Strong, nor Parenti seem remotely interested in the specifics of the culture they’re discussing.
For example, as Tashi Rabgey points out in her dissection of Tom Grunfeld’s Making of Modern Tibet, the three social classes that Grunfeld and Strong lump Tibetans into — landowners, serfs, and slaves — have no relation to the actual breakdown of Tibetan society. It is a completely arbitrary classification that has no basis in reality — Tibetan society was never classified along these terms. Certainly a historian writing on the caste system in India would not reclassify Indian society according to their own liking or invent names to suit their own vision?
There were indeed indentured farmers in old Tibet. There were also merchants, nomads, traders, non-indentured farmers, hunters, herders, warlords, bandits, monks, nuns, musicians, theater actors and artists. Tibetan society was a vast, multi-faceted affair, as societies tend to be. To reduce it to three base experiences — and non-representative experiences at that — is to engage in the worst form of reductionism.
Not only are Strong and Grunfeld’s breakdowns of Tibetan society grossly miscategorized, their observations and criticisms are entirely removed from chronological and temporal reality. Folklore from hundreds of years ago, local myths, explorer’s whimsy, and selective historical incidents are presented all together as static truth. Every single bad thing, every monstrosity real or imagined that occurred in Tibet between 1447 and October 6, 1950 is ‘how it was’ in ‘old Tibet.’ Fundamentally, this is not history. It is the crudest form of argumentative politics, drawing on selective quotes from non-native history — quite often the history of the occupiers themselves — and presenting it as fact.
In fact the entire notion of ‘old Tibet’ or Tibet under the Dalai Lamas as a static is erroneous. Life under the 13th Dalai Lama was drastically different that life under the 6th or the 5th. By the time the 13th Dalai Lama came along, for example, the Tibetan government had banned the death penalty — it was one of the first countries in the world to do so. But somehow, in the mind of Grunfeld and Parenti and Strong, Tibetans are to be held accountable for the actions of their distant predecessors.
That there was an imbalance of wealth in Tibet is quite true (There still is, only now the Chinese are the wealthy ones). Tibetans waged war, robbed each other, had strict laws and engaged in corporal punishment like all societies have done at various points in their history. But what is insidious about highlighting solely these aspects of Tibetan society is that these historians — Strong and Grunfeld particularly — Parenti is somewhat excused from this particular outrage — seem to be using ‘how it was’ in ‘old Tibet’ as a justification for invasion and occupation, just as the United States used the ‘savagery’ of the native populations as an excuse for their liquidation. This is the politics of the colonist to the core, in which the native is dehumanized and debased in order to make occupation more palatable, even necessary, or ‘civilizing.’ Strong does not even conceal her glee at the ‘smashing’ of old Tibet. Politics aside, its rather frightening to think of celebrating the demise of a culture that one hasn’t had any direct contact with, whose existence one has only read about in books.
The romanticism that historians like Strong and Grunfeld hold for the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet and the smashing of the old ways is based on an inherently flawed presumption that the invasion was some kind of people’s revolution. The Chinese government line, which Strong and Grunfeld and even Parenti seem to have bought into — is that the Tibetan people, and particularly the Tibetan peasantry, welcomed the occupation and in fact that it was they themselves who ‘overthrew the landlords.’ Such a supposition has no basis in fact.
The Chinese army rolled into Chamdo in Eastern Tibet in October of 1950 and decimated the 8,000-man Tibetan fighting force that was assembled to resist them. That there were Tibetans who initially greeted the arrival of the Chinese is without question; that these Tibetans were the vast minority is also without question. Legitimate histories of Tibet, such as Tsering Shakya’s The Dragon in the Land of Snows corroborate this fact.
Whatever romantic picture the Chinese government’s propaganda department paints of enslaved peasants casting off the bonds of feudalism, there is little in the way of factual evidence to support this. Most of the evidence produced by Beijing comes in the form of testimonials recorded by party cadres, whose questionable nature as a source of objective information should not even have to be mentioned, especially coming from a government that excels in ‘extracting testimonials.’ These testimonials are written in such propaganda-speak that it is nearly impossible to read them with a straight face; even more impossible to imagine anyone actually uttering the words.
Oddly enough, in contrast to the Chinese government line that it was the Tibetan peasantry who readily embraced communism, communism was in fact much more popular — as it is in this country — among the educated elite. The Tibetan communist party was a creation of sons of wealthy aristocrats; the Tibetan peasantry on the other hand were the ones who eventually formed the brunt of resistance to Chinese government rule.
Whatever the case, Tibetan opinion towards Beijing quickly cooled after the signing of the 17-point agreement in 1951, and certainly was not favorable by 1959, when a popular Tibetan uprising threatened China’s very grip on the nation. This resistance was for the most part carried out by Khampa tribesmen in Eastern Tibet, who had suffered some of the most brutal treatment at the hands of the Chinese government. That these fighters were for a time funded by the CIA does not — as Parenti seems to presume — represent some kind of trump card that de-legitimizes the aims, aspirations, and existence of the Tibetan resistance movement. The CIA used the Tibetans just as it has it used nationalist movements in dozens of countries around the world; with little thought for the local people and as a means of waging their own cold war. The Tibetan resistance fighters, who came from poor frontier villages in Eastern Tibet, were happy to have anyone on their side. They had no way of knowing the larger political framework that they had been sucked into. Ironically, it was the Dalai Lama who put an end to this resistance, by calling on the fighters to drop their arms and embrace nonviolent means of conflict resolution.
As for the reality of the subsequent Chinese occupation, which every legitimate human rights organization in the world has labeled with terms like ‘cultural genocide’, it should hardly need further exposition. One of the most telling historical documents of the time is the Panchen Lama’s 70,000 word treatise to Chairman Mao on behalf of the Tibetan people. Not only is this document considered by serious historians to be one of the only reliable texts from that time period, it illuminates the extraordinary kow-towing that was necessary in order for even an elevated Chinese official such as the Panchen Lama to speak to Chairman Mao at that time. Apparently, Mao was not interested in listening to the day-to-day problems of the ‘serfs’ he ‘liberated’. The Panchen Lama was sent to prison for suggesting that people in Tibet were starving; the average Tibetan peasant who offered the same criticism to his local Chinese official did not fare nearly as well.
In his article, Parenti again quotes Tom Grunfeld — whose idealism of the cultural revolution should automatically remove him from use as an unbiased source of historical data on the Chinese occupation of Tibet — and asserts that ‘slavery and unpaid labor disappeared under Mao’. This sentence simply has no place in any legitimate historical writing. Perhaps Parenti would like to sit down and have a chat with the relatives of the thousands of Tibetans who were worked to death by Chinese soldiers at the infamous Borax mine in Changthang. I’ve met them myself, and they are far more deserving of a platform on Tibetan history and cultural issues than Parenti. Mao’s forced sedentarization of Tibetan nomads was certainly not a liberation; nor was the government-enforced switch to growing foreign cereal crops which resulted in widespread famine in many regions of Tibet.
But again, the true testament to the fact that Tibetans have been far from content under Chinese rule lie in the actions of the people themselves. Ever since the Chinese invasion and occupation there has been substantial popular resistance to Chinese rule in Tibet. This resistance has taken many forms over the years — leafleting, public demonstration, mass non-cooperation, economic boycott, and armed uprising are all forms of protest have been practiced by Tibetans inside Tibet, at the risk of their own lives.
The Chinese government has faced phenomenal opposition from the Tibetan people, certainly far more opposition than the Lhasa government ever faced from its own population, which does not do much to further the argument that ‘old Tibet’ was a terribly repressive society. Nor does the fact that Tibetan refugees continue pour out of Tibet at a rate never seen prior to 1959. In a classic case of uninformed conjecture, Parenti supposes that Tibetan refugees never left prior to 1959 because the ‘systems of control’ were so deep and that Tibetans were ‘afraid of amputation’. Any quick glance at a map of Tibet, with its vast, unpatrolable borders, or any basic knowledge of the structure of Tibetan society would quickly reveal that Tibetans — should they have wanted to escape their ‘feudal masters’ — would have had little problem doing so.
But perhaps there is no more telling testament to the Tibetan people’s sentiment towards their own culture than the fact that in the early 1980’s — when the Chinese government finally relaxed some of its draconian policies towards Tibet — the first thing Tibetans set about doing is rebuilding and repopulating monasteries — the very symbols of ‘old Tibet.’ The next thing they did was take to the streets and protest for freedom and for the Dalai Lama’s return. This is not the behavior of a people who are trying to cast off their old ways. It sounds more like a people who are trying to get their culture back.
This brings up again the essential flaw in Parenti’s reasoning: it is not based on the experience of Tibetans. The actuality is that there is now and always has been a people’s movement of Tibetans — in fact, the vast majority of Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet — who overwhelmingly support the Dalai Lama and more specifically are in favor of Tibetan statehood. This movement cannot simply be dismissed as incidental, or foreign-backed, or primarily aristocratic in nature. The argument that the Tibetan resistance is driven by aristocrats is fairly essential for Parenti et al because without it they would be forced to recognize the existence of this movement-and the existence of such a movement would suggest that perhaps the Tibetan people themselves are more enamored of the Dalai Lama than they ever were of Mao.
The Tibetan resistance, both historically and currently, has been made up of Tibetans from across the social spectrum. The Khampa fighters in the late 50s and early 60s were certainly not aristocrats, nor was Thrinley Chodron, a nun who led a bloody resistance battle against Chinese forces in 1969. The Tibetans who took to the streets and were gunned down in the late 80s were not former aristocrats. Nor are the hundreds of Tibetans currently languishing in Drapchi prison for expressing their desire for statehood.
Currently, there are over 150,000 Tibetans living in exile around the world. There are nomads-in-exile, farmers-in-exile, truck drivers-in-exile. To characterize this entire group as aristocrats or former aristocrats is ludicrous. In New York City alone, there are nearly 5,000 Tibetan refugees. I’m quite certain that Ngawang Rabgyal at the Office of Tibet, who is charged with helping this refugee community find jobs in the outer reaches of Queens, would raise an eyebrow at the description of Tibetan refugees as ‘aristocrats.’
The notion that the Tibetan community in exile longs to return to a ‘Shangri-la‘ and re-establish their aristocracy is a banal and uninformed argument that has nothing to do with the real and stated aspirations of the Tibetan freedom movement. First of all, Tibetans never called their country Shangri-La; it was an outsider, James Hilton, who first did that. They never saw their country as a paradise and the Tibetan community is certainly not seeking to reestablish the same political system that existed in pre-1959 Tibet (nor would it be possible). The Dalai Lama has all but abdicated his position as future leader of Tibet — despite the fact that 98% of Tibetans both in and outside Tibet would elect him in a heartbeat — saying that he would rather attend to his religious duties than be a political leader. The Tibetan Kashag is now made up of democratically elected officials and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile — which, whether Parenti cares to acknowledge their existence or not, is a legitimate entity charged with the welfare of 150,000 refugees — has already outlined a democratic structure for the future government of Tibet.
The movement for Tibetan statehood permeates all segments of Tibetan society. Nomads in western Tibet, herders in Changtang, farmers in Amdo, merchants in Lhasa — the vast majority of Tibetans are vocal — as much as they can be — about their nationalist aspirations. Anyone who has spent time around Tibetans inside or outside Tibet knows this as fact. This fact does not have to be footnoted; it is experiential history.
By way of personal testimony, before I ever became involved in the Tibetan political struggle I went to Tibet myself. I was there during a period of martial law and at certain sensitive locations I had to be escorted by Chinese guides, who made a half-hearted attempt to show me the ‘feudal torture chambers’ of old Tibet and a statue of a liberated serf ‘breaking the chains of bondage’; the guides barely seemed to believe it themselves. But even they could not produce Tibetan citizens who would rail against the Dalai Lama or speak of how they had ‘cast off the bonds of feudalism’. I know of no traveler to Tibet who has heard this type of testimony. There are Tibetans in government positions in Lhasa who will give you this line; and there are probably some Tibetans in Tibet who believe it. But again, for the vast majority of Tibetans, this is simply not part of the their experience. Get any Tibetan nomad, farmer, peasant, or monk a few hundred yards away from their local party cadre and the first thing they’ll do is ask for a picture of the Dalai Lama; the second thing they’ll do is ask you to help them free their country.
And there’s the core of the matter: ‘old Tibet’, the Tibet that existed pre-1959, simply does not represent to the average Tibetan what it does to Michael Parenti, Tom Grunfeld, and Anna Louise Strong. Scholars like Parenti and Grunfeld and Strong, with limited source material and no firsthand experience, see old Tibet as a horrible place; but the bottom line is they’re not Tibetan. And if Tibetans themselves don’t see their past as a past of feudal lords and merciless repression, then do they really need scholars like Parenti to tell them what their past is all about?
Saying debasing things about a culture is certainly not extraordinarily difficult; seen through the lens that Parenti and Grunfeld apply to Tibet, most if not all societies would come up short, as would many resistance movements. The real story then, is not what these historians have to say, but why they have chosen to say it in the way they say it.
Many Tibetans do welcome commentary and criticism on aspects of their society; I have certainly been privy to many heated arguments on old Tibet and on the future direction of Tibetan politics. But that is because I have taken the time to really get to know Tibetan society. Perhaps what is most striking about the history that Parenti and Grunfeld and Strong present is the tone with which they speak of Tibetan culture, without ever having experienced it. The facts they deliver are clearly not being presented in order to help Tibetan people. They are fairly serious charges, and as objective as the authors pretend to be, these charges are delivered with venom.
Oddly, Parenti — like Grunfeld — seems taken aback at the emotional response that his writing has evoked among Tibetans and their supporters. It would seem fairly obvious to anyone with any common sense that dismissing an entire culture — particularly one in dire peril — and making statements that run completely contrary to everything the vast majority of its people know from firsthand experience would illicit an emotional response. Perhaps these scholars are surprised because they have forgotten that words carry weight, and that their actions actually have tangible results in the real world. In the Tibet movement, the results have been clearly measurable — Tibetan activists, who should be focused on returning basic rights to a people whose lack of freedoms is documented by every major human rights organization in the world, instead find themselves in the position of having to defend the actions of a bygone society. Former torture victims are accosted by nineteen year old American college students who have never been to Tibet, never met a Tibetan, and surely never had anyone in their family tortured with electric cattle prods. This, for a people who are in a very real struggle for rights, is not only extremely upsetting, it serves to forward the agenda of their oppressor.
It is no secret that the Chinese government views propaganda as a key weapon in its efforts to undermine the movement for Tibetan rights and statehood. Chinese state run media — whose use of manufactured and manipulated history is indisputable — regularly debases and assails Tibetan culture and specifically the Dalai Lama, who is dismissed with regularity — and relish. The Tibetan refugee population is treated with equal disdain, the Tibetan government-in-exile, which, again serves the very real function of looking after the welfare of 150,000 refugees and lobbying international institutions for rights and recognition, is dismissed entirely. Luckily for Tibetans, Beijing’s Orwellian rants about Tibet — labeling the Dalai Lama a “serpent” and “the chief villain” — have bordered on the hilarious. That is, until recently. Now the war of words has spilled over into more legitimate circles.
Recognizing that Tibetans and the Tibetan struggle are generally well-perceived in the west, and seeking to win the war of perception, Beijing’s propaganda strategy has now grown, with regular meetings on external and internal Tibet-related propaganda. One key element of the new propaganda strategy is to make greater use of Tibet scholars, both Chinese and Western. In 2001 a leaked Chinese Government memo from the Chinese Communist Party’s Ninth Meeting on Tibet-Related External Propaganda stated “Effective use of Tibetologists and specialists is the core of our external propaganda struggle for public opinion on Tibet…”
With this as the political backdrop, levying ill-researched and unsubstantiated charges at Tibetan culture — in fact the very charges often employed by their Chinese occupiers to delegitimize their entire society — is a dangerous game indeed. It is one thing to offer criticisms of a culture or religion that is not fighting for its very survival. It is quite another to rewrite the history of a people who are already the victims of a propaganda war at the hands of one of the largest propaganda machines in the world.
What surprises me most about the far left’s flawed take on Tibet is how quickly a piece of propaganda turns into ‘scholarship,’ how a piece of hearsay becomes fact if given a footnote. Mao said ‘a lie told a hundred times becomes the truth.’ Sadly, in the case of the new Tibet ‘scholarship’, a lie footnoted once has already become truth. A pool of bad information now exists, ready for any scholar with an agenda to draw from and appear legitimate. Few will bother to look beneath the surface, at the highly questionable source of this information-colonists, oppressors, and outsiders, writing a history that they have no place writing. And what gets lost in the mix, as always, is the voice of the Tibetan people themselves.
There is one statement in Parenti’s thesis that summarizes how completely disconnected he is from any kind of Tibetan reality. In his thesis, he states that old Tibet was a society that was ‘damaging to the human spirit.’ Any person who has spent any time with the Tibetan people would laugh at the irony. Being with Tibetans of all walks of life, inside and outside of Tibet, one is always struck by the incredible, contagious spirit of Tibetan culture. From the Khampa drinking songs to the picnics that are the preferred activity of all Tibetans, Tibetan society is known for its passion and exuberance. This spirit is something that grows directly from the culture that Parenti is so intent on debasing. This spirit is what the Chinese government has tried so desperately to crush — making the singing of freedom songs illegal and prohibiting traditional Tibetan festivals. The struggle against totalitarianism is precisely a struggle for spirit, and I’m willing to wager that a populist like Mr. Parenti would find far more joy drinking chang and singing songs with a party of exiled Tibetans than he ever would at a Chinese cadre meeting; sadly, he won’t ever get to find out. He’s chosen his bedfellows, and more power to him. In the end it is the Tibetan people who will be the arbiters of their own fate. By the time that fate is decided Parenti will be long gone, onto some other issue, and Tibetans will be no worse off because of it.
* This article was published at Students For a Free Tibet.
** cf. “Q&A on Tibet.”