Were I to invoke logic, however, logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
— Spock, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan
Progressives are grappling with the Tibet Question and how it is framed. One historical narrative depicts Tibetan people as being liberated by Chinese Communist forces from an oppressive system of feudalism run by the Lamas.1 Another historical narrative disputes this depiction. It argues, compellingly, that history should come from the mouths of the people living that history.2
One writer offered a rationale for a progressivist split on Tibet: “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’.”2
The historical narrative, however, may not be the most important factor when considering the Tibet Question. In Tibet, there appear two main streams within the Tibetan resistance to Chinese domination. One stream, led by the Dalai Lama, claims to be friendly to China and desires only greater autonomy — not independence. Another stream calls for Tibetan independence. Since progressivism is guided by morally derived principles, how does this approach bode for the people of Tibet’s aspirations for self-determination?
Many progressives, human rights advocates, and opportunistic right-wing ideologues point to the principle of self-determination. In the United Nations Charter, Article 1(2) states:
The Purposes of the United Nations are:
To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace …
This principle, as enounced in the UN Charter, leads many people to call for the independence of Tibet. They point to the principle of self-determination as if it were a sacrosanct, inviolable concept. But is the principle of self-determination an absolute? As a guiding concept, self-determination is fine, but as an absolute, inviolable principle, self-determination is flawed.
For example, do the resource rich regions of Bolivia have a right to separate from the rest of the state and horde the wealth?3 Is this what self-determination is about? Given that the Bolivians in the provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija are predominantly of European derivation, it would be akin to according preeminent territorial rights to the descendants of colonialists. Is this what self-determination is about?
As a second example, the predominantly French-speaking province of Québec has long flirted with separation from federation with Canada. However, since the sentiment for separation varies by geographical region within Québec, anti-separatists propose a partitioning of the province should separatism ever carry the day in a referendum. Moreover, thoroughly undermining the self-determination aspirations of Québécois (mainly Francophones) is that it is based on the rejection of the self-determination of the Original Peoples of Québec! Is this what self-determination is about?
China and Tibet
I have never been to Tibet, but I lived one year in China. China is ruled by a Communist party dictatorship. It is certainly no longer a dictatorship of the proletariat. Workers’s rights, wages, and conditions of employment are abysmal.4 The situation is far from optimal, but some people argue that the Chinese are better off than previously.5
Just as Tibetans struggle, so do the bulk of China’s citizens. It is the plight of villagers and most working Chinese. Granted, the struggles differ. The Tibetan struggle is mainly for sovereignty, whereas the daily struggle for most Chinese is primarily economic. Tibetan self-determination, however, might impact upon all of these people. This presents a quandary: can the Tibet Question be legitimately considered in isolation from its impact upon other Chinese?
It must be affirmed that while the right to self-determination might not be sacrosanct, the human rights of Tibetans are inviolable. The Chinese regime must be pressured to uphold human rights, and it must be held to account for violations of human rights. The human rights of Tibetans must be respected, absolutely.
Targeting the Olympics in Support of Tibetan Sovereignty
China will hold the Summer Olympics in Beijing this year, and enormous prestige has been staked to the games. It is no wonder, then, that Tibetan sovereignists have targeted the Olympics.
The Olympics are not sacrosanct. The blood of oppressed humans must not be sacrificed for the sweat of “elite” athletes or for the frivolities of Olympic eminences. In fact, “elitist” games must rank quite low on any list of societal priorities. So the Olympic Games are, indisputably, a legitimate target for protest in support of human rights.
There is talk about western nations boycotting the Beijing Olympics. Because of corporate globalism’s economic investments in China, this boycott is highly unlikely to occur, so instead there is a push for international “leaders” to boycott the opening ceremonies.6 However, if the self-determination of Tibetans is to be advocated, then the same principle should be observed when it comes to the Olympics slated for Canada in 2010. Where are the outcries and threats of an international boycott of the Vancouver-Whistler Winter Olympics in 2010? The 2010 Olympics has been awarded to a colonial entity to host games on land unceded by the First Nations?7 No country has hosted the Olympics more than the colonized landmass of the United States, but which US Olympic games did these human rights groups ever boycott? The bias among human rights groups ultimately threatens to undermine their raison d’être.
Tibetan self-determination is predicated on factors such as history, culture, religion, distinctiveness, resistance to outside oppression, and desire to chart its own path. Tibetans do have a history — a long history. But does a long history, whatever that history may be, accord a preeminent right to self-determination? The long history also reveals that, aside from expanding its territorial realm, Tibet has been under foreign suzerainty for many centuries, including British, Chinese, and Mongolian.8 Is there a statute of limitations on aspirations for self-determination? If self-determination is a principle based in morality, then one would argue against such a limitation.
Universality of Self-determination
If Tibetan aspirations for self-determination are still valid after many centuries, one wonders about other regions where self-determination has, much more recently, been suppressed and rejected. Quickly, the Zionist annexation and occupation of historical Palestine springs to mind. Zionist Jews point to “their” Israelite ancestors, Yahweh’s promise, and a 3,000-year history to mask and excuse the undeniable racism toward the indigenous Palestinian people.9
One Israeli researcher notes that Sephardim and Ashkenazim are converts to Judaism; that is, that they are religious Jews and not ethnic Jews.10 Some Jews readily admit that the founding of the Israeli state was enabled by territorial theft.11
Elementary morality decrees that whatever condition you seek to impose upon another being, you must, first and foremost, also impose upon yourself. All nations and all peoples must be accorded equality of rights. If the western world wants to criticize China for suppressing a Tibetan independence/greater autonomy movement, then it must not be guilty of shutting its eyes to the Palestinian struggle to regain their historical land. But it is even worse than a willful blindness to the plight of Palestinians because the western world is complicit in the colonization, forced transfer, and genociding of the people in historical Palestine.
The cases of western complicity in gainsaying the sovereignty of other peoples are, regrettably, myriad. In recent times, there is the British-American expulsion of the people of the Chagos Archipelago, ruled illegal by the British High Court in 2000. The ruling has since been subverted by two Orders-in-Council preventing the Chagossians from returning home.12
The “national interests” of Britain and the US have, obviously, taken precedence over the rights of the Chagossians.
This abrogation of law harkens back to the “war criminal” president Andrew Jackson. Jackson had spearheaded the Indian Removal Act, a genocidal transfer program13 to displace the Original Peoples, leaving the land for the colonialists to settle. The Cherokee (Tsalagi) opposed Jackson. In a landmark 1832 decision, chief justice John Marshall of the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee in Worcester v. Georgia. The Cherokee Nation was ruled sovereign and protected from removal laws. Jackson, in a flippant affront to the law of the United States, dismissed Marshall’s ruling: “He has made his law. Now let him enforce it.”14
The countries of the western hemisphere, by and large, represent an affront to the principle of self-determination. Therefore, if western states, and the citizens of those states, wish to condemn China’s sovereignty over Tibet, then for such criticism to be valid, it must be applied in equal measure to the sovereignty of the US, Canada, Mexico, and to the other countries on down to Tierra del Fuego. Canada and the US exist as colonial states forged on the blood-spilling, destruction, and theft of the territory of people who have lived in Turtle Island since time immemorial.13
Indeed, at this point in history, the US and Britain (abetted by other states) are murderously occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. What is occupation, if not the denial of the self-determination aspirations of the occupied peoples?
Other countries of the western world fare little better in their respect for the principle of self-determination. Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Australia were forged from the theft of the territory of Aborigines and Māoris respectively. Elsewhere in the South Pacific, France clings to New Caledonia, Tahiti, and Wallis and Futuna. The US clings to Guam, Northern Marianas … Without turning to Britain, Africa, and the Caribbean, the point should be abundantly clear: western states are in violation of the principle of self-determination, so they are in no unbesmirched position to criticize other violators.
Does this exculpate China from censure from other states that do not violate the self-determination of its peoples? To the extent that these states refrain from criticizing the US, Canada, France, Britain, etc. it would be highly hypocritical.
Let’s suppose that there was a bellwether of states that were pure on the principle of self-determination for their own people and peoples abroad. Would that grant them legitimacy in denouncing Chinese dominion over Tibet? Yes. The same logic also applies to people who uniformly criticize all crimes of state.
Does this mean that China’s stance vis-à-vis Tibet is weakened? No.
Tibet’s Strategic Military Importance to the Defense of China
For China to relinquish Tibet would be to relinquish a key militarily geo-strategic position at the top of the world. The US has China militarily encircled. The US, through the CIA, has been funding the separatism in Tibet.15 Nonetheless, it is quite understandable that Tibetans aspiring to greater autonomy/independence have accepted such money.
Oneness is a core traditional embodiment of the Chinese consciousness. The return of Hong Kong and Macau were epochal events for Chinese nationalists, who still pine for the return of Taiwan to the Chinese fold.16 To lose Tibet, or Xinjiang, would be utterly unacceptable for the Chinese people who lost face during the years of unequal treaties and colonial occupation. Loss of face, however, is not an acceptable reason for continuing to occupy another people’s territory.
The state of Israel constantly, and risibly, cites security concerns to justify its occupation of historical Palestine. But in the case of China, security concerns appear legitimate. Are the territorial integrity and security concerns of 1.3 billion Chinese of lesser importance than the desire for self-determination among 6 million Tibetans?17
The Chinese know they are encircled. Many know of China’s not-so-long-ago history of having lost face to foreign invaders. Many know of their battles with western imperialism.18 many know that when Mikhail Gorbachev lost control of the USSR due to the economic pressures of confronting the West, the USSR fell apart leaving Russia surrounded by former-USSR satellite states. Unfettered western capitalism then precipitated the implosion of the once proud Russia,19 which was forced to fight to preserve its own unity, as separatists battled for independence in Chechnya. Many Chinese know the ages old axiom of “divide and conquer.” Many, also, know that NATO encroached into the states formerly behind the Iron Curtain, further humiliating Russia.
What, then, would Beijing expect to happen if Tibet is loosened from China? How long before separatism would strengthen in appeal to so-inclined Uighurs in Xinjiang? What would the separation of the already autonomous Tibet augur for a mainland reunification with Taiwan? How long would it be before a US military base is perched upon the Tibetan plateau?
The US has been vociferous about the appearance of another military presence in what it claims to be its sphere of influence. Did the US quietly demur to the USSR in stationing nuclear weapons in Cuba? Yet US nuclear weapons were once stationed near China — in Japan and South Korea.
Given the hypocrisy that many world states face on the principle of self-determination, one might criticize the Dalai Lama. How can the Dalai Lama court colonialist entities to support greater autonomy for Tibet? Does this undermine the legitimacy of a movement for Tibetan autonomy/independence?
Since the US is an undeniable proponent of colonialism, militarism, torture, genocide, and economic plunder abroad, and since, as already argued, the US stands guilty of far worse crimes against its Original Peoples (including stealing their territories), its imperialistic machinations in Asia must be seriously evaluated when critically contemplating China’s incorporation of Tibet.
Human rights advocates and supporters of Tibetan self-determination stand on moral quicksand if they fail to accord equivalent rights to all marginalized, expelled, and/or genocided peoples. I submit that if human rights groups want credibility, they ought to focus on the greater evils. It is US imperialism that jeopardizes Chinese security. It is the US that has surrounded China. It is the US which was deeply involved in the political and territorial separation of Taiwan from the mainland.
When US imperialism falls, other imperialisms may well fall, too. There will appear an opening for peoples previously living under the cloud of imperialist intent. Human rights groups and supporters of self-determination for Tibet should target the removal of the military threat to China to achieve the conditions favorable for greater autonomy/independence in Tibet.
A moral paradox exists under the present China-Tibet scenario: one people’s freedom must not be predicated on the denial of another people’s freedom. Vulcan logic calls, in such a case, for the needs of the many to supersede the needs of the few.20
Pax Americana and China
It is the US that menaces political ideologies and movements that its ruling class considers antithetical to it own interests. It is this threat that gives cause for maintaining Chinese control over Tibet.
There is a long history of Tibet as a part of China (including the years China was under Mongolian rule). This lengthy history predates the existence of a United States or Canada on Turtle Island, and it predates European claims on the western hemisphere.
A principled approach to the Tibet Question would be for progressives to carefully weigh the geo-political realities facing Tibetans and the Chinese, as a whole. Tibet is situated in or near China’s backyard. It is of utmost strategic importance to China (compared with Diego Garcia in the Chagos archipelago which is purely of offensive, and not defensive, US geo-strategic design).
China finds itself ringed with US military bases. Given this situation, is it realistic that it should grant further autonomy or independence to Tibet if this poses a risk to the security of the Chinese state?
Geo-politically, given the current state of Pax Americana, in which the Project for the New American Century (PNAC, predominately neoconservatives) identify China as a preeminent threat,21 greater autonomy for Tibet is a dubious proposition.
Even the UN Charter recognizes that self-determination is not an absolute principle devoid of context. Article 55 calls for “the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples” conditional upon the UN promoting:
a. higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development;
b. solutions of international economic, social, health, and related problems; and international cultural and educational co-operation; and
c. universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.
The Tyranny of Statism
Ideologically, I am opposed to statism. Borders are a form of tyranny. Borders delineate property in the name of the state. Borders divide humanity.
In an ideal world, people will be permitted freedom of movement. Human decency will demand that visitors and newcomers must be respectful of the indigenous and legitimately long-settled peoples in a region. Erasing borders should facilitate an end to geo-political conflicts and wars over human demarcations. Furthermore, people must share the resources and bounty of the world. This would go a long way to eliminating classism, racism, poverty, and famine. This would be the revolution. The solution is simple. Finding the massive will and courage to implement the solution is the sine qua non.
The Tibet Question is a straw dog. Acceding to Tibetan self-determination — a principle fraught with dangerous potentialities — does not take into account, sufficiently, the legitimate security concerns of one-fifth of the world’s population. An inordinate focus upon the self-determination desires of Tibetans plays into the hands of the PNAC cabal and their highly militarized schemes for a Pax Americana22 heralding a regressivist future. How long before neoliberalism subverts and trends to social justice in an independent Tibet? How long before US military bases and CIA listening posts are perched on the rooftop of the world?
Human Rights Are an Absolute
The state of China must be held accountable for its actions … but not in a human rights vacuum! Progressives, people of conscience, and human rights advocates must firmly support human rights for all peoples. China is a violator of human rights. It is not alone in this regard. Advocacy of human rights demands the denunciation of human rights violations everywhere with measures against the human rights abusers commensurate to the level of human rights violations.
Self-determination is not an absolutist principle. The rights of humanity as a whole are preeminent.
China should take the high road and seek dialogue and rapprochement with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exiles. The Dalai Lama claims that he does not seek separation.23 Insofar as the Dalai Lama is the legitimate spokesperson for a majority of Tibetans, he should be held to his word. Tibetans require respect for their culture, religion, and livelihoods. China requires security guarantees. These must be understood. Confrontation is not in China’s long-term interest, and neither is it in the exile community’s interest. Confrontation serves the interest of outside agitators.
To merely consider the Tibet Question as a struggle between a Tibetan resistance and Chinese imperialism is overly simplistic and dangerous.
In the case of Tibet, progressives, human rights advocates, and people of conscience must unequivocally oppose the totality of geo-political imperialism. As far as self-determination is legitimate, then self-determination must be universally applicable.
Human rights, on the other hand, are non-negotiable. They are the bedrock of humanity. Human rights must be respected by humans everywhere, without exception.
Human rights are a principle upon which progressives cannot waver. China must adhere to international law that protects the human rights of Tibetans. The same applies to the human rights of people in western states and states that suffer under foreign hegemony.
Progressives must oppose imperialism everywhere; they must oppose war everywhere; they must support human rights everywhere.
- Michael Parenti, “Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth,” Dissident Voice, 27 December 2003. [↩]
- Joshua Michael Schrei, “A Lie Repeated: The Far Left’s Flawed History of Tibet,” Dissident Voice, 5 April 2008. [↩] [↩]
- Politics In Depth, “Bolivia at the Brink of Separation,” Angus Reid Global Monitor, 3 April 2008. This secessionist push is with the alleged instigation of the US. See Benjamin Dangl, “Undermining Bolivia: A Landscape of Washington Intervention,” Dissident Voice, 22 February 2008. [↩]
- Kim Petersen, Capitalism’s Ugly Head in China: The Counterrevolution, Dissident Voice, 23 June 2005. [↩]
- See Kim Petersen, “The Broken Iron Rice Bowl,” Dissident Voice, 18 August 2003. [↩]
- SBS/Reuters, “Tutu urges opening ceremony boycott,” World News Australia, 28 April 2008. [↩]
- David O’Brien, “Vancouver OL: Our Olympics, our Tibet,” Winnipeg Free Press, 16 April 2008. See also Maya Rolbin-Ghanie, “It’s All About The Land: Native resistance to the Olympics,” The Dominion, 1 March 2008. [↩]
- For those who distinguish the Mongolian Qing dynasty from the Ming or other Chinese dynasties, the Chinese, generally, do not. A unifying characteristic of the Chinese people is one China. See Won-bok Rhie, Korea Unmasked: In Search of the Country, the Society and the People, (Kimyoungsa: 2002). [↩]
- See Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of 3000 Years (Pluto: 1995). [↩]
- Ofri Ilani, “Shattering a ‘national mythology’,” Haaretz 21 March 2008. [↩]
- Hannah Mermelstein, “This land was theirs,” Jewish Advocate, 24 April 2008. [↩]
- “The story of the island,” Telegraph, 12 May 2006. [↩]
- See David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (Oxford University Press, 1992).” [↩] [↩]
- Ian Frasier, On the Rez (Picador: 2000), 74. [↩]
- For reading on CIA involvement and more on imperialistic designs on China and Tibet see “Holy Terror,” The Burbank Digest, 17 April 2008. [↩]
- As a simple mind exercise, compare the US reaction to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (a conquered Polynesian archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of kilometers from the continental US where self-determination is denied to Hawaiians) to how the Chinese might feel about nearby Taiwan? [↩]
- “about Tibet,” Students for a Free Tibet. [↩]
- See Kim Petersen, “Chine et dragons sinophones,” in Atlas Alternatif, (Le Temps des Cerises: 2006), 303-313. [↩]
- Alan Woods, “Preface to ‘Russia: from real socialism to real capitalism’,” In Defense of Marxism, 28 July 2006. [↩]
- Vulcans are an alien race, from the science fiction series Star Trek who have devoted themselves to the mastery of logic, emotions, and a peaceful existence. [↩]
- “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources For a New Century,” A Report of the Project for the New American Century, September 2000, 9, 14, 18, 19. [↩]
- See “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources For a New Century,” A Report of the Project for the New American Century, September 2000. [↩]
- “Dalai Lama ‘not seeking separation’ from China,” CBC News, 22 April 2004. [↩]