Tibet: a world apart

The Han Chinese journalist leaned out toward the Tibetan dancer and asked him, Would you make love to me? Without a moment’s hesitation he replied, Absolutely. For a moment, the circle of Han and Tibetans gathered on the sixth floor of the Sheraton in Jiuzhaigou held their breath and watched. Then the two snapped back into their seats and the moment passed.

This was in 2006. I was traveling with a group of Chinese journalists on the inaugural flight from Chengdu to the newly built Huanglong Airport. We spent four days walking through one of China’s most beautiful regions, watching Tibetans dance and sing and listening to local officials extoll the benefits of tourism-driven growth and development. On the very last night, a group of nine Tibetans joined us in our hotel for drinks and palaver. A friendly session that soon turned into a truth or dare scenario with the Tibetans and the Han Chinese really striving to get to know each other.

Cultural and social barriers kept too much from happening, but those walls bulged under pure human emotion. A few more drinking sessions, and those walls would have come tumbling down. Nevertheless, at the end of the night the Tibetan dancer came up to me and said,

“We are a lot more alike, you and I. We don’t think like the Han Chinese; we don’t act like them either.” 

Six years later and Aba is under lockdown, 18 year olds are setting themselves on fire and the misconceptions that kept the journalist and the dancer apart back then have only grown larger, deeper and more entrenched.

Prayer flags on a hill in Ganzi Prefecture

Tibetans generally believe that they are a separate culture, removed in almost every way from the Han Chinese, save geography. The Han, on the other hand, consider Tibetans to be Chinese. Both groups ascribe attributes to each other to support their positions. The misconceptions can be traced in part back to a lack of contact, but mostly to government policy and propaganda that paints Tibetans as either an exotic minority or a troublesome clique of traitors. Many Han are led to believe that Tibetans are ungrateful and lazy; that the government goes out of its way to accommodate and help them, only to be betrayed when Tibetans—brainwashed by “outside forces”—riot, pillage and attack innocent Han shopkeepers.

The Tibetan stance has remained the same since 1959: we are an oppressed people.

But that message doesn’t seem to resonate in China. It is remarkable that the Chinese government’s propaganda still manages to win the PR war over Tibet. With all the media coverage of Tibetan self-immolations and the oppressive situation within Tibet and Sichuan, it seems unlikely that anyone could believe the government’s stance. But unfortunately for Tibetans, the true PR war is not being fought in the airwaves outside of China—where the Tibetan people, their culture and their leader are generally appreciated and revered—but in the airwaves within China, where the people are misunderstood, the culture patronized and the leader reviled.

In the West, Tibetans are generally regarded as peaceful, spiritual folk with a deep and beautiful culture and a benevolent sage-monk leader. Within China, the Tibetans are quaint relics of an outdated culture or regarded as ungrateful, backward, violent and traitorous. Even those Chinese who admire and appreciate the Tibetan culture and religion will still bristle at the mention of Tibetan autonomy (let alone independence) and have a deep distrust of the Dalai Lama. Only a very small minority feel that Tibetans are an oppressed people.

Not quite a Blackout

Not a single Mainland news outlet—from local newspapers to the vaunted Weibo news feed—has anything even close to a discussion of the facts on the ground in the Tibetan regions. The government maintains a stranglehold on all information that comes out of Sichuan, where most of the self-immolations have occurred, and Internet censors block out any Chinese language reports that differ from the Party line are blocked out on the Mainland, such as Tsering Woeser’s website, A Middle Way and this Taiwanese television news report that includes footage of a burning nun.

In fact, the vast majority of Chinese in China have no idea that there is anything serious happening in Sichuan or Tibet right now. Only a very few are aware that foreign tourists have been blocked from visiting Tibet from February to March, or that journalists are barred from Tibetan regions in Sichuan. Not only do average Chinese have little access to the information that Westerners are now reading every day, but few of them would actually believe it if they read it.

This lone editorial in the People’s Daily Global Edition confirms the worst prejudices and fears of the majority of the Chinese people and has a greater impact on the attitudes and opinions of Chinese than one hundred reports in the Western media. This editorial, written for a Chinese audience, elicits sympathy for the young Tibetans who killed themselves by depicting them as simple, innocent pawns in an international conspiracy to split Tibet off from the Motherland. In contrast to the laughable attempts at “journalism” that are China’s English-language defense of its policies in Tibet, this editorial is written in smooth, convincing prose. If you had no prior experience in Tibet, could not read English and harbored a suspicion that the West was out to undermine the Chinese state to begin with, then you could not help but believe every word written.

Tibetans gather at a monastery in Ganzi Prefecture

How could 20 year old nomad-monks know anything of politics, the article asks, and what could bring such promising young people to kill themselves as China and Tibet rise up from feudalism and backwardness and even now stand on the cusp of greatness? Only brainwashing could do such a thing, the article concludes, and a subversive, malicious distortion of the historical facts.

The irony is lost on the reader, because the reader is predominantly your average Chinese citizen, with his own distortions and brainwashings to deal with.

A culture diluted

First-hand accounts are few and far between. Hannah Beech was in and around Aba in November 2011, before the lockdown, and she has two passages worthy of reprint:

“I talk to a half-Han, half-Tibetan government official who grew up in Tawu. He is friendly and polite–and he wants me to know the real situation in his hometown. The Tibetans, he says, are greedy. The government gives them everything from preferential loans to new infrastructure, but still they want more. The Tibetan plateau’s lunar landscape is littered with clusters of houses the Chinese government built for nomads. Yet like some American real estate developments abandoned during the subprime-mortgage crisis, many of these houses in Kardze are empty. Few Tibetan nomads want to live in Chinese houses. The government worker does not understand it. They are nice houses, he says, much warmer in winter than a yak-wool tent. “If we were to give the Tibetans independence,” he says, “they would starve and have no clothes on their back.”

Unlike many Chinese communist bureaucrats who merely mouth the appropriate ideology, the Tawu cadre explains his position with conviction. The Dalai Lama and his sister, who escaped to India with him, are the ones orchestrating all the strife, he says, his voice rising in anger. “When the Dalai Lama dies,” he tells me, “all of China’s problems with the Tibetans will go away. Younger Tibetans are being educated in the proper way, so they won’t cause much trouble.”


“When I visited Dharamsala recently, I met Tsewang Dhondup, a trader from Kardze who fled his homeland after the 2008 unrest. That year, riots between Tibetans and Han led to deaths on both sides. The Chinese military’s reaction to further rallies by Tibetans left some 150 dead, according to exile estimates. Dhondup was shot while trying to help a monk who later died of bullet wounds. wanted signs with Dhondup’s picture were posted in his village, but friends took him by stretcher high into the mountains. Maggots infested his wounds. Dhondup lived for 14 months on the edge of a glacier before escaping to India. His audience with the Dalai Lama, he says, was the most treasured moment of his life. But even he predicts that “once the Dalai Lama is gone, Tibet will explode.”

Nuns in Ganzi Prefecture

These two passages help to show a bit of the complexity when dealing with the Tibetan regions. However, most of the Western media re-hashes Radio Free Asia reports with a few quotes from Robert Barnett or Stephanie Brigden and excerpts from English-language Xinhua. The reports are often formulaic and boring—hence the increasingly uninspiring headlines.

Even sincere attempts to uncover the truth can only probe around from the edges, such as the Financial Times report from Qinghai and a recent New York Times article on the Dalai Lama’s hometown. Articles such as these also point to the complex realities on the ground, which involve not just religion and sovereignty, but money and, for many Han settlers, freedom. The Tibetans are not besieged as much as infiltrated. Many Tibetans leave for India or elsewhere because their home is slowly being overrun by people who care little for traditional Tibetan values; for those left behind, desperation can quickly become overwhelming despair. Chinese in general know nothing of this.

The Tibetan regions hold a lot of promise for ambitious men looking to cash in on tourism, construction, natural resources and other industries. Most of the region resembles a wild west frontier lacking in basic amenities. There are no malls or high-rises, no luxury residential areas and little in the way of infrastructure. The highway from Chengdu to Lhasa is lined with restaurants staffed by farmers from the lowlands of Sichuan looking for a way out of poverty; graduates from China’s teacher universities can find work and better pay in the Tibetan regions, as can doctors, mechanics, DVD salesman, pimps and regular laborers. In a country seething with development, the Tibetan regions and the far west deserts of Xinjiang represent opportunity and above all Lebensraum.

We can look to the US in the 1800s for a perfect parallel. The concept of Manifest Destiny and the power of the railroad and the telegraph overrode any sincere attempts by the East Coast liberal establishment to protect the rights of the Native Americans. The Natives were destroyed, tribe after tribe, and what remains of their culture is barely a shadow of what once was. Even had their been foreign reports on the atrocities and oppression of the American state during the 1800s, would any settler have listened?

Similarly, how many non-Chinese believe the line of bull the CCP feeds us about a separatist clique run by an evil monk brainwashing young innocents to kill themselves even as the benevolent Communist Party improves livelihoods, protects religious freedom and cherishes local traditions and culture? Not many. Yet the problem is and always has been that the choir needs no convincing, the settler does.

A Tibetan Spring?

The unfortunate truth is that the more the West pokes its nose into Tibet, the worse it will get for the Tibetans. The CIA interference in Tibet during the 1950s is well documented and has tainted all efforts by well-meaning foreigners to improve the plight of the Tibetans and stave off a repeat of European-style imperialism. Westerners feel the guilt of past crimes and hope to amend and perhaps teach others to avoid the same mistakes, but Chinese see foreign interference in a domestic affair – another leftover from history – and an attempt to keep China from walking the same path toward greatness that every other nation once walked. History is on China’s side.

One of the English-language editorials from the People’s Daily includes a flippant, nonchalant tipping of the cards:

“As long as China remains stable as a whole, the specific problems in the border areas can be kept under control. We should have faith in this.  We should also avoid being impatient. It is not us, but people like the aging Dalai Lama who should worry.  As long as we accept the reality that some incidents are inevitable in parts of Chinese society, including Tibet and Xinjiang, much of the air attached to Dalai Lama’s political power will be squeezed out.”

We can wait, says the Party. We can wait as long as it takes and you cannot.

The problem with this thinking is that the CCP actually believes the Dalai Lama is behind all of this. They cannot even begin to think that a grassroots movement can happen without instigators, leaders or outside money. While Tibetans are slowly convincing themselves and the rest of the world that they are willing to die for their beliefs and their culture, the Chinese state patiently waits for the death of a leader and an end to resistance.

Resistance will most likely grow even more desperate once the Dalai Lama dies. But if the Tibetans rise up in arms, they will get summarily crushed. When the region first rose up to fight the invading Chinese in the 1950s, the Tibetans scored a few victories. Using the terrain and the support of the population, small bands of rebels were able to ambush and destroy large columns of Chinese troops. But as soon as the Chinese were able to concentrate artillery and air power on the rebels, armed resistance ended.

A Tibetan nomad child in Ganzi Prefecture

Khampas in Ganzi Prefecture still talk of those days, when heroes took on insurmountable odds. But the results of that fight can be seen stitched across the face of an old man I met in Litang in 2007. The left side of his face was paralyzed and his head was covered in scars. The local cops – Tibetans and Han – beat him down one day for talking back, leaving him unable to speak and suffering from chronic headaches. As compensation they bought him a concrete house in the fields outside of Litang, where his wife and daughters take care of him.

He showed me a small black and white picture of a Khampa nomad above his fireplace. The picture is grainy and faded, but the man in the photo is clearly a warrior. His rifle is propped against his heel and his massive dagger is as long as his arm. His chupa is lined with yak fur and his braids jingle across time. He is short and he wears a bemused tilt to his warrior expression. I imagine what happened before and after this picture was taken. The old man’s daughter spoke up: “My father says he fought with Rara when he was a boy. No man was braver. He was a true Khampa warrior.” I looked over at the old man for confirmation and his eyes shone through the dim lights left behind by the beating and he broke into a wicked smile. In spite of myself, I stepped back from the lame old man in fear.

But crippled old men and legends do not a rebellion make.

Today the Tibetans have no access to modern weapons, cannot hide from modern armies, cannot rely on a divided and fearful population and cannot expect any nation to come to their aid. If the Dalai Lama dies and the bloodshed intensifies, then we may well witness the death of a major culture. No matter how valiant or determined the Tibetans may be, they are still no match for the military and demographic might of a superpower. Armed resistance is indeed futile.

Insecurity is the problem

The Tibetans regions weren’t always this violently opposed to Chinese rule. During the early 1980s, the situation was stable and relations were more or less friendly. It was the aftermath of 1989, when the Communist Party went hardline across the board, that helped fan the flames of rebellion. It is impossible to underestimate the impact that the 1989 Tiananmen Protests had on state policy. Under Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, reform was underway in almost all sectors of Chinese life, from the economy to politics to religion. There was a strong antipathy toward Cultural Revolution-style politics and rule – a style that revolved around denunciations, oppression and violent clashes between extreme political factions.

But after the demonstrations – which intensified after Li Peng’s infamous April editorial labeled them as anti-state and anti-Party – the hardliners in government squashed reform, especially in education and religion. Tibetans suffered. For the past 30 years, the government has been easing up on some aspects of life while maintaining a death grip on others. This helps to explain the schizophrenic approach to Sino-Tibetan relations in Qinghai and Sichuan that the Financial Times talks about, as well as to the Dalai Lama’s hometown: if the government can profit from tourism to the Dalai’s birthplace, then he is a good man; if Tibetans want spies out of their monasteries, then the Dalai is a convenient demon.

The aftermath of 1989 also explains both the West’s lack of impact concerning Tibet and the CCP’s DPRK-style response to criticism of its human rights record. Many Tiananmen activists ran away to the West after the crackdown and most foreign governments condemned China for bringing out the tanks to disperse the students. For the average Chinese, and especially the hardliners in the CCP, the activists are traitors and the foreign governments are intent on subversion. The government thus reacts like a scared mutt to any whiff of foreign interference in domestic affairs.

A Buddhist nun outside of Tagong, Ganzi Prefecture

Miscegenation is the answer

Chinese and Tibetans need to get to know each other without the interference of anyone – Western Free Tibet enthusiasts or Communist Anti-Splittist zealots. Tibetans have to get their message across to the Chinese majority, or flee abroad if they are to maintain their way of life. The FT.com report from Qinghai, which shows that a less violent and suppressive approach to Tibetan demands can maintain calm and create dialogue, provides a glimmer of hope. Once people start talking, they can find common ground. And once we establish common ground, we pave the way towards friendship … and more.

It might very well be that infiltration of Tibet is the best thing that can happen for the Tibetans, if they want to survive into modernity with their identities intact. The more Chinese who travel to Tibetan regions and find their misconceptions challenged, like those Han journalists in Jiuzhaigou, the better the chances are that the two peoples will find common ground.

And indeed it can happen. I once hitched a ride in a mail truck from Litang to Chengdu in 2007. It was a very long ride in the back of a very cold truck filled with mailbags and nothing else. Each time we hit a small bump, the mailbags and I would go airborne and there are 1.3 billion bumps between Litang and Kangding. In fact, that was what we talked about, when the drivers finally let me in the front seat.

Turns out one driver was Tibetan, married to a Han Chinese and the other was Han Chinese, married to a Tibetan. They complained for eleven straight hours about the roads in Ganzi prefecture and the dirty, low-down, rotten scoundrels that run the government and siphon off all of the funds. When I mentioned Han-Tibetan issues, they said,

Han Driver: “Yeah, there are some issues. Like see those bandits waving us down over there, trying to hitch a ride? I would never let those guys on the truck.”

Tibetan Driver: “Hell no we ain’t letting them in the truck”

HD: But all in all we common folk don’t have too many problems with each other. 

TD: Yeah, its the corrupt sons of dogs in government that we have problems with.

These two men seemed generally embarrassed when I mentioned ethnic tension. These guys spent days on the road together and often finished each others’ sentences. They’re best friends forever, each married to the ethnic “Other” – yet when nomadic Tibetans showed up in chaps and cowboy hats with thumbs extended, both had the same reaction:


And when discussing the perfidious government and the horrible Ganzi Prefecture roads, once again both had the same reaction:


Tibetans outside of Tagong, Ganzi Prefecture

Here in Chengdu, I play basketball with a bunch of Tibetans and Han, all tattooed rough looking dudes with gold teeth. They drive trucks filled with cargo back and forth from Chengdu to places like Batang, Litang and Seda, the heart of the resistance. One night we were all playing ball and a large group of Han Chinese guys showed up in suits and ties. They were there for a company sponsored game of basketball. These guys were the prototype nationalist Chinese, not fanatics, just good ole boys who love the flag and hate them a traitor.

When they saw a white boy and some Tibetans playing on “their” court, they uttered a few choice words under their breath. Immediately, one of the Chinese guys from our team yelled out a challenge. Win, the court is yours, lose and its ours. We won.

But during the match, the initial animosity turned into fierce competition and then eventually into mutual admiration for excellent play. We ended up sharing water bottles and playing several more games before the lights went out. Then we took the same elevators down and promised to meet again and play some more.

There is little chance that the Chinese government will ever stand down and relax. Recent moves to detain Tibetans returning from India and the arrest of a Tibetan writer tell us that Tibetans can expect more of the same from their government. Grassroots friendships are the key, but they can only have an impact if Han Chinese open their eyes to the truth happening all around them. Without a thorough soul searching that ends in a decisive affirmation of morality over might, then all of Tibet will go up in smoke, and we will soon see Chinese activists wandering the earth trying to make amends for past mistakes, just like we are now.



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11 Responses to Tibet: a world apart

  1. Alex P.
    February 26, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

    So wait- let’s take a second here. Did you really just call the Han/CCP policies in Tibet Lebensraum? As I understand it, lebensraum was a key component to the Nazi ideology, and it involved German acquisition of foreign lands to make room for the expansion of the “perfect” race…

    I mean, there’s most definitely some shady shit going on in Tibet, and the Tibetan people are struggling to maintain their identity and their cultural hold on the land as the Han make their claims on the “frontier”, but to equate what’s going on in Tibet to what happened in Europe in the 1930’s and ’40’s seems unfair at best, and downright offensive at worst. We’re talking about policies that walked hand in hand with the holocaust here.

    Care to elaborate there? Seems like a pretty heavy statement to make so casually.

    • Sascha
      February 27, 2012 at 7:23 am #

      Excellent point. Lebensraum was indeed a key component of Nazi ideology, and it did lead to millions of deaths. The idea itself basically means “living space” and for the Germans at the time, the old Prussian, Estonian, Latvian and Belorussian lands were actually “ex-German” … with many Germans living there at the time as well. Germany’s claim to those lands was not as strong as China’s claim to Tibet; and China’s claim on Tibet is not that strong either. It basically comes down to de facto.

      What I meant to show here is that Lebensraum in Germany, Manifest Destiny in the US and Develop the West in China are all very closely related in that they are ideological underpinnings and validations of a movement of people into an area they did not previously inhabit, although claim as their own. And of course each movement came at the expense of those that live there.

      We consider Lebensraum to be evil, because the Nazis LOST and their crimes were EXPOSED and PUNISHED. Manifest Destiny, on the other hand, is considered shameful (as opposed to downright evil) because the US WON and their crimes were EXPOSED but went UNPUNISHED.

      China is undoubtedly aware of Manifest Destiny, hence the passage in the Global Times:

      “As long as China remains stable as a whole, the specific problems in the border areas can be kept under control. We should have faith in this. We should also avoid being impatient. It is not us, but people like the aging Dalai Lama who should worry. As long as we accept the reality that some incidents are inevitable in parts of Chinese society, including Tibet and Xinjiang, much of the air attached to Dalai Lama’s political power will be squeezed out.”

      • Roger
        February 28, 2012 at 6:10 am #

        That is an interesting way of looking at the implications of Manifest Destiny and Lebensraum, Sascha. I can’t say that I completely agree, though, as the scale and purpose of the two nationalistic campaigns seems so very different.

        To my mind, the American massacre of the Native Indian tribes rings out more of *ignorance and fear* than *calculation and hatred*. And I by no means mean to defend the Westward expansion of the US as it unfolded at the expense of the indigenous peoples- I only mean to say that history has treated the two crimes against humanity in a different way because they were, well, different.

        Both campaigns did have a very similar result, though: the expansion of an empire at the expense of those unfortunate enough to stand in their way and not have the means to defend themselves from the attacks against them and their cultures. This result seems most likely what will continue to happen in Tibet.

        It is unclear, however, how exactly history will judge the Chinese government for its actions- that of course depends on many things, not the least of which being exactly what course the CCP decides to take in the coming years and decades in terms of their Tibetan policy.

        I will reiterate a point I made when introducing this piece: let us hope, at the very least, for minimal violence and bloodshed. Additionally, let us hope, at the very most, for the endurance of the Tibetan people and their admirable way of life. It is a shame when anything passes, no matter the cause.

        • Sascha
          February 28, 2012 at 8:32 am #

          Hey Roger,

          most people lump Nazi ideology into one big evil pot. No real objections here … but Lebensraum (Living Space) is not the same as the Endlosung (Final Solution) that led to the Holocaust. Lebensraum as an idea is no different from Manifest Destiny. When the Nazi Party became obsessed with the Final Solution, that’s when evil truly reared its head over Europe. Until then it was just your average nationalist tyranny.

          And lets not forget that the Natives were and still are on reservations, were hunted down, forced to relocate, sent on forced marches, massacred, infected with germs and other planned and not so planned atrocities … all in the name of America’s 19th century version of Lebensraum.

          I think China is very far from Nazism’s Final Solution style descent into madness, but not that far from America’s “justified” expansion across an undeveloped, yet resource rich landmass.

          The situation in Tibet is much more complex than either, I would say, due to 2000 years (at least) of contact between the two peoples, both positive and negative. The general populace can and does get along well, as long as the extremists on all sides stay in their caves.

  2. Charlie
    February 27, 2012 at 6:14 am #

    This topic leads to a depressing conclusion but you do it justice and tell it like it is. Nice post.

    • Sascha
      February 27, 2012 at 9:50 am #

      depressing only if you want Tibet to remain a nomadic paradise as the rest of the world marches on … I conclude that Tibetans and Chinese in general have much in common, are able to overcome ethnic issues and in my experience are even eager to do so … the West needs to stay out so the CCP can relax. That is probably the best solution.

  3. Tabitha
    March 2, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    Hey Sascha,
    This reminds me of Obama’s recent toil with Congress over the Libya issue…did the West really need to stay out, or did it need to invade in order to prevent an even more catastrophic human crisis? Will the US ever need to make such a call on Tibet?

    • Roger
      March 2, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

      Seems unlikely to me, at this point, that the US would ever make a move like that. Such a statement by the American gov’t would require a significant instigation of violence on the part of the CCP first, I would think. And it seems unlikely that the CCP will ever need to use such force, or that the US would have the cards to play if it ever did become the case.

      I’ll leave the rest of the argument to Sascha, though- he’s a man of many thoughts.

    • Sascha
      March 2, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

      I’m glad you brought this up. The United States … supported … Arab Spring is exactly what the Chinese government fears.

      In Egypt, seven Americans are being held by the government there on charges that they conspired to bring down the government of Hosni Mubarak – The US government has said that they will deny 1.5billion USD in support if the seven aren’t released. Strong response for ostensibly innocent aid workers …

      In Syria, on the ground observers have reported that the rebels seem to be highly organized and well-equipped mercenaries, which plays into the Syrian government’s (and Russia and China’s views) that the rebellion there is supported by outside forces.

      It is entirely likely that the US uses proxies and infiltrators to help topple governments in the Middle East, while reporting to the public at home that the US is bombing tyrannies in the name of democracy. Based on past US actions in Latin America, Africa, Asia and at home, I find it hard to believe the rosy picture of benevolent American might liberating the oppressed masses.

      And in answer to your question, no. The US will never fight for Tibet because China is not Libya and the Tibetan plateau holds no easily obtained resources. Democracy has nothing to do with it.


  1. Hao Hao Report - February 25, 2012

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    […] media. An old friend and long time Sichuan resident, Sascha Matuszak, has provided us all with his take on the Tibetan problem in light of the recent unrest, the ultimate takeaway of which may well be this: that no matter how […]

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