First, let’s look at China and Tibet, next – if you manage to stay with me, why even bother thinking of such things.
I’m no fan of the Chinese Communist Party or their Government. But when it comes to the Peoples’ Republic of China and Tibet, I increasingly believe the world is unfair to them. Look at history, NOT just Chinese government propaganda about Tibet, but others’ historical sources – Mughal Indian, British and European, Arab, Turk, and even Tibetans own records, the region’s history is far more contentious than the simplified version we are given.
I don’t want to excuse clear and obvious Chinese repression of religious and ethnic minorities. It happens and is reprehensible. But even the Dali Lama admits the historical complexities here and wants to be an influence for peace between both sides, if we study his words carefully. When it comes to the invasion of Tibet, it’s a far more complex case than people make it out. There is something else at work, in our culture..
I suspect part of it is a general esteem of Buddhism and Buddhists and an idealization, a projection onto them and their civilizations and cultures the case of an ideal in the face of our own history and religious ambiguities in the West. There is a culture wide, particularly in liberal-progressive, ecologically oriented, well read White middle and upper middle classes (what some in the blogosphere call the “SWPL” crowd) idealization of Buddhists and I think this causes an emotional predisposition to Tibet
Point: China not only has valid historical claims to Tibet, but at many points in history – even in the early 20th century – Tibetans were actually aggressors into Chinese territory, there was early 20th century invasion of Chinese territory by Tibetan forces, in the wake of chaos after the 19th century Chinese Boxer rebellion and other civil wars (including a Saudi clan influenced Wahhabi rebellion that bitterly divided millions of Chinese Muslims – previously not only loyal but honored and model religious minorities in China – influencing later Chinese repressions against Muslims to this day. By irony, one of the greatest Chinese generals who fought one of these Tibetan aggressions was a Muslim loyalist who fought against his Wahhabi co-religionists. A story for another day..)
People’s skepticism regarding China and Tibet I think is both a result of historical ignorance, systematic well financed propaganda, and an artifact of the massive romanticizing of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, going back to Blatavsky’s Theosophy (whose Victorian age popularity was among very similar liberal-progressive, highly intellectual, elements in Anglo-American society as currently find the mystique of Tibet attractive today. This is no insult, only an observation)
Tibet was by no means always innocent in these matters, even going back as far as the 8th century they were as opportunistic as everyone else in the region. Example; in the reign of Umar II Tibet was an ally with the Arabs against Tang China. After the death of Qutayba in one season the Tibetans back-stabbed the Arabs, allied themselves with the Buddhist Tugrish Turks, and expelled the Arabs from much of central Asia. THEN Tang China allied themselves with the Arabs, and both mounted a counter offensive. Later Tibet, again opportunistically, re-allied themselves with the Arabs for other reasons.
This is but one historical example, many more can be found with ease. The point being they were and are as opportunistic as everyone else in the region. Forming and breaking alliances, and prior to their final conquest by Communist China freely invading, making war upon, or being invaded in turn by everyone in the region, as circumstances dictated it.
China had, and has, its reasons; my distaste for their government doesn’t stop me from pointing out there reasons have validity. Tibet is made into a poster child and this stops critical thinking and – god forbid- people actually reading history for a moment or two.
All Civilizations jockey for power and influence, Tibet’s civilization is no exception and at times has displayed a Machiavellian ingenuity in its machinations exceeding even the Chinese (if possible) and the Chinese, in the modern era, had real reasons for doing what they did in China. Besides no one whines about what the Chinese did in East Turkestan, which arguably was far more severe than what they did in Tibet.
The PRC’s propaganda about Tibetan human rights, prior to Chinese rule, has real truth to it. The ruling Tibetan Buddhist leadership and landowners did horrible things to their own religious and ethnic minorities, even up to the 1940s. There are some rather horrific photos, if you look hard enough. Much was commented on or at least mentioned in passing by non-Chinese explorers and writers, some very well disposed to Tibet. As for the Tibetan and Nazi flirtation, that’s a story for another day (and is far more nuanced and complex than most writers present it…)