Glue ear, and the one-eyed camera gaze


#4 in a series on THE FUTURE OF TIBET

Why are Tibetans so unhappy? Why have 70 Tibetans burned their bodies in protest? Is it possible to understand this solely as a question of religious repression and individual rights?

China’s policies are failing to meet China’s own goals of creating a harmonious society, secure borders, ethnic unity and Party legitimacy. The agenda of a new generation of central leaders is to find more appropriate policies, epitomised by new slogans, now that the failing slogans of “harmonious society” and “scientific development” can be retired with the older generation who made them their core campaigns.

Tibetans are telling central leaders they have failed in Tibet. Their voices are clear and can no longer be silenced, even with the most intensive and intrusive deployment of all the coercive technologies available, harsh prison sentences and resort to torture. As long as the Tibetan populace, whose home is one quarter of China’s land, remain unhappy, China’s goal of uninterrupted peaceful rise remains unfulfilled. All available information suggests that rising incomes will not resolve this mistrust, and that the more China intervenes in Tibet, the more Tibetan identity strengthens, in resistance. Put simply, China’s policy thrust is counterproductive. Instead of downplaying the ethnic question and erasing difference, which is the current policy, central policies, as experienced on the ground throughout Tibet, actually heighten ethnic awareness.

Under Hu Jintao, China experienced a decade likened by many to the Brezhnev years in the late USSR, a time of stagnation when basic reform was needed. Party Secretary and state President Hu, with years of direct experience of ruling central Tibet, was absolutely convinced that only force works in Tibet, and that he alone in the Politburo understood how to deal effectively with the unhappy Tibetans.

The result was that, while China prospered, Tibetans grew ever more estranged, alienated and frustrated. Although the official slogan for ruling Tibet was that development is the answer to all Tibetan problems, long term investments in development were always trumped by short term hard strikes against “splittist elements”. By insisting that the manifest unhappiness of the Tibetans is all a foreign plot, central leaders have learned a practiced deafness that bodes ill for the future. This carefully acquired, learned and rehearsed deafness is dangerous. The only voices central leaders hear are those of local leaders, whose advancement prospects and personal fortunes all depend on quelling the masses, reporting up the long chains of command that more money is needed to fully eliminate the pernicious foreign forces poisoning Tibetan minds. The deeply entrenched personnel management system within the Communist Party rewards hardliners and their security state mentality, shutting out other perspectives.

Persistent glue ear at the highest level is reinforced by the vertical hierarchies of the party-state, and an impoverished repertoire of responses, which reach quickly for state violence as the solution. The danger is that this is self-perpetuating, only deepening al alienation, distress and grief widespread among Tibetans, regularly expressed in protests and sacrificial burnings of selves. Even the frequency of the self-immolations has not yet prompted fresh thinking at the top.

A restart is needed. This is where those engaged with a globalised China can help.


A major source of Tibetan frustration is the 12 million lowland Han tourists swarming Lhasa each year, very few of whom ever have a meaningful conversation with a Tibetan. The pressure of endless strangers seeking photo opps is one element in the buildup that results in a distinctively Tibetan form of protest: burning the body.

Take three current Chinese meanings attached to different forms of mobility. The traditional mobility of the pastoral nomads of Tibet, the mobility of China’s rural migrants seeking urban factory work, and the mobility of China’s tourists celebrating their consumer modernity by touring Tibet, are all aspects of mobility, but with sharply differing meanings.

Pastoral mobility is seen negatively by central leaders as primitive, animalistic, unreliable and random. The mobility of rural migrants to the city factories is seen as a necessity, a precondition of modernity, but one to be carefully monitored lest the millions on the move become a danger to security and stability. The mobility of tourists en masse visiting Lhasa is regarded positively, as a manifestation of the new China, a consumer class with the money and confidence to spend rather than save, making themselves exemplary citizens by personally consuming the exotic spectacle available within China’s boundaries, patriotically imbibing the officially inscribed story of national identity and history.

Why should the mobility of nomads be bad, the mobility of rural migrants is necessary and the mobility of tourists be exemplary?

Tibetans are involved in all three mobilities, and see them quite differently. Tibetans have until very recently led mobile lives as the fundamental strategy for utilising the natural resources of the plateau by treading lightly, always moving on before exhausting the grasses of the alpine meadows. Tibetan nomads, now required to resettle in concrete blockhouses, and abandon animal husbandry, are officially expected to join the hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants migrating to factory work. Tibetans are objects of the tourist gaze, part of the product marketed to urban Chinese who, in their millions, take cheap, fast, pressurised trains to Lhasa to poke cameras at Tibetans on pilgrimage to holy places.

So Tibetans tend to see pastoral mobility as positive, productive and sustainable, a way of making the entire Tibetan Plateau, despite its extreme climate, humanly habitable. Tibetans see the rough behaviour of Chinese migrants far from their rural families, who come to the boom cities of urban Tibet, and are saddened at the price people must pay to get money. Tibetans see the twelve million tourists swarming over Lhasa as an endless tide of strangers who seldom connect with or talk with those they come to photograph. Tibetan writers, such as the essayist Woeser, express the frustration at this ignorant daily invasion of privacy by incurious visitors who want souvenirs such as being camera snapped astride a yak or with a smiling Tibetan child in Tibetan robes, even though there is no real human contact. This happens in even the holiest of pilgrimage places.

From the viewpoint of Tibetans, China’s central planners implementing nomad grazing bans, industrial workforce labour supply and mass tourism have assigned arbitrary values to these three kinds of mobility. Tibetans see the mobility of the pastoralists as skilful, productive, an intelligent adaptation to uncertainty and extreme climate, requiring careful risk management and a wealth of local knowledge. To say, as Chinese leaders do, that moving with the animals is primitive slavery to nature, and that civilisation begins with penning animals and bringing the feed to them, seems arbitrary, illogical, prejudiced and unnecessary. This is one example of how a fresh start could be made.

This series of blog posts synthesises the cumulative impact of the six decades of Chinese rule in Tibet. All aspects of China’s governance are assessed, providing a comprehensive overview of official policy and its implementation.
The emphasis is on the present, and the near future, as revealed in China’s plans for the Tibetan Plateau. Although this is not a work of history, past policies, especially those that failed, have continuing impacts, whether on the degradation of plateau pasture land, or on the trust between ruler and ruled, Han Chinese and Tibetans. Current governmentality has a lineage, which is outlined in this series, in an effort to explain ongoing problems.

This is a report card on 11 successive Five-Year Plans and their consequences, many of them unintended. It is a baseline study of the starting point for China’s new leaders, an accounting of the complex situation they inherit and must now work with. The new generation of central leaders inherit policies that may seem coherent on paper, but not to those most impacted by them. They come to power amid a tangle of contradictions, which require fresh thinking.

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