Last Days of Empire


Reflections on a visit to Vienna at the invitation of SaveTibet, and a talk given at Universitet fur Bodenkultur, 11 April 2011, by Gabriel Lafitte

Here in Vienna, as always, the situation is critical but not yet serious. On the surface all is well, the heurigen (wine bars) do a roaring trade, even if they had to move from Grinzing, overrun with tourists, to the foothills further out, still authentically below the vine covered slopes. The waitresses in their dirndln (traditional skirts) serve spritzer (wine and mineral water) and massive slabs of schnitzel; all is well, if not positively gemutlich. Vienna, like London, dines off its heritage, a brand that does not tarnish like silver plate wearing thin, but somehow adds value by feeding on itself.
But it was Vienna’s Karl Kraus, a century ago, who so famously said the situation here in Vienna is critical but not yet serious, as an ironic rebuke to a seriously modern Prussian, concerned to alert and alarm his readers by gravely reporting that the situation was indeed serious but not yet critical.

For Tibetans, the situation is always critical, but not serious. It is critical for a thousand obvious reasons: China’s repression, arrogance and racist cruelty are suffocating Tibet, leaving no public space for Tibetan culture to have any life of its own. China’s repressive invasion of the private sphere, its insistence on humiliating sincere Buddhist practitioners by demanding they denounce their guru, the exemplar of enlightened mind, leaves even the private space of the mind invaded by state power. So the situation is critical, and has long been so, and if anything in 2011 is worse than ever.

Yet it is not serious. Tibetans have deep inner strengths enabling them to survive anything, withstand the most extreme pressures, very seldom yielding to despair or rage. Anger consumes those who experience it. Grief is a more authentic response. The inner strengths of Tibetans enable them, like water, to flow round obstacles, unstoppably. This is the fluidity, flexibility and adaptability of the Tibetans, an asset in all situations but especially when faced with unreflexive, ingrained, racist arrogance.

This is truly remarkable. I find this particularly amazing here in Vienna, my mother’s home town where I am an occasional visitor, my family having scattered as far as Australia, Viennese Jews escaping the Nazis. The permanent state of rage of the Jews, the collective outrage and righteousness, in response to persecution was once necessary. But now it has long outlived any useful purpose. Now it only blinds the Israelis to the damage they so counterproductively inflict on the Palestinians. That’s a classic instance of the situation forever being serious, verging on the critical, a rationale for drastic measures to collectively punish the Palestinians yet again for not somehow evaporating.

Assessing, rating, ranking this situation and that as serious but not yet critical is an obsession of our times. It is the foundation of project management. All development projects require a problem, to which a technical solution is then found. It constructs a neat hierarchy of situations to be categorised, on a sliding scale. The logic of the sliding scale, from success at one end to crisis at the other, depends on isolating, defining and elaborating on problems. The concept of the problem is the driver of modernity.

It leads always towards danger, towards the temptation to write off this situation, that place, as doomed, a failed state, an outbreak of anarchy, chaos, collective madness, or irrational fundamentalism. It is the most extreme form of them and us. We are the rational observers, with our carefully calibrated scale of freedom through to unfreedom, transparency through to utter corruption, mature democracy through to anarchic failure. Labelling those struggling to deal with their confusions and contradictions as critical, enables us to call in the air strikes, to reach for the military as a legitimate solution to messy human problems.

China routinely perceives the situation in Tibet as serious, sliding towards the critical. Everything about Tibet, through Chinese eyes, is problematic, hard to manage, unpredictable, unfamiliar, uncanny, disturbing, even the air that is so thin that each breath could be your last. That is what Chinese fear.

Yet China, at an official public level, says it does have solutions. Even more remarkably, it says there is one solution to all the problems of Tibet. In its 12th Five-year Plan for Tibet, for 2011-15, China says explicitly that development is the solution to all Tibetan problems. I am tempted to ask a naïve question: if development is the solution, then what is the problem?

Tibet and Tibetans are high on the list of what can and does go bad, and can threaten China’s ascent to the blissful god realms. In the imaginations of the Chinese elite, Tibet is all liability, with no prospect of ever becoming an asset. Tibet can only hold China back, blow up in China’s face, humiliate China all over again on the eve of the Olympic triumph. Tibet, in capitalist terms, is a cost centre, forever requiring expensive interventions to maintain China’s dominance, with little realistic prospect of paying its way through profitable copper mining.

This is a bad position, even disastrous, a hardening of Chinese elite attitudes that closes Chinese minds. The Tibetans have become one of the criminal tribes of China, much as the British Raj declared certain Indian tribes to be inherently and collectively criminal by nature. Suddenly, Tibetans in China, even educated, sophisticated Tibetans used to dealing skilfully with Chinese language, customs and people, now find themselves treated with suspicion, fear and contempt.
This is bad, as the Dalai Lama very quickly discerned as soon as the March 08 uprising, a heartfelt outpouring of grief, of tears held in too long, burst into the open. He immediately recognised this natural and inevitable outpour as disastrous for negotiations, for any prospect of mutual respect and trust.

Does this mean we are at an impasse, a dead end, where nothing is possible, as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is the future only more pain, more incomprehension?

That could easily happen, but we are not helpless. What we can do, more than before, ius to enter into the minds of the Chinese elite, see their hopes and fears. That is the historic task of the present moment. Only if we learn to fully see the world thriough their eyes, will we see where Tibet fits into the innumerable opportunities and threats they see ahead. Only if we map their minds can we see how and why China has created the opposite of eveything it ever hoped for in Tibet. By tracing the unacknowledged underside of Chinese thought and emotion can we see how we got here, how it is possible that, in the name of harmony, stability and development, China has in reality strengthened Tibetan nationalism.

By tracking the deeply unskilful Chinese imperial project in Tibet we discover how both nations, the Chinese and the Tibetans, have arrived at this painful divergence; and we discern the trend, and the likely future is the present trajectory continues. This is all big-picture, long term stuff, offering no quick solutions, no breakthroughs. But it does mean we are alert to opportunities to shift the debate, to reframe it, as causes and conditions arise. That has always been how Tibetans dealt with their much bigger Chinese neighbour. That is how minister Gar won Princess Wen Cheng from her father, the emperor of China, to marry the Tibetan king. It is the Tibetan capacity for being clear minded, grounded, earthy and quick witted that wins in the end, at the crucial moment of testing. That is what turns minds, in the brief moment when minds can be turned. From Minister Gar to Phagpa Lama at the court of Kubilai Khan, this is a long tradition. It begins with knowing the mind of your opponent, entering fully into the mindset of those who are your obstacle.

China’s elite are, as the Dalai Lama has often said, unconfident. This is hardly surprising, since their wealth accumulation, their dream of China 2.0, depends on keeping hundreds of millions of Chinese workers and peasants powerless, impotent, poor and unable to claim a share of the wealth monopolised by the rich. The party-state is a hybrid machine of oppression of the masses, a dictatorship that has lost the trust of the people.

The legitimacy of the party-state has eroded; the number of popular protests to be crushed by force grows every year. Everyone knows the party-state elite are greedy, corrupt, rent-seeking, monopolistic, uncaring of popular welfare, indifferent to the health or education of the masses. The older generation, who made sacrifices to build socialism, have been discarded. In the boom city of Shenzhen a former soldier who worked in the 1980s to build Shenzhen, to turn rice fields into a city of commerce, told a German political scientist: “We all feel we have been excluded from society. We built up Shenzhen, but society has forgotten us. We don’t have much education or a lot of hope. We are extremely unhappy with the state of society. The Party used to be our sun; now it is corrupt, like the Kuomintang. We ex-soldiers are just too upright; that’s why we haven’t gotten rich”1

Anyone able to talk freely with ordinary Chinese people finds these sentiments repeated a thousand fold, a million fold.
No longer is it believable that the central leaders want everyone to be wealthy, that, as Deng Xiaoping said in the 1980s, let a few get rich first, so wealth can trickle through to everyone. That was 30 years ago, more than a generation, and the poor are still poor, even if the parity-state has magically erased poverty by redefining it.

The new rich justify their kleptocracy, crony capitalism, cartels and monopolies, their exclusive access to capital and power by their collective disdain for the masses. The contempt for the ordinary Chinese is crystallised in the elite theory of suzhi, or quality. The masses lack the qualities needed for modernity, for participating as equals in the nation building enterprise, they lack the human capital formation, the education needed to succeed in business. Democracy is out of the question when the masses are so backward, a drag on China’s progress. The only knowledge that is valuable these days is what you can learn by doing a Masters of International Business in a Western university. That is sophisticated knowledge; it enables you to acquire a high level of suzhi, to become an advanced person in every way, qualified to be part of the party-state elite of rapid wealth accumulation.

Tibet is part of this dualistic division of the Chinese world into the advanced and the backward, the central and the remote, rich and poor, high and low quality, the scientific and the superstitious. Each side of the dual divide has many attributes; each is a full-blown stereotype.

This dualism has extreme edges. At one extreme are the educated elite, the bringers of the new knowledge economy which will in future transcend China’s present role as world factory. These new builders of China’s comprehensive national power see themselves as the peak of human evolution, exemplary ultra moderns, bearers of suzhi and all that is civilised and progressive. At the other extreme are those who are dirty, violent, criminal, remote, poor, backward, superstitious, uncommercial, ungrateful and ignorant. Every one of those adjectives is routinely applied to the Tibetans, in the minds of the Chinese elite.

The inevitable result of this contempt is the rise and rise of Tibetan nationalism. China is creating what it most fears, just as it nears the threshold of the god realms. At the very time China glimpses the peak of Mount Olympus, realm of the gods, it unskilfully sows the seeds of its own undoing.

Perhaps this nexus of creation and destruction, of success and failure, is inevitable. Certainly it is historically common that great nations undo themselves from within, setting in motion the very energies they least desire. Buddhists have always told us we set ourselves up for the unintended consequences of our short sighted decisions; that our sufferings arise exactly out of our attempts at attaining happiness. Economists call this the law of “perverse outcomes”.

Historically we need not look far to see great powers undoing themselves by misguided actions that seemed wise at the time. Russia’s disastrous intervention in Afghanistan, followed by America’s, are clear examples. Likewise America’s war against the very Pakistani militants America used to arm and train to fight against Soviet power in Afghanistan. The US and the government of Pakistan are reaping now what they sowed 20 years ago.

A closer parallel with the China Tibet situation might be the declining decades of the Habsburg Empire, a land empire in the heart of Europe that has so completely vanished it is hardly remembered, yet 100 years ago it seemed a glorious, long-lived and successful multi-ethnic empire with plenty of life. In 1909, anyone who predicted that within a decade the entire empire would crumble would have been thought insane. Yet it happened, and the cause was what we now see in Tibet.
The dominant power in the Habsburg Empire were the Austrians, among them my mother and her family, who did well out of plundering the forests of newly conquered Balkan territories of the empire. The Austrians, in the 19th century, German speakers, saw themselves, as the Chinese do today, as the bearers of a universal civilisation, bringing modernity, development and enlightenment to the lesser peoples under their control, such as the Czechs, Slovaks, Italians, Poles, Slovenians, Croats, Serbs, Hungarians, Rumanians and more. Through the 19th century and into the 20th, Germanic nationalism grew ever more arrogant and exclusive; and those who felt excluded and denigrated grew, in turn, their own exclusive nationalism, their own exclusive history, national myths of identity and origin, and their own pantheon of nationalist heroes.

For decades, it seemed the Habsburgs managed skilfully the rising demands of its multicultural, multi-ethnic empire spread across central and Eastern Europe. Until, quite suddenly, it fell apart, creating a dozen new nations which, by the 21st century, became even more numerous as the former Yugoslavia fell apart.

The Austrians, in 1907, the year my mother was born, were in the god realm, inheritors of the Holy Roman Empire, the conceit that somehow imperial Rome had lived on, right into the modern era, under the benevolent but autocratic rule of the Habsburg dynasty. The haughty rituals of the Habsburg court, so well depicted in the novels of Joseph Roth, insulated the rulers from real knowledge of how fragile their power was.

My mother, born in Vienna into a prosperous family of timber merchants who had bought their way into minor nobility, could have had no idea that by the age of 10 or 11 the entire Habsburg empire would be dust. Nothing in 1907 suggested that an empire that had lasted centuries could crumble from within, as well as be defeated militarily. Habsburg minority ethnicity policy was well established, the formulas for containing minority nationalism well rehearsed.

At Schonbrunn Palace the emperor diligently sat at his desk in his arbeitszimmer, (work room) signing documents from morning to night, receiving the latest military intelligence from his aide-de-camp in an adjoining room still today signified by maps on the wall, compass and callipers to measure a day’s march for troops to be despatched to quell a minority rebellion.
But, as Joseph Roth’s novels devastatingly show, it was all a show, all smoke and mirrors. The mighty Egyptoid obelisk in the Schonbrunn gardens designed to manifest the might and majesty of the Habsburg family dynasty is plastered (literally) with Egyptian hieroglyphs that took the fancy of the designer, utterly meaningless and random, since the language of the hieroglyphs had not been deciphered. The Roman ruins nearby are not only utterly ersatz, a confection of contrived ancientness made all too obviously of brick, again plastered to create in render a surface of Roman gods and voluptuaries. This instant ruin, built so artfully in the late 18th century, complete with plants growing in the cracks, by the early 21st century was no longer picturesque, looking instead so utterly ruinous it had to be stripped back, revealing the bricks, and the staging. Today’s curators seem unsure whether to restore the trompe l’oeil rendering, making the ruins both a sublime romantic picturesque once more and part of the back-story of the Holy Roman Empire.

To the end of his long reign as both King of the Hungarians and Kaiser of everyone else in the empire (a brilliant piece of minzu politik),[minority ethnicity policy] Franz Joseph dutifully said his prayers every day, lay in his simple single bed after his beloved wife was assassinated by Italian anarchists, and continued to rule as if nothing much ever changed.
Today Schonbrunn continues as before, doing whatever it takes, staging a memorial concert for Michael Jackson, dressing children as princesses for the photo shoot. It is no different to adding the youthful Mozart retrospectively to a painting of a great ceremonial gathering even though he wasn’t there, being a child of four at the time. But icons attract magnetically, he has to be in the picture, anachronism notwithstanding.

Empires exist by such devices, by projecting themselves as imagined communities belonging to the one emperor. If the masses believe, it exists, when the masses cease to believe, it crumbles.

The same Habsburg law which found it useful, for reasons of state, to tolerate Jews and Protestants in an overwhelmingly Catholic Austria, at the same time dissolved Catholic monasteries that were dedicated solely to contemplative religious life. The higher loyalty of the contemplatives to an immanent god, was deemed a threat to the utilitarian state.

Empires, Habsburg or Chinese, seem secure until they fall, only revealing their weaknesses, strains, contradictions and absurdities afterwards. Yet at the imperial centre, those in charge are often insecure, even frightened, haunted by ghosts of a past not properly dealt with, jumping at shadows. Both the Habsburgs and the Chinese Communist Party felt especially threatened by the depth of inner experience of the mystics, of those who go inwards to discover in lived experience what is the nature of reality, far beyond the petty ambitions opf political power.

China is haunted by the spectre of democracy, even of the possibility of revolution from below. Having seized power by revolution, the last thing the Communist Party wants is another revolution, and is willing to take all measures necessary to stifle any alternative to its monopoly on power.

It is this repressiveness that breeds its own downfall, that in the long run strengthens the resistance, the determination, against all odds, to retain a separate identity untainted by party-state agendas. The Habsburgs unwittingly fuelled Hungarian, Czech, Slovak and Polish nationalisms, and many more as well, by insisting on the superiority and special rights of the German speakers. Likewise, China sows the seeds of its ultimate defeat by the very policies it considers necessary to prevent dissent from gaining even one gulp of oxygen.

But China cannot make the mystic tantrikas, the inner ones, go away by persecuting monks and forcing them to spit on their guru, even if in Tibetan tradition denouncing one’s guru is considered worse than murdering one’s parents. China has devised a mental torture especially calculated to break Tibetans, to shatter their innermost being, yet Tibetan resistance grows and grows, no matter what the cost.

China cannot make Tibetan identity dissolve into the assimilationist “harmonious” homogeneity of the Han. The more repressively China cracks down on Tibetans, the more it reveals its mistrust of almost every Tibetan, the more naked its racist contempt for Tibetans becomes, the stronger Tibetan nationalism grows. A decade ago, in order to ensure there was no possibility China could dissolve, as did the Soviet Union, a new official doctrine was very quietly declared by the Communist Party. High level inner party debates in the 1990s crystallised into a slogan, of which only the first half was mentioned in public: jiakuai jingji fazhan, danhua minzu wenti. This slogan exhorts the speeding up of economic development, but with the secret corollary, to downplay the national question. The latter half of the slogan was strictly neibu, for party insiders only. China badly wants to downplay the national question, hoping the time has come when it no longer has many nations, many peoples, within its borders, only ethnic groups well along on the path to assimilation.
But Tibet is stuck in China’s throat, like a fishbone that can be neither swallowed nor spat out, a painful situation for both bone and throat. Tibet is more than ever an irritant, forever threatening to blow up unpredictably, as it did in 2008, never again to be silenced even by beating dissidents to death, as happens routinely.
The new formula of danhua minzu wenti, downplaying nationality questions, is the key to China’s renewed reliance on a one-size-fits-all policy of development and industrialisation as the solution to all problems. But if development answers everything, what is the problem? The problem is that China sees problems everywhere, yet its attempts to deal with them are scounter-productive, perverse, full of unintended consequences because they are so heavy handed and unskilful. By breaking Tibet up into myriad problems, China fails to see the big picture: that the Tibetans are unhappy, frustrated and mistrustful, after decades of being treated as barbaric primitives. China mistakenly thinks it can create an industrialised, developed Tibet where everyone lives in basic material comfort and will therefore be happy. This is delusional, even self-destructive, creating the very counter nationalism China seeks so urgently to defuse. The situation is serious, urgent and close to critical, so force is the only answer. Tibetans are no longer fooled by China’s smoke and mirrors, by rhetorics of China’s benevolence and Tibetan ingratitude. China’s staging of its superiority is already a hieroglyphic mess, a set of meaningless slogans which, by endless repetition in official speeches, lose their last shreds of meaning.

If China studied the decades of Habsburg decay, while Kaiser Franz Joseph so dutifully sat at his desk, utterly out of touch with ground truth, signing document after document bearing no relation to reality, it might learn. If Tibetans study the decline and fall of the Habsburgs, the rise and rise of Hungarian, Polish, Slovak, Croatian and Serb nationalisms, they might find a familiar sight. They might recognise an imperial elite unskilfully bringing about the conditions for its’ own collapse. The situation is critical, but not serious, because the inner strengths of Tibetan culture, grounded in the access to ultimate reality of the inner ones, can always outlast all repression.

1Thomas Heberer. Relegitimation through new patterns of social security: Neighbourhood communities as legitimating institutions, The China Review, vol 9 #2, 2009, 99-128