#2 in a series of three blogs on self-immolation and the roots of the blindness of China’s central leaders

The Tibetans are up against much more than the vestiges of Chinese communism. Modernity makes itself by its opposition to tradition, especially active, effective, transformative, traditions of enchantment. To be modern is to be disenchanted, to live in a relativist world of multiple truths, to individuate and find one’s unique self through consumption of mass products such as tourism and jeans. Tibetans may not have noticed the implicit promise of modernity to provide meaning in life, even as younger Tibetan exiles eagerly embrace global modernity in Woolwich Arsenal or Jackson Heights. The seductive appeal of modernity is that enables you to discover and realise the real you, the unique individual personality that yearns to express itself, usually through consumption. Modernity claims to meet not only basic but also the higher needs. This is what contemporary China is now determined to experience, severally and individually.

If one follows young migrant workers from the Chinese countryside to the factories where they work, and out to the urban shopping malls where they spend their earnings, “many of them went to the malls to experience modernity ‘visually.’ They learned from their peers or the media that clothes were a personal statement. ‘Wearing jeans makes you look taller and slimmer; they give you longer legs.’”[1] Some young workers, employed in a disco-bar, required by their employer to stand for eight hours straight, try to convince themselves they are ultramodern and cool: “In order to convey a carefree feeling to the customers, the workers had to convince themselves that life in the disco bar was trendy and cool. The waiters had to do the emotional work of ‘deep acting’ to sell individualism and carnival consumerism convincingly to customers. The bar managers recruited dancers from prestigious colleges of performing arts. For the customers and the staff, these dancers were an ‘MTV dream’ that had come true. They were dancing wildly, breaking away from tradition, and stepping into modernity. In the transition to modernity, life becomes ‘life projects.’ Rural workers start to contemplate the possibility of self-transformation. Not surprisingly, many urban myths encourage this. These myths can be seen as a narrative of their collective desire of metamorphosis. ‘I’ can become someone different.”[2]

If one attempt at self-transformation proves disappointing, there are many more choices available.  Many young Chinese take a Christian name, to experience “the pleasure of being a newly Westernized person. Having a new name in English gave the workers a sense of fluidity and flexibility.”[3] Tourism offers a similar possibility of individuation through exposure to the exotic otherness of Tibet. The tens of millions of Han Chinese tourists swarming over the key scenic spots of Tibet are doing more than discovering the modern category of “leisure.” Anthropologist Pal Nyiri describes the invention of modern tourism in China as a learning to copy the ways of the upper class, “All of a sudden, tourism gained prominence as a lifestyle attribute of the higher-income, urban population and began spreading. The state’s role, both administrative and pedagogical, in engineering this change cannot be overestimated. While the crucial 1998 decision to promote tourism was justified in terms of economic development, it coincided with the appearance of the term ‘leisure culture’ (xiuxian wenhua) in the government’s ‘civilisation campaigns’ as an attribute of the ‘modern and civilised citizen/bourgeois (shimin).’”[4]

Rising China is in the business of making life meaningful. China has taken on the full agenda of materialist modernity and its promise of enabling the unique you to realise itself. Tibetans are seldom seduced by this turn to reliance on ephemeral pleasures that are tinged with disappointment or fear of loss. To most Tibetans, material possessions as the root of happiness seem unreliable sources of abiding joy, compared to the examined life of discovering the capacities of a concentrated, lucid mind. Even Tibetans lacking overt training in discovering the nature of mind are seldom drawn to the treadmill of consumption as a meaningful purpose in life.

Tibetans are able to view the oversold promise of modernity dispassionately, since Buddhism offers a wider perspective. But Tibetans  may under-estimate modernity’s seductive hold on others. China’s party-state is in the business of offering transcendence, realisation, self-transformation, the discovery of a real, unique self. Tibetan Buddhism provides a pathway to self-transformation and realisation that freedom is liberation from belief in a unique self.

Both modernity and Buddhism are about the meaning of life, and the realisable quest for transformation. Tibetan Buddhists are especially confident that a deeply transcendent transformation is possible, in this lifetime, if undertaken with extraordinary focus, perseverance, discipline, periods of intensive retreat and much meditative introspection. Modernity endlessly seeks to persuade us that a new me, a complete makeover, is just a click away, a purchase away, perhaps a plastic surgery procedure away.

The Chinese Communist Party is thus convinced the Buddhism of Tibet  (far more than the depleted Buddhism of China) is a direct threat, a competitor for the hearts and minds of the Tibetans and perhaps Han Chinese as well. Tibetans will not find ways to undo this mindset until they face it, and undo the assumptions inherent in it.

The package that constitutes “religion” confines religion to the sacred, which is a private, subjective and highly personal realm that is opposite to the secular and profane realm of wealth accumulation and political power. Religion can be tolerated as long as it stays within those bounds, as a personally chosen set of beliefs that have no salience in the public sphere. Jason Ananda Josephson, reflecting on Japanese religion, says: “The word ‘religion’ is a fundamentally Eurocentric term that always functions, no matter how well disguised, to describe a perceived similarity to European Christianity.”[5] Religion, in this modern definition, is no longer a way of doing the world, of mindfully breathing every breath. It is hived off, as a discrete aspect of human experience, apart from daily life, unconnected with the economy. It is this enclosure of religion, relegated to inscrutable, subjective interiority, that the Chinese Communist Party relies upon, and rigidly polices. China’s party-state takes it as normal that the state can decide which religions to permit and which to forbid, which religious personnel are to be appointed as leaders of religious life, which rituals are to be used to verify the succession of leaders etc. In this, and many other matters, there is more to the party-state’s animus than  a hangover of revolutionary zealotry; it is an assertion of state power to command religion that has a long Chinese dynastic lineage, well over a thousand years.

All of this applies to religions seen as antithetical to modernity and China’s rise. This does not mean the party-state sees all religion as dangerous, or as a competitor. Party organs for the control of religion, notably the United Front Work Department, supposedly control all social forces outside the party, including not only all religions but also capitalist entrepreneurs as well. In reality, the party and the entrepreneurs work closely, and the party often turns to  the senior management of the biggest corporations for personnel to allocate to difficult political tasks such as governing problematic provinces. Similarly, protestant Christianity has become part of what it means to be modern, successful and global.

The party no longer has an elaborate ideology, as it did in the revolutionary decades, though Marxist concepts are still in use when they serve the dominance of the party.  Yet the party, through its compulsory slogans and mass campaigns offers China a set of propositions that add up to a promise of prosperity in return for the assent of the masses to ongoing party rule.  Much party dogma is packed into seemingly universal and uncontroversial concepts, such as scientific development, laws of history, raising human quality, ecological civilisation, to name a few current buzz phrases. So the party is in the business of winning minds with a set of beliefs about the present and the future. It sees itself as competing with the Tibetan Buddhists, in the marketplace of ideas, concepts, brands and loyalties.

The Tibetans are trapped. By definition Tibetan religion is anti-modern dogma, an enemy of progress, science, rationality and wealth accumulation. By definition it clouds minds, preventing people from grasping opportunities to become rich. Buddhism is defined by its compulsory doctrines such as karma and rebirth, which make people hesitate to make profit from the ignorance of others, to accumulate the wealth that becomes greater wealth. Irrational belief in further lives makes people cautious about slaughtering animals, taking selfish advantage, thinking only of this life and immediate gratification.

As long as Buddhism is seen as the core of Tibetan culture, and Buddhism is defined as propositions, dogmas and packaged doctrines, and as long as beliefs are defined as anti-modern, we do have a clash of civilisations. The clash foretold by Samuel Huntington in the post Cold war 1990s, between Islam and the West, may have aspects of cold warriorship seeking a new enemy, but clashes of civilisations do occur, and this is one.

Usually, a clash of civilisations cannot occur unless both sides escalate the conflict. The Tibetans have done whatever they could to avoid the trap of becoming the global antagonist of modernity with Chinese characteristics. The Dalai Lama’s middle way, the decade of diplomacy led by prime minister Samdhong Rinpoche, the fruitless negotiations with the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front, all attempted to accommodate China’s interests, save China’s face, meet China’s fears and objections half way or more. This all came to naught.

Other Tibetans, especially the young educated Tibetans in exile, have chosen a different strategy, which separates Tibetan Buddhism from the wider Tibetan culture. Young exiles are offended by Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, who say that Tibetan culture is basically Buddhist. The young have their own secular saints and heroes, their own canon of poets and protestors. They point to a preBuddhist Tibet with its deep traditions of epic, proverbs, rituals, earth gods, warriorship and ways of taming the land. These traditions still exist, folded into Buddhism but never liquidated. But this too makes no difference in Beijing, which sees the exiled youth as hotheads.

There is no obvious escape from the party-state’s rigid belief that the core of the Tibetan problem is the anti-modern darkness of Tibetan Buddhism, and its hold on the Tibetan people. Added to this fixed idea is the ancient Chinese prejudice against the nomads. As James Leibold says: “Zhongguo was fixed sedentary space (fields, ramparts and towns), while the outer realms represented fluid nomadic space, where people wandered aimlessly like animals on the grassland steppes and desert sands.”[6] The central kingdom –Zhongguo- is surrounded by dangerous nomads whose conquest and assimilation take centuries of arduous struggle. None have been so resistant to assimilation as the Tibetans, and the Buddhism of the Tibetans is the core of their resistance. Nonetheless, it is an objective law of history that the peripheral nomads, especially those who conquer and rule China, inevitably assimilate and become Chinese.[7]

China’s revolution failed to question these imperial prejudices. Far from freshly interrogating the dynastic hauteur towards the fluid peoples of China’s frontier regions, the revolution, in the name of sweeping away all that is old, intensified the war on nature, on nomadic mobility and fluidity. Contemporary Chinese anthropologists persist in rolling all minority nationalities into the great snowball of the Han. Prof. Xu Jieshun describes this assimilation into the Han norm as inevitable: “From an anthropological standpoint, a ‘plurality’ of ethnic groups coalescing into a ‘unity’ must undergo a process of adaptation. They link up their psychologies in order to reduce and adapt to contradictions and conflicts that stem from cultural differences. This results in mutual adaptation and the attainment of harmony and uniformity.”[8]

The Tibetans have singularly failed to adapt, reduce conflicts or attain harmony with the Han. They have failed to join the snowball, to integrate. In the words of anthropology professor Xu, ethnicities within China’s borders transition “from the gradual maturation of interactions among ethnic groups from incompatibility to mutual interaction to refinement and eventually integration and identification.” But the Tibetans have not matured or refined, and still refuse the snowball as it rolls across the lands of Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism is the cause of this failure. That’s the official line.

[1] Eric Kit-wai Ma, Desiring Hong Kong, Consuming South China: Transborder cultural politics 1970-2010, HK University Press, 2012, 145

[2] Ma, 147-153

[3] Ma, 147

[4] Pal Nyiri, Mobility and Cultural Authority in Contemporary China, University of Washington Press, 2010, 62

[5] Jason Ananda Josephson, The Invention of Religion in Japan, Chicago UP, 2012, 9

[6] James Leibold, Filling in the Nation: the spatial trajectory of prehistoric archaeology in twentieth-century China, in Brian Moloughny ed., Transforming History: The making of a modern academic discipline in twentieth-century China, Chinese University Press, 2011, 340

[7] Xu Jieshun, Understanding the Snowball Theory of the Han Nationality, in Thomas Mullaney ed., Critical Han Studies: The history, representation and identity of China’s majority, University of California Press, 2012

[8]  Xu, 117

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