China and Tibet: The Other Side

In my experience, most Americans know little about Tibet but that doesn’t prevent some of them from having strong opinions about the Chinese takeover. (A crime against humanity, they say.) At a dinner in Berkeley, I made this point to some friends. One of them asked politely, “What is the other side?” She had no idea what it was.

Yes, Chinese students are brainwashed about this. (When I googled “Tibet slavery” and tried to follow the links, all of sudden nothing worked.) But the smartest among them know more about it than smart American students who have been brainwashed the other way. Here’s what one of them told me about the Chinese side of the argument:

1. Before China took over, Tibet was ruled by a religious elite. It is this elite, personified by the Dalai Lama, that now has influential Americans (e.g., Richard Gere, Robert Thurman) on their side. While the elite are incredibly pissed off by the Chinese takeover — just as rich Cubans were by Castro — the rest of the country, having been oppressed by this elite, doesn’t agree.

2. Before China took over, there was widespread slavery in Tibet. You could incur a debt that basically made you a slave, it took so long to pay off. Of course this makes a mockery of the Dalai Lama’s books. Here are some details:

Until 1959, when the Dalai Lama last presided over Tibet, most of the arable land was still organized into manorial estates worked by serfs. These estates were owned by two social groups: the rich secular landlords and the rich theocratic lamas. Even a writer sympathetic to the old order allows that “a great deal of real estate belonged to the monasteries, and most of them amassed great riches.” Much of the wealth was accumulated “through active participation in trade, commerce, and money lending.”

Drepung monastery was one of the biggest landowners in the world, with its 185 manors, 25,000 serfs, 300 great pastures, and 16,000 herdsmen. The wealth of the monasteries rested in the hands of small numbers of high-ranking lamas. Most ordinary monks lived modestly and had no direct access to great wealth. The Dalai Lama himself “lived richly in the 1000-room, 14-story Potala Palace.”

Secular leaders also did well. A notable example was the commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army, a member of the Dalai Lama’s lay Cabinet, who owned 4,000 square kilometers of land and 3,500 serfs. Old Tibet has been misrepresented by some Western admirers as “a nation that required no police force because its people voluntarily observed the laws of karma.” In fact. it had a professional army, albeit a small one, that served mainly as a gendarmerie for the landlords to keep order, protect their property, and hunt down runaway serfs.

Runaway serfs. I find these paragraphs vastly more believable than anything I’ve heard Richard Gere or the Dalai Lama say about the situation. Here’s how one Free-Tibeter answers these facts:

The old Tibet was backward in its technological and social systems. Nobody denies this. If, however, you look at the faces of those Tibetans who were born and grew up in that society, you can easily notice their genuine smile. When compared with other communities, the Tibetans were generally quite peaceful and warm-hearted. If they were really as cruel as the Chinese claim, then I think the people who were born and grew up under those circumstances would be different. The people living at the time were happier and calmer than the people in this new generation. At that time, unfortunately, there were people who were used by the landlords. Now the whole nation has become a slave.

3. Tsinghua students sometimes volunteer to work in Tibet as teachers for a year. They teach primary school. The education system in Tibet is very poor; there is a shortage of good teachers.

I don’t have an opinion about this. It is the invisibility of gaps in knowledge that interests me here, the way smart Americans don’t realize they’ve been brainwashed.

16 Replies to “China and Tibet: The Other Side”

  1. I guess what’s frustrating is how invisibility of gaps of knowledge are somehow accepted in some topics, but not in others.

    I’m a scientist whose colleagues take great joy in pointing out gaps in knowledge in, say, anti-evolutionists, or the anti-vaccine people, or whatever. But they disregard their own gaps in knowledge when they have a knee-jerk response against, say, the field of parapsychology — something I don’t have much of an opinion for either way, but which, whether we like it or not, has produced interesting and statistically significant data.

    In terms of scientists, I prefer thinkers like Richard Feynman (recognized his own gaps in knowledge), and less like James Watson (dogmatically Newtonian).

    I know this post was about Tibet, but the fundamental problem (invisibility in gaps in knowledge) is epidemic in my line of scientific work, though probably much less so than in something like politics! 🙂

  2. There are many gaps in my knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, but I do believe that the historical Buddha himself was one of the great self-experimenting psychologists in history.

  3. It seems important to mention here the million Tibetans killed by the Chinese.

    On the subject of gaps, we have the infamous Rumsfeld quote,

    … as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

    How differently things might have gone if he had been inclined to acknowledge the things we think we know that are not, in fact, so.

  4. I suppose social evils existed in China as well (and still exist). So I guess it is OK for US to annex China forcibly.

    Also it is not simply that China annexed Tibet but Maoist China did so.
    Maoist are a murderous nation-wrecking gang– they did wreck Old China pretty throughly.

  5. Gian, what do you think about the U.S. Civil War?

    Let me repeat I don’t have an opinion about the China/Tibet stuff. I’m not saying what China did was okay; I’m not saying it was not okay.

  6. I encountered a similar example of misconceptions about how idealistic Tibet was when I was in Nepal at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Speaking of the crimes perpetrated by the Chinese, one of the monks described how extensive logging had destroyed the watershed, with repercussions for Nepal where water levels were lower as runoff was no longer captured by the forest. I later read Heinrich Harrer’s “Seven Years in Tibet” (a great book) written well before the Chinese invasion where he described the extensive clear-cutting he witnessed in Tibet. This was when the current Dalai Lama was still a youth. Similarly, he describes a rigidly stratified society obsessed with social status, which is in stark contrast to Buddhist teachings and reveals how powerful Thorstein Veblen’s insights were.

    The world is too complex for certainty so we need to act without definitive knowledge. This is generally adaptive as it creates behaviours which, while often reprehensible, are successful — such as the tendency to support in-group behaviours regardless of their hypocrisy. For all people in at least some settings cognition is shaped more by the physiology of emotion than by reason. And for many of us, cognition is almost exclusively a by-product of emotional responses.

  7. Intention plays a part too. The Tibet rationalization is almost like saying there was a little boy who loved his puppy so much that he dedicated his life to his puppy always tending to it’s every need. But the boy was allergic to the puppy and it caused him some nasty symptoms. So when mom killed the puppy after it walked on her garden she freed her son from allergies and enslavement from the puppy.

    The outcome may be better but it’s still reprehensible.

    If china was run by the nationalists instead of the communists like Taiwan was the Chinese people would probably be even better off. And of course nobody can say that Tibet would have maintained it’s social structure.

  8. I am not an American but I do believe that what is being done in Tibet is worth publicizing. I don’t believe that Tibet was a paradise before which was taken over by China and converted into a colony. The Tibetans have got benefits too, but the question is should they be prevented from voicing the genuine grievances they have. I believe that there are some physical and cultural constraints which will not allow Tibet to be sinified that quickly. And until that happens there will be vocal opposition from Tibetans inside and outside.
    Just writing to emphasize that there is a tragedy underneath which might be responsible for all the media hype in America.

  9. In case my above comments regarding hypocrisy within Tibetan Buddhist practices be misinterpreted I do consider the Chinese to have unjustly invaded a sovereign nation and to be an occupying force. Given the geopolitics, I never expect this situation to be resolved in favour of the Tibetans, but I do think that the world should continue to support the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama, their exiled political and spiritual leader, including through meetings with the highest political leaders such as Obama. This opinion is formed recognizing the shortcomings of both sides, familiarity with the historical arguments advanced, firsthand conversations with Tibetans and Chinese, and a willingness to support whichever position seems stronger or to hold no opinion if there is insufficient evidence. Most people whom I’ve spoken to that hold opinions on this subject — including Chinese, Tibetans, Americans, etc — hold those opinions with one or more biases, as Seth has described.

  10. I am surprised that people that are so loud over US invasion of Iraq see nothing objectionable in Chinese invasion and consequent murder of a million Tibetans plus cultural devastation.
    What if there were even a thousand social wrongs in Tibet. Who says Tibet was a paradise, but they were a free people and now they are not.

  11. Here is my argument. Assume all of that is true. What was happening in China in 1959? Anyone remember Mao? Cultural Revolution? Giant Leap Forward? The great flaw of the Chinese propaganda is to compare pre-invasion Tibetan conditions to PRESENT Chinese conditions as opposed to those 50 years ago with all those horrors yet to come, which would make a mockery of their comparison.
    One need posit only one counterfactual hypothetical. Assuming the absence of the Chinese invasion, would Tibet have moved gradually towards a more ‘modern’ system of governance? Or at least reduction of those artifacts of extreme feudalism? If your answer is no, then you have to balance the utility of those laboring under that backward feudal system to the hundreds of thousands killed raped and maimed in the invasion and living under communist repression till mild liberalisation + utility added by the better living standards of today’s Tibet. THAT is the relevant comparison.

    I’m not convinced that those comparisons turn out favorable to China.

  12. altho you make some interesting points, I believe you are missing the MAIN point. You speak about apples and oranges! Whatever Tibet was like in the past, has no bearing on China taking Tibet over. No nation should take over another nation. If Tibet had internal problems, then Tibet needed to solve those problems. Internal problems do not get solved from without!

  13. Super interesting, I had no idea about this, although I shouldve come to the conclusion that a beautiful giant palace couldnt have been built without some form of slave labor. this seems to be a common theme b/t religions (at least christianity and tibetan buddhism)

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