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.