Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Tibet II

In contrast to my last post on Tibet, any similarities between Tibet and Britain at the start of the twentieth century would be difficult to detect. After its medieval period, Britain went through the Industrial Revolution and became a major world power, while Tibet, comparatively speaking, remained stuck in the Middle Ages. During the sixteenth century England had broken from the Roman Catholic Church and closed its monasteries, while Tibet still retained its ancient system of Buddhist monasteries, with the high lamas participating in government. Most of the population in Tibet lived like serfs and had few rights or economic opportunities. Only monks and aristocrats received educations, and the majority of the population was illiterate. Tibet had little contact with the outside world.

Thubten Gyatso, the thirteenth Dalai Lama, reigning from 1879 to 1933, was the first Tibetan leader to face bringing Tibet into the modern era. In 1904, when the British foolishly invaded Tibet in the misguided belief that a Russian military buildup was occurring there, he fled to Mongolia and sought help in vain from Russia. He fled to India in 1910 when the Qing Dynasty invaded, and he later restored relations with Britain. He attempted to institute reforms in Tibet, but made little progress.

The fourteenth and present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who has reigned since 1950, has faced even steeper challenges. Initially his relationship with Mao Zedong looked promising. Tenzin Gyatso recognized that Tibet needed reform, and he accepted socialism. Mao knew that it would take many years to modernize Tibet and didn't want to rush it. However, China badly mismanaged its economy under Mao's Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961, eventually causing disastrous famines that resulted in 35 million deaths. Later on, the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, fueled fanaticism in Tibet that resulted in the destruction of most of Tibet's remaining cultural artifacts, including monasteries, books and statues. Nearly all of the monasteries had already disbanded by then.

At first the peasants in Tibet were positive about communist rule. Their land had been owned by the monasteries and the aristocracy, and their work went to support both. Now, without private ownership, they were on equal footing. However, when communal farming failed, they became skeptical, and they eventually took out their frustrations on the Chinese administrators and Tibetan aristocrats who still held high positions in government. They remained loyal only to religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama. This came to a head in 1959, when riots caused the Dalai Lama to move to India, where he had been offered asylum. The CIA, which had been backing Tibetan rebels against the Chinese, assisted during the trip.

Unlike many exiled Tibetans, the Dalai Lama did not support a CIA-sponsored rebellion in Tibet. By 1972 this became a moot point when Richard Nixon met with Mao and reestablished relations with China. Gradually, China's centrality as a world power made support of Tibetan independence diplomatically untenable because of China's strong stance in controlling Tibet's sovereignty. As of 2011, the Dalai Lama has retired from his position as the leader of Tibet's government-in-exile in Dharamshala, India.

Based on what I know, Tenzin Gyatso is not destined to become a significant historical figure. Ironically, much of his influence is indirectly related to the popularity in the West of the 1937 film Lost Horizon and, ever since the 1960's, Eastern religions. Spiritual hunger is still a real phenomenon throughout the world, and Tibetan Buddhism, at least in a simplified version, appeals to many. It also helps that a few Hollywood celebrities have endorsed it. However, it does not appear that he will have any long-term effect either on Tibet or the world. Most of his public statements are platitudes that anyone could think of, and Tibet as a political unit is far too weak to have much control over its own destiny.

If mistakes were made in Tibet, they were made long before Tenzin Gyatso was born. It would be preposterous to expect a feudal society to acquire power equal to that of developed countries. For hundreds of years, all of Tibet's resources were poured into its aristocracy and monasteries, and inequality was accepted at a level that does not exist in modern democracies. Tibet would not be able to defeat a well-equipped army, and its last chance of becoming an independent nation has probably passed. At the present time, much of the culture of old Tibet has already been destroyed and may never be restored. The economics of supporting its former network of monasteries will never again be feasible. Theocratic rule is in the process of becoming obsolete worldwide. From a strategic standpoint, I think Tibet should give up all ideas of independence from China and focus instead on its cultural heritage. Here it could learn from the history of England. England too has passed its prime and is now a shadow of its former self in world affairs. While it still has a robust economy compared to most European countries, with a strong financial services industry, it has managed to hang onto its cultural heritage by in effect becoming a gigantic theme park for tourists from all over the world. It would make sense to me if Tibet were to adopt a similar strategy.

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