Daily Archives: 7 May 2004

Communism and Buddhism in Vietnam during the Colonial Era

On the 50th anniversary of the end of the long battle of Dien Bien Phu, in which French colonial forces were decisively defeated at terrible cost to both sides, it seems appropriate to feature a revisionist book that argues that what most appealed to the reading public in Vietnam during the colonial era was neither Confucianism, nor nationalism, nor modernism, nor even communism, but Buddhism, so central to Vietnamese national identity.

In this ambitious and path-breaking book, Shawn McHale challenges long held views that define modern Vietnamese history in terms of anticolonial nationalism and revolution. McHale argues instead for a historiography that does not overstress either the role of politics in general or Communism in particular. Using a wide range of sources from Vietnam, France, and the United States, many of them previously unexploited, he shows how the use of printed matter soared between 1920 and 1945 and in the process transformed Vietnamese public life and shaped the modern Vietnamese consciousness.Print and Power begins with an overview of Vietnam’s lively public spheres, bringing debates from Europe and the rest of Asia to Vietnamese studies with nuance and sophistication. It examines the impact of the French colonial state on Vietnamese society as well as Vietnamese and East Asian understandings of public discourse and public space. Popular taste, rather than revolutionary or national ideology, determined to a large extent what was published, with limited intervention by the French authorities. A vibrant but hierarchical public realm of debate existed in Vietnam under authoritarian colonial rule.

The work goes on to contest the impact of Confucianism on premodern and modern Vietnam and, based on materials never before used, provides a radically new perspective on the rise of Vietnamese communism from 1929 to 1945. Novel interpretations of the Nghe Tinh soviets (1930-1931), the first major communist uprising in Vietnam, and Vietnamese communist successes in World War II built an audience for their views and made an extremely alien ideology comprehensible to growing numbers of Vietnamese. In what is by far the most thorough examination in English of modern Vietnamese Buddhism and its transformations, McHale argues that, contrary to received wisdom, Buddhism was not in decline during the 1920-1945 period; in fact, more Buddhist texts were produced in Vietnam at that time than at any other in its history. This finding suggests that the heritage of the Vietnamese past played a crucial role in the late colonial period.

SOURCE: Shawn McHale, Print and Power: Confucianism, Communism, and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2003).

RECOMMENDATION: Adjust your speakers, click on the Dien Bien Phu link, and explore the site for 10 minutes while you listen to the haunting Concerto de l’adieu of Georges Delerue © SCPP, 1999/2000. Whatever one thinks of the cause for which either side fought, there were no “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” at Dien Bien Phu.

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China’s Changing Policies toward Tibet, and Indonesia’s toward West Papua

The East-West Center has published two more studies, one on China’s evolving policy toward Tibet and the other on Indonesia’s toward West Papua. Abstracts follow. The full reports are available for download.

Beijing’s Tibet Policy: Securing Sovereignty and Legitimacy, by Allen Carlson. Policy Studies 4. Washington, DC: East-West Center Washington, 2004. ix, 71 pp. Paper, $5.00.

This paper examines the main contours of Beijing’s Tibet policy since the start of the reform era (1979 to the present). It argues that throughout this period China’s position on Tibet has always been concerned with defending Chinese sovereignty, more specifically jurisdictional sovereignty, over the region. Since 1979, the ways in which the Chinese acted to secure such rights, however, have varied significantly, in two distinct phases. During the initial phase, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Chinese position was marked by the implementation of relatively moderate policies. In the second phase, which began in late 1987, and continues today, the Chinese position on Tibet has been defined by highly critical discursive moves, pointed diplomatic activity, a renewed commitment to use force to silence all opposition to Chinese rule, and the utilization of economic development programs to augment such efforts. This essay contends that three forces were crucial in determining Chinese policy on Tibet during these two periods: the underlying strategic value of Tibet to Beijing within the regional security dynamic, the persistence of historically conditioned, sovereign-centric values within elite circles in China, and the internal and external pressures created by Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” line. The complexity of these factors suggest that understanding how Beijing acts vis-à-vis Tibet requires that students of international relations and security studies, as well as policymakers and activists, look beyond parsimonious explanations and single-faceted policy directions when considering the “Tibet issue.”

The Papua Conflict: Jakarta’s Perceptions and Policies, by Richard Chauvel and Ikrar Nusa Bhakti. Policy Studies 5. Washington, DC: East-West Center Washington, 2004. x, 82 pp. Paper, $5.00.

“Without Irian Jaya [Papua], Indonesia is not complete to become the national territory of the Unitary Republic of Indonesia.” In recalling this statement of President Sukarno, her father, Megawati Sukarnoputri gave voice to the essence of the nationalists’ conception of Papua’s place in Indonesia and its importance. Indonesia today confronts renewed Papuan demands for independence nearly three decades after Jakarta thought it had liberated the Papuans from the yoke of Dutch colonialism. Indonesia’s sovereignty in Papua has been contested for much of the period since Indonesia proclaimed its independence–challenged initially by the Netherlands and since 1961 by various groups within Papuan society. This study argues that even though Indonesia has been able to sustain its authority in Papua since its diplomatic victory over the Netherlands in 1962, this authority is fragile. The fragility of Jakarta’s authority and the lack of Papuan consent for Indonesian rule are both the cart and the horse of the reliance on force to sustain central control. After examining the policies of special autonomy and the partition of Papua into three provinces, the authors pose the question: If Jakarta is determined to keep Papua part of the Indonesia nation–based on the consent of the Papuan people–what changes in the governance of Papua are necessary to bring this about?

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