Category Archives: Tibet

Tibet’s Absentee Rulers

Chen Kuiyuan, ruler of the Tibet Autonomous Region [1992–2000], lived here in Chengdu [in neighboring Szechuan Province], and flew the two hours to Lhasa only when his presence was required. His predecessor as Party Secretary, Hu Jintao …, had even lived in Beijing for the last two years of his tenure. The official explanation for this was that both men suffered from respiratory problems at high altitude. Another reason, which I learned some weeks later, was that Chen was so despised by Tibetans, including those who worked within the Party bureaucracy, for the severity of the crackdown when he arrived in Lhasa in 1992, that he tried to avoid going to Tibet at all. The wandering British mathematician Thomas Manning had noticed a similar problem in 1811, writing: “The Chinese lord it here like the English in India … It is very bad policy thus perpetually to send men of bad character to govern Tibet. It no doubt displeases the Grand Lama and Tibetans in general, and tends to prevent their affections from settling in favour of the Chinese government.”

Party Secretary Chen was an old-style ideologue, resolutely against the political flexibility encouraged by elements within the Party leadership in Tibet. He often lashed out at the Dalai Lama and Buddhism, which he called a “foreign” religion. His speeches did not inspire confidence that he had anything to offer his fiefdom but further repression. In a radio broadcast in 1994, he had said:

As long as Party organisations around Tibet remain pure, strong and capable of fighting, the disturbance caused by the splittist forces is nothing to us … We should never give up our education and guidance to the people and should not allow a laissez-faire attitude towards religions under the pretext that people are free to profess a religion. Communists are not allowed to have any religious belief, much less participation in religious activities.

So Tibet was run from Chengdu, by remote control, in the colonial way. The rulers of empires are rarely interested in those they rule; they administer and deal with them, trying to project a sense of permanence, but find their subjects frustrating and ungrateful. The colonised reciprocate with resentful over-interest, looking to conspiracy to explain their plight, thinking their rulers must have some overarching idea or policy towards them, when really they are doing no more than muddling through, defending their position, trying not to lose control. No Chinese paramount leader—not the emperors of old, not Mao Zedong, not Deng Xiaoping—has been to Tibet, although the Tibetan plateau makes up almost a quarter of China’s land mass. Jiang Zemin visited Lhasa in 1990 before he became president, but has not been back since.

SOURCE: Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, by Patrick French (Vintage, 2004), pp. 30-31


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Muninn’s Recent Japan Travelogue

Catching up on my favorite Asia blog reading, I came across Muninn’s post from two weeks ago recounting a few wonderful anecdotes about his latest trip to Japan to present a paper at a conference. It starts off with his encounter with a Swedish-speaking customs official who tests out how similar Norwegian is.

This time, the inspector look at my passport, smiled, and said, “Hei!” I thought he was speaking to me in English and that I was thus being greeted with an exclamation of some kind. I looked around to see what he might be trying to bring my attention to. He then said, “Can I say … Hei!” Then I realized: He is saying “Hei” in Norwegian – that is “Hello.” He said, “In Swedish I can say Hei! Can I say Hei! in Norwegian?” I said, “Yes, it is the same in Norwegian.”

My immigration officer went about continuing to process my visa and after a few seconds he looked up and said, “Norwegian and Swedish is all the same right?” I replied, “Umm…ya Danish, Swedish, Norwegian are all very close, think of it as something like Osaka dialect and Tohoku dialect.”

A few more stamps got issued and mysterious commands entered into his computer as he went back to looking like the stern mechanical immigration officer I have come to expect. Then, suddenly, he asked, “Can I say, ‘Jeg elsker deg.’” I felt a bit weird, looked around to see if there were any laughing Scandinavians nearby but smiled and said, “Yup, in Norwegian ‘I love you’ is also ‘Jeg elsker deg.”

At the conference he attended, one speaker indulged in some uncontested fantasies about Asian values.

Some of these concerns can be seen in the content of the conference’s final talk. At the end of the conference, Iwate University president and former Waseda professor Taniguchi Makoto gave a speech about Asian community in English. I was the only non-Asian at the talk (or at the conference for that matter) and couldn’t help noting the irony that English was the necessary choice of language given that some of the guests from Thailand and Mongolia didn’t speak Japanese (they were also the only participants not to make their presentations in Japanese). Taniguchi speaks fantastic English and his eloquent presentation fit his Cambridge education and long years of experience working for Japan’s foreign ministry, the UN, as deputy head of the OECD, and elsewhere. After an interesting analysis of Japan’s recent failures in negotiations related to the formation of “an Asian community” (indeed, he argued that after losing control of the movement, the foreign ministry is actively trying to torpedo all attempts to make anything meaningful out of the concept), he launched a critique of “Western values”. In passages that remind me of the confidence of the bubble period Japan or Asian leaders before its humbling economic crisis, Taniguchi suggested to the audience that Asia should take pride in its own values and take a more critical stance towards the West.

He offered two pieces of evidence for the inferiority of Western values. He recounted a story of when he was criticized by colleagues in France for having dined with his own chauffeur, thus violating the aristocratic separation of classes. His second anecdote lamented the inhumane behavior of New York City police officers he witnessed rudely expelling the homeless sleeping in Grand Central Station. The message was clear: Asian values have a higher degree of compassion and are less class conscious. The problem, of course, is that this is absolute nonsense. I have indeed accompanied Chinese company managers when they have dined and socialized happily with their chauffeurs in Beijing, but I have also seen Korean executives treat their chauffeurs as barely human slaves on the streets of Seoul. And as for compassion towards the homeless, it is interesting to note that one of Japan’s leading headline stories today (January 31st) is about violent clashes between Japanese police and homeless being evicted from a park in Osaka; their blue tarp tents being torn down.

There’s lots more. Read the whole thing.

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