The Trouble with Tibet

Many years ago, I heard an Indian Anglican minister who told a long (and not always easy to understand, due to his accent) story about how it took several long trips over the Himalayas to take the Bible in the “Tibetan tongue” to that storied land. The obvious objective of this was to win Tibetans from their Buddhism (under the leadership of the Dalai Lama) to Christianity.

Today, of course, “reappraiser” Episcopalians would decry such efforts as “cultural imperialism.” This is especially true now that the Tibetans in general and the Dalai Lama in particular have become a fashionable cause amongst many on the left, to the point that they’ve disrupted the progress of the Olympic flame across the developed world as it moves toward Beijing, the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Such campaigns are, they assure us, another move towards universal human rights in the world. The mainstream media is giddy that yet another set of minorities—the Tibetans and also those in Xinjiang to the north, mostly Muslim—are set to come out from under the yoke of yet another oppressor.

It wasn’t so long ago that Western leftists were enamoured with yet another set of “heroes”—the Chinese Communists. Starting with Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China, these freedom fighters were romanticised with stories of the Long March, the years in Yenan, and their final triumph over the corrupt Kuomintang. Yet the People’s Republic of China, the result of that long effort, is the same People’s Republic which consolidated China’s control of Tibet, and which is now vilified by well-heeled Westerners in search of a new idol—in this case the Dalai Lama—to project their need for both adventure and self-righteousness rolled into one.

The biggest trouble with the Dalai Lama, I think, is that he is besmirched by his friends. It reminds me of why, for example, Neal Boortz couldn’t bring himself to support his fellow libertarian Ron Paul. He opined that the candidate was all right, but that he could never bring himself to support a man with such obnoxious supporters. Further complicating this are the geopolitics of the matter. Absent of outside pressure, the Dalai Lama and the government in Beijing could probably arrive at a modus vivendi—the Chinese are a very practical people—but the latter knows that such would play into the strategic desires of the U.S. The CIA—those wrong-way Corrigans who have brought their nation so much grief in the past—have been busy backing the Dalai Lama too. With all of this, it’s hard to fully sympathise with a man who keeps such disparate company, and even harder to connect with liberals who, under just about any other circumstance, whine endlessly about the actions of this country’s foremost civilian spy agency.

It’s true that the Chinese don’t look at the rights of their own people the same way as is done in the West. As a Christian, I’m all too aware of the actions taken against unauthorised (by the government) churches, pastors and believers. But I’m also aware that China is the home of the largest single revival in human history, all of which is taking place under those actions. While churches in the West die or struggle against the assault of their culture, those in China grow. Something counter-intuitive is going on. I’m also aware that, given the opportunity, many in our elite wouldn’t do any differently against Christians here given the chance, even though they would invest their approach with a higher level of legal sophistication and mask it with a more polished media campaign.

Many of those elites are looking for the Chinese to fold, just as the Soviet Union did two decades ago. They draw parallels with the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which the US boycotted after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They hope that yet they can add yet another unpleasant regime as a notch on their gunstock, even though it’s little credit to them that the last one fell. But this time I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

To start with, the Chinese are a much stronger adversary than the Soviets, if not militarily certainly economically. They have used the three decades since Deng Xiaoping took China on the capitalist road to produce the one of the fastest growing economies on the planet, mostly by selling things to the West. Given the large dollar reserve the Chinese hold and the dependency of the West on Chinese goods, this country and others are not in the strongest position to exert pressure on the Middle Kingdom.

Beyond that, many Han Chinese find the rest of the world’s reactions puzzling. Aren’t the Tibetans better off for all of the yuan we’ve poured into the place? Beyond that, around 90% of the People Republic’s population is Han Chinese; national minorities, for all of the elevation they get, aren’t in a strong bargaining position with these kinds of numbers. Many Chinese have definite opinions about Western (and specifically American) self-righteousness, a self-righteousness that blunts a lot of the case for human rights that those in this country like to make.

Finally the Chinese, for their publicity gaffes, are capable of steering Western opinion in their direction. They proved this with Bill Clinton, the erstwhile darling of the left, and can do this again if need and circumstance come together. The West is perpetually vulnerable to any group who can stick together under “world opinion” fire.

The left needs to see their own inconsistency on this. Opposed to Bush-Cheney style unilateralism, they long for a multi-polar world. Yet they turn around and trash the most important piece of a multi-polar world other than the US itself, gladly jumping in bed with a CIA client to boot. Someday the left may wake up and find that there are other supporters of a multi-polar world that they didn’t expect.

Besides, the country that can’t drag itself to bring Iran—a much smaller country with a more ethnically diverse population and greater economic weaknesses—to heel isn’t going to get very far with the oldest continuous civilisation on earth.

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