Saturday, March 22, 2008

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Policy Failure of Tibet


As someone who has traveled dozens of times in Tibet, and who has spent countless hours sitting in monasteries and documenting life in this part of the world; I find it necessary to share my opinion on the recent brutal crackdown on Tibetan protests by the police and military in the provinces of Tibet, Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan and Qinghai.

The title of this blog is: "The Policy Failure of Tibet", because since 1949 every single policy that the Chinese government has come up with has failed, and failed miserably.

The mainly Chinese view that the Tibetan people should be thankful for the wealth and prosperity that the Han Chinese have brought to the region of Tibet is largely bunk. The wealth that the Han Chinese have brought to Tibet has largely benefited not Tibetans, but themselves. They've built schools for their own children and hospitals that few locals can afford, and when Tibetans are admitted it is generally ceremonial or an act of charity. The roads and infrastructure build up has largely benefited the commodities industry which the Tibetans are shut out of, and for each train that reaches Tibet from mainland China full of tourists; another two or three trains go back in the other direction full of coal, iron ore and copper.

It's true, Tibet is incredibly strategic to China. It makes up about 15% of China's overall land mass and borders Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Nepal and Burma. The region of Tibet offers a convenient buffer between the mainland and previous threat of India, and above all this the Himalayan kingdom is said to contain abundant mineral wealth. It makes very clear sense, looking back, why China wanted to incorporate it in the People's Republic of China in the 1950s. But the historical record of how China has done in the almost 60 years of "managing" Tibet offers little comfort - one can't help but feel that these recent moments of unrest have been a long long time coming. Below are a few examples of policy failure:

Almost immediately after claiming power in 1949 the People's Republic of China and its governing leaders decided to shrink the new "province" of Tibet. The leadership collectively gerrymandered the territory much like an electoral district in the United States of America. The resulting territory is half of its original size, resulting in a fact that many Tibetans now living in China live outside of Tibet proper; which is one reason why we've seen protests in many of the neighboring provinces - Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan.

Once Tibet was settled in the late 1950s and early 1960s the Chinese began an official assimilation policy, tempting Chinese from eastern China to move to Lhasa and set up business; in an grand effort to make Tibetans a minority in their own territory and therefore more stable. The policy eventually worked marvelously and Tibetans are now in fact a minority in their own territory and anyone who has visited Lhasa in the last year or two will be completely put off by the "new Tibet", while roads are paved much of the central planning has lead to Lhasa looking like every other city in China, with ugly white "bathroom" tile buildings and honking motorists on every corner. On a recent visit to Lhasa my taxi driver from the airport to the city center was a man from Hunan province. He had come to Lhasa a few years back because taxi companies paid a premium for drivers in Tibet - upwards of 150% what they can make in their home province. So he came, he drove, and he doesn't like it much. He mentioned the food had no taste, the air was too dry and that Tibetans didn't like him. Why stay I asked, to save up a little more money and then go home he replied. His tail is telling and common of most who move to Tibet from the east. Most don't like it, most come just for the money and most make no attempt to integrate in to local life, leaving a great barrier between the two cultures that exist side by side. The larger the Han population in Lhasa, the more the tensions increased. Han took care of Han and gave the best jobs to each other, leaving the mostly un-educated Tibetan population out of their plans for a new Tibet. Assimilation policies generally make the original inhabitants second class citizens in their own homes, clearly leaving them resentful and feeling helpless. This has essentially been the case since real development began in Tibet during the 1990s.

When things became too dangerous for the Dali Lama he had to flee Tibet in 1959, taking refuge in India. It was a disastrous event for the people of Tibet. While its true that the Dali Lama's life was most likely endanger it marked the beginning of a full out assault on Tibetan Buddhism. In the years that followed the Cultural Revolution shut down or destroyed some 6000 or more monasteries. A culture that had existed untouched for centuries was beset by systematic program of complete destruction. One monk I recently interviewed in the Labrang monastery told me that the Cultural Revolution was a horrible time, and he reminisces, anytime he kneeled on the ground to perform prostration's he would be wiped or beaten. Those, he said, were times best forgotten.

Since the "Opening and Reform Period" was ushered in by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, much Chinese history has been conveniently re-written or erased. The government's bureau of education has willing done it's "Big Brother Best" to conveniently forget much of the atrocity that has ravaged within the country for much of the last half century. While the disastrous policies of the Great Leap Forward and the starvation that followed are erased from history; much of Tibets history has been altered to suit the cause of government. Ask the average Chinese person in their 20s on the streets of major cities of China what they learned about Tibet during their education and they'll look dumbfounded. Stories of savages and unsophisticated barbarians come to mind, that is before the region was "liberated" by the People Liberation Army. The Chinese government has much avoided the topic of policies that were implemented in Han China during the Cultural Revolution, but they have pleaded complete amnesia to policies that were implemented in minority regions like Xinijang and Tibet during the same time frame - because they were often far far worse than anything that happened in the east. Based on my travels many monks still live with memories of the Cultural Revolution and wounds that have never been brought in to the open, or in fact have swept under the carpet as if they never happened, and that only leaves a deeper resentment. Some of which has boiled over this week.

With all the assimilation, immigration and business buildup in Tibet it is hard for Tibetans not to feel like second class citizens in their own homes. Now this has happened countless times throughout history to parts of the world that have been invaded and colonized; the British in India, Europeans in North and South America for example. But this is somewhat different in that today we live in a world of fixed territorial boundaries and issues of national security that reign supreme; a much different world that when the British governed Pakistan and India. In today's world the buzz word of stability, or the impression of stability, reigns supreme in many developing countries in the world today; and China is perhaps the perfect example. It's booming economy and upcoming Olympic games means that there is a lot to lose, and media attention is getting fierce, the impression of stability is of the utmost importance. But you can only keep people down for so long, and this quote by Zhang Qingli, the Communist Party Leader of Tibet, the highest ranking official in the territory, seem to speak volumes of the dissatisfaction by Tibetans of Han rule. Zhang says in an interview last year, "The Communist Party is like the parent to the Tibetan people, and it is always considerate about what the children need. He later added: "The Central Party Committee is the real Buddha for Tibetans." What more can I say, when top government officials put their foot in their own mouths this well!

To be honest, I had hope for Tibet under Chinese rule up until a few weeks ago. China's current president Hu Jinatao was the Party Leader of Tibet from 1988 and had experienced, and was generally responsible for the, crack down in 1989. My hope was that he had learned his lessons and might have been able to avoid similar situations, but it's clear that the current party chief is stuck in the 1960s mentality of governing Tibet. The future looks bleak indeed: wrong thinking ministers, trigger happy soldiers and a complete blockade against independent observers and journalists are all steps in the wrong direction. When will China learn that this behavior just doesn't fly when you view yourself as an emerging superpower? Maybe never. Will further gaps in stability plague China in its minority hinterlands? Only time will tell. But my guess is this will be the most political Olympics on record and China will weather each storm with heavy-handed crackdowns, prompting further resentment. And so the vicious circle continues.


Ryan Pyle


  1. great article Ryan!

    Since you have been in Tibet before and China for a while, are you allowed into Tibet?

    (BTW, I am linking to your article)

  2. Dan,

    The authorities aren't letting anyone in at the moment. We'll see what happens in the next week or so. I am keen if the opportunity arises.

    You can link to my article, no stress.



  3. Anonymous20:34

    Hi Ryan, I have discovered your blog today while googling "Tibetan,assimilation"
    I will stay in touch but what happened to your comments?

  4. Hi Anonymous,

    Glad to know you were able to find my blog by googling about Tibet.

    I look forward to continue blogging about the subject of Tibet, but as for my comments - I don't exactly follow. Very few people comment on my blog, so there are not that many comments.





This is Ryan Pyle. I appreciate you adding a comment to my blog and I hope that this space has offered you something useful and interesting. I look forward to staying in touch and I'm glad you took the time to comment.

Ryan Pyle