Tibet and China: A Clash of National Egos
April 21, 2008 by Tim Little
So much has been written recently over the turmoil surrounding the Olympic torch relay, China’s human rights record (or lack thereof), and the ongoing situation in Tibet. It’s not at all surprising to me to see how quickly long-simmering tensions have boiled over into open conflict, especially between Tibetans (both inside and outside their homeland) and the Chinese.
The frustration of the Tibetans is certainly understandable; their homeland has been occupied by the China for half a century, and their culture is truly on the brink of annihilation at the hands of hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese immigrants seeking better lives on the western frontier. Indeed, one may compare the Chinese expansion into Tibet and Xinjiang to the United States’ own westward expansion during the 19th century. In each case an indigenous population has seen its traditional way of life decimated by an unstoppable outside force in the name of progress and civilization.
However Tibetans by-and-large have not reaped the benefits promised by the Chinese, and their fear and frustration is understandable — even if I, as I sit here in a comfortablly climate-controlled office in Boston, can never truly understand the full extent of their suffering.
Even Tibetans’ frustration with the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” policy regarding China is understandable. Many are of a younger generation who grew up outside Tibet and have not even seen their homeland. Their pride, fear, and frustration, with the perceived policy of appeasement, of inaction, is understandable. The instinct to fight back is strong, despite the insurmountable odds. In my own view, I think the Dalai Lama’s stance is truly the only way if any vestige of Tibetan culture is to survive over the long-term. The Middle Way may not be sexy, but it is clearly the most practical approach — not to mention in keeping with the Buddhist teachings of nonviolence. Yet there are those who calf for outright rebellion against the Chinese army, even if this would amount to suicide for the Tibetan people. I think this speaks volumes for how much the Tibetan psyche has already been damaged.
Meanwhile the Chinese also feel besieged by the larger world community. While many within China can be forgiven their misperceptions due to constant bombardment by government propaganda — including the ridiculous caricatures of the Dalai Lama as a “terrorist” or “wolf in monk’s clothing” — the reaction of Chinese overseas, who have freer access to Western media, suggests injured national pride and disgust with the hypocrisy of the West. If we reflect on legacy of European colonialism and the history of our nation’s own westward expansion, perhaps we can appreciate the Chinese point of view even as we disagree with the policies of their government.
It seems to me that what we have here is a clash of national egos: Chinese on the one hand and Tibetan on the other, with the Dalai Lama indeed trying to hew to the Middle Way. But in the end what is nationality or sovereignity or some territorial boundary besides an artificial and arbitrary divide between “us” and “them”? In the end, the capacity for all individuals to live peaceably side-by-side despite their differences needs to be the ultimate goal.
From the Dhammapada:
‘He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me’ — for those who brood on this, hostility isn’t stilled.
‘He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me’ — for those who don’t brood on this, hostility is stilled.
Hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless. Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: this, an unending truth.
Unlike those who don’t realize that we’re here on the verge of perishing, those who do: their quarrels are stilled.