Sunday, February 23, 1997

A comment on Tibet

The media's description of the Tibet issue is like matching up the color on only one side of a Rubik's cube, i.e., easy to do, but no guarantee that the other sides of the cube are also falling neatly into place.

The one-sided nature of today's coverage of Tibet is because we are only hearing the views of the Dalai Lama and his followers. They have been most effective in their public relations campaign, but there are other points of view that the American public needs to know about and ponder.

For example, Mike Dorgan's article on Tibet (Mercury News, 2/23/97) contains this statement: "Tibet enjoyed independence for several decades before China's invasion in 1949." This is clearly the view from the Dalai Lama's camp but is contrary to the official U.S. government position at the time. In a film made in 1944 by Frank Capra for the U.S. government, "The Battle of China," Tibet was clearly shown to be part of China. Only after the Chinese communists took control of China did the U.S. position shift.

There are many sects of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is the leader of only one, albeit a major sect. To assume that the Dalai Lama speaks for all Tibetan Buddhists is the same as assuming that the Pope speaks for all Christians.

Hollywood is reputed to be a liberal establishment. Liberals traditionally insist on the separation of church and state. Yet in the case of the Dalai Lama, Hollywood is quite willing to see His Holiness as the secular ruler of Tibet. The same people would be deeply offended if anyone were to accuse them of idolizing a spiritual leader, say Billy Graham, as the leader of America. Since Hollywood's view of the Dalai Lama is identical to that of Senator Jesse Helms, they need to either reexamine their alleged liberalism or their fixation of Tibet.

The problem is, of course, that there hasn't been enough impartial eye witnesses to report from Tibet. While not exactly impartial, Andrew Cockburn, whose sympathies lie obviously with the Dalai Lama, reported on a rather extensive recent visit he made to Tibet in the March 1997 issue of Condé Nast Traveler.

Partiality aside, Cockburn makes some observations that are not generally known by just reading from the popular media. He points out that the exiled Tibetans are not above exaggeration when they allege conditions inside today's Tibet. He observes that the secular life of ordinary Tibetans has improved considerably thanks to sizeable infrastructure investments made by the Beijing government in Tibet. He also mentions that life for the common people were quite brutal under the old ruling class, now largely the Tibetan exiles.

Most interesting is the revelation by Cockburn that negotiations between the Dalai Lama and the Beijing government under Deng Xiaoping in 1980 broke down because of a fundamental difference. The parties could not agree on the territory that constitutes Tibet. The Dalai Lama demanded jurisdiction over all parts of China where Tibetans reside. This would have included significant Tibetan populations living in neighboring Qinghai province. The Chinese, of course, would not agree.

I respectfully suggest that we need to see all sides of the complex Tibetan question and not use Tibet as another reason to demonize China.

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