Tibet Through Chinese Eyes

Many Chinese working in Tibet regard themselves as idealistic missionaries of progress, rejecting the Western idea of them as agents of cultural imperialism. In truth, they are inescapably both

Political views on Tibet tend to be as unambiguous as the hard blue dome of sky that stretches above its mountains. In Western opinion, the "Tibet question" is settled: Tibet should not be part of China; before being forcibly annexed, in 1951, it was an independent country. The Chinese are cruel occupiers who are seeking to destroy the traditional culture of Tibet. The Dalai Lama, the traditional spiritual leader of Tibet, who fled to India in 1959, should be allowed to return and resume his rule over either an independent or at least a culturally autonomous Tibet. In short, in Western eyes there is only one answer to the Tibet question: Free Tibet.

For Han—ethnic Chinese—who live in Tibet, the one answer is exactly the same and yet completely different. They serve what the Chinese call "Liberated Tibet." Mei Zhiyuan is Han, and in 1997 he was sent by the Chinese government to act as a "Volunteer Aiding Tibet" at a Tibetan middle school, where he works as a teacher. His roommate, Tashi, is a Tibetan who as a college student was sent in the opposite direction, to Sichuan province, where he received his teacher training. Both men are twenty-four years old. They are good friends who live near Heroes Road, which is named after the Chinese and Tibetans who contributed to the "peaceful liberation" of Tibet in the 1950s. This is how Mei Zhiyuan sees Tibet—as a harmonious region that benefits from Chinese support. When I asked him why he had volunteered to work there, he said, "Because all of us know that Tibet is a less developed place that needs skilled people."

I went to Tibet to explore this second viewpoint, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Tibet question through Chinese eyes. Before coming to Tibet, I had spent two years as a volunteer English teacher at a small college in Sichuan, which made me particularly interested in meeting volunteer teachers like Mei Zhiyuan. I also talked with other young government-sent workers and entrepreneurs who had come to seek their fortunes, and for four weeks that was my focus, as I spent time in Lhasa and other places where there are large numbers of Han settlers.

Of all the pieces that compose the Tibet question, this is by far the most explosive: the Dalai Lama has targeted Han migration as one of the greatest threats to Tibetan culture, and the sensitivity of the issue is evident in some statistics. According to Beijing, Han make up only three percent of the population of the Tibet Autonomous Region, whereas some Tibetan exiles claim that the figure is in fact over 50 percent and growing. Tibetans see the influx of Han as yet another attempt to destroy their culture; Chinese see the issue as Deng Xiaoping did in 1987, when he said, "Tibet is sparsely populated. The two million Tibetans are not enough to handle the task of developing such a huge region. There is no harm in sending Han into Tibet to help.... The key issues are what is best for Tibetans and how can Tibet develop at a fast pace, and move ahead in the four modernizations in China."

Regardless of the accuracy of the official Chinese view, many of the government-sent Han workers in Tibet clearly see their role in terms of service. They are perhaps the most important historical actors in terms of the Tibet question, and yet they are also the most-often overlooked. Why did they come to Tibet? What do they think of the place, how are they changing it, and what do they see as their role?

Gao Ming, a twenty-two-year-old English teacher, told me, "One aspect was that I knew we should be willing to go to the border regions, to the minority areas, to places that are jianku—difficult. These are the parts of China that need help. If I could have gone to Xinjiang, I would have, but I knew that Tibet was also a place that needed teachers. That was the main reason. Another aspect was that Tibet is a natural place—there's no pollution here, and almost no people; much of it is untouched. So I wanted to see what it was like."

Shi Mingzhi, a twenty-four-year-old physics teacher, said, "First, I'd say it's the same reason that you came here to travel—because it's an interesting place. But I also wanted to come help build the country. You know that all of the volunteers in this district are Party members, and if you're a Party member, you should be willing to go to a jianku place to work. So you could say that all of us had patriotic reasons for coming—perhaps that's the biggest reason. But I also came because it was a good opportunity, and the salary is higher than in the interior of China."

Talking with these young men was in many ways similar to talking with an idealistic volunteer in any part of the world. Apart from the financial incentive to work in Tibet, many of the motivations were the same—the sense of adventure, the desire to see something new, the commitment to service. And government propaganda emphasizes this sense of service, through figures like Kong Fansen, a cadre from eastern China who worked in Tibet and became famous as a worker-martyr after his death in an auto accident. Han workers are exhorted to study the "old Tibet spirit" of Kong and other cadres as they serve a region that in the Chinese view desperately needs their talents.

Central to their task is the concept of jianku. I heard this term repeatedly when the Chinese described conditions in Tibet, and life is especially jianku for Volunteers Aiding Tibet, who commit in advance to serving eight-year terms. Most government-sent Han workers fall into the category of Cadres Aiding Tibet—teachers, doctors, administrators, and others who serve for two or three years. Having graduated from a lower-level college, Mei Zhiyuan could not qualify for such a position, and as a result was forced to make an eight-year commitment. The sacrifice is particularly impressive considering that he assumed it would have serious repercussions on his health. Many Chinese believe that living at a high altitude for long periods of time does significant damage to the lungs, and a number of workers told me that this was the greatest drawback to living in Tibet. "It's bad for you," Mei Zhiyuan explained, "because when you live in a place this high, your lungs enlarge, and eventually that affects your heart. It shortens your life." During my stay in Tibet I heard several variations on this theory (one from an earnest young teacher who was smoking a cigarette), but generally it involved the lungs expanding and putting pressure on the heart. There is no medical evidence to support such a belief; indeed, in a heavily polluted country like China, where one of every four deaths is attributed to lung disease, the high, clean air of Tibet is probably tonic. Nevertheless, this perception adds to the sense of sacrifice, and it is encouraged by the government pay structure, which links salary to altitude: the higher you work, the higher your pay.

The roughly 1,000 yuan ($120) a month that Mei Zhiyuan earns is half what the local cadre teachers make. Even so, his salary is two to three times what he would make as a teacher in rural Sichuan, and he is able to send half his earnings home to his parents, who are peasants. It's good money by Chinese standards but seems hardly a sufficient incentive for a young man to be willing to shorten his life. Leaving before his eight years are up would incur a heavy fine of up to 20,000 yuan—$2,400, nearly two years' salary, or, for a peasant family like Mei Zhiyuan's, approximately twenty tons of rice.

The Dream of a Unified Motherland

From the Chinese perspective, Tibet has always been a part of China. This is, of course, a simplistic and inaccurate view, but Tibetan history is so muddled that one can see in it what one wishes. The Chinese can ignore some periods and point to others; they can cite the year 1792, when the Qing Emperor sent a Chinese army to help the Tibetans drive out the invading Nepalese, or explain that from 1728 to 1912 there were Qing ambans, imperial administrators, stationed in Lhasa. In fact the authority of these ambans steadily decreased over time, and Tibet enjoyed de facto independence from 1913 to 1951. An unbiased arbiter would find Tibetan arguments for independence more compelling than the Chinese version of history—but also, perhaps, would find that the Chinese have a stronger historical claim to Tibet than the United States does to much of the American West.

Most important, China's reasons for wanting Tibet changed greatly over the years. For the Qing Dynasty, Tibet was important strictly as a buffer state; ambans and armies were sent to ensure that the region remained peaceful, but they made relatively few administrative changes, and there was no effort to force the Tibetans to adopt the Chinese language or Chinese customs. In the Qing view, Tibet was a part of China but at the same time it was something different; the monasteries and the Dalai Lamas were allowed to maintain authority over most internal affairs.

In the early twentieth century, as the Qing collapsed and China struggled to overcome the imperialism of foreign powers, Tibet became important for new reasons of nationalism. Intellectuals and political leaders, including Sun Yat-sen, believed that China's historical right to Tibet had been infringed by Western powers, particularly Britain, which invaded Tibet in 1904 to force the thirteenth Dalai Lama to open relations. As Tibet slipped further from Chinese control, a steady stream of nationalistic rhetoric put the loss of Tibet into a familiar pattern—the humiliation by foreign powers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Hong Kong went to the British, Manchuria and Shandong to the Japanese, Taiwan to the U.S.-funded Kuomintang. By the time Mao Zedong founded the People's Republic of China, in 1949, Tibet had figured into the nation's pre-eminent task: the reunification of the once-powerful motherland.

Tibet thus changed from buffer state to a central piece in Communist China's vision of itself as independent and free from imperialist influence. Orville Schell, a longtime observer of China, says that even today this perception is held by most Chinese. "I don't think there's any more sensitive issue," he says, "with the possible exception of Taiwan, because it grows out of the dream of a unified motherland—a dream that historically speaking has been the goal of almost every Chinese leader. This issue touches on sovereignty, it touches on the unity of Chinese territory, and especially it touches on the issue of the West as predator, the violator of Chinese sovereignty."

The irony is that China, like an abused child who grows up to revisit his suffering on the next generation, has committed similar sins in Tibet: the overthrow of the monasteries and the violent redistribution of land, the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution, and the restriction of intellectual and religious freedom that continues to this day. And as in any form of imperialism, much of the damage has been done in the name of duty. When the Chinese speak of pre-1951 Tibet, they emphasize the shortcomings of the region's feudal-theocratic government: life expectancy was thirty-six years; 95 percent of Tibetans were illiterate; 95 percent of the population was hereditary serfs and slaves owned by monasteries and nobles. The sense is that the Tibetans suffered under a bad system, and the Chinese had a moral obligation to liberate them. Before traveling to Tibet, I asked my Chinese friends about the region. Most responded like Sai Xinghao, a forty-eight-year-old photographer: "It was a slave society, you know, and they were very cruel—they'd cut off the heads of their slaves and enemies. I've seen movies about it. If you were a slave, everything was controlled by the master. So, of course, after Liberation the rich lords opposed the changes [instituted by the Chinese]. It's like your America's history, when Washington liberated the black slaves. Afterward the blacks supported him, but of course the wealthy class did not. In history it's always that way—it was the same when Napoleon overthrew King Louis, and all of the lords opposed Napoleon because he supported the poor."

My friend is not an educated man, but many Chinese intellectuals make the same comparison. President Jiang Zemin made a similar remark during his 1997 visit to the United States (although he correctly identified Lincoln as the Great Liberator). The statistics about Tibetan illiteracy and life expectancy are accurate. Although the Chinese exaggerate the ills of the feudal system, mid-century Tibet was badly in need of reform—but naturally the Tibetans would have much preferred to reform it themselves.

Another aspect of the Chinese duty in Tibet is the sense that rapid modernization is needed, and should take precedence over cultural considerations. For Westerners, this is a difficult perspective to understand. Tibet is appealing to us precisely because it's not modern, and we have idealized its culture and anti-materialism to the point where it has become, as Orville Schell says, "a figurative place of spiritual enlightenment in the Western imagination—where people don't make Buicks, they make good karma."

But to the Chinese, for whom modernization is coming late, Buicks look awfully good. I noticed this during my first year as a teacher in China, when my writing class spent time considering the American West. We discussed western expansion, and I presented the students with a problem of the late nineteenth century: the Plains Indians, their culture in jeopardy, were being pressed by white settlers. I asked my class to imagine that they were American citizens proposing a solution, and nearly all responded much the way this student did: "The world is changing and developing. We should make the Indians suit our modern life. The Indians are used to living all over the plains and moving frequently, without a fixed home, but it is very impractical in our modern life.... We need our country to be a powerful country; we must make the Indians adapt to our modern life and keep pace with the society. Only in this way can we strengthen the country."

Virtually all my students were from peasant backgrounds, and like most Chinese, the majority of them were but one generation removed from deep poverty. What I saw as freedom and culture, they saw as misery and ignorance. In my second year I repeated the lesson with a different class, asking if China had any indigenous people analogous to the Plains Indians. All responded that the Tibetans were similar. I asked about China's obligation in Tibet. The answers suggested that my students had learned more from American history than I had intended to teach. One student replied, "First, I will use my friendship to help [the Tibetans]. But if they refuse my friendship, I will use war to develop them, like the Americans did with the Indians."

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