On 8 November the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China issued a white paper called Tibet’s March Toward Modernization. The latest Chinese white paper, as usual, white washes Chinese atrocities in Tibet. There is no mention of the Cultural Revolution, leave alone the other atrocities committed on the Tibetan people, including the 1.2 million Tibetans who died as a direct result of the Chinese communist occupation of Tibet.

“Modernization”, an argument to justify China’s colonial rule in Tibet

The main argument of the Chinese white paper is that Chinese rule in Tibet has made Tibet into a modern society and that modernization has brought great benefit to the Tibetan people. The Chinese white paper forgets to mention that the real measure of whether a society is judged modern is whether the people who make up a particular society has the right to freely exercise their collective will, that they enjoy democratic rights and possess the ability to exercise these rights. These are the defining measurements of a truly modern society.

Measured against this criterion of a modern society, the social order China has created in Tibet flunks woefully and painfully in the test of a truly modern society. In fact, the Tibetan people, like the Chinese people themselves, are straining under the crushing weight of a totalitarian one-party dictatorship, an obsolete political system discarded by the rest of the world and thrown where it truly belongs in history’s junkyard.

In contrast, consider the Tibetan community created in exile. It is a vibrant, cohesive refugee community, blessed with democracy and democratic rights. In fact, the reason for the sudden outburst of Chinese official anger and wrath as displayed by the white paper is because the exile Tibetan community under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama has stolen a march on the road towards modernization.

Strategic compulsions behind developing China’s Wild West

So the structure that China has set up in Tibet is a structure designed primarily to speed up China’s exploitation of Tibet’s resources. The reasons why China’s perpetual need for resources and energy is now reincarnating in the rhetoric of “modernization” of Tibet lies in the focus of development from the Chinese coastal region to the interior. There are several important reasons for the shift of focus of economic development from the east to the west. Modernization of Tibet to benefit the Tibetan people does not figure in any of them. The real reasons lies more in the mother country extracting the resources of its colonial periphery and in turn exporting its excess population onto the vast empty lands of the native Tibetans. The real reasons lie in the stability of the current Beijing regime, and political and social problems that accompany unprecedented economic development.

Tibet’s Traditional Society

China has always tried to justify its invasion and occupation of Tibet and its repressive policies in Tibet by painting the darkest picture of Tibet’s traditional society. China considers its military invasion and occupation of Tibet as “liberation” of Tibetan society from “medieval feudal serfdom” and “slavery”.

In terms of social mobility and wealth distribution, independent Tibet compared favourably with most Asian countries of the time. The Tibetan polity before the Chinese occupation was not theocratic as China wants us to believe. Theocracy implies rule in the name of God. The Tibetan polity, on the other hand, is referred to as choesi-sungdrel, which means a political system based on the Buddhist tenets of compassion, moral integrity and equality. According to this system, the government must be based on high moral standards, and serve the people with love and compassion just as the parents care for their children.

The Dalai Lama, head of both the spiritual and secular administration, was discovered through a system of reincarnation that ensured that the rule of Tibet did not become hereditary. Most of the Dalai Lamas, including the 13th and the 14th, came from common, peasant families in remote regions of Tibet.

Every administrative post below the Dalai Lama was held by an equal number of monk and lay officials. Although lay officials hereditarily held posts, those of monks were open to all. A large proportion of monk officials came from non-privileged backgrounds.

Furthermore, Tibet’s monastic system provided unrestrained opportunities for social mobility. Admission to monastic institutions in Tibet was open to all and the large majority of monks, particularly those who rose through its ranks to the highest positions, came from humble backgrounds, often from far-flung villages in Kham and Amdo. This is because the monasteries offered equal opportunities to all to rise to any monastic post through their own scholarship.

The peasants, whom the Chinese propaganda insists on calling “serfs”, had a legal identity, often with documents stating their rights, and also had access to courts of law. Peasants had the right to sue their masters and carry their case in appeal to higher authorities.

The Tibetan struggle is not to resurrect the old Tibetan social system as Beijing claims. The relentless Chinese attempts to personalize the Tibetan issue to make it hinge upon the Dalai Lama’s own status is a subterfuge to mask the main issue: the Tibetan people’s enduring national struggle for their right to determine their own destiny.

Practice of Autonomy in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region

In its white paper, China claims that under the democratic reform in 1959 it introduced the new political system of people’s democracy and that the Tibetan people have become masters of the country. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tibetans have little or no say in running their own affairs. All the decisions of the administration are taken by the Chinese Communist Party through its Regional CCP. Tibetan people’s participation in the government is only to rubber stamp Communist Party’s decisions. Communist Party members dominate key government posts and only a few important posts are held by trusted non-party members.

Tibetans do not hold any key positions even within the TAR Communist Party. The Secretary of the TAR Communist Party is the most powerful post in the TAR and this post has been held by the Chinese since 1959. There is racial discrimination against the Tibetans. When Chen Kuiyuan was transferred from the TAR, Raidi, a Tibetan who held the number two position in the communist hierarchy, should have been appointed in his place. However, Gua Jinlong, a Chinese, who ranked number three, was promoted over Raidi’s head to this top post in the TAR.

Economic Development in Tibet

The white paper says, “The 1980s witnessed a great upsurge of the reform, opening-up and modernization drive in Tibet, as in other parts of China.” This sentence is probably the only truth in the whole report. In 1980, the then Party Secretary of Chinese Communist Party Hu Yaobang visited Tibet. Hu was so shocked by the situation in the Tibet that he said the living standard must be brought at least to the pre-1959 level. After Hu’s visit, there was a brief period of relaxation and a few genuine liberal measures–reduction of Chinese cadres and handing local administrative power to the Tibetan cadres– were taken to let the Tibetans decide their way of life. This was the closest Beijing came to really implementing its rhetoric of “liberation” of Tibet. Sadly, this period lasted less than a decade, after which Beijing reverted back to only thing it knows– more control and suppression.

In 1984 at the Second Work Forum on Tibet, 43 projects were launched with state investment and aid from nine provinces and municipalities. A closer study of the 43 projects reveals that none of these projects were meant to improve or make any positive impacts on the life of the ordinary Tibetans, majority of whom are farmers and nomads. Some of the projects were as fanciful as constructing hotels in Tibet. Some fancy hotels were constructed in Beijing. These projects were clearly not meant to improve the quality of life of the Tibetans but to reinforce and consolidate Chinese bureaucratic presence in Tibet and to improve the quality of life in the urban areas, where the Chinese are the majority.

Education under China

The overriding goal of Beijing’s education policy in Tibet is to instill loyalty to the “Great Motherland” and the Communist Party. Speaking at the “TAR” Conference on Education in Lhasa in 1994, the then regional Party Secretary, Chen Kuiyuan, said, “The success of our education does not lie in the number of diplomas issued to graduates from universities, colleges…and secondary schools. It lies, in the final analysis, in whether our graduating students are opposed to or turn their hearts to the Dalai Clique and in whether they are loyal to or do not care about our great motherland and the great socialist cause.”

This policy has blinded the authorities to a number of core issues relating to human resource development on the plateau. Despite the authorities’ claim of having “taken on an important task over the past few decades to develop popular or mass education in Tibet”, education — the foundation for the development of human resources — has always been put on the back burner.

A Skewed Health Service

Between 1959-1979, the Communist campaign against the “four olds” targeted the traditional Tibetan healing system. Tibetan medical institutes were closed down. Traditional medical professionals, who had learned their skill all their lives, were replaced by “barefoot doctors”, who had only six months to one year of training. Most of these paramedics — between the age group of 15-19 — had no formal education before their training. Foreign visitors to Tibet during that period recorded an increase in the incidence of cancer, dysentery and diarrhoea.

After the economic liberalization in 1979, there has been a noticeable improvement in health care facilities, at least in urban areas. Nevertheless, the standard of health care remained much lower than in the rest of China. Dawa Tsering — a young Tibetan who returned to Tibet from exile and studied at the National Minorities Institute in Siling, Amdo, between 1979-1981 — said that the hospitals in Siling provided free treatment to students and cadres, but ordinary people had to pay. “Except for emergency cases, treatment of ordinary Tibetans in these hospital is very casual”, he said A British Voluntary Service Overseas personnel, who spent a year at Lhasa University in 1987, said that the medical service in Lhasa City was so appalling that “Chinese people would rather fly home than be admitted in Lhasa.”

Quest for lasting solution

The current policy of intensifying repression and increasing development activities, first enforced by the Third Work Forum on Tibet and strongly recommended by the Fourth Work Forum, is the wrong policy. Everyone in the world, except the hardline leadership in Beijing, considers this policy short-sighted and will prove disastrous in the long run. Melvyn C. Goldstein, a Tibet scholar, and one who the latest Chinese white paper quotes approvingly to buttress its claim that the old Tibetan society was feudal, has this to say about Beijing’s hardline policy. In an article on Tibet in the January-February 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs, he wrote, “Many Chinese experts and moderates question whether the current policy will produce the long-term stability that China wants in Tibet because it is exacerbating the alienation of Tibetans, even young ones, intensifying their feelings of ethnic hatred and political hopelessness, and inculcating the idea that Tibetan nationalist aspirations cannot be met so long as Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China.”

The views of Melvyn Goldstein are echoed by Chinese scholars living in China. Wang Lixiong, the author of the Chinese bestseller, The Yellow Peril, in his article called The Dalai Lama is the Key to the Tibet Issue, writes, “From China’s point of view, these reasons make the Tibetan issue far more sensitive than the Xinjiang issue. The characteristics of the Tibetan issue are: historical uncertainly regarding China’s sovereignty, internationalized issue, support from the western society, an effective exile government, a spiritual leader who is revered by Tibetans and is influential worldwide.” Wang Lixiong also writes in the same article, “Therefore, if one considers the long-term interests of China, it is not wise to forestall the issue. And, it is even a bigger mistake to wait for the Dalai Lama to die. This policy is misguided.”