Tibet a defining issue for China

2008-04-11Asia Times

BEIJING - Even looking at history with the best intentions, there is no history proving - or disproving, from the Tibetan side - the present relationship between Tibet and Beijing. The reality is that history, which has been used as ideology for centuries in China, can no longer work for present China to justify its territory.

In fact, China doesn't need to look to history to validate its present territory. Geopolitics provides a good enough motive. However, doing away with history when considering Tibet creates an empty space in modern Chinese ideology, and replacing history with simple geopolitics could be very dangerous: there must be policies building consensus in and out of China as well. At the end of the day, the source of the problems with Tibet is bad governance - including the fact that Beijing can't forget that many Tibetans are loyal to the Dalai Lama.

For centuries, history - its management and manipulation - has been the compass to create the necessary ideological paradigm to rule China. It's possible that the fascination with Marxism at the beginning of the last century was due to its historical materialism, which resonated with key aspects of the Chinese cultural character: a passion for history and a very practical nature. The two elements, history and practice, seemed to have gone hand-in-hand for centuries.

However, the present Tibet crisis, occurring in an open world, challenges this compass in an unprecedented manner, and it could force China to look for a different compass. Practice and practical reasons no longer seem consistent with history and its manipulation, which are challenged to the point of being untenable. Geopolitical reasons, tempered with a sense of measure and harmony, could arguably provide China with a better paradigm to look at both modern and ancient history.

In fact, the March 14 uprising in Lhasa and the ensuing demonstrations in areas of China populated by ethnic Tibetans created a series of issues for the future of the country. These challenges go beyond the simple scope of the protests and far beyond the pressing issue of assuring the peaceful completion of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in August. The issues are radical - those of history, geography and the role of China in the world.

China officially claims that Tibet has belonged to China since the Yuan Dynasty or earlier. The brief official history of Tibet says:

Tubo leader Songtsan Gambo welded together more than 10 separate tribes and established the Tubo Kingdom covering a large part of what later became known as Tibet. He twice sent ministers to the Tang court requesting a member of the imperial family be given to him in marriage, and in 641, Princess Wencheng, a member of Emperor Taizong's family, was chosen for this role. [1]

This relationship became systemic some centuries later, according to the official history.

In 1271, the Mongolian conquerors took Yuan as the name of their dynasty. In 1279, they finally unified the whole of China. The newly united central authorities continued control over Tibet, including it as a directly governed administrative unit. Taking into account the concrete characteristics of the local historical traditions, social situation, natural environment, ethnic group and religion, the Yuan authorities adopted special measures in the administration of Tibet that differed from the policies applied to the other ten administrative areas.

First, in 1270, Yuan Emperor Kublai Khan conferred the official title of Imperial Tutor on Pagba, a leading Tibetan lama of the Sagya Sect. This was the highest official post of a monk official in the Chinese history. From then on, Imperial Tutor became a high-ranking official in the central authorities directly appointed by the emperor, taking charge of Buddhist affairs in the whole country, and local affairs in Tibet.

Second, shortly after the Yuan Dynasty was founded, the Zongzhi Yuan was set up to be responsible for the nation's Buddhist affairs and Tibet's military and government affairs. In 1288, it was renamed Xuanzheng Yuan. The Prime Minister usually acted as the executive president of the Xuanzheng Yuan, concurrently, while a monk nominated by the Imperial Tutor held the post of vice president. This marked the first time in Chinese history that a central organ was set up specially taking charge of Tibetan affairs.

Third, Tibet was divided into different administrative areas, and officials with different ranks were appointed to consolidate administrative management, with the Imperial Tutor assuming overall responsibility. [2]

However, the claim for an actual incorporation in the Chinese state is weak for two reasons. It is controversial that what is defined as the Yuan Dynasty is part of the "Chinese" tradition. The rulers then were Mongols, the official court language was Mongol or Farsi, and ethnic Chinese were second-class citizens.

Moreover, it is debatable whether the Mongols exercised any real power and administration within Tibet. They did intervene to support various factions in Tibetan power struggles, but it is contentious whether this amounted to actual rule of Tibet. Even in Ming times, the region was officially treated as out of the traditional provinces of "China proper". In fact, Thomas Bartlett summarizes the issue as such: "The Mongol Yuan Dynasty exerted control on Tibet only through Tibetan religious leaders. The Mongols did not conquer Tibet or occupy it or rule it."

Things certainly changed with the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when Tibet was an integral part of a large game played between the Manchu, the Zunghar Mongols and the Russians. For decades, the Manchu and Zunghars competed over control of Tibet.

It was essential to Manchu policy to prevent any alliance between the spiritual leaders in Tibet and leaders of Mongol steppe military power. In ceremonial exchanges, the Kangxi emperor compared himself with a reincarnation of Khubilai Khan (1260-1294) in relation to his Tibetan Buddhist preceptor, Phagspa, who was seen as reincarnate in the Yellow Sect's Living Buddhas resident at the Qing court.

The comparison was not apt: Khubilai Khan was genuinely moved by his religious convictions, while the Manchu emperor's motives were purely political. It seems clear that he connived in the murder of the Sixth Dalai Lama in 1706; he had the motive and the means. When the Sixth Dalai Lama was reincarnated in 1708 as the Seventh, he was found in the Khams region (Chinese, Xikang; at present Litang in far western Sichuan, where Manchu garrisons were then in control). That well suited Manchu designs. The Kangxi emperor became the child's sponsor, supervised his early upbringing, and had him escorted to Lhasa in 1720 to assume his position there.

In some Qing accounts, Qing annexation of Tibet is dated to that moment, but that is an artful exaggeration. The Manchus clearly tried to make puppets of the Dalai Lamas; in a decree issued by the Kangxi emperor in 1721, he falsely claimed that Tibet had been under Manchu suzerainty for 80 years, and now attempted to clarify that relationship in stricter terms. The Tibetans "persisted in envisaging it in terms of the traditional concept of 'patron and priest'." That is, they did not conceive the emperor's claimed relationship to the Dalai Lama in political terms. In that immediate situation, as also in the long range, the Manchus were no more successful than their predecessors on the throne of China. Tibet remained wholly independent of Qing China in all aspects of its domestic governing, and its lama rulers had no political interests beyond that. [3]

Mote reinforces the point by stressing that Tibetan issues were handled by the Lifan Yuan, which also handled Mongolian and Russian affairs. Mongolia was part of the Qing Empire or it was with the Zunghars, a rival in Central Asia; Russia was the encroaching power from central and northeast Asia.

However, things might be murkier. Perdue writes:

New internal conflict [in Tibet] quickly drew the emperor [Yongzhen], despite his intentions, into condoning a second substantial military intervention in Tibet. In 1720 the Qing invasion force had initially installed a military government in Lhasa, which was welcomed by Tibetans happy to see the brutal Zunghar forces driven out. The Great Potala Palace of the Dalai Lama, looted by the Zunghars, was restored and even improved with imperial support. The office of regent was abolished while the new Seventh Dalai Lama, a 12-year-old boy, served as figurehead for rule by leading Tibetan nobles. The two most powerful were Sonam Stobgyal, the chief of Polha in western Tibet known as Polhanas, and Kancennas. Both had organized popular resistance to the Zunghars. Three Manchu officials, the Asaham Amba, supervised the administration with a garrison of three thousand men. But the local government remained unstable in the hands of regional rulers who could not create a functioning central council.

The Chinese occupation army was a heavy burden for the Tibetans. The price of grain was rising in local markets, even as the Qing was spending a large amount to transport grain thousands kilometers from the interior. General Nian Gengyao and Yanxin had agreed with Kangxi that troops in Lhasa should be reduced as soon as possible. But Yongzhen ordered a rapid and complete withdrawal to support his retrenchment drive, based on maintaining peace with the Zhunghars and relieving burdens on the civilian population. Kancennas urged the emperor to reconsider as the troops marched away. [4]

This account does not negate Mote's. It leaves room to debate the effective role of the Manchu in Tibetan domestic affairs, as it emphasizes the role of the local nobles. It shows that Yongzhen's intentions were to appease the Zunghars, and therefore he wanted to withdraw from total control of Tibet. Total control of Tibet could ignite further conflicts with the belligerent Mongol neighbors, who were in a complicated phase of attrition, and also with the Russians, who were moving east. This situation shows that then there were two reasons for the Chinese withdrawal from Tibet: Tibet was too poor to feed large Chinese detachments, and the logistics of the time made it very hard and expensive to maintain troops from neighboring provinces.

Present geopolitics

Now, China could claim that the situation has changed. The logistics are in place, and China is so rich that in can keep up a garrison in Lhasa and other Tibetan centers. Moreover, it does not have to appease the Zunghars or other local rivals, and it does not face advancing foreign powers, like Russia in the 18th century. Therefore, China can do now what it could not afford then - fully control Tibet. However, the political relationship between Tibet and China might be described as unchanged.

Another issue to consider is Britain's recognition of the Chinese "suzerainty" over Tibet during the time of Emperor Qianlong. The concept of suzerainty might be weak and too undifferentiated as it is applied to political relations between Beijing and other "territories", say Korea or Siam (now Thailand), that are now "safely" out of the Chinese empire. But the English might have felt the weak and vague word fit their encroaching ambitions over the Chinese empire. The Russians were nibbling at the Qing Empire from the north; the French were established to the south in Vietnam and were aiming north; from their Indian base, the English wanted to reach the bordering Himalayan plateau. It was in the interests of all these powers to affirm, de facto or de jure, the weakness of Chinese rule over Tibet or other territories.

From a modern perspective, the kind of pervasive rule the Chinese communists applied on Tibet after 1950 has no precedent in history. But similarly unprecedented was the pervasive rule of the Chinese communists over the country. Former dynasties were happy with some 100,000 officials over a population 400 million in Qianlong times [5] .

Even if we multiply the number by 20 - thinking that on average one official might have employed a staff of 20 clerks, guards and secretaries - we still have just one official for every 200 people. Besides, it was a two-tiered system. The mandarins depended directly on the center, while the guards and secretaries depended on the local officials. In this way, the center would have a hard time bypassing a local official who could act as a local emperor. This left the administration of villages largely in the hands of resident grandees, members of rich local families who may have been related to a present or deceased official.

Conversely, the communists established party cells in every hamlet and quickly expanded party ranks. They enforced strict party discipline and education that allowed Beijing to reach out very effectively to every corner of the country. Modern telecommunication systems further enhanced this drive. There are now over 70 million party members in a population of less than 1.4 billion people. This is more than one official for every 20 people - an official-per-person ratio 10 times higher than in the previous dynasty.

Furthermore, in theory, all the officials depend directly on the center and can be centrally monitored. Theoretically, nobody can behave as a local emperor for long as the center has the ability and the organization to bypass middle or low-ranking officials. In a way, the party's new clout over Tibet can be seen as similar to its clout over the whole of China.

These arguments are important because they provide the necessary legitimization for the present Chinese rule in Tibet. Without it, China could claim Tibet on the basis of sheer force, a move that could weaken its stand abroad and at home. This idea came about after 1950.

With the establishment of the People's Republic, China had a government that, for the first time since the collapse of the Qing, marshaled both the capability and the determination to assert its domination over Tibet. For the leadership of the PRC - particularly its intellectual cadre - the vagaries of random conquests and submissions in the past no longer sufficed in making sense of history; in the environment of dialectic materialistic historiography, Tibet's inclusion within the Chinese state was now something to be asserted, proven, and justified scientifically. The ideological imperative obliged the PRC to deal more specifically with the nature of Tibet's historical inclusion within the Chinese state. Out of this milieu evolved the interpretation that has been in place for several decades now: the affirmation that Tibet became an integral part of China during the period of the Mongol empire when the Mongol rulers of China united Tibet and China. [6]

The ideology of the time could not accept the Chinese expansion on the Tibetan plateau based on purely geopolitical reasons. It had to produce an ideological discourse that justified the new PRC control over Tibet both in terms of liberation of the local people (befitting the communist ideal) and in historical terms (befitting the Chinese history of which the PRC wanted to be the heir).

These reasons introduced a drastic change in the vocabulary used for Tibet. Nationalist China was happy to describe Tibet within Chinese "sovereignty" (zhuquan [7] or as a "vassal" (fanshu) [8].

But the two definitions were tainted with politically incorrect colonial connotations that revolutionary China could not officially assume. Then, in the 1950s, China coined what has become the present standard designation of Tibet: zhongguo de yi bufen ("one part of China"). This is vague enough to withstand close scrutiny of the real nature of the past historical relationship between China and Tibet. But it was precise enough for the political purpose at hand: it can affirm that Tibet was firmly within the PRC. Then, the PRC produced a whole library of books documenting this historical precedent.

Yet this strong reliance on history also complicates the matter. Force, and victory by force, is not a sufficient basis to gain popular consensus. There must be more educated and more educating reasons, history being best considered as practical, based on precedents. This approach is certainly more "civilized", and it can work much better than sheer fist-banging on the table. However, it needs complicated acts of manipulating history and education - acts which can leave many loopholes to be exploited by competing interpretations of history; the longer the stretch of history being examined, the more loopholes. Western historians have noted time and again that, for instance, during the Ming Dynasty, there was no political authority over Tibet, that is: "there were no ordinances, laws, taxes, etc, imposed inside Tibet by the Ming". [9]

This casts a shadow on claims about the nature of the vassalage between Tibet and China. Traditionally in China, these loopholes were made up for by enforcing a politically expedient view of history, with all competing views of history suppressed. This is possible in a closely guarded environment, impermeable to competing views.

This approach worked until the mid-19th century, when the rest of the world was peripheral for China and the Chinese people. But modern China, in this world, is hardly impermeable, and attempting to enforce an "educated history" weakens the stature of official views overall. That is, if one doubts China's official claims on Tibet, then one will also doubt all other official claims.

Because of all of the historical controversies surrounding Tibet, it is apparent to both Chinese and foreigners that the issue is fuzzy. There might be more reasons for Vietnam - a country that has used Chinese writing for centuries, speaks a language close to southern Chinese dialects and was "conquered" during the Han Dynasty - to be considered part of China than Tibet. The latter speaks and writes a language very different from Chinese and has only more recent contacts with China proper. But recent history decided otherwise, so Tibet is within China and Vietnam is independent. Similar arguments could be made about Korea.

The case of Vietnam is of particular interest. In 1950, when China reached to Tibet and the Vietnamese border, Vietnam was held by France and encroaching there would risk war with a great power. Tibet, conversely, was without any strong protector. Great Britain, which left India in 1947 but still retained large Asian interests, could have moved in by setting up some sort of protectorate in Tibet and by providing assistance, including military assistance. It could then have placed troops on the Himalayan plateau overlooking the sprawling Chinese plains. It is understandable that newly born Maoist China wanted to avoid this situation.

Furthermore, New Delhi - embroiled in the Pakistani secession and the first Indian-Pakistani war - could not have the energy and will to stretch its claims over Tibet. India, recently independent from Britain, also had more than one reason to prefer the Chinese presence to a massive British comeback in the Himalayas, which also overlook the Indian plains. Even after the Dalai Lama's flight to India from Tibet in 1959, Jawaharlal Nehru was said to have consulted with Mao Zedong over the possibility of granting a safe haven to Tibetan refugees. Mao was said to have told Nehru that, after all, it would be better for the Tibetans to stay in friendly India than in unfriendly America.

This was reason enough to send Chinese troops to Tibet. Especially since the issue of territorial expansion was not then the blasphemy that it is in current political philosophy.

Territory or colony?
This also casts a different light on how we can understand and politically translate into contemporary terms what the English at the time recognized as Chinese "suzerainty" over Tibet. We should remember also that for Beijing "suzerainty" was different in Siam or Korea, and thus also in Tibet. How did "suzerainty" stand vis-a-vis the status of colonies at the time? We officially no longer have colonies, but some large countries, such as Russia and the United States, have fully integrated what might be regarded as former "colonial expansion" into their territories.

They were able to do so because of territorial continuity, which was missing with British or French colonies. There are similarities in China's claims over Tibet. In fact, the Lifan Yuan, which handled Tibetan affairs, is commonly translated as "office of colonial affairs," and Chinese writers at the time compared the Qing efforts in Tibet with contemporary colonial enterprises of the British, American, French and Dutch. [10]

Certainly, to reclaim colonies in the 1950s, a time of decolonization, was not appropriate for the PRC, as we have seen above. However, we can also see - for instance in the cases of Russia, America and other countries - that territorial continuity helped to preserve territories conquered or claimed in colonial times and "under-populated" by the original inhabitants.

In fact, in the 19th century, state organizations were different and even border respect was different. There were European states with clearly defined frontiers as well as commonly shared rights and mutual obligations. And there were territories that did not recognize the European political grammar and were thus considered land for conquest by the Western states. Qing China was a special case: too powerful to be rolled over, but organized along political lines different from those of the European political grammar. At the time, foreign diplomats (and possibly also later historians) tried to translate these Chinese political territorial claims in self-serving ways. These "translations" were very important because they could justify and legitimize all kinds of territorial encroachment on the Qing Empire.

In response to this process, at the beginning of the last century, Sun Yat-sen and his Nationalist party made claims that "retranslated" for his domestic and foreign audience the Chinese territorial position. Those claims became the landmark definition of modern China and included Tibet, Xinjiang and Mongolia. Furthermore, to stress the nobility of Chinese people vis-a-vis the aggressive "barbarians" from the West, Sun claimed 5,000 years of history, making China a few millennia older than the Western civilization born in the first millennium BC in Greece and Rome. This also became the standard measure to gauge the nobility of other nations. Countries just a few hundred years old were deemed young, thus unworthy, and could be looked down on.

It was clearly a political contraption that was useful at the time to boost morale among Chinese who felt they were being trampled by young, energetic, advanced and modern foreigners. Sun was saying that young was no good - old, ancient even, was the reason for true civilization. This was something that resonated in Chinese traditional culture, with its stress on old age: no country was older, thus worthier, than China.

Nationalist history and geography were the basis of the "Chinese characteristics" Mao's communists brought with them to power. However, despite the official nationalist position, since the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1912), no Chinese ruler was strong enough to govern all of China proper, let alone other claims. After 1949, the communists had the muscle to enforce all claims - that made the difference.

On the Tibetan side, things are not much clearer. While claiming their independence, the Tibetans provided scant historical evidence, in contrast to the massive amount of documents produced by the Chinese side. The crux of the Tibetan case for independence rests on the special Central Asian relation of priest-patron: the Tibetans were the priests and the Chinese were the patrons.

The precise political content of the priest-patron relation can vary with time and circumstances, but it is in theory a relationship between equals. This relationship could be politically consistent with one of vassalage, one of independence or some form of dependence. In fact, the Tibetan definition is more alien to present political circumstances than even the vaguest Chinese historical descriptions. The Tibetans downplay the Chinese historical argument by countering it with an argument establishing ties between a religious figure and a layman, a relationship which in turn is not recognized by China. It then becomes a dialogue between parties who are deaf to each other.

The stronger political case for Tibetan independence comes from the first half of last century when, because of China's weakness, Tibet was de facto independent. But so were many Chinese provinces. No country recognized Tibetan independence or provincial independence.

In these circumstances, the geopolitical reasons for sending troops to Tibet in 1949 could be more than enough to justify the present integration of Tibet into modern China. However, the 5,000-year scale - which has become standard knowledge for China - imposes a need for a proportionate stretching of all territorial claims. If 5,000 years is the standard, then Tibet has to be Chinese for at least 20% of its total history. Thus, we have the idea that Tibet was Chinese since the Yuan Dynasty, almost 1,000 years ago.

Presently, the situation has dramatically changed since the times of Sun Yat-sen's humiliated China and the early days of communist rule. The idea of 5,000 years of history does not make sense now. Then, it boosted morale among a depressed people, now it can make the Chinese overly arrogant. The Chinese, who will become a First World economy within a few years or decades, now need humility and a low profile if they want to continue developing peacefully. Its present territory is what Beijing claims; no government in the world wants to change it.

In fact, present China is both new and old, like Israel or the US. It is new because its present status was established and finalized in the 1950s, and it is old because modern China has roots stretching back thousands of years. Israel was similarly established around the same time but can claim heritage back to Moses and the Egyptian times. The US is young, established in 1776, but has a tradition that came from Europe, with its thousands of years of history.

A new historical timeline would also aid the political justification and legitimization of China's territorial claims: a shorter timeline means fewer loopholes to explain in this very permeable cultural environment.

This brings to the fore the delicate political element of the role of the Dalai Lama. Even the Communist Party, with Mao and after Mao, propped the Dalai and the Panchen above all other Tibetan lamas, and their prestige in the cultural and religious life of Tibet is immense.

This Dalai Lama, with his legendary status and world-wide fame, commands immense respect among Tibetans and even among Chinese. To a great extent, the Dalai Lama means much more to Tibetans than the pope does to Catholics. First, the pope "represents" God, he is not God. He is elected, although through the intervention of the Holy Spirit, and holds his position for 20 or 30 years at the most. The Dalai Lama is almost a living god, and holds his position for life, two or three times longer than any pope. Secondly, the Dalai Lama also embodies a national and cultural identity, elements that the pope willingly ignores.

Therefore, if Beijing officials encourage monks and common people to denounce the Dalai Lama - possibly to pave the way for a stronger recognition of the young Panchen Lama, who is loyal to Beijing - they may shoot themselves in the foot. It is very hard for a monk to renounce both his god-priest and his identity. It would mean to deny his faith and his being Tibetan, something that he cannot do. If he were to do so, why would he have chosen to be a monk in the first place? And being born Tibetan, how can he possibly give up being a Tibetan? It would be like asking a Chinese Christian to renounce his belief in Christ and his Chinese identity. Conversely, when pressured in this direction, it is much easier for a Tibetan monk to pretend to give in and wait for an occasion to express hate against the oppressor.

It could become a time-game. If the Dalai Lama dies soon and the Tibetan protests are kept under control so they do not escalate, then Beijing can think of promoting "its own" Panchen Lama, who will by then have more prestige than other exiled living Buddhas. Even if the case arises of having two chosen reincarnations of the Dalai, one controlled by Beijing and one controlled by the Tibetan exiles, Beijing might have some 20 years to keep a firm hold on the situation. By then the exiled Dalai might be out of all Tibetan games, fully replaced by the Panchen and the Beijing Dalai.

This would be the ideal situation for Beijing: it would have time and a chance to "Sinicize" Tibet fully. This, in turn, would set apart Chinese and exiled Tibetans in more than one way. The Tibetans in China could be "culturally killed' or at least "culturally maimed".

In fact, the Dalai Lama accused China of carrying out a cultural genocide in Tibet, destroying or thwarting all cultural legacies. However, this is an issue to which the Chinese are largely deaf. In the past 60 years, Chinese rulers have committed a "cultural genocide" on their own culture: they saw it as a necessary measure in the process of modernization and becoming an advanced nation. This brutal process is partly due to globalization, where local cultures disappear in one global melting pot.

Chinese can feel that they saved more of the Tibetan culture than they did of their own culture, and this could be the general feeling in the future. After all, China was a historical melting pot that managed to digest the Manchurian Qing, the Mongolic Yuan and the Turkic Tang, so why not the Tibetans?

However, if the Dalai Lama lives on for a few years and protests escalate and international attention on China does not end with the Olympics, Beijing must open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama or it will be heading for trouble. He could be the only one who can help appease the situation as he commands respect from Tibetans in and out of Tibet.

Moreover, if protests carry on, and Beijing drags its feet on talks with the Dalai Lama, then China may look very callous to the international community. The international community recognizes the Dalai Lama as a prestigious religious figure. Not talking to him for a long time will not help the perception of China abroad in a time when the world is growing more concerned about China's future intentions. The maiming of traditional Tibetan culture could be interpreted as a warning for other cultures, near and far.

In more than one way, the future history of China and Tibet will be determined by the events of the next decade and the Chinese handling of the present Dalai Lama.

Histories and nationalism
In this way, China should perhaps take a hard look at the role of history in Imperial China and in the Roman Empire.

In China, history was the domain of the emperor: he made it and wrote it. In ancient Rome, conversely, most historians sided with the senate and against the emperor. Because of this, we know that Caligula appointed his horse senator and Nero set Rome on fire. These emperors sound like madmen, although this cannot be entirely true since they maintained and expanded the empire in a crucial time. But the structure of the Roman state allowed a particular role for historians, who were quite independent-minded. Because of this, we also know that Hannibal, one of the fiercest enemies of Rome, was a great and noble general and that the Germans were a great warring people.

These stories about Rome's enemies and its shortcomings did not belittle Rome. Instead, they made it even bigger: it was an empire that managed to overcome and triumph over great difficulties and setbacks. In a way, the same tradition is preserved in present American journalism and contemporary history, where writers go to great lengths to detail American problems and to ultimately show the triumph of the "good American empire". This history is more convincing, especially in a culturally permeable world, because it does not rule out competing visions, and therefore it sounds real. Furthermore, with the final Roman victory, it proves the ultimate greatness of Rome because it was able to overcome all its troubles.

The same did not happen in China, where the official history covers all but convinces few. Presently, it could be said that there is no need for China to stretch history, to make up white or less-candid lies - even regarding its claims on Tibet. Devoid of the old ideological socialist mould, and forfeiting the idea of liberating people, the geopolitical reasons to control Tibet are more than enough to avert any theoretical challenge to China's rule. The cold geopolitical reasoning, however, has its complications, too. It may lead to dangerous calculations based solely on power, which may ruffle many feathers in the world. Geopolitics also has to be tempered with less harsh concepts that are fully in line with the official Chinese idea of social harmony. In other words, there must be good governance that gains the support of the people in and out of China.

The fact that Chinese government departments are working at adapting history to present political ends reveals to the outside world a general fear. With these stories, Beijing tells the world that the Chinese themselves first and foremost think they should not rule Tibet. This is perhaps the greatest and most real trouble for China.

On the other hand, history is such because the conditions are historical. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was historical: it is not a rule that can be simply applied everywhere, every time. Now historically, there seems to be a trend toward the Balkanization of the world, with more than 100 pro-independence organizations active around the globe. If they were all successful, we would have more than 100 new states [11] .

And if the rule of self-determination is carelessly applied, even more pro-independence movements could spring up. But then the newly independent states, in order to survive and prosper, would have to be integrated in larger international trade communities by "ceding" part of their territorial power to international organizations such as the World Trade Organization, the United Nations or the European Union, etc. So, what is really the point of secession in the first place? The ambitions of a minority group? Freedom from oppression by the present ruling elites of the people of one community? The political will to weaken a country by breaking it up? A mix of all of the above?

These seem to be the real questions, and the real solution should be trying to achieve good governance, not independence.

But pro-independence movements have become what communism was in the last century: a revolutionary, messianic answer to many mundane problems. Then, rational arguments are often nothing against emotional ones. This may be the scary part that lurks behind the pseudo-rational historical arguments for independence and which can spark fires of uncontrollable nationalism.

1. See March 21, 2008. Please note the date of the last draft: a week after the Lhasa riot.
2. Ibidem.
3. See Frederick W Mote Imperial China, 900-1900, Harvard 1999, p.877.
4. See Peter C Perdue China marches West, Harvard 2005, pp 241-243.
5. This is already the most bloated figure available for officials.
6. See Elliot Sperling, Policy Studies 7, 2004, "The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics", East-West Center Washington.
7. See Xie Bin "Xizang wenti" Shanghai 1926, pp 20-21.
8. See Wang Qinyu "Xizang wenti", Shanghai 1929, p 13.
9. See Elliot Sperling op. cit p 27. 10. See Wu Fengpei "Liangyu zhuzang zougao" Lhasa 1979, p 88.
11. Thanks to Fabio Mini for this concept. (2008-04-11 Asia Times)


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