Kids Say The Darnest Things

To my great surprise, the student I tutor in English, Nicole, asked me about Tibet last week. I don’t remember how she put it, but she wanted to know what I thought about it. Naturally, this put me in a difficult position. Her mom works in the Communist Party, and grandfather, as I mentioned before, is a veteran of WWII and the Chinese Civil War, having fought for the Communists against the KMT. Do I come right out and tell her what I think of her government’s policies against the Tibetans? Having already demonstrated surprising insight and individualism for a 17-year-old growing up in this environment, could she be looking to share her thoughts with a non-Chinese who won’t report her or tell her parents?

I tried to keep it as neutral as I could. I said from what I could tell, the problem is that people keep overreacting to each other – the Chinese and the Tibetans alike. (The latter is correct in at least some regards, that is, with those Tibetans who screwed things up for other Tibetans by turning non-violent protests into vandalism parties.) People just need to calm down, and talk to each other, and work out their differences peacefully. Pretty safe opinion, I thought, and close enough to my thoughts to make it clear that the Chinese government may also have acted badly.

That’s when I got disappointed. She basically repeated all the things that are said about the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama in the local press, and are probably said in schools. The Dalai Lama was a troublemaker, and he wants to take over the region and disrupt China’s Olympics. He was behind the riots, she told me. I was really left speechless. So what to say here?

I explained that this was largely not true: the Dalai Lama has actually said he supports Tibet remaining part of China for the time being, but with greater autonomy so that Tibetans may live with freedom and justice. He’s on the record supporting the Olympics, and opposing violent protests. I explained that there are parts of the United States, like Puerto Rico, who have voter referendums all the time over the question of independence, and that many other countries also understand that unless people want to secede to enslave people (like the Confederacy), people can secede if they so choose. But the trouble, I explained, with the Dalai Lama, is that many of his followers who are younger are impatient, and not willing to wait for the Dalai Lama’s non-violent strategies. These were the people who were violent during the protests, but they did not represent anyone by themselves. I offered her an analogy to a teapot. I explained that if you boil it, but keep everything clamped down so that nothing can escape, that eventually the teapot will explode. And that, I tried to explain to her, was what I thought happened in Tibet. People who had been mistreated, and the fire burned hotter and hotter with no place for the steam to escape in a constructive manner. So the teapot metaphorically exploded in Tibet: that’s what happed. So unless the fire can be turned down, or the Tibetans are given a means of letting off steam, things will keep happening this way.

But here’s what was really shocking to me. Maybe it shouldn’t have been. But I explained that one thing that Tibetans don’t like is that they are effectively governed like a conquered nation. A few token Tibetans exist in the the “provincial” government, but it’s an open secret that as in the rest of the country, real political power exists mostly in the Communist Party. And curiously, there are no Tibetans to be found amongst the cadres at the actual decision making levels, and every Chairman of the Tibetan Party since 1950 has been Han Chinese from other regions, most recently Hu Jintao himself, before he was elevated to the national party. Nicole responded, well, of course. The Tibetans aren’t ready to rule themselves, she explained. Maybe that will change one day, like in 50 years. Maybe some day, a Tibetan may even be able to be the national Party Chairman and President of all of China.

How sad. I had to let this slide – I had said too much as it was. But perhaps it shows that the idea that the Tibetans are bunch of backward superstitious mountain folk, needing the generosity of the enlightened Han Chinese civilization to improve their lot, is a deeply ingrained one here. In a related note, the other day, Allison and I happened to see a car sporting a rare political bumper sticker. (Shocking, I know, that political bumper stickers are extremely rare here.) The sticker had a map of China, and read, “Tibet, Taiwan, and the Nansha Islands are, always have been, and always shall be, inseparable parts of China!” (The “Nansha Islands” are what the PRC calls the Spratley Islands, a large group of islands disputed between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia.) This was interesting for two reasons. One, it was a restatement of the official government line that some person believed in so deeply that he/she wanted to put it on his/her car. And two, the bumper sticker was in English. Not in Chinese and English, just English. Gee, I wonder who the intended audience of that sticker could have been?

I think I have every right to be creeped out by this. When was the last time you ever heard an American get indignant and say something like, “Puerto Rico is and always shall be an inseparable part of the United States!” Or even something equivalent for Texas or California? I wonder if American readings on history emphasize history’s contingency to a greater extent than the Chinese, who may still have a quasi-Marxist conception of historical destiny. Certainly, one senses here the rise of a deeply nationalistic belief in destiny, as part of a shared narrative where China was mistreated by the nations of the world until, under the Communists, China regained its status in the world, and the rest of the world now has to respect and gaze in awe China’s “peaceful” rise. China may be old as a nation, but Chinese nationalism as such is still quite recent, recent enough such that it finds expression in ways that suggest, not confidence or even patriotism, but rather a very deep insecurity.


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