In response to my recent piece Barefoot Experts some readers wrote in to say that Tibetans should not fritter away their energy picking on experts and journalists in the West but should focus on countering propaganda from China. A reasonable request, on the face of it, but perhaps not too cued to the actual process by which propaganda from Communist China influences the outside world. Consider the most recent Chinese epithets hurled at the Dalai Lama: “a wolf in monk’s robes”, “a monster with a human face and animal’s heart” among others. No one in the West could possibly take such Cultural Revolution style denunciations seriously. So much of Beijing’s propaganda is so unrelentingly extreme that without considerable re-working and expurgation, even bowdlerization of sorts, by outside agencies, it would have absolutely no impact on public thinking in the West. In fact the effect would probably be negative.
The Chinese Communist Party has recognized this problem from its earliest days and cultivated left leaning journalists and writers in the West as Edgar Snow, Rewi Alley and others to present its version of things to the world. Quite often, as in the case of Snow and his bestselling book, Red Star over China, this method has proved very effective.
I am not going to discuss Western propagandists of the past who wrote on Tibet. A newly released book, China’s Tibet? Autonomy or Assimilation, by Warren Smith, (author of the masterful Tibetan Nation) provides extensive analysis of the works of China’s propagandists on Tibet as Anna Louise Strong, and Israel Epstein. He also provides, on the book’s website, detailed critiques of Stuart and Roma Gelder’s The Timely Rain, Han Suyin’s Lhasa, The Open City, and also the Chinese government’s version of Tibetan history, The Historical Status of China’s Tibet. I intend to post a review of Warren Smith’s new book in a few weeks.
Smith also tackles China’s propaganda efforts within Tibetan society, and the impact that such misinformation had, especially on the younger generation. He provides detailed information of such propaganda institutions as the Museum of the Tibetan Revolution and it’s most infamous and exhaustively invented exhibition of the “evils” of old Tibetan society, The Wrath of the Serfs. Warren Smith devotes a chapter to propaganda films, especially the feature film, Serf, made by a PLA film company in 1963. This unapologetically racist, debasing and viciously false representation of old Tibetan society and culture was enormously significant for Chinese audiences in the formation of their chauvinistic views about Tibet and China’s role there. The movie was shown all over China and Tibet
China’s propagandists on Tibet weren’t restricted to the Western world. The sub-continent produced its share. From Sri Lanka we had Ratne Deshpriya Senanayake, a leftist lawyer who was given a guided tour of Tibet in the mid- 60’s and wrote, Inside Story of Tibet. The chapter on Tibetan Buddhism is typical of the mind-bogglingly bogus scholarship that China’s propagandists get away with all the time. Take for instance his made-up-of-whole-cloth account of the origins of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Chenrezig): “One of the mythical rishis of Kailasa who commanded the reverence of pre-Buddhist nomad tribes of Tibet was known as Chen Rishi. ‘Chen’ in Tibetan language means ‘great’ (it absolutely does not! JN). ‘Rishi’ is a Sanskrit term meaning ‘sage’. So, Chen Rishi mean the great sage.” Senanayake visited the propaganda exhibition in Lhasa attacking the Panchen Lama, and he enthusiastically retails the vilifications depicting the Panchen Lama as a cross-dressing child-molester without even a fleeting consideration that the charges could be entirely false.
Then we had the right-wing Hindu politician and friend of China, Subramaniam Swamy, author of Hindus under Seige (released by the RSS Sarsanghchalak Sri K S Sudarshanj in 2006) who also visited Tibet and who made it his personal crusade to see that the government of India sent the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees back to Tibet. In a number of articles in the eighties and nineties, Swamy attempted to persuade the Indian leadership and the public that Tibet was politically and culturally (in fact throughout its entire history) an inalienable part of China, and that even Buddhism had actually made its way to Tibet not from India but through China.
A more recent Indian propagandist for China has been N. Ram, editor of the very influential paper The Hindu, who the Chinese gave the full Tibet tour a couple of years ago and who in 2007 published two detailed articles where he compared the Dalai Lama to Ayatolah Khomeini, maintained that Chinese Communist rule in Tibet was benevolent and progressive, and prophesied that in twenty-five years (possibly even earlier) China would remake Tibet into a fully developed society. The Tibetan film-maker, Tenzin Sonam, in his sharp rebuttal, China’s India PR Guy, effectively demonstrated that Ram was just another propagandist for Communist China and a “useful-idiot”; a label Lenin had memorably attached to “starry-eyed Western sympathizers who made a beeline for Moscow to report on the glories of the ‘Soviet paradise’.”
This year when Chinese students in the US were bussed in by PRC embassies and consulates and paid to oppose the anti-torch rallies in San Francisco and demonstrations in New York and elsewhere, the Chinese counter-demonstrators handed out leaflets “proving” that Tibet had always been a part of China, and that before the Communist invasion it had been a brutal and inhuman “slave society.” The one Western authority consistently cited in these documents to prove their claims was the American political scientist, Michael Parenti.
Parenti is a residual American radical leftist, a throwback to the sixties. He characteristically describes himself as a “progressive”, the word being for leftists as sought-after a designation as “compassionate” is for Tibetan Buddhists. From Parenti’s website: “one of the nation’s leading progressive political analysts … unrivaled among fellow progressive activists and thinkers… etc etc.” His subscribes to the Leninist dictum that Western democracies are “bourgeois democracies,” a charade to mislead the people into thinking that they were free and self-governing. Since the late 80s though, he is said to have noticeably modified his position. He also strongly argues that western accounts of Stalins’s great purges are exaggerated, and like the former Trotskyist, Christopher Hitchens, has attacked mother Theresa as a fraud and “fast-track saint.” On a more bizarre level he has attacked US intervention in Yugoslavia, and now heads the United States chapter of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milošević.
His main anti-Tibet screed is Frendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth, which he last expanded and updated in 2007. Starting off with this dramatic line “Along with the blood-drenched landscape of religious conflict…” Parenti embarks on a general smear of Buddhist societies throughout history and then settles on Tibet in particular, where he essentially regurgitates official Chinese propaganda, received through the writings of Anna Louise Strong, and Stuart and Roma Gelder, to which he provides a cover of scholarship by citing Tom Grunfeld and Melvin Goldstein.
He is so unbelievably ill-informed on Tibet that it would be laughable, if a generation of Chinese students in the US did not seem to regard him as the leading authority on Tibet. He writes that Kublai Khan (1215-1294) created the first “Grand Lama” or Dalai Lama (1391-1474) and a century later the third in line gave himself the title “Dalai” and then decided to “retroactively” recognize his two predecessors as Dalai Lamas. This would be on the level of nonsensical drivel as someone claiming that Napoleon Bonaparte appointed George Washington president of the United States, but that only till John Adams was elected did the title become official – or any claptrap along those lines. A more in-depth critique of Parenti, A Lie Repeated – The Far Left’s Flawed History of Tibet by Joshua Michael Schrei, appeared some years ago, and is well recommended.
Another propagandists for China with pretensions regarding Tibetan history is Tom Grunfeld of Empire State College NY, author of The Making of Modern Tibet. I have written a fairly long review essay, Acme of Obscenity on his anti-Tibet “history”, where I have also provided detailed information of his Maoist background and his lack of qualifications (no knowledge of spoken or written Tibetan or Chinese language – for starters). If a similar book appeared today about Blacks or Jews there would, without doubt, be universal public outcry. Tom Grunfeld writes that Tibetan mothers licked their babies as they emerged from the womb – like animals. He goes on to specify that Tibetan were cruel, dirty, ignorant, syphilitic (90% of the population suffering from venereal diseases according to TG) sexual degenerates who were observed making love on rooftops in full public view. Clearly this is intended to portray Tibetans as barbaric, subhuman, even bestial, thereby justifying Communist Chinese rule in Tibet as necessary and civilizing.
I have tried to find a suitable description or label for these anti-Tibet propagandists but Tibetan is a poor language for constructing political epithets. English, as Orwell has noted, is similarly inadequate when compared to the political language of the left in Europe, especially in Soviet Russia. Americans are also not very good at this sort of thing. During the cold war they came up with the weak “commie” and the pathetic “chicom” for Chinese Communist. At present the worst insult the right-wing in the USA can manage about China’s apologists and supporters is “panda hugger”; which only makes me think of my little daughter in bed with her toy bhiladomchen.
The Chinese have a rich vocabulary of words and phrases specifically to humiliate and insult, some of which were in use before the advent of Communist rule in China. For instance the word “running dog” (gǒutuǐzi 狗腿子 or zǒugǒu 走狗) meaning an unprincipled person who helps or flatters other, more powerful and often evil people, was in use in this sense since the Qing dynasty. Anyone who has gone through the pages of Communist Chinese newspapers (I have done so only in translation) will have noted its extensive use in official propaganda. So in the spirit of quid pro quo it might be fitting to confer on Parenti, Grunfeld and others the title of “running-dog propagandists”. An abbreviation “dog-prop” is offered, in the style of the Soviet “agit-prop” (meaning a person or organization engaged in disseminating official propaganda) but the contraction doesn’t appear to “take” all that well.
A distinction should perhaps be made between running dog propagandists and the barefoot experts discussed in an earlier piece. Though we might strongly disagree with the some of the writings and viewpoints of the latter, we should not regard them as propagandists for Communist China. In fact a case could perhaps be made that many such experts started off as supporters of the Tibetan cause, but drifted astray for various reasons, a crucial one possibly being the intellectual confusion and cynicism generated by the suicidal appeasement policies of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile.
The main running-dog propagandist to comment on events in Tibet this March has been Barry Sautman, Associate Professor, Division of Social Science, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Sautman appears to have taken on himself the task of playing down China’s repression of the people of Tibet and East Turkestan (Xinjiang). In the case of Tibet his essential thesis is that that claims of cultural repression against Tibetans by the Han Chinese are greatly exaggerated by Tibetan exiles in India and by the liberal Western press. And that even the term “cultural genocide” is a “straw man” that is used by exile Tibetans to malign China.
He makes his argument much more effectively than Parenti and handily dispenses a barrage of statistics and data his opponents appear unable to respond to immediately. Careful inspection reveals the dubious origins of many of his facts and figures, which he often presents only partially, to suit the specifics of his argument. For instance Sautman tells us that “Schools in Tibet promote the Tibetan language more than Indian schools do in ethnic Tibetan areas – in Ladakh, India, instruction is in Urdu, with a high dropout rate from Tibetans, but India is never accused of cultural genocide against Tibetans.”
The data that Sautman cleverly fails to include is that Ladakh (unlike Tibet) has traditionally had a mixed population of Buddhists and Muslims, and that education in Urdu is a legacy of Moghul rule, continued under the British by the princely state of Kashmir, and since independence by the Muslim majority state of Kashmir, of which Ladakh is a region. In point of fact Tibetan language education has actually undergone a resurgence in Ladakh in recent times, especially since 1995 with the formation of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, whereby much of the actual administration of the region including language and education has been effectively placed in the hand of elected local leaders.
Sautman also challenges the description of Tibet as a colony of China. He argues, “The problems of Tibetans are typical of minorities in the era of large modern states.” He holds the same for East Turkestan (Xinjiang) disputing the view of some experts that the region is an “internal colony” of China. He is skillful in applying mind-numbing academic gobbledygook to gloss over flaws in his argument. Take this sentence for instance: “Its (East Turkestan’s) relationship with the PRC centre and the political economy of Han/minority interaction indicate, however, that none of the elements of the internal colonialist concept are sufficiently present to warrant characterising Xinjiang as an internal colony of China.” What on earth is the “political economy of Han/minority interaction” or for that matter, what is an “internal colonialist concept”?
On the recent events in Tibet, Barry Sautman has been sternly reproving. In an article Protests in Tibet and Separatism: The Olympics and Beyond, he declares that the Tibet protests “differ from the broad-based demonstrations of ‘people power’ movements in several parts of the world in the last few decades. They hardly show the overwhelming Tibetan anti-Chinese consensus portrayed in the international media. The highest media estimate of Tibetans who participated in protests is 20,000 — by Steve Chao, the Beijing Bureau Chief of Canadian Television News, i.e. one of every 300 Tibetans. Compare that to the 1986 protests against the Marcos dictatorship by about three million — one out of every 19 Filipinos.”
Note the impressive statistics, the media estimates. The only catch being that we know media presence throughout Tibet was near non-existent during that period, so the best estimates become essentially vague guesses. Steve Chao only made it to a remote village of Bora in Amdo (Gansu province) where he witnessed an invasion of over one thousand villagers and tribals on horseback and foot.
“They came over the mountain on horseback, and on foot. More than a thousand ethnic Tibetans, pouring into a remote Chinese town not far from the Tibetan border. “ They stormed the government building, and though repelled by tear gas, pulled down the Chinese flag and raised the Tibetan national flag … These are the type of protests being repeated throughout the country. People, mostly Tibetans, demanding their freedom. And their own country.”
Did Steve Chao write that only 20,000 Tibetans participated in the events throughout Tibet? I don’t know. I googled for the “20,000” estimate and all I got was Sautman’s article, or his Steve Chao quote repeated in many left wing and anti-Tibet websites. Nothing directly by Steve Chao. Anyway, such estimates are meaningless. 20,000 is as much a guess as 100,000 or 1000,000, under the circumstances. The only clear impression we actually have from Chao’s various interviews and reports is that he witnessed a dramatic and great uprising against Communist China at the remote village of Bora, that Chao realised “was being repeated throughout the country.”
Sautman also makes a very apples and oranges sort of comparison here. Tibet is an occupied country completely controlled by a foreign military and security forces, and sealed off to the international media and the world. Every Tibetan was fully aware that Chinese reprisals against any sort of demonstration would be brutal and massive. Also no one expected that the initial demonstrations in Lhasa would trigger of uprisings and protest throughout Tibet, including areas incorporated into Sichun, Gansu and Qinghai provinces. Considering the massive investment in security, intelligence and control the Chinese had made over the years in Tibet, the spontaneity, size and extensiveness of the protests caught Chinese authorities completely by surprise. I don’t think anyone in Beijing would go along with Sautman’s contention that the events in Tibet were small potatoes.
The Philippines, although under the authoritarian and corrupt rule of Ferdinand Marcos was, relative to Communist China, an open society with representatives of the world media, NGOs and US and other government agencies present and operating relatively freely. The protests Sautman mentions came about because democratic elections had earlier been held for the presidency but reports of voter fraud by Marcos soon circulated which precipitated the demonstrations. The movement grew over the days with such religious figures as Jaime Cardinal Sin and even the defense minister and Vice Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces joining the protesters, which encouraged more of the public to join – swelling the numbers. The uprising in Tibet were entirely leaderless, spontaneous and unplanned, yet the vast extent of territory it covered, its unified nationalist message (the national flag and independence slogans) and its staying power – with protests still breaking out in Eastern Tibet – indicate the awakening of a powerful nationalistic and revolutionary spirit in the Tibetan people.
Satuman also declares, with not a shred of evidence or citation, that the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) and other exile entities responsible for the demonstrations were financed by the US State Department or the US Congress’ National Endowment for Democracy. It is almost certain that Sautman got his information from William Engdahl, well known for his views that both the 9/11 attacks and the theory of global warming are conspiracies. Engdahl’s Tibet article appeared in April 14th where he argued that the events in Tibet were engineered by U.S. government-backed organizations and funded by the US State Department, including the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Freedom House, as well as the Trace Foundation financed by the wealth of George Soros.
Sautman concludes “The protests in Tibet had no progressive aspect… There have been many movements the world over in which marginalized people have taken a reactionary and often racist road, for example, al-Qaeda or much of the base of the Nazis.”
When Tibetans, who are conducting probably the most peaceful struggle in the world for “national liberation” against a colossal totalitarian regime that thinks nothing of massacring thousands of its own students in the space of a few nights; when these Tibetans are accused of being reactionaries and racists operating in much the same way as Al Qaeda or the Nazis, it is imperative for Tibetans to realize that they are not just being criticized unfairly, or that their issue is merely being discussed, albeit unsympathetically, in a free or neutral forum. No, they are being set up. In this day and age being accused of anything related to Al Qaeda is highly undesirable. Just ask the Uighur freedom fighters locked up in Guantanamo.
It is important that Tibetan activist organization as the Tibetan Youth Congress or the Students for a Free Tibet, should not only challenge all such accusations and innuendos but should take anyone making them to court. I am not a legal expert but I think that Sautman’s charge that the TYC and other activist organizations took money from the State Department or the NED is clearly actionable.
At a time when more extreme societies and organizations think nothing of issuing death threats or pronouncing fatwa’s against their critics, and often go through the trouble of actually carrying them out, it is important that any Tibetan response to their detractors, critics, even proven agents of Communist China be civilized, measured and legitimate. Yet respond Tibetans must. No one could in any way object to a carefully considered and legal response by Tibetans to those who would spread malicious untruths about their country and cause. If the attacker in question were an academic or a journalist, I feel it would be the responsible thing for Tibetans to contact the institution the person works for, state their concerns and provide accurate information about the person’s bias, bigotry or lack of qualifications.
Tibetans should bear in mind that not only their struggle for freedom, but in fact their very history, culture – everything that has meaning for them – is coming under attack from what can only be described as propagandists and apologists for Communist China posing as impartial, even concerned, scholars and journalists; and, in a case or two (which will be discussed in the future) even from self-described philanthropists and some national leaders.
Holocaust denial has become an indictable crime in thirteen, mostly European countries. Whether one thinks such a law is too restrictive of free speech, or whether what happened in Tibet is like the Holocaust or not, everyone would surely agree that without the strenuous and determined efforts of Jewish organizations and individuals, in courts, the media, intellectual forums and academic circles around the world, the tragic history of modern European Jewry would most probably have been swept under the carpet in most countries, including the USA and Europe.
Tibetans need to move in a more resolute and organized manner to counter this assault on their cause and history. For a start a website could perhaps be created and the Tibetan public, supporters and friends regularly informed about the activities of running dog propagandists, and sometimes when warranted, the comments of barefoot experts. Some of our own politicians, lamas, scholars and others, attempting to appease Beijing to obtain a visa, to start or maintain a business or a project inside Tibet, have also unfortunately been sometimes persuaded to articulate Beijing’s propaganda regarding Tibet.
So much of the international impact of the tremendous revolutionary events in Tibet this year was simply neutralized by the comments of foreign propagandists and experts, and squandered away by the confusing and insanely self-destructive statements and actions originating from Dharmshala, and retailed in the West by the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) and others. Those who believe in Rangzen must reclaim the debate on Tibet so that the actual aspirations of the people inside Tibet are clearly represented to the world. It is also vital that this discussion be vigorous – yet open, honest and informed – and that it actively involves the Tibetan people and those who have the best interests of that nation at heart.
Before concluding I think it might be useful to familiarize readers with the “root guru” the tsawae lama, of nearly all these propagandists and “experts” on Tibet – especially since the late seventies. As I had occasion to mention earlier, most of these self-described “historians” and “scholars” writing on Tibet, nearly always had no command of written or spoken Tibetan and only superficial knowledge of Tibetan history or culture. If one studies their works it will be noticed that they generally tend to quote from each other in a sort of vicious circle, and also quote extensively from British travelers of the imperialistic pre-Younghusband expedition era, whose writings demonized old Tibetan society, in much the way as Communist propaganda does now, and for much the same reasons – to justify the violent military invasion of an independent nation and peaceful neighbour. No one I have noticed quotes from later, and significantly more accomplished British scholars on Tibet as Hugh Richardson or Alistair Lamb.
But the one academic, the Tibet expert that all running dog propagandists and barefoot experts unfailing cite and whose information and observations provide their work some appearance of scholarship and legitimacy, is the anthropologist, Melvyn Goldstein of Case Western Reserve University. Goldstein is not only fluent in spoken and written Tibetan, but has published a number of language books and dictionaries, that are useful, but which contain an underlying political message that the modernization and revitalization of Tibetan language was largely, perhaps even exclusively the doing of Communist China. I have discussed this contention in my four-part essay Newspeak and New Tibet: The Myth of China’s Modernization of Tibet and the Tibetan Language. Part I, Part II, Part III , Part IV & Part V.
Beijing appears to regard Goldstein as the premier Tibet scholar on its side. If one goes into the Chinese government white papers on Tibet and checks out The Historical Inevitability of Tibet’s Modernization, The first and key reference cited is Goldstein’s History of Modern Tibet: the Demise of the Lamaist State. This book is extremely important to China’s propagandists, because it is the only extensive account of pre-invasion Tibet and its government that is not only harshly condemnatory of Tibetans, but presents a very convincing appearance of meticulous research and authentic scholarship. In fact no Tibetan academic or the government in exile has thus far attempted to challenge it. I have undertaken a fairly long analysis of Goldstein’s book that I will post in two parts starting next week.
Goldstein has also written a major policy report on the Tibetan question. The Dragon and the Snowlion: The Tibetan Question in the 20th Century. In this he articulates his final solution for the Tibetan question, whereby the Chinese would retain political, military and economic control over Tibet, but would allow Tibetans to exist within “cultural reservations”. A few Tibetans wrote indignant letters when it first appeared in the Tibetan Review. I contributed an analysis, Atrocity and Amnesia in 1992. I later came to understand that Goldstein’s report contributed to easing the decision of many in Congress to go along with the Clinton administration’s de-linking of human rights and trade with China, and abandoning MFN. Tibet had then been the main sticking point in the MFN discussions. In fact June 3rd 1994, was the administration’s deadline for China to show progress on human rights in Tibet or face losing its most favoured nation trading status. Because of Goldstein’s various roles in Tibetan affairs then, as language expert, anthropologist, historian, and even statesman, some Western scholars jokingly referred to him as “Melvyn of Tibet”.
The report, now in pamphlet form, still has capacity to do damage and was recently quoted by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times as “the best introduction to Tibet”. With the help of the pamphlet Kristof concluded that it was as much the Dalai Lama’s fault as it was China’s that the situation in Tibet was so terrible; and that Washington should not support the Tibetan issue even through “symbolic gestures”. The title of Kristof’s op-ed of May 18, Fed Up With Peace seemed to imply that Tibetans were moving towards the path of violence. Therefore, by supporting their cause Americans might well be encouraging, even sponsoring a potential but dangerous extremist movement (as the Taliban in Afghanistan?). He concludes with this alarming observation “… at this rate Shangri-La may become a breeding ground for terrorists.”
Goldstein himself made a small but direct contribution to the discussions following the recent uprisings in Tibet with a letter to the editor. It was in response to an op-ed, Don’t Know Much About Tibetan History in The New York Times by Professor Elliot Sperling of Indiana University, who made it clear that although the question was controversial, the historical evidence for Tibet as an independent nation was more substantial than China’s claims to the country. Sperling concluded with the blunt observation that “Tibet was not ‘Chinese’ before Mao Zedong’s armies marched in and made it so.”
Goldstein immediately responded with a brief letter saying that though Tibet may have been a de-facto independent country before 1950, the USA and Great Britain did not recognize it as such. I could practically hear Goldstein whispered “so there” at the end of the sentence.
Goldstein has made it a point in many of the conferences and forums he attends, to constantly attempt to establish American non-recognition of Tibetan independence. He did it at a conference in Harvard in 2002, The Cold War and its Legacy in Tibet, and poured cold water on some of the romance and excitement generated by the discussions of the CIA’s secret involvement with the Khampa resistance in Tibet. Of course Goldstein was right that the American government had never recognized Tibetan independence, but his way of expressing it, as a kind of put down of the Tibetan freedom struggle, nettled me somewhat. I managed to get in a comment that Goldstein’s view was America-centric; that things did manage to happen in this world without the blessings of the USA; and that Tibet had become an independent country in 1912 without America’s approval or recognition.