Asking a question and answering it yourself is a rhetorical device known to the ancient Greeks as hypophora. To be effective the answer should follow the question smoothly, perhaps with a well-timed pause in between to heighten the effect. For example: “You ask, what is our aim? (pause) I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.” (Winston Churchill, June 4, 1940)
Bhuchung Tsering la of ICT, in his talk on the “Middle Way” this March at Minnesota, perhaps overdid the pause in his own particular hypophora.
Question: “When we talk about Tibet being independent before the Chinese occupation, what is it that we are really saying? Were the three provinces of Tibet part of the Tibet that the Chinese had occupied in 1949?”
Answer: (some paragraphs later) “When we talk about the independence of Tibet then we are talking about only those areas under the rule of the Lhasa Government when the Chinese Communist occupied it… “
Then he rounds off the sentence with his core message “…while the Middle Way Approach (MWA) covers all Tibetans.”
This question that Bhuchung la raised (and answered) before his audience of young Tibetans at Minnesota, now appears to be the leading justification MWA is advancing for why Tibetans must give up the goal of independence and embrace being part of China since it is the only way to unite the three traditional regions (cholkha) of Tibet. This bizarre pseudo-historical line of reasoning appears to be regarded by all MWA followers as more crucial than the economic case for MWA, which I dealt with in a previous post. His Holiness’ himself, at a talk at Madison, Wisconsin on May 14th this year, stressed the utmost importance of this rationale. The headline of the Phayul report says it all: “His Holiness the Dalai Lama today said that the unity of the three Cholkhas (provinces) of Tibet – Kham, Amdo, and U-Tsang – is more sacred than our souls.”
Simply put, MWA claims that an independent Tibet would only include Central Tibet and a small part of Eastern Tibet west of the Drichu (Yangtse river), and would leave out all of Amdo and most of Kham. Hence cholkha-sum, or the three traditional regions of Tibet, can only be united in a “genuine” autonomous entity within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as proposed by MWA. Or as Bhuchung la most confidently declared “Middle Way Approach covers all Tibetans”.
First of all, we have to ask Bhuchung la if he actually means that China has now agreed to allow all Tibetans of the three cholkhas, to be united in one autonomous entity? No, of course not. If you remove the small puffery from his declaration, what Bhuchung la really means is that Dharamshala has requested, or rather pleaded with the PRC to consider its proposition for a “genuine autonomous entity” within the PRC.
That this request has been flatly and repeatedly rejected by Beijing twenty-five times in around twenty-five different negotiations**, is, of course, never mentioned at all. So, far from the Middle Way “covering all Tibetans”, this ragged fig-leaf of a policy didn’t even provide cover for our two MWA negotiators Lodi Gyari and Kalsang Gyaltsen, from the extraordinary humiliation they were subjected to by a mangy CCP functionary (Zhu Weiqun) of the United Front Work Department, before the international press in Beijing.
There never really was a good time to ask China to expand TAR to roughly three times its present size and, ahem, let us Tibetans run it. But if there ever was a moment when something like this could at least have been touched on (without the messengers being insulted and abused) it might have been when China’s plan for establishing the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was first broached to Tibet’s leaders.
This happened in 1956 on His Holiness’s state visit to China. In his biography My Land and My People, the Dalai Lama mentions that at his second private meeting with Mao Zedong, the chairman told him that it had initially been decided “…to govern Tibet directly under the Chinese government but now he did not think that would be necessary. Instead of that, he added, they had now decided to set up a Preparatory Committee of the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART). He asked for my opinion.”
This might have been a moment to suggest to Mao that Kham and Amdo should be part of the proposed Tibet Autonomous Region. There were justifiable grounds for this. First of all Mao had asked for the Dalai Lama’s opinion, 2. China did acknowledge that most, or at least many of the so called “minority areas” were ethnically and culturally Tibetan, and 3. the road to Lhasa was still incomplete and China’s control of Tibet far from secure.
Of course, the odds were against China accepting any such counter-proposal but, at the minimum, an important historical fact would have been established. Furthermore, this might at least have served as a bargaining ploy to wring a few concessions from the Chinese regarding the authority of Tibetan government. It might also have been a good platform to raise the issue of Communist repression in Kham and Amdo. The Dalai Lama and His government had been receiving many complaints from monasteries and local leaders even before the ’56 Uprising.
But the Dalai Lama did not bring this up at Beijing, and even later the question of incorporating Kham and Amdo into TAR was never raised by the Tibetan government. Tsering Shakya in his history of modern Tibet, The Dragon in the Land of Snows says: “It appears that the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan leaders seem to have welcomed the decision to establish PCART. This had at least postponed immediate ‘democratic reforms’.” Democratic reforms being the misnomer for the violent seizure of the traditional authority of chieftains and monasteries by the Communist Party, which was being carried out in Kham and Amdo.
Tsering Shakya la also mentions that “This marked the period when the relationship between the Chinese and Tibetans was at its best.”
But one man in Lhasa was about to disrupt this relationship. The first step in Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang’s grand strategy for Tibetan independence was calling for the unity of Kham and Amdo with Central Tibet, within the ancient frontiers of cholkha-sum or the three traditional regions of Tibet. To symbolize this unity he hit on the idea of presenting a magnificent Golden Throne to the Dalai Lama, paid for with contributions raised from people of all three regions.
The genius of the plan was that although it appeared on the surface to be merely an extravagant religious ritual, especially to the Communists, it was in fact a political statement, a declaration of independence, and furthermore a declaration of the unity of the three traditional regions of Tibet, under the sovereign rule of the Dalai Lama and his Ganden Phodrang government. Gompo Tashi also used the planning and management structure of the golden throne project as a cover to secretly organize the Four Rivers Six Ranges resistance movement.
Gompo Tashi had used history and religious ritual to push forward an agenda for militant action against the Chinese, but later in exile, especially in Dharamshala, the actual freedom struggle itself soon became moribund and stuck in ritual. The dynamic concept of cholkha-sum soon became fixed as official doctrine to be repeated in TIPA songs, school text-books, and the national anthem. It was also enshrined in the Dalai Lama’s 10th March statements and other speeches and writings.
Cholkha sum become the framework within which the exile elections were organized. This system took no consideration of the actual composition of the exile population, or the problems resulting from the way in which exile Tibetans were soon scattered all around South Asia and later Europe and America, with, of course, no regard for their cholkha origins. Not surprisingly parliament became, in practice, a department of the exile government, and MPs (chithue) messenger-boys, who toured the exile settlements and communities to inform the people of this or that government decision or policy. By and large, parliament was unrepresentative of the actual interests of the exile Tibetan populace, but as a symbolic body it could perhaps be said to represent the people of three traditional regions of Tibet who had no democratic representation under Chinese rule.
There was no intellectual effort made to discuss and work out some of the complications and inconsistencies that existed within the cholkha-sum formulation. All Tibetans were aware that large tracts of Kham and all of Amdo had not been within independent Tibet for over some centuries, and that people of other ethnicities: Mongol, Chinese, Hui, and others, now also inhabited these areas alongside Tibetans. The historian Shakabpa in his early Yale University edition of his Political History had been careful to define cholkha-sum as “ethnic Tibet”. (pg12) In his expanded Tibetan language edition he writes that when Drogon Chogyal Phakpa, the Sakya ruler unified Tibet, “there was a broad division of Tibet into three “sources” (byung khungs khag sum) named chol-kha.” (pg 26)
But in Dharamshala these inconveniences were brushed aside and the three traditional regions now formally labeled “provinces” as if they had been actual administrative units within independent Tibet before the Communist invasion. Note the usage of the label “province” by Bhuchung Tsering la and in the Phayul report. Technically speaking, states and provinces (nga-de, zhing-chen) are political subdivisions of countries, and constitute actual administrative districts with defined boundaries. It is for this reason that careful scholars have always preferred to use the term “ traditional region” for “cholkha” as this term is not necessarily politically-defined as the term “province”. Furthermore the term region is generally broader in scope, only requiring some special characteristic (geographic, ethnic, historical etc.,) to set it apart from neighboring areas.
It would have been the sensible and productive thing to do, to invite historians as Kungo Shakabpa, Samten Karmay la and others (perhaps even organize a conference or two) to work out a definition of Tibet that would encompass cholka-sum in a way that was in keeping with actual historical reality, and which would also be reasonable and convincing in terms of international law. I think something like this was completely do-able, and I will provide my own intellectual validation for cholkha-sum at the conclusion of the second part of this essay.
But since in Dharamshala cholkha-sum had taken on the aura of official doctrine that the Dalai Lama himself had pronounced upon, inconvenient details were glossed over. Nuances are always lost when historical accounts and national polices are formulated around faith and propaganda. Of course this sort of convenient simplification of history led to criticism by some Tibetan and foreign scholars (both hostile and supportive). But these were ignored by bureaucrats and politicians in Dharamshala, for whom the cholkha-sum doctrine was now absolutely beyond criticism, even discussion.
But that was twenty years ago. Now that the Dalai Lama has given up Tibetan independence, you have officials like Bhuchung la diligently rewriting official doctrine and explaining to a new generation of Tibetans (in roundabout hypohoras) why cholkha-sum, once officially established as the three inalienable “provinces” of independent Tibet, must now be regarded – at least in the historico-legal context of independent Tibet – as dubious as the exotic “mutton” being recently sold throughout China. These revisionist presentations always conclude on a reassuringly optimistic note – that in spite of this setback the precious unity of cholka sum can yet, oh yes, be realized, but only within the sovereign confines of the PRC, and only after every Tibetan, especially those few noisy activists-in-exile, have been forced to give up their hopeless dream of a free and independent Tibet.
Theologically speaking – what was once immutable dogma has now become excommunicable anathema.
* Catch 22, a satirical novel of World War II by Joseph Heller, is one of the great American literary works of the 20th century. The novel is a critique of bureaucratic reasoning and the self-contradictory circular logic that it often engenders. The term “catch-22” has now come to mean a paradoxical situation in which an individual cannot or is incapable of avoiding a problem because of contradictory constraints or rules. Often these situations are such that solving one part of a problem only creates another problem, which ultimately leads back to the original problem. Catch-22s often result from rules, regulations, or procedures that an individual is subject to but has no control over.
** There have been so many negotiations that it is hard to keep track of all of them. Lodi Gyari and Kalsang Gyaltsen headed nine, Gyalo Thondup thirteen, Juchen Thupten three (?), and there were others that I can’t remember off-hand. I would be grateful if anyone could let me have some exact figures. Nearly all Tibetans negotiators appear to have been insulted and humiliated by their Chinese counterpart at one one point or the other. In fact in an interview that Kungo Gyalo Thondup kindly granted me in 1995, he stressed the fact that Chinese leaders had lectured and scolded him like a child.