Thursday, March 20, 2008

Between a rock and a hard place

I'm not in any way trying to justify the Chinese crackdown in Tibet. It's appalling; in a better world, principles of self-determination would convince China to simply allow Tibet to secede. Aside from the moral issues, Tibet is nearly worthless to China: there are no significant natural resources, the climate is so inhospitable that Chinese settlers have difficulty conceiving children, and Tibet has very little arable land, (perhaps China's greatest strategic need.) The Tibetan Plateau does contain the headwaters of the Yangtze and the Yellow River, and Tibet would certainly serve as high ground in the event of land war with India. But in light of China's rise to military superpower status, neither of these seems like a particularly important strategic concern.

So why does China insist on keeping Tibet in the face of enormous international pressure and condemnation? The pop psychology answer is that giving in to international pressure would involve a loss of face for the Chinese government; while there is some element of truth to this, I think the real answer is much more complicated.

1. Tibet's cultural and religious influence within China extends far beyond Tibet proper
It's important to note as a preliminary matter that historical Tibet is almost twice as large as the current Tibetan Autonomous Region. It includes almost all of Qinghai Province, half of Sichuan, and significant portions of Gansu and Yunnan. Despite significant Han populations, these areas remain majority Tibetan.

Tibet is not the only Tibeto-Burman region in China; when you include the Yi and Tujia, 3 of the 10 largest ethnic groups in China speak Tibeto-Burman languages and practice Tibetan religions -- a mix of animism and Tibetan Buddhism. China's designation of 56 ethnic minorities hides the fact that between 20-30 million people - not just the 5 million official Tibetans - have ethnic, linguistic, religious and historical ties to Tibet. These ethnic groups occupy around one quarter of China.

Tibetan Buddhism was adopted by both the Mongols and Manchus as an official state religion, with Tibet playing "Rome" to Genghis Khan's "Charlemagne". While practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism are vastly outnumbered by Chan and Pure Land followers among the Han, neither school is institutionalized to the extent that Tibetan Buddhism is. The fear the CCP must feel at the prospect of an independent Tibet can be illustrated by comparison. The Chinese government has fought the Vatican for 52 years over the issue of the Vatican's nominal leadership of what may be as few as 4 million Chinese Catholics. There are between 100 million and 600 million Chinese Buddhists; they have no Pope, no Primate, no Synod of Lutheran Bishops. Many of them are rediscovering religious traditions abandoned by their parents during the Cultural Revolution, and their religious principles are a grab bag of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and whatever else meets their spiritual needs. The prospect of the world's most influential Buddhist ruling an independent nation on China's borders, serving as spiritual leader to the ethnic minorities who occupy China's frontiers, and exerting influence over the ongoing Buddhist renaissance in China would be enough to make most governments nervous, much less the authoritarian CCP.

Okay, this is turning out to be a monster post, so I'm splitting it up.

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