Tibetan Culture: Going the Way of the Apaches, or the Jews?

Commentators are beginning to take a longer term look at the effects of China’s policies in Tibet in the wake of recent unrest, and are asking, as Ian Buruma does in the Los Angeles Times, if Tibetans are headed for cultural destruction like that suffered by the American Indians:

If has been severely damaged, Chinese communism has barely survived the ravages of the 20th century. But capitalist development in China has been even more devastating to Tibetan tradition. Like many modern imperialist powers, China claims legitimacy for its policies by pointing to the material benefits. After decades of destruction and neglect, Tibet has benefited from enormous amounts of Chinese money and energy to modernize the country. The Tibetans cannot complain that they have been left behind in China’s transformation from a Third World wreck to a marvel of supercharged urban development.

Along the way, regional identity, cultural diversity and traditional arts and customs have been buried under concrete, steel and glass all over China. And all Chinese are gasping in the same polluted air. But at least the Han Chinese can feel pride in the revival of their national fortunes. They can bask in the resurgence of Chinese power and material wealth. The Tibetans can share this feeling only to the extent that they become fully Chinese. If not, they can only lament the loss of their identity.

The Chinese have exported their version of modern development to Tibet, not just in terms of architecture and infrastructure but people, wave after wave of them: businessmen from Sichuan, prostitutes from Hunan, technocrats from Beijing, party officials from Shanghai, shopkeepers from Yunnan. The majority of the people living today in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, are no longer Tibetan. Most people in rural areas are Tibetan, but their way of life is not likely to survive Chinese modernization any more than the ways of the Apaches did in the United States.

Buruma concludes by saying that Tibet’s best hope may be to survive in the , as Jews did. Writing along similar lines, the Jerusalem Post asks, “Are Tibetans the new Jews?“:

It took Jews almost two millennia to re-establish an independent state in their homeland. During that time, later-arriving Arabs settled in the land and claimed it as their own. Despite Judaism’s numerous ritual reminders of Zion’s centrality, Jewish historical ties to the land were conveniently forgotten by most of the world, which came to view modern Jews as having no connection to the ancient Israelites who once populated the same land. As a result, returning Jews were regarded as colonialist interlopers and Arabs were seen as indigenous innocents suffering at the hands of Jewish pretenders.

Tibetans now face a similar inversion of history.

How long will it be before Tibetans are viewed as a relic, and perhaps bothersome, minority in their homeland similar to the condition of Native Americans in the United States, Formosans in Taiwan, or Serbs in Kosovo?

The Los Angeles Times also looks at the future of Tibetan Buddhism in light of the Dalai Lama’s recent threat to resign his post if protesters in Tibet continue to use violence.

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