Elliot Sperling: Tibet as ‘Hell on Earth’

Elliot Sperling, professor at Indiana University, writes for the Far Eastern Economic Review about Chinese government propaganda about Tibet:

There’s no doubt that ’s traditional society was hierarchical and backwards, replete with aristocratic estates and a bound peasantry. And there’s no doubt that Tibetans, whether in exile or in voice no desire to restore such a society. Many Tibetans will readily admit that the social structure was highly inegalitarian. But it was hardly the cartoonish, cruel “Hell-on-Earth” that Chinese propaganda has portrayed it to be. Lost in most discussions is an understanding that ’s demographic circumstances (a small population in a relatively large land area) served to mitigate the extent of exploitation. The situation was quite the reverse of China’s in the early 20th century, where far too little land for the large population allowed for severe exploitation by landowners. China’s categorization of Tibetan society as feudal (technically, a problematic characterization) obscures the fact that this socially backwards society, lacking the population pressures found elsewhere, simply didn’t break down as it ought to have and continued functioning smoothly into the 20th century. Inegalitarian? Yes. Sometimes harsh? Yes. But Hell-on-Earth for the vast majority of Tibetans? No. Traditional Tibetan society was not without its cruelties (the punishments visited on some political victims were indeed brutal), but seen proportionally, they paled in comparison to what transpired in China in the same period. In modern times mass flight from actually only happened after ’s annexation to the People’s Republic of China.

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