On the eve of President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, Tibetan-American Tsewang Namgyal offers his perspective on how Tibetans and Chinese can work more effectively toward shared goals:
A casual conversation with a cousin who spent his early life in Tibet was one of my most enlightening experiences. He helped drive into me the importance of really understanding the needs and solutions offered by the Tibetans in Tibet. In early part of 1980 my cousin had moved to India. In 1992 both of us immigrated to the United States under a special program by the United States government. Soon after he received his US citizenship my cousin decided to go back and see his immediate family members in Tibet. Since he had not been back for a number of years he bought many presents to take back. I asked him out of all the presents which one he felt his younger relatives would appreciate the most. He responded by saying binoculars. I was surprised by his answer because I assumed the response would be thick jackets or brand name sneakers. Sneakers in particular were prized gifts for us Tibetan refugee youths in India.
On further inquiring my cousin mentioned that when he lived in Tibet he herded yaks. He said he used to take the animals out into the hills and it was common practice for the villagers to let their animals loose in the hills. He said in the evenings they herded the animals and took them back home. My cousin recalled that many a times his animals roamed into distant hills. He remembers looking for the stray yak and sometimes climbing hills to find that this was not his animal. He said now with the binoculars they will not have to waste their energy.
This experience made me realize that our needs do not necessarily equate to the needs or interest of others. It encouraged me to research further the actual situation in Tibet rather than be guided by my assumptions. It also made me realize that if we in exile, despite our blood relationship and trust, have difficulty in understanding the genuine needs of Tibetans in Tibet how can Chinese policy makers living in Beijing be very confident that they understand the situation?
In 1999 I had the opportunity to take my first trip to Tibet and China. Since then I have traveled a few times covering the three Tibetan provinces. The landscape is truly beautiful. Through my interactions with the local Tibetans and observing their relationship with nature it reinforced in me the importance of preserving our unique culture.
From my travels and research I also had an opportunity to witness the spectacular growth of China’s economy. I appreciate that this success is not based on luck but on the hardship of the Chinese people and the visionary leadership of Deng Xiaoping. I also learned from my Chinese friends, the misguided policies of Mao Zedong such as the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Cultural Revolution where millions were needlessly persecuted and died of starvation. A story from a Chinese friend in particular sticks out in my mind of the situation during those periods.
My friend mentioned that his father was imprisoned for a simple joke he made when USSR and China were close friends. My friend’s father had jokingly commented that the Russians had really not much to give the Chinese people except ice. One of his “friends” reported this comment to the authorities. My friend’s father was arrested and put in prison. This was the period where even children were encouraged to spy on their parents. Shortly after his release he died due to the traumatic experience. Meanwhile my friend’s aunt quickly adopted my friend, and strategically changed his family name. If she had not done so, my friend would not have had the opportunity to complete his education in China and also be penalized for his father’s actions.
Today China’s policy on Tibet is reminiscent of the Mao era. Any genuine criticism of the government policy is banned and local people are not able to share their true grievances or offer their solutions. My contacts in Tibet openly indicate that complaining is like talking to a rock or worse still one can be labeled a splittist and can get into dire straits. Corrupt officials take advantage of this situation and profit from it.
The results of China’s misguided Tibet policies have been exhibited through the devastating 1998 Yangtze River floods, which were caused by excessive deforestation and affected millions of Chinese people, and popular political demonstrations (sometimes bloody) all throughout Tibet in March 2008. Fifty years since China’s occupation the relationship continues to worsen despite all the claims of development.
Tibet and China are linked both in fate, history and our geographic proximity. Today there is no denying that there are many difficult political outstanding issues that may take a long time to resolve. However, in the economic realm both share a common interest to reduce poverty and maximize prosperity. A prosperous Tibet is beneficial to China and vice versa.
The first step both Chinese and Tibetan leadership can make is to independently investigate the actual conditions on the ground and develop pragmatic policies. Tibetans also need to be recognized for their contribution to China’s economic growth as a source of natural resources and use of her land rather than treated in a very patronizing manner. Unless a relationship is built as a partnership it would prevent free flow of ideas, make it difficult to identify the problems and formulate effective solutions.
We Tibetans in exile and our supporters also need to independently reevaluate our own efforts. For illustration purposes I would like to share a few thoughts on the Tibet Policy Act (TPA) of 2002 to reflect the importance of having more pragmatic policies from outside. TPA is one of our greatest success stories and is a reflection of the hard work of many individuals and organizations especially the International Campaign for Tibet. TPA promotes Sino-Tibet dialogue, supports the establishment of a U.S. consulate in Lhasa, provide scholarships for Tibetans and funds poverty alleviation projects in the Tibetan plateau to name a few.
Not to diminish its importance it would not be prudent on my part if I did not highlight my perceived weakness of the TPA on the economic realm. TPA established guidelines for U.S. backing of potential development projects in Tibet through the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (“USTDA”), the Export-Import Bank and through support by international financial institutions such as the World Bank. The guidelines claim to reflect those released by the Tibetan government in exile and call for “respect for Tibetan culture” and the “active participation of Tibetans” in their own economic development, which would “neither provide incentive for, nor facilitate the migration and settlement of, non-Tibetans into Tibet.””
The clauses in the TPA are well intentioned but I believe since 2002 no Tibetan has been able to tap some of the mentioned agencies such as the USTDA, EXIM Bank and the financial institutions to give Tibetans a competitive edge in business. At the request of a Tibetan entrepreneur whom I tried to assist in one of his ventures, I did check to see if his organization can tap the USTDA. Through this effort I realized that it can be extremely difficult for Tibetans in Tibet to tap USTDA.
I believe on the economic realm the key mission should be to increase the competitive of good Tibetan entrepreneurs in Tibet. Legal institutions and regulations should be set up or strengthened to filter out bad projects. Within the law Tibetan entrepreneurs should be allowed to become very profitable. The reality is money does attract talent. Just as NGOs need funds to survive, a business needs profits. In the end, for Tibet to become economically strong it will have to be lead by our entrepreneurs. A self-sustainable Tibet is better for Tibet and China than a subsidized region.
Not much argument needs to be made to prove that material needs are a necessity. There is no doubt that Tibet has much to learn from China in economics. However, I feel confident that there are lessons that China can learn from Tibetans to govern China more effectively and help develop her country.
As a young Tibetan refugee in India I feel fortunate that His Holiness the Dalai Lama and our elders never encouraged us to avenge our suffering through violence. They remind us that China also suffered terribly under their leaders’ bad policies. They teach us that the real cause of suffering is due to destructive emotions such as hatred, jealousy, pride and the lack of understanding that we are all interdependent. These destructive emotions disturb the natural clarity of our own minds and blind our common senses. To impress on young Tibetans this point and danger of not having control over one’s own mind our elders occasionally share this funny story.
A certain Tibetan Buddhist monk was told that he would have to choose from among three things: to have sex with a woman; to kill a goat; or to drink alcohol. After due consideration, the monk decided that having sex would break his vow of celibacy, and that killing a goat would be taking a life, but drinking alcohol, although it involved breaking a monastic rule, didn’t seem quite as bad. So he drank, got drunk, then killed the goat and had sex with the woman. The story reminds us that if we are not able to protect ourselves from the intoxicants of our mind we make bad decisions.
The Chinese government unfortunately nowadays due to their political and economic clout have fallen victim to their own pride when dealing with Tibet. The very fact that they see the Dalai Lama as a problem, rather than a solution, is a case in point. Pride has become one of the main obstacles for China in resolving their Tibet problem.
China’s production and consumption levels have increased spectacularly. However, through my interaction with Chinese and Tibetan friends one can sense that the people are not necessarily happier because they are not machines. If this is not rectified and the benefits of positive emotions like love, kindness and compassion are not highlighted the whole country could come easily crashing down if another leader like Mao Zedong comes to power.
I am confident that through continual collaboration of Tibetan and Chinese people, with the kind support of concerned people, we will be able to pressure the Tibetan and Chinese leadership to work together effectively. Through collaboration I am confident that Tibet will become a success story for China. In the process I believe we will make China a truly harmonious nation.
The author is an MBA graduate from the Thunderbird School of Global Management and a BA from Dickinson College. He currently works in the banking field with a focus on the energy sector. Tsewang is one of the Founding Board of Directors of Students for a Free Tibet, the first Tibetan to officially enlist in the United States Military and served as the Executive Director of the Tibetan Community Center Project (NY) from 2007-2008. He can be reached at [email protected]