This past week, I was having a conversation with a Chinese woman. She was in her mid-twenties, well educated and almost fluent in English; in fact, I gathered that she was a teacher, at some points using English in her classroom. By all accounts, it was very similar to any conversation I would have in the US (disregarding her accent).
However, there was one startling difference. We ended up discussing a book that my roommate had recommended: “The Art of Happiness”. She said that she had researched the book, but couldn’t find anything about it online. It didn’t exist on Amazon. For those familiar with the book, the reason becomes apparent. Its author, the Dalai Lama, has been exiled and denounced within the People’s Republic of China.
When we explained who he was and eventually used a VPN to find an online picture of him, she recognized him as a Buddhist from Tibet. “We have conflicts with those from Tibet,” she explained, “because they do not like our government.” She even went on to explain how Tibet is clearly apart of China, and had been since ancient times. (Later, she would also explain how Japan and Korea were part of Chinese ancient territorial claims, although she did not suggest that they belonged to China at the present.)
On the global stage, the autonomy of Tibet has long been an issue international civil rights advocates. Tibet.org, for instance, dedicates itself to the cause of Tibetan liberation. The Dalai Lama, the 14th in a line of those with the title, has been exiled from Tibet for over 50 years, and periods of significant unrest have occurred in Tibet as recently as 2008. Starting in February of 2009, a series of self-immolations have also brought attention to Tibetan sovereignty; up to June of this year, “thirty-seven people, mostly current or former monks and nuns in their early twenties, had set themselves on fire in town and villages all over the Tibetan plateau.” (Red Rising, Red Eclipse, 2012).
Since 2009, a series a self-immolations have sought to bring attention to Tibetan independence
Some of Tibet’s ancient territorial rights are disputed, even by historians. The early dynasties likely had control of modern Tibet, but there were likely periods of autonomy during dynastic transitions. What is clear is that Tibet was its own sovereign nation starting in 1911. For almost 40 years, the 13th Dalai Lama (the predecessor to today’s 14th Dalai Lama) was ruler over present day Tibet.
In 1950, the newly formed People’s Republic of China under Communist Party rule incorporated Tibet. Following the 1959 Tibetan Revolution (an attempt at liberation that eventually forced the Dalai Lama into exile) and the Great Leap Forward (a Maoist initiative to industrialize the nation that eventually cost somewhere between 200,000 and 1 million Tibetan Lives), Tibet was completely merged under China’s government. The area remains the Tibetan Autonomous region in name only.
Today, separatist movements remain in Tibet and are championed by Tibetan exiles and human rights activists. Many outsiders have criticized the mistreatment and oppression of religion with the area, and even more have pointed to allegations genocide and infanticide in Tibet.
But you won’t find this information in a Chinese textbook. Our friend explained that Tibet is described as a land that has long belonged to China, and that proponents of Tibetan independence are separatist radicals. A common phrase among Chinese ‘patriotic youths’ is “Tibet is, always was, and always will be part of China.” There is no debate or discussion on the matter. A Google search will reveal none of this information, just as anything written by the Dalai Lama will not show up on Amazon.cn.
Our friend was willing to accept the possibility that the Chinese textbooks were misleading, or at the very least, incorrect. Such a view is refreshing and may indicate a change growing with the nation’s younger, educated population. But this remains one example of the skewed representation of historic events under the People’s Republic of China, an issue unlikely to change so long as the State remains insistent on pushing its views and denouncing the contrary.