Review: Authenticating Tibet

Authenticating TibetEdited by Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille (Univ. of Ca. Press 2008)

Review by Craig Dietrich from May 2008 CAFAM Newsletter

For people outside China, the Tibetan situation typically appears black and white. Probably most non-Asian Americans sympathize with the Dalai Lama and the exile Tibetans. Mostly it is a question of human rights and repression of Tibetan culture and religion. They see no problem with the Tibet reporting of Western media.

They are probably unaware that, many people in the Chinese-American community are inclined to take a view closer to the Chinese government’s. It asserts China’s right to Tibet, points out China’s assistance to Tibet, and criticizes the intransigence of Tibetan separatists inside and outside of China. This view charges that Western media are almost always negative in their reporting on China.

Of course, as with all protracted confrontations, the issues are actually mixed and murky. Even simple questions — such as: What is “Tibet” and what are its boundaries? — are contested. The opposing sides urge starkly different facts and interpretations. So how can the interested fair-minded individual sort it all out?

A book that has just appeared in English is an excellent place to start. It began as a French publication (2002) Le Tibet: est-il chinois? Reponses a cent questions chinoises , edited by Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille. An adapted and updated translation has come out in 2008, entitled: Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions (University of California Press).

The book is organized like a booklet published in 1989 by the Chinese government: 100 Questions about Tibet. That booklet was updated in 2001. Blondeau and Buffetrille recruited a group of academic experts on Tibet and assigned them these questions, according to their fields. They were to provide a synopsis of the official Chinese position and then add factual information and their own analysis.

The one hundred questions are in ten groups: historical facts, human rights, the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan population, the right to autonomy, culture and education, economic development, living standards, and the 1987-88 riots in Lhasa.

Although partisans on both sides will not like what the experts say, the latter do attempt to remain even-handed and analytical. On balance, they correct the official Chinese claims more than the Tibetan ones, in part because some of the Chinese assertions are so dogmatic and ideological. But the Tibetans by no means get a free ride.

For example, the scholar dealing with economic questions assesses the government’s claim that, since Liberation, large amounts of investment have poured into the Tibet Autonomous Region, and also the Tibetan claim that Beijing has extracted more economic benefit from Tibet than it has invested. Both of these positions seriously overlook or misrepresent complex facts. The government glosses over the Maoist years, when political zeal and attacks on the wealth of monasteries greatly disrupted the existing economic relationships. By the time this devastation had run its course, Beijing was forced to start subsidizing Tibet’s economy.

In the reform period since about 1980, and especially in the 1990s, considerable investment has come in. But it has not resulted in increasing the productive capacity of Tibet. About 85% of Tibetans still live in the rural areas, and they remain among the poorest people in China.

As for the Tibetan view that China drains wealth out, the author points out that very little development of Tibet’s natural resources has actually taken place, in large part because geography makes such extraction too costly. The central government and other provinces have sponsored many projects which probably cost more than the benefits they bring. But from Beijing’s point of view, the overarching objectives are military and strategic.

The novice will find parts of this book fairly heavy reading, because it assumes a certain degree of knowledge about Chinese history. But with perseverance and a few Googles, the general reader will come away much better informed about one of the world’s more anguished disputes.

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