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The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947

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By Tsering Shakya



Tsering Shakya’s book is a breath of fresh air. which deliberately avoids the polemics that so frequently pervade scholarship on Sino-Tibetan relations. In fact, he states that his goal is to offer some correction to both Chinese and Tibetan historical renditions that have contributed to a “denial of history,”‘ a process which necessarily entails a negation of responsibility. He succeeds in this task by presenting a picture of Tibetans that is not timeless nor characterized by a uniformity of interests; by documenting periods of Tibetan cooperation with and co-optation by the Chinese; by explaining the multifaceted nature of contemporary Tibetan revolts and demonstrations: by illustrating ways in which the constantly shifting international scene has imposed obstacles to and opened up opportunities for Tibetans to voice their grievance ; and by revealing Communist Chinese assumptions and strategies that have served to undermine their nation-building project.

book cover for the dragon in the land of snowsShakya does not depict Tibet as a sleepy. mystical. harmonious kingdom on the eve of the Chinese invasion. In fact, he argues that in the 1920s, the thirteenth Dalai Lama made a deliberate decision not to join the League of Nations because he didn’t want his country overrun by foreigners. Of course, the majority of Tibetans, peasants and herders, were illiterate, but a handful of educated and highly positioned Tibetans were aware of and interested in global developments. Moreover, there were monastic and regional divisions such as those between Lhasa, the Panchen Rimpoche and eastern Tibet or between peasants and aristocratic and government elites that the Chinese later exploited to their advantage.

Secondly. Shakya argues that against the backdrop of Chinese militarism and coercion, some Tibetans have endorsed and actively participated in executing various national policies instituted by the PRC government. He contends that the Tibetan traditional elites were willing to abide by the Seventeen-Point Agreement because they believed that their status and privilege would remain virtually unchallenged, thereby misreading the meaning of autonomy for the Chinese. He also points out that poor Tibetans did benefit from the initial land reforms (but not the collectivization that followed) and that there were Tibetan Red Guards who engaged in the destruction of temples and monasteries. Additionally, in the post-Mao era, he notes that intelligentsia who support China’s recent “modernization” efforts and oppose the open expression of nationalist sentiments for the fear of further repression.

Thirdly, Shakya presents a complex analysis of Tibetan revolts and demonstrations. For example, he posits that whereas the Khampa revolt in Eastern Tibet ultimately served as a catalyst for a more widespread Tibetan uprising, the Lhasans were initially resentful of the Khampans for stirring up trouble, in part, because of longstanding stereotypes concerns Khampan unruliness. He also mentions two revolts that are less commonly referenced; one movement in 1954 made up of traders and low-ranking officials, and another in 1969 led by a Tibetan nun named Thrinley Choedron. Although distinctive, both movements were targeted as much against Tibetans who collaborated with or profited from the Chinese as against Chinese occupation itself. Furthermore, Shakya argues that the demonstrations of the late 1980s and early 1990s, even those with explicitly nationalist content, were about (although not singularly) grievances concerning social and economic inequities fostered by China’s economic development programs, especially their rapid implementation since the mid-1980s.

Fourth, Shakya emphasizes that Sino-Tibetan relations have not evolved in an international vacuum. Most significantly, he stresses that Tibetan endeavors to captivate the global arena have taken place amidst the shifting alliances and concerns of India and the United States. For India, sympathy and open support of Tibetans have fluctuated due to such concerns as not wanting to appear imperialist like the British, resolving border disputes with the Chinese, and forging regional affiliations against Western domination; for the U.S. the focus has centered on the Cold War, an emerging political culture that values indigenous and environmental rights, and the expansion of global markets. In all cases, Shakya purports that the Chinese realize astutely that instrumental designs outweigh humanistic considerations.

Overalls, Shakya concludes that China’s efforts to “unify the motherland” have resulted in a failed experiment. He makes this assessment without demonizing the Chinese, ignoring periodic benefits accrued by certain segments of the Tibetan population, or denying that some Chinese officials have exercised genuine goodwill. Rather, he convincingly demonstrates that China’s over-arching fear of Western incursion and influence has caused officials to dismiss most complaints as imperialist, and that Marxist ideology has generated false expectations concerning the eventual demise of cultural difference. Ultimately, polarized positions lead to diplomatic stalemate and human suffering. Hopefully, Shakya has created an opening for productive dialogue.