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Tibet: OutLook Opinions and Columns China's Innermost Secret Fears, Golden Moment Ugly Truth

China's Innermost Secret Fears, Golden Moment Ugly Truth

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23november20103Dharamshala: A presentation by Mr Gabriel Lafitte, an Australian academic and development policy consultant to the Environment and Development Desk (EDD) of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile was held in Dharamsala, northern India, on  Monday (Nov 22). Entitled China's innermost Secret Fears, the talk was organised by the Tibetan Women's Association and attended by 30 Tibetans and foreign tourists, who took part in a question-and-answer session.

Mr Lafitte told the audience that on November 1 repressive new regulations intruding into management of Tibetan monasteries came into force. These were denounced by Kalon Tsering Phuntsok as "an evil design on the part of the Chinese government to obstruct Buddhist teachings and its sacred transmissions inside Tibet, and makes it extremely difficult for monastic institutions to undertake their important religious activities".

Paradoxically, a leading academic analyst of Chinese policy wrote the following about the new regulations: "China's new religious policy expands the institutional autonomy of religious organizations, limits the power of religious affairs bureaus, and provides for administrative appeal, judicial challenge, and sanctioning errant officials...

"We thus view the new religious policy as an effort by the Chinese government to fold the management of religion into its larger systemic reform portfolio, to synchronize an anachronistic policy, and to integrate religious policy that diverges from its systemic socioeconomic and political reforms."

What sense can be made of this contradiction? The most common exile response is to say the Chinese leaders are liars and atheists, with no business interfering in what they cannot possibly comprehend. The Kalon Tripa (Tibetan Prime Minister) said that the People's Republic of China, which claims itself to be officially an atheist state, cannot have the authority to formulate rules and regulations on the management of religious affairs of Tibetan Buddhism.

But the contradictions go deeper

Why do China's leaders insist they must oppress Tibet? There are many obvious answers to this most basic of questions, yet none of the usual answers get to the heart of China's fear and loathing of Tibetan culture, especially its leaders' hatred of Tibetan religion. People say it is because the Chinese are communists and communists hate religion, as if nothing in China has changed since Mao told the Dalai Lama in 1954 that religion is poison. Now the Communist Party is barely communist in its ideology, but the ferocious antagonism to Tibetan culture continues. We cannot create dialogue with China's elite until we understand what drives that negative attitude. So we need first to clarify our own thinking. We can do this by looking back at the past century of China's violent struggles to achieve modernity, discovering deep hostility to institutional religion throughout.

If it is not communism but modernity that is the antagonist of Tibetan Buddhism, in the eyes of China's elite, then we can identify the core problem, and stop blaming communism. One reason the world is not listening to Tibetans, though it used to listen not so long ago, is that Tibetans continue to name communism as the enemy, and those who deal with China every day see little sign of communism.

Once we identify China's total determination to attain complete modernity as the reason why Tibetan culture has to be repressed - and Tibetan language removed from the classroom - we know what we are up against. China's quest for modernity is older and deeper than communism. The Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) was just as committed as the Communist Party to strictly controlling religion, because it holds back modernity and a strong state.

How did it come about that modernity sees public religion as its enemy? What are the origins of this antagonism? Can religion play a constructive role in public debate and policy, without being a hindrance to modernity? When Kalon Tripa Samdhong Rinpoche once said he was anti-modern, did he mean he wanted to go backwards, or further forward, beyond the limitations and materialist obsessions of modernity?

Japan, like China, was suddenly faced with the challenge of modernity but took a different path, and now manages to be both modern, developed, prosperous and entirely Japanese. Why is the Chinese path to modernity more violent, contradictory, repressive, fragile and fearful of collapsing into chaos?

The fundamental question is: How did it come about that the project of creating a modern society, of literate, productive individuals, made religion into its enemy? To answer this we must go beyond China and Japan, to Europe, to discover assumptions inherited by Asian modernisers. We must look at the European invention of modernity, as a new way of understanding the purpose of human life, a new set of assumptions about the sources of human happiness. We must look at the great revolutions in France and Russia - violent attempts at attaining modernity as fast as possible.

Modernity is much more than railways and bridges, power stations and skyscrapers. It is a mindset, an aggregation of assumptions that have become naturalised and no longer visible.

In the modernist world view, religion can be reduced to being merely an expression of psychological and social needs. The inner legitimacy and inner subjective experience of religious practice is denied and obscured. Instead an aloof, distant, objective, scientific stance is taken, in which religion can be explained by the sciences of sociology and psychology, as the yearnings of people for happiness, which has sedimented over time into specific practices. Religion is no more than its observable practices, and those practices do not promote rational productivity, so at best they are useless and at worst are obstacles to the creation of a new focus for the aspirations and yearnings of the masses - i.e. the nation-state.

All of the above were core beliefs of not only the Communist Party of China but also the Kuomintang; and of the Kemalist revolutionaries of Turkey, the PRI revolutionary regime in Mexico, Soviet Russia and revolutionary France.

James Tong, political science professor at the University of California and close observer of China has expressed the hope that: "Once the modernizing state has consolidated its power, state-religion relations may evolve from competitive conflict to accommodative cooperation." This is a similar optimism to regular hopes expressed by the Dalai Lama - that as China matures it can relax and become more tolerant. It is the hope that modernity is not an endless, all-embracing project, forever requiring the exclusive loyalty and energy of all citizens - that at a certain point China can feel confident it has attained modernity, has at last caught up with the leading developed countries, can stand among the great nations as an equal, and no longer needs to prove anything.

But is modernity a destination, and an attainable one which is known to have been attained when it arrives?

Above all, the party-state clearly does not feel it has 'consolidated its power' in Tibet. In fact, it reads the unhappiness of the Tibetan people, so obvious since early 2008, as a clear sign that it has yet to consolidate the power of the modern nation-state and must crush the disloyal Buddhists ever more fiercely. Elsewhere in China, modernity is flowering and maturing, but in Tibet the modernity project remains at a preliminary and tenuous stage, and might collapse altogether if tight control is relaxed. So Professor Tong may be right about other parts of China, where the modern state may be willing to curb the harsh and arbitrary powers of the official religious bureaus - but not in Tibet, where their obnoxious intrusions into the realm of the transcendental is as zealous as ever.

This is not an academic debate about vague terms like modernity, religion, superstition and the nation-state. We need to understand what drives the antagonism. Why is it that the Communist Party remains locked in seeing the Tibetan monasteries as a seriously threatening enemy? Until we understand how this has happened, we cannot say we have found a language in which any future negotiations may begin. Until we acknowledge the roots of China's fears, it is a dialogue of the deaf, on all sides.

But are there ways in which this conflict can be reframed? Modernity's foundational assumption is that religion is an irrational yearning for security in an unpredictable natural world where the forces of nature are untamed, and that the modern alternative, of conquering nature, can successfully replace irrational yearnings with rational productivity guided by a strong state.

In vain do religious practitioners protest that the modernizers know nothing about the true purpose and practice of Buddhism. But what if Buddhism could demonstrate it is actually rational and scientific?

This is where, as usual, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been way ahead of everyone. He has pioneered a dialogue with neuroscientists, over a long period, and given much of his precious time to it, even when many of the scientists seemed to have little to offer. Yet he persists to this day in the collaborative rediscovery of Buddhist logic, philosophy, epistemology and ontology as rational - long predating the insights of 20th century physics and quantum mechanics, and 21st century neuroscience.

His Holiness, while unafraid to drop old metaphors such as the earth being flat, has not sought to change Buddhism, as Vivekananda and Ramana Maharshi more radically repackaged Hinduism to accommodate modernity. Buddhism has not changed, but it is open to science.

For years I watched these well-documented dialogues, and thought the Dalai Lama was simply exercising a personal curiosity. Not until much later did it dawn on me that his dialogues with so many scientists are part of an undoing of what began in the European revolutions of the 18th century, and their entrenched assumption that churches and religion are by their nature forces of backwardness, superstition and irrationality.

Finding modern ways of not only representing Buddhism to non-Buddhist audiences, but modern ways of practising Buddhism, is of utmost importance. In modern times people come to Buddhism as individuals, seeking self-realisation. They may conceive of their quest as a purely personal one, having accepted modernity's definition of religion as purely personal, yet the practice itself connects them to the entire community of fellow practitioners (Gendun being the 'personal' name for one who connects themself to the Sangha, or 'community of enlightened individuals') and to connecting, as imaginatively as possible, with all sentient beings.

This is a task that not only liberates inji, Chinese and Tibetan practitioners, but also addresses the prejudices and entrenched blindness of China's leaders. It shows that Buddhism, far from being an enemy of modernity, is entirely modern in its engagement with the powerful agency of the indiviual, the capacity of the modern self to transcend.

China's greatest fear is that modernity is skin deep, and is easily lost. The gleaming modernity of the glass towers is just a skin, covering what lies behind - a vast sea of seething irrationality, superstition, ignorance and mutual obligation, which modern China left behind only yesterday and which could reassert itself at any time. Modern China fears that its grip on modernity, and on the hearts of the masses who have yet to benefit much from modernity, is fragile, and could easily be shaken.

I used to walk the streets of Beijing in my frequent visits in the 1990s, marvelling at the new skyscrapers, the archetypal symbols of modernity springing up at an astounding pace, all along the wide straight streets bulldozed by the architects of modernity. But I would also walk through the shining glass, steel and concrete and out the back door, and suddenly I would be in a hutong - the winding lanes of closely clustered courtyard houses of Chinese tradition - with peddlers on bicycles, full of life. Modernity was, at that time, only skin deep - just a facade, with the real Beijing just one glossy building away from the grand avenues of straight-line modern rationality.

Modernity is a vision of human perfection which is illusory, a vision that always recedes, like a mirage, as one advances towards it. Modernity can never be attained, because there are always fresh areas to be conquered. Not only can we never become fully modern, we have never been modern, if look carefully, as the French philosopher Bruno Latour reminds us.

The ideology of rationality, as Bruno Latour's ethnographies of scientists at work in their laboratories show us, requires editing out all the messiness, emotionality, contradictions and confusions of daily existence. Scientists edit themselves out of their writing, as if they are simply the messengers of externally existing valid truths of objective reality, which remain true until the next scientist reverses everything and establishes a new truth. The actual mess of laboratory life is made invisible, not only to the public, but to the scientists themselves.

It is no accident that when China removes nomads from their pastures, and forces them to live in squalid concrete huts, those huts are built in a straight line. Modernity worships the straight line. The straight line represents the capacity of the modern mind to discern the simple geometry embedded in the endless shapes of nature, the capacity to extract an abstraction that seems to be an ideal form, a law of nature, a basic principle of the universe, a key to unlocking mastery of the physical world. The straight line - and all geometric shapes - are thus given absolute status, as eternal, fixed truths, not just convenient and useful human conventions (which from a Buddhist viewpoint is all they are).

It is no accident that one of the earliest acts of the communist revolution was to bulldoze central Beijing, make huge straight boulevards (Chang'an) and greatly enlarge Tiannamen Square, lining it with strictly rectangular buildings proclaiming the party's power. Straight lines rule. The ruler is king.

Now those straight lines have been imposed on nomadic lives. In China's eyes the irrational, ignorant, selfish, unreliable and unproductive nomads must be civilised, and civilisation begins with straight lines. This will teach them objective truth and the material base of everything that matters.

Modernity, in Tibet, is reducible to laughable tokens and fetishes such as the nomadic line village, built of concrete which is cold in winter, hot in summer, in which people now live useless lives, crowded together in ways nomads are not used to, leaving little to do but get drunk, fight, play pool and steal. That is how China introduces its pedagogy of modernity. That is how China deals with its deepest fear - that the nomads and the Tibetans turn their backs on Chinese modernity, given the chance, preferring instead the Buddhism of Tibet and the mantrayana path to inner transformation.

CHINA'S GOLDEN MOMENT: MAKING IT LAST FOR EVER.

What do today's Chinese really care about, cherish and seek to protect at all costs? What is the main purpose of their life?

China's fast rise requires concentration of wealth and power. Wealth created today must be ploughed back into creating greater wealth tomorrow, and not dissipated by the demands of the excluded, who ask for a fair price for their farmland gobbled up for new factories, or for basic health insurance, or decent schools in poor areas.

To an extraordinary and unsustainable degree China's wealth comes not from consumption, from the buying power of newly prosperous masses, as in mature capitalist countries. China's wealth comes to a remarkable extent from investment, by the state and the big state-owned corporations, and the private entrepreneurs who enjoy favours from the party-state. China's wealth is in its infrastructure, not in its homes. This is unsustainable.

Something is missing in the Chinese voices we can listen to. It is the voice of the peasants, the minorities, the exploited factory workers. Only rarely do we get a glimpse of their stories, their exclusion, their deepening mistrust of the party-state, the growing gulf of inequality. They are the majority, but are voiceless - their protests and petitions for justice ruthlessly crushed.

But the party leaders know they are running on borrowed time - that they cannot rely solely on nationalism, repression and vague promises of reform, for ever. Yet they are determined to maintain China's golden moment, the best opportunity for elite wealth formation in 5,000 years. If only they could control the chaos threatened by the unhappy masses, China's momentum could be maintained. This is why China's leaders routinely refer to the danger of chaos if tight control is relaxed. It serves their interests to activate the fears of Westerners and China's neighbours that chaos is always just below the surface, unless the party reinvigorates its dictatorship.

China's leaders know they are on the verge of becoming a world power, and [they believe that] only popular democracy, with its fairer distribution of wealth, could slow China's rise. Soon Hong Kong will eclipse both New York and London as a global centre of finance. China's rise to technological parity with Western hi-tech manufacturers is now so fast the West is no longer confident it can always stay ahead and set the pace. Instead, Western companies wanting to sell to markets in developing countries must now do so in partnership with their Chinese competitors or risk losing out altogether, because Chinese products are not only competitive on price but also quality. It may not be long before the Chinese currency becomes a global reserve currency, just as the US dollar today is the currency of last resort.

To China's leaders, the biggest threats to China's rise are internal. The Tibetans are just one of many internal forces calling for decentralisation, autonomy, fairness, basic rights and opportunity to participate in making policy.

Such forces are growing and must inevitably succeed, because they are steadily growing in legitimacy, even within the elite, and are harder to ignore than before. Within the elite, in Beijing, where official policy is openly questioned, there is increasing support for greater democracy, and for letting different regions take different directions.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama foresaw all this long ago, when he said repeatedly that the best hope for Tibet is China's prosperity and confidence in itself. China's prosperity and confidence are still superficial, not deep.

China is emerging as a regional power and even as a global power. Yet China's leaders constantly refer to the threat of chaos which will erupt if they loosen their tight grip, not only on ethnic minorities but on the poor, the urban migrants and the peasants. Why is China so successful, yet so fragile? What is it about the combination of party-state and the capitalist entrepreneurs that makes this moment in China's rise so dynamic yet so unstable? Why are there so few voices in China calling for democracy, or for the rights of ethnic minorities?

Tibetans looking at Beijing from afar are missing something, which has been silenced, excluded from the public sphere, which China's leaders fear. International observers too, fascinated by China's wealth and success, are also missing any focus on the reality that China is still poor -many hundreds of millions are excluded, held down, exploited, and increasingly resentful of the growing gap between rich and poor.

If we understand China's golden moment is a pact between the wealth creators and the social controllers, the corporations and the party-state, to monopolise both wealth and power, to the exclusion of all others, then China's rise and Chinese leaders fears fit together.

In a speech he gave in Shenzhen in August, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said: "If there is no guarantee of reform of the political system, then results obtained from the reform of the economic system may be lost, and the goal of modernisation cannot be achieved."

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 23 November 2010 20:05 )  


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