Friday, May 16, 2008

Tibet, Mao and the Chinese Communists

The Chinese are a rising economic power. Up until two hundred years ago the Chinese were an advanced civilization that saw little value in the ideas, arts and goods of other civilizations. But in the early 19th century, the Chinese had been somewhat in decline for about a hundred years despite a growing population. Then, throughout the 19th century, a series of misjudgments, rebellions and imperialist inroads from the west and even the rise of Japan hastened the decline until the complete collapse of China's own imperial system. For a brief moment, democracy seemed to flower in the early 20th century but that too collapsed in a long civil war and an era of war lords that lasted almost fifty years until the communist party gained control of China.

These days it's hard to know what to make of China's communist party as it continues its march on the capitalist road with stock markets and billion dollar deals with large multinational corporations (Bloomberg notes some contradictions). The communists have come a long ways from the famous Long March of the early 1930s when Chiang Kai Shek sent an army of 500,000 troops against what were called "hill bandits" in the American press. For the Chinese communist party, the Long March has the status of legend and mythology. We know many of the facts are real but much of the rest is difficult to ascertain. We know the leaders of the communist party and many of their supporters were based in Shanghai until Chiang Kai Shek ended his partnership with them and either exterminated or chased them from the area. Most of them went to Mao's sanctuary several hundred miles to the west. Chiang's Kuomintang Army eventually pursued them and somewhere between 80,000 to 100,000 red army troops escaped from Chiang Kai Shek's encirclement. At first Mao was not even the leader, though eventually he took control. Around ten percent of those on the Long March survived the journey of some six thousand miles. There were many battles and there were times when the red army had to flee with nothing but their rifles and ammunition. They often had to live off the land. Although the red army eventually managed to escape the Kuomintang army, they suffered many additional losses in the far west, particularly in the highlands.

I've always found the animosity of the communists toward the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in general a little odd. Some of it can be explained by Chinese nationalism, the same nationalism we see around the world that pits one group against another, particularly, if the dominant group believes they 'possess' the territory of the minority . Too often, the minority is supposed to be grateful that they are 'left alone,' except that of course they often are not left alone.

I'm not an expert on Tibet or China though I have read a number of books on both. I have seen maps of the Long March and have noticed that the route partly went through the mountains east of what is called the Tibet Autonomous Region. Many Chinese communists died along that part of the route and though many died from the cold, exhaustion and accidents in the mountains or bogs, the survivors claim the local people were often responsible for killing stragglers. I have assumed for a number of years that the animosity towards the local minority groups of the region was somehow translated into animosty toward Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. I suspect now that it's more personal than that.

What we now call Tibet is part of China. But Tibetans were independent during China's decline and have a long history of their own. Their territory extended—somewhat vaguely—throughout the Tibetan Plateau which is an area much larger than the current autonomous region. The May 29, 2008 issue of The New York Review of Books has a map on page 47 that shows where Tibetans recently protested the Chinese rule of Tibet. The majority of protests by Tibetans were Tibetans living outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region on the Tibetan Plateau. If one looks at the map of the protests and a map of the Long March, there is a sad overlap. It is likely that the Chinese communists have been holding a blood grudge for three generations.

The Chinese still have work to do if they are to get beyond their own insular nationalism and assume a useful leadership role in the world of the 21st century.

***Note: For a curious take on Chinese nationalism, see this Washington Post article.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

While this blog post is now a couple of weeks old, I wanted to remark on the moment of triumph for Obama and the Democrats. No sure thing here of course. And McCain and the Republicans will do their worst, starting with the matter of experience.

Which takes me back to George H. W. Bush and 'the vision thing'. Perhaps Obama would be well-advised to consider just that sort of oblique reply. Sort of updating Reagan's 'There you go again' at the same time.

Bob Tyson

11:54 PM  

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