The “Real” Tibet

It’s fair to say that the goal of articles in Foreign Policy magazine is to clarify, to elucidate, to let the light of rationality shine upon some murky issue in the field of foreign policy. This being the case, I was intrigued by the recent article “Tibet is no Shangri-La,” which has no penetrating vision or fresh policy prescription; instead, it simply asks us to think about Tibet as if it were a real place.

The essay opens by taking Westerners to task for creating hopelessly nostalgic “new Orientalist” representations of Tibet and glorifying the famous Dali Lama. It then points out not only that Tibetans aren’t all orange clad Buddhist monks, but also that some Tibetans seek to profit from the Western image of “Tibetan-ness” by creating old-timey Tibet theme tourist traps. The essay also notes that folks who consider themselves ethnic Tibetans in fact hail from various locales in the vast expanse of western China, and that, while they tend to be practicing Buddhists, they’re not necessarily pulsating with noble religious fervor 24-7. (Nor are they, as the Chinese media would have you believe, separatist terror mongers.) Instead, they have fairly reasonable grievances against the Han settlers and the Chinese government, which quite clearly discriminates against them. To the degree that there’s a point, it is that Tibetans inhabit reality, not some colorful metaphysical realm.

I would like to take add a couple points about how we formed this image of Tibet in the first place: when the Dalai Lama and his followers escaped Tibet in 1959, they got a few inches of print in Western newspapers — but that was it. The US was ambivalent; the CIA secretly provided weapons and funding to Tibetan guerrillas during the 50s and 60s, but the Dalai Lama was consistently refused a US visa and occupied essentially zero space in the American “popular imagination,” if you’ll allow the term. After Chinese rapprochement in ’72, the US was happy with this obscurity. After decades of activism, along with media coverage of demonstrations in Lhasa in 1987 and 89, Tibet still wasn’t the cause celebre that we know today. It was only in the early 90s, when Richard Gere and others (most notably Steven Segal) became interested in Tibetan Buddhism, that Joe Sixpack saw these sad images of Himalayan tranquility. What I mean to say is this: it wasn’t just traditional “Orientalism” that made us suddenly feel sentimental about Tibet — it was a sustained and expensive PR campaign orchestrated by Hollywood insiders who happened to be enthusiastic about Buddhism. In this way, the DL was annointed as as a public figure (in the West) and began to receive his controversial White House invites.

On a related note, I once read a pretty neat article about how Tibet activists try to constantly manage and negotiate the image of the Dalai Lama. In particular, some of them are angry that “culture” and Buddhism are the main elements of Tibet discourse in the West, and hope instead to re-brand the DL as a political leader — which, from their perspective, he obviously is.

In sum, I enjoyed this FP essay, but I think it should have talked about how the prevalent image of Tibet is actually a commodity. The article seeks to challenge false images of Tibet, but it doesn’t talk about how those images were amplified and perpetuated by a massive PR campaign. (Meanwhile the Chinese are waging an equal and opposite PR campaign, but that’s another story.)

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One Response to “The “Real” Tibet”

  1. Rrrobert! Says:

    Yeah, learning that the CIA paid off the Dalai Lama actually made me wonder whether the Free Tibet movement was orchestrated deliberately to undermine the Chinese. It seems plausible, at least.

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