Rene — Zizek — No Shangri-La & A response

Topic(s): China | Comments Off on Rene — Zizek — No Shangri-La & A response

Two letters from the LRB
1. No Shangri-La
2. Response to No Shangri-La
3. Response to Response
No Shangri-La
From Slavoj Žižek
The media imposes certain stories on us, and the one about Tibet goes like this. The People’s Republic of China, which, back in 1949, illegally occupied Tibet, has for decades engaged in the brutal and systematic destruction not only of the Tibetan religion, but of the Tibetans themselves. Recently, the Tibetans’ protests against Chinese occupation were again crushed by military force. Since China is hosting the 2008 Olympics, it is the duty of all of us who love democracy and freedom to put pressure on China to give back to the Tibetans what it stole from them. A country with such a dismal human rights record cannot be allowed to use the noble Olympic spectacle to whitewash its image. What will our governments do? Will they, as usual, cede to economic pragmatism, or will they summon the strength to put ethical and political values above short-term economic interests?
There are complications in this story of ‘good guys versus bad guys’. It is not the case that Tibet was an independent country until 1949, when it was suddenly occupied by China. The history of relations between Tibet and China is a long and complex one, in which China has often played the role of a protective overlord: the anti-Communist Kuomintang also insisted on Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Before 1949, Tibet was no Shangri-la, but an extremely harsh feudal society, poor (life expectancy was barely over 30), corrupt and fractured by civil wars (the most recent one, between two monastic factions, took place in 1948, when the Red Army was already knocking at the door). Fearing social unrest and disintegration, the ruling elite prohibited industrial development, so that metal, for example, had to be imported from India.
Since the early 1950s, there has been a history of CIA involvement in stirring up anti-Chinese troubles in Tibet, so Chinese fears of external attempts to destabilise Tibet are not irrational. Nor was the Cultural Revolution, which ravaged Tibetan monasteries in the 1960s, simply imported by the Chinese: fewer than a hundred Red Guards came to Tibet. The youth mobs that burned the monasteries were almost exclusively Tibetan. As the TV images demonstrate, what is going on now in Tibet is no longer a peaceful ‘spiritual’ protest by monks (like the one in Burma last year), but involves the killing of innocent Chinese immigrants and the burning of their stores.
It is a fact that China has made large investments in Tibet’s economic development, as well as its infrastructure, education and health services. To put it bluntly: in spite of China’s undeniable oppression of the country, the average Tibetan has never had such a high standard of living. There is worse poverty in China’s western rural provinces: child slave labour in brick factories, abominable conditions in prisons, and so on.
In recent years, China has changed its strategy in Tibet: depoliticised religion is now tolerated, often even supported. China now relies more on ethnic and economic colonisation than on military coercion, and is transforming Lhasa into a Chinese version of the Wild West, in which karaoke bars alternate with Buddhist theme parks for Western tourists. In short, what the images of Chinese soldiers and policemen terrorising Buddhist monks conceal is a much more effective American-style socio-economic transformation: in a decade or two, Tibetans will be reduced to the status of Native Americans in the US. It seems that the Chinese Communists have finally got it: what are secret police, internment camps and the destruction of ancient monuments, compared with the power of unbridled capitalism?
One of the main reasons so many people in the West participate in the protests against China is ideological: Tibetan Buddhism, deftly propagated by the Dalai Lama, is one of the chief points of reference for the hedonist New Age spirituality that has become so popular in recent times. Tibet has become a mythic entity onto which we project our dreams. When people mourn the loss of an authentic Tibetan way of life, it isn’t because they care about real Tibetans: what they want from Tibetans is that they be authentically spiritual for us, so that we can continue playing our crazy consumerist game. ‘Si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre,’ Gilles Deleuze wrote, ‘vous êtes foutu.’ The protesters against China are right to counter the Beijing Olympic motto – ‘One World, One Dream’ – with ‘One World, Many Dreams’. But they should be aware that they are imprisoning Tibetans in their own dream.
The question is often asked: given the explosion of capitalism in China, when will democracy assert itself there, as capital’s ‘natural’ political form of organisation? The question is often put another way: how much faster would China’s development have been if it had been combined with political democracy? But can the assumption be made so easily? In a TV interview a couple of years ago, Ralf Dahrendorf linked the increasing distrust of democracy in post-Communist Eastern Europe to the fact that, after every revolutionary change, the road to new prosperity leads through a ‘vale of tears’. After socialism breaks down the limited, but real, systems of socialist welfare and security have to be dismantled, and these first steps are necessarily painful. The same goes for Western Europe, where the passage from the welfare state model to the new global economy involves painful renunciations, less security, less guaranteed social care. Dahrendorf notes that this transition lasts longer than the average period between democratic elections, so that there is a great temptation to postpone these changes for short-term electoral gain. Fareed Zakaria has pointed out that democracy can only ‘catch on’ in economically developed countries: if developing countries are ‘prematurely democratised’, the result is a populism that ends in economic catastrophe and political despotism. No wonder that today’s economically most successful Third World countries (Taiwan, South Korea, Chile) embraced full democracy only after a period of authoritarian rule.
Following this path, the Chinese used unencumbered authoritarian state power to control the social costs of the transition to capitalism. The weird combination of capitalism and Communist rule proved not to be a ridiculous paradox, but a blessing. China has developed so fast not in spite of authoritarian Communist rule, but because of it.
There is a further paradox at work here. What if the promised second stage, the democracy that follows the authoritarian vale of tears, never arrives? This, perhaps, is what is so unsettling about China today: the suspicion that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a reminder of our past – of the process of capitalist accumulation which, in Europe, took place from the 16th to the 18th century – but a sign of our future? What if the combination of the Asian knout and the European stock market proves economically more efficient than liberal capitalism? What if democracy, as we understand it, is no longer the condition and motor of economic development, but an obstacle to it?
Slavoj Žižek
Birkbeck College, London WC1
Response to No Shangri-La
From Shego Jinpa
As someone who was brought up in Tibet, I found Slavoj Žižek’s regurgitation of the Chinese Communist Party line mind-boggling (Letters, 24 April). Žižek accuses the Western media of imposing ‘certain stories’ on the public but seems himself to have swallowed whole China’s version of the story of Tibet. Before 1949, he writes, Tibet was an ‘extremely harsh feudal society, poor . . . corrupt and fractured by civil wars’. China’s state publications on Tibet are full of this sort of language. Žižek’s letter reminded me of propaganda material we had to study at school in which Tibetans were described as ‘most barbaric, cruel, dark and backward’. We were told that our Chinese brethren came to Tibet to civilise us and bring us into the ‘modern world’. This is still one of the principal justifications used by the Chinese government to explain the invasion and continued occupation of Tibet. Admittedly, Sino-Tibetan history is complex. Neither Tibet nor China can be said to have exercised sovereignty in the modern sense over their respective territories. China was plagued by warlords, civil war and foreign aggression, and didn’t have a centralised government capable of enforcing law and order within the territories it claimed until the 1950s.
Also surprising is Žižek’s attempt to shift the blame for the destruction wreaked by the Cultural Revolution onto the Tibetans. The destruction of Tibetan monasteries and historical monuments began years before the Cultural Revolution. Monasteries in Kham and Amdo were the first to be ruined by the Chinese army when Tibetans rebelled against Chinese rule in the 1950s and the destruction spread to western and central Tibet. Farming villages and nomadic communities, towns and individual households were targeted as well as monasteries during the Cultural Revolution as a result of Mao’s explicit instruction to destroy the ‘Four Olds’. The campaign was spearheaded by Chinese cadres. Some Tibetans did take part, but faced with the alternatives – torture, starvation and death – what choice did they have?
Not only does Žižek rely on Chinese propaganda for his understanding of Tibet’s past, he also interprets the current tragedy through TV images selected and transmitted by the Chinese government. These images repeatedly show footage of riots, but not the peaceful protests whose brutal suppression triggered the uprising. The Chinese authorities haven’t produced any evidence to show that there was a programme of organised violence by Tibetans: the wave of human rights protests and demonstrations in support of the Dalai Lama was vociferous but predominantly peaceful. In the incredible pictures of nomadic protesters on horseback in Amdo Bora (Gannan in Chinese) captured by a Canadian TV crew, for example, not a single weapon is being brandished. These nomads have guns so that they can protect their cattle, and it is their custom to carry swords and knives. But because they support the Dalai Lama’s message of peace, on this occasion they left their weapons behind. Žižek tellingly remains silent about the gunning down of unarmed Tibetan protesters (more than two hundred were killed), the mass arrests, the flooding of the Tibetan plateau with Chinese paramilitaries, the lockdown of monasteries and schools and the barring of independent foreign journalists from the region.
Žižek implies what the Chinese authorities have explicitly stated, that Tibet should be grateful for Chinese investment in its economy and its education and health systems. The presumption that Tibet would have remained unchanged had it not been for the Chinese invasion and colonial tutelage is preposterous, but there is also a failure to acknowledge what China gains from Tibet. For decades it has been exploiting Tibet’s natural and mineral resources: there has been large-scale deforestation in Ngawa, and there is a seemingly inexhaustible gold mine in Machu. And the geostrategic benefit China accrues from its control of Tibet is incalculable.
Shego Jinpa
London N7
Response to Response
No Shangri-La
From Slavoj Žižek
When I was a young student in socialist Yugoslavia, criticism of the regime was dismissed by those in power as ‘Western propaganda’. It was always enough to say threateningly: ‘We know whom such reasoning serves.’ To my surprise, the critics of my letter on Tibet and China rely on the same manoeuvre: my statements are dismissed with the claim that they repeat Chinese propaganda (Letters, 5 June). But I base my claim that Tibet before 1949 was an oppressive and corrupted feudal society on by far the best and most extensive study of the Tibetan legal system, Rebecca Redwood French’s The Golden Yoke: The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet (1995), which has absolutely nothing to do with Chinese propaganda.
If it were the custom to dedicate letters, I would dedicate mine to the Tibetan exile settlements in Mundgod and Bylakuppe in southern India. All the media attention is on upper-class Dharamsala: nobody – the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere included – talks about the destitute thousands in these two larger camps.
Slavoj Žižek