The West has long been fascinated with Tibet; its culture, its stunning landscape and myths beyond belief. For the past 60 years, the fascination has been in conflict with Chinese occupation of the region and a forced integration into Han Chinese society. Western response has been limited in direct forms. Indirectly, a soft power has been at work aiming to allow Tibetans to live as they choose. Lezlee Brown Halper and Stefan Halper have spent more than a decade researching Tibet’s struggle and putting it into perspective in their book, Tibet: An Unfinished Story.
STEFAN HALPER: We traveled out to Tibet in the late 1990s. We were actually guests of the Chinese government, which was an interesting thing. They were trying to show us around China and get us to think positively of China. But when we got to Tibet, at our request, we encountered a situation which was absolutely horrific. The Tibetan monks, the monasteries, were under tight surveillance. We found we could not have conversations with monks, even on the stairways, which weren’t being recorded, both audio and video.
We sensed a real fear amongst the population in downtown Lhasa. We slowly began to realize that the Chinese had systematically proceeded to deconstruct Tibetan society. We were deeply affected by that. You have to acknowledge that the Chinese have put a great deal of money into Tibet. The assumption has been “well if we [China] improve the material well-being of these people, they will sort of move away from their culture and accept China as the motherland.” This is what has not happened.
STEVENSON: A large problem for Tibetans and other groups is they have very little or no leverage to affect their position or change what has happened with the Chinese coming in, and very little support from the outside as well.
STEFAN HALPER: There is no leverage as you say available to the local Tibetans to resist this Chinese influx. But there is an odd type of leverage available within the global community. Tibet exercises a unique soft power. It is the power of moral condemnation. People around the world look at what the Chinese are doing in Tibet, and they ask very probing questions. What kind of culture could be doing this to these Tibetan Buddhists? That power of broad condemnation and criticism, that’s really driving the Chinese nuts because they don’t have a way of containing it. That leads me to think that this six-decade long occupation of Tibet by China has really benefitted neither China nor Tibet.
STEVENSON: Where does Tibet go from here and how will the West approach it?
STEFAN HALPER: In the West, and we talk about this a good deal in the book, we have come to be fascinated with the myth of Tibet. It started with Herodotus in the fifth century who claimed to see gold digging ants. It went on to the 1400s where the missionary Odoric came back with tales of fantastic beats, women with teeth as long as boars tusks, led to the sense that Tibet was a truly mystical and sometimes frightening place. That myth was picked up when the British were there in the 18th and early 19th century, and the whole myth continued with [U.S. President Franklin] Roosevelt who named [the presidential mountain retreat] Camp David as Shangri-La, and on into the present time.
America presents itself in global terms as having certain beliefs and values and wanting to by a beacon of rationality on issues. Unfortunately, we have not managed to see those values or principles reflected in the Tibetan experience. There are a lot of reasons for it. The fact is Tibet really is on the other side of the world. It is not bounded by water. We have no obvious way in to be helpful. So where do we go from here? China relies upon the rivers that flow from Tibet to provide water to large portions of central China. So they are not going to give the area up. But they might moderate their domestic governance. If we could encourage that, that would be a wonderful thing.