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There have been plenty of news stories recently about today’s meeting between Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama. Here are some suggestions for further reading (and viewing):

1. Tibet expert Robert Barnett of Columbia University is interviewed by Deborah Jerome of the Council of Foreign Relations:

All American presidents since 1990 have met with the Dalai Lama, yet President Obama’s scheduled meeting Thursday has drawn a sharp warning from China that the visit will undermine U.S.-China relations. Is China more irritated about this visit than it has been previously?

There is certainly a higher level of angry rhetoric from Beijing. . . . But in fact, behind the scenes, Beijing was far more disturbed by the previous presidential meeting, President George W. Bush’s presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama in October 2007—because that was the first and only time a U.S. president and the Tibetan leader had met in public.

So for Chinese diplomats, the real objective for the last six months or so has been not to stop the meeting, which their experts knew was impossible, but to get it to be private. That’s been achieved, because the meeting will take place in a private room, the White House Map Room. But that’s an obscure issue of protocol that, as the White House knows, makes a lot of difference to Beijing officials but none to American or Tibetan perceptions of the meeting. For China, the symbolic details matter, but for Tibetans in Tibet, it’s only whether the two people meet that is meaningful.

2. “Tibet Is No Shangri-La,” writes Christina Larson at Foreign Policy:

The political and territorial stakes are serious, and not likely to be resolved anytime soon. But there is also a gauziness with which the region and the man who represents it to the West are most often discussed. Even in the fast-paced and cynical 21st century, talk of Tibet still elicits a 19th century aura of romanticism and melancholy. In general, sentiment veils critical thinking. In the case of Tibet, our collective nostalgia, inexplicably, for a place most of us have never seen lends itself to a striking absolutism with which we discuss the place, its people, its present condition, its future destiny. While most things in life are murky and grey, the Tibet of our imagination is pristine, and the lines between good and evil are as clear as a mountain stream.

3. We’ve mentioned Donald Lopez’s “7 Things You Don’t Know About Tibet” before, but it seems appropriate to call attention to it again this week:

Tibetans have never heard of their famous religious text The Tibetan Book of the Dead. What is known in the West by that title is a short Tibetan work, the Bardo Thodol, meaning “Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State.” It is a mortuary text, read over a dead or dying person to help him or her escape from rebirth or, if that’s not possible, to have a good rebirth in the next life. It is an example of a genre of similar texts used in one of the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism. It became the most famous Tibetan text in the West after Walter Wentz, a wealthy American Theosophist, traveled to India in the 1920s, and commissioned a translation. Wentz then added his own commentary, transforming the Tibetan mortuary text into a Theosophical treatise. The text has lived on through several reincarnations, including one by Timothy Leary that uses the Tibetan text as a “flight plan” for an acid trip. Leary’s book (The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead) is best remembered for the line “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream,” which was lifted by John Lennon for the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” on the Beatles’ 1966 album, Revolver.

4. At Time, Jeff Wasserstrom discusses the current Sino-U.S. relationship and declares it “Too Big to Fail”:

While Washington and Beijing seem very much at odds just now, we shouldn’t let their current state blind us to how intertwined they have become, nor to parallels between America’s rise at the start of the last century and China’s at the start of this one. Whether they like it or realize it, their relationship is truly one thing too big to fail.

5. “The Caucus” blog of the New York Times has a short video assembled by Ben Werschkul of statements Obama and the White House have made regarding Tibet during the past year — all of which are “notable for their caution.”

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A Reader on Tibet

Tibet has been much in the news the past few weeks, as China attempted to divert attention from the anniversary of last year’s riots and protests and reports leaked out of arrests and crackdowns in Tibet. Here are a few of the pieces from this week that we recommend.

In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Pico Iyer writes about the Dalai Lama’s sinking faith in the Chinese leadership’s desire to resolve the situation in Tibet. Iyer points to the current situation in Tibet as the reason why—the title of his piece is “A Hell on Earth”:

“The situation inside Tibet is almost like a military occupation,” I heard the Dalai Lama tell an interviewer last November, when I spent a week traveling with him across Japan. “Everywhere. Everywhere, fear, terror. I cannot remain indifferent.” Just moments before, with equal directness and urgency, he had said, “I have to accept failure. In terms of the Chinese government becoming more lenient [in Chinese-occupied Tibet], my policy has failed. We have to accept reality.”

Accepting reality—first investigating it clearly, and then seeing what can be done with it—is for him a central principle, and now he was about to convene a meeting of Tibetans in his exile home, in Dharamsala, India, and then another, in Delhi, of foreign supporters of Tibet, to discuss alternative approaches to relieving the ever more brutal fifty-year-long suppression of Tibet by Beijing. “This ancient nation with its own unique cultural heritage is dying,” he said later the same day. “The situation inside Tibet is almost something like a death sentence.”…

Over the decades I’ve known him, the Dalai Lama has always been adept at pointing out, logically, how Tibet’s interests and China’s converge—bringing geopolitics and Buddhist principles together, in effect—and at arguing, syllogistically, for how the very notion of enmity is not only a projection, nearly always, but, in today’s globally interconnected world, an anachronism. But now, with the skill of one trained for decades in dialectics and personally familiar with the last few generations of Chinese history, he seems more and more to be holding the Chinese government up against its own principles. “Chairman Mao, when I was in Peking, said, ‘The Communist Party must welcome criticism. Self-criticism as well as criticism from others,'” he noted pointedly in Tokyo. But now the Party seemed to be all mouth and no ears. Deng Xiaoping, he reminded another audience, always stressed “seeking truth from facts,” the very empiricism the Dalai Lama would love to see more thoroughly deployed. “When President Hu Jintao talks of a ‘Harmonious Society,’ I am a comrade of his,” he told the Chinese scholars. “Even today I have points of agreement with Marxist thought.”

His argument, unexpectedly, was that Communists in China today are not Communist enough, as they ignore Marx’s ideas of ethics and equality (which the Dalai Lama has long admired) and move ever further from the purity and self-sacrifice of their early years. “Mao Zedong was a true idealist, a real comrade, initially,” he told the Chinese students. “But in ’56, ’57, that disappeared.” The result, he said, was that “the Communist Party in China today is something very special; it is a Communist Party without Communist ideology.” At one point, he even said to his Chinese listeners, “Maybe in some ways I’m more ‘red’ inside than the Chinese leadership!”

The article is worth reading in full for its cogent assessment of the limited options for Tibet’s future, limitations that result not only from Chinese oppression but also from choices by the Tibetan people.

Those in Southern California may be interested to see Pico Iyer speak at CSULB on April 16.

Earlier this week, Evan Osnos discussed “Serfs’ Emancipation Day” (the CCP’s response to last March’s riots) at his blog, noting the similarities between China’s rhetoric on Tibet past and present:

Watching the Chinese government, this week, inaugurate “Serfs’ Emancipation Day,” to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Beijing’s direct rule of Tibet, I couldn’t help but notice how little of the Party’s message has changed since the 1963 film “Serfs,” a classic from the heyday of Party cinema…

Are Beijing imagemakers ideologically intoxicated enough that they don’t see how the West interprets an event like this? Not that simple. The central government encompasses a mix of real sophistication and demagoguery, and my guess is that many urbane diplomats at the Foreign Ministry were cringing at the sight of the event…But, ultimately, they don’t hold sway in China, so the celebrations continued.

A BBC report on Tuesday discussed the emerging public profile of the Chinese-selected Panchen Lama and China’s placement of him as a China-positive representative for the Tibetan people:

Although he is only 19, the Panchen Lama has already stepped onto the public stage to praise the Chinese Communist Party.

Tibet expert Professor Robert Barnett, of New York’s Columbia University, says this is part of China’s efforts to undermine the appeal of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism.

“He will never really replace the Dalai Lama, but his role confuses the picture and can gradually be used to weaken the Dalai Lama’s standing,” he said.

“I think [China’s] Panchen Lama is being built up very gradually as a public spokesman within the Tibetan Buddhist world.”

An excerpt from a piece by Elliot Sperling is up at the Far Eastern Economic Review website (the full article will appear in April’s print version), arguing that though China has painted a picture of a historically inequitable and cruel Tibet, actually the post-1949 years have been much harder on Tibetans:

When the Dalai Lama’s first representatives returned to tour Tibet in 1979 cadres in Lhasa, believing their own propaganda, lectured the city’s residents about not venting anger at the visiting representatives of the cruel feudal past. What actually transpired was caught on film by the delegation and is still striking to watch: thousands of Tibetans descended on them in the center of Lhasa, recounting amidst tears how awful their lives had become in the intervening 20 years. These scenes stunned China’s leadership and for some, at least, made clear the depths to which Tibetan society had sunk since the era of “Feudal Serfdom.”

It’s hardly likely that most Tibetans, after all these decades, are ready to buy into the government-enforced description of their past; such ham-handed actions may well make many view the past as far rosier than it actually was. It is also unlikely to win over large foreign audiences beyond those who already are, or would like to be, convinced. Most likely, it will simply reinforce a Chinese sense of a mission civilatrice in Tibet. The colonial thinking and arrogance inherent in such missions when entertained by European powers in the past is obvious. And it is precisely the kind of attitude that will likely exacerbate friction in Tibet and—justifiably—lead Tibetans to view China’s presence in their land as of a sort with the colonialism of other nations.

Though much of the coverage of Tibet in the media in past weeks has focused on politics, a few journalists took time out to look at Tibetan culture as well. Among them, those at The New York Times, who wrote about the growing market for Tibetan religious paintings or thangkas:

The artists here practice the Rebkong style of thangka painting that has flourished since the 17th century. Thangkas from this part of northwestern Qinghai Province are commissioned by monasteries as far away as Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. In recent years, thangkas have gained a following among some ethnic Han Chinese, and individual collectors from Chinese cities and foreign countries have driven up the prices. (For his painting of Chenresig, Lobsang was asking 3,600 yuan, or about $530, a fortune for most Tibetans.)

The commercialization will “drive thangkas far from their origins, from their use as religious objects,” said Zhang Yasha, a teacher of fine arts at the Minzu University of China who specializes in Tibet. “We see more young people learning the art because it’s lucrative.”


By A. Tom Grunfeld

As many readers of this blog doubtless realize, everything having to do with Tibet is subject to mythologizing. That the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on behalf of Tibetan independence is one of these myths. This notion gets mentioned in the Western press routinely, and it sometimes even shows up in comments by academic specialists. In fact, the prize was awarded to him more because of the events in Tiananmen Square that had happened just a few months before the award than for anything related to the Tibet struggle per se.

Indeed, it appears that if there had been no confrontations at Tiananmen in 1989, the Dalia Lama would not have received the prize. To be sure, the European community began to embrace the Dalai Lama and his cause after his speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 1988 when he announced a major concession to Beijing giving up the demand for independence for autonomy. Moreover, the demonstrations and the subsequent bloody suppression in Lhasa in spring 1989 generated additional support and sympathy for the Tibetans. But it appears unlikely that those events alone got him the prize. The situation is described fully in an October 13, 1989, New York Times article “How, and Why, the Dalai Lama Won the Peace Prize.” (To read it in full, follow the link.) To give a sense of its take on the situation, which was based on interviews with informants close to the prize selection process, here are some excerpts from it:

People close to the Nobel Peace Prize selection process say that the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, gained the advantage over other candidates, including President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, largely because of the brutal suppression of the democracy movement in China and the international outrage that followed.

As China called the Dalai Lama’s honor ”preposterous,” people in Oslo who are close to the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in telephone interviews that the choice of the Dalai Lama was an attempt both to influence events in China and to recognize the efforts of student leaders of the democracy movement, which was crushed by Chinese troops in June.

The Dalai Lama, as religious and political leader of Tibet, has been waging a nonviolent struggle for nearly 40 years to end Chinese domination of his homeland.

He was named the 1989 recipient of the prize last week and was ”among the favorites from the beginning,” said Jakob Sverdrup, secretary to the Nobel Committee and director of the Nobel Institute…

Mr. Sverdrup said that the award often swung back and forth between winners who represented humanitarian ideals and those in the trenches of international power politics. The choice of the Dalai Lama was in some ways a combination of both, he said…

In addition to Mr. Gorbachev, front-runners included Vaclav Havel and Jiri Hajek, prominent Czechoslovak dissidents.The committee settled on the Dalai Lama in mid-September… informants said, three months after hundreds of people were killed in Beijing when the Chinese authorities cracked down on the democracy movement. In the aftermath of the crackdown, there was pressure from Norwegians to have the movement’s student leaders named as recipients of this year’s award, despite the fact that the Feb. 1 deadline for nominations had long passed…

A. Tom Grunfeld is a Professor of History at Empire State College and is the author of many works, including The Making of Modern Tibet.

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The Chinese droughts have just begun to move onto the front pages of the world’s newspapers, but the droughts are just the latest sign of much more dire warnings of water woes in China. Some China experts are talking about this (see, for instance, today’s event at the Wilson Center on “Temperatures Rising: Climate Change, Water, and the Himalayas“), but, in China Beat fashion, we’re hoping to encourage many more people to do a little more reading and talking about it too, so we invited Ken Pomeranz to reflect on the present news and suggest a few further readings for those who are interested.

By Ken Pomeranz

Water is back in the China-related news lately – and that’s almost always a bad sign. Most recently, we have had stories about the grinding North China drought; this may be the worst since the late 50s drought that exacerbated the Great Leap Forward famine. A bit earlier, we had the report of credible (though unproven) research suggesting that last May’s catastrophic Sichuan earthquake may have been triggered by pressure from the water stored behind Zipingpu Dam. (See here for an early report, and then the slightly later piece, with more about the key Chinese scientist involved, by Evan Osnos of the New Yorker). Late in January, Jiang Gaoming of the Chinese Academy of Sciences released a sobering piece (China Dialogue, January 22, 2009) about how accelerating the construction of dams in China’s Southwest – part of the P.R.C.’s ambitious stimulus package to fight the global recession – is worsening the already considerable environmental and social risks involved, with some projects beginning before any Environmental Impact Assessments have been completed. Such a confluence of events is enough to make a historian think back…to about six weeks ago.

When the China Beat crew decided to put together our book China in 2008, I drew what you could consider either the long or the short straw, depending on your tastes: light editorial duties in return for writing an “end of the year wrap-up” piece to go at the end of the book. (Most of the copy had to go to the press by November 1, and a book with the sub-title “10 months out of a year of great significance” somehow didn’t seem right.) And as the last days of the year ticked off and I tried to figure out what things about 2008 to emphasize, water kept winding up at the center. Here’s an excerpt:

“The Olympics briefly focused attention on China’s serious air pollution problems…But China’s water woes are at least equally pressing, and it may be easier to see what effects they will have. Two little-noted news items from near the end of the year may illuminate that – after we review some background.

Water has always been a problem in China, and effective control of it has been associated with both personal heroism and legitimate sovereignty for as far back as our records go…. But water scarcity is probably an even greater problem than excesses, especially in the modern period. Surface and near-surface water per capita in China today is roughly ¼ of the global average, and worse yet, it is distributed very unevenly. The North and Northwest, with over half the country’s arable land, have about 7 percent of its surface water; the North China Plain, in particular, has 10 to12 percent of the per capita supply for the country as a whole, or less than 3 percent of the global average. China also has unusually violent seasonal fluctuations in water supply; both rainfall and river levels change much more over the course of the year than in either Europe or North America. While the most famous of China’s roughly 85,000 dams are associated with hydro-power (about which more in a minute), a great many exist mostly to store water during the peak flow of rivers for use at other times of year.

The People’s Republic has made enormous efforts to address these problems – and achieved impressive short-term successes that are now extremely vulnerable. Irrigated acreage has more than tripled since 1950, with the vast majority of those gains coming in the North and Northwest; this has turned the notorious “land of famine” of the 1850-1950 period into a crucial grain surplus area, and contributed mightily to improving per capita food supplies for a national population that has more than doubled. Much of that, however, has come through the massive use of deep wells bringing up underground water far faster than it can be replaced; and a great deal of water is wasted, especially in agriculture, where costs to farmers are kept artificially low. (Chinese agriculture is not necessarily more wasteful in this regard than agriculture in many other places – and certainly the deviations from market prices are no worse than in the supposedly market-driven United States – but its limited supplies make waste a much more immediate problem.) Water tables are now dropping rapidly in much of North China, and water shortages are a frequent fact of life for most urban residents. (Beijing suffers fewer water shortages, but only because it can commandeer the water resources of a large surrounding rural area included in the municipality.) Various technologies that would reduce water waste exist, but most are expensive. More realistic pricing of irrigation water would help – but probably at the price of driving millions of marginal farmers to the wall, and greatly accelerating the already rapid rush of people to the cities. Consequently, adoption of both of these palliatives is likely to remain slow.

Instead, the state has chosen a massive three-pronged effort to move water from South to North China – by far the biggest construction project in history, if it is completed. Part of the Eastern section began operating this year, and the Central section is also underway (though the December 31 Wall Street Journal reported a delay due to environmental concerns). The big story in the long run, however is the Western line, which will tap the enormous water resources of China’s far Southwest – Tibet alone has over 30 percent of China’s fresh water supply, most of it coming from the annual run-off of some water from Himalayan glaciers. (This is an aspect of the Tibet question one rarely hears about, but rest assured that all the engineers in China’s leadership, including Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, are very much aware of it. Tibetans, meanwhile, not only see a precious resource going elsewhere when their water is tapped: they regard many of the lakes and rivers to be dammed as sacred.) The engineering challenges in this mountainous region are enormous, but so are the potential rewards, both in water supply and in hydropower – the electricity water can generate is directly proportional to how far it falls into the turbines, and the Yangzi, for instance, completes 90 percent of its drop to the sea before it even enters China proper. The risks, as our two stories make clear, are social and political as well as environmental…

Call the two news stories the “double glacier shock.” On December 9, Asia Times Online reported that China was planning to go ahead with a major hydroelectric dam and water diversion scheme on the great bend of the Yarlong Tsangpo River in Tibet. The hydro project is planned to generate 40,000 megawatts – almost twice as much as Three Gorges. But the water which this dam would impound and turn northwards currently flows south into Assam to form the Brahmaputra, which in turn joins the Ganges to form the world’s largest river delta, supplying much of the water to a basin with over 300 million inhabitants. While South Asians have worried for some time that China might divert this river, the Chinese government had denied any such intentions, reportedly doing so again when Hu Jintao visited New Delhi in 2006. But when Indian Prime Minister Singh raised the issue again during his January, 2008 visit to Beijing, the tone had changed, with Wen Jiabao supposedly replying that water scarcity is a threat to the “very survival of the Chinese nation,” and providing no assurances. And so it is – not only for China, but for its neighbors. Most of Asia’s major rivers – the Yellow, the Yangzi, the Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Sutlej, and Indus – draw on the glaciers of the Himalayas, and all of these except the Ganges have their source on the Chinese side of the border. Forty-seven percent of the world’s people, from Karachi to Tianjin, draw on those rivers.

In short the possible damage to China’s neighbors from this approach to its water and energy needs is staggeringly large – and the potential to raise political tensions is commensurate. Previous water diversion projects affecting the source of the Mekong have already drawn protests from Vietnam (and from environmental groups), and a project on the Nu River (which becomes the Salween in Thailand and Burma) was suspended in 2004. But this project has vastly larger implications for both Chinese and foreigners. If, as some people think, the twenty-first century will be the century of conflicts over water, Tibet may well be ground zero.

Of course, China is hardly the only country that has ever appropriated water (not to mention other resources) that others see as theirs; I am writing in Southern California, made much more livable by denying Mexico Colorado River water it is theoretically guaranteed by treaty. And there is also something to be said, environmentally, for anything that provides China with lots of electricity and isn’t coal…

But that’s where the second glacier shock of 2008 comes in – news that this crucial water source is disappearing faster than anyone had previously realized. A report published in Geophysical Research Letters on November 22 noted that recent samples taken from Himalayan glaciers were missing two markers that are usually easy to find, reflecting open air nuclear tests in 1951-2 and 1962-3. The reason: the glacier apparently had lost any ice built up since the mid-1940s…And since the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the Himalayan highlands will warm at about twice the average global rate over the next century, there is every reason to think the situation will get worse. One estimate has 1/3 of the Himalayan glaciers disappearing by 2050, and 2/3 by 2100. If that scenario is right, then even if all the engineering challenges of South-North water diversion can be solved, and even if China undertakes and gets away with taking water away from hundreds of millions of people in South and Southeast Asia, the resulting fix might not last very long…”

Strangely, these stories have attracted very little press coverage. There is, however, an excellent video at the Asia Society website. And there is a fair amount of stuff that’s worth reading about China’s water problems in general. If you are interested in learning more, here are a few things I would recommend:

1. James Nickum has a nice, short, summary of the South-North water transfer project available online. His December 1998 essay in China Quarterly, “Is China Living on the Water Margin?” (#156, 880-898) seems to me to have held up very nicely for a 10-year old overview of this rapidly changing set of problems (and as regular readers of this blog know, we give extra points for punning titles).

2. Another useful overview from several years ago (more technical than Nickum’s) is Olli Varis and Pertti Vakkilainen “China’s 8 challenges to water resources management in the first quarter of the 21st Century,” Geomorphology 41:2/3 pp. 93-104 (November 15, 2001). If you’re at a place where you can access the web version (i.e., a library with a subscription), you’ll find lots of useful further links to click on. (Here is one link for those with a subscription through ScienceDirect.)

3. Elizabeth Economy’s The River Runs Black seems to me to overstate the problems at some times (and since I don’t have a sanguine view, that should give an idea how, umm, black, her take is), but it’s a very good introduction to some of the relevant policy-making agencies and processes.

4. Dai Qing’s various essays on Three Gorges and other hydro projects are very useful, as is the collection Mega-Project (which included both official and unofficial views of the project).

5. Probe International often has good material, as does the International Rivers project.

6. And since plugging oneself is OK on a blog, I have a long-ish essay on the history of Chinese water management in a forthcoming collection of essays on environmental history: Burke, Edmund III, and Kenneth Pomeranz, editors The Environment and World History (UC Press, forthcoming March, 2009).