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Tibet: Reality vs Morality

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Tibet: Reality vs Morality

Yang Hengjun reflects on his observations during a recent tour of Tibet.

Tibet: Reality vs Morality
Credit: Barkhor Street image via claudio zaccherini /

My trip to Tibet has already ended. Originally, I agreed to keep a diary during my trip to let my readers know about my experiences, but I didn’t post a thing. Tibet is just too beautiful — so beautiful that I had no time to open up my computer. The last time I visited Tibet, in August 2011, I didn’t have this type of reaction. It seems that going to Tibet once is not enough; every time you go, the trip will invoke different feelings.

The last time I was in Lhasa was before the reconstruction of Barkhor Street. On the crowded street were more than a few armed soldiers, who would hassle you if you took a photo of them. This time Barkhor Street looked completely new: bright and spacious, without any uniformed soldiers in sight. It made me think of a recent report from an overseas media outlet. That article said that the Communist Party of China had destroyed Tibetan culture by reconstructing Barkhor Street. I quickly compared Barkhor Street today to my memories of it three years ago and decided that reconstruction (mainly widening the main street and moving street vendors into stores or smaller side streets) wasn’t unreasonable, much less a crime as serious as destroying Tibetan culture.

This exactly reflects the dilemma that Beijing faces on an international level. The Chinese government wants to act for the good of the people and the country in Tibet, and it has really done a lot in this regards — for example, providing assistance or subsidies so that Tibetans can live well and lift themselves out of poverty, and building railways to help regional development. But in the eyes of Western media, it seems that the more the Chinese government does, the worse it is. Speaking to a Beijing official in charge of publicity, I said, “Don’t you feel helpless, with reality on your side, but ‘morality’ always with others?” He whole-heartedly agreed.

The “reality” I spoke of shouldn’t be ignored. During my trip, we visited seven or eight Tibetan villages, and “ran into” some Tibetans in meetings arranged by the government. We also talked to Tibetans that we met while off on our own. No matter who we talked to, we got a sense of the intense effort the government has made to support Tibet, how hard it has tried (with good success) to lift Tibetans out of poverty and improve their living standards. As for the Tibetan cadres we met, whether in terms of moral quality or ability, they were just as good as cadres in the coastal regions, which I found quite surprising. In addition, 90 percent of Tibet’s budget is supplied by the central government.

When it comes to protecting the culture and traditions of minorities, China’s government has done a lot — at the very least, it has tried harder than the U.S. did to protect Native Americans or Australia did to protect Aborigines. But one “reality” that we cannot ignore is that, internationally, Tibet will always be seen as a “weakness” for the Chinese government. That’s what I meant when I said that “‘morality’ is always with others.”

There are complex factors behind this situation, with the most important ones involving ideological, political, and cultural differences and prejudices. A blog isn’t really the best place to discuss all these issues, so I’ll just use a simple example to explain the differences between East and West.

Not long ago, an American woman from Washington DC asked me about the Taiwan issue. She said, “I don’t understand why, as soon as you bring up independence or unification, Chinese people become so agitated, and won’t let anyone else talk.” Her words “I don’t understand” got me thinking, and I came to understand something.

Of course, there are people agitating for independence in northern Ireland, Quebec, and Hawaii, but these discussions about unification and independence are obviously relaxed and free, no different from any other topic. But when Westerners adopt this same attitude, talking about Tibet as if it were no different than Hubei or Guangzhou, they touch the one nerve that is most sensitive for Chinese people.

The bloody storms of dynastic changes in China’s thousands of years of history can be summarized as a cycle of division and unity. In China, both division and unity were achieved through war and slaughter. History shows that during periods of disunity in China, wars proliferated. Many people criticize China’s grand unification dream, but this idea won’t go away just because it’s criticized. It has already become a national characteristic for China, a sort of “political correctness” that all Chinese uphold. Americans do not understand — Chinese people can’t discuss independence and secession, just like Americans cannot discriminate against minorities, women, and obese people. In both cases, these are political taboos that “political correctness” prevents us from touching.

These political taboos constrain our hands on some “sensitive” issues. Every country that has established diplomatic relations with China has admitted the principle that Taiwan and Tibet are inalienable parts of China’s sacred territory. But China is always being harassed by some separatist forces, and this makes us nervous. We even lose our basic self-confidence. From an outside perspective, this makes the situation seem suspicious. For example, sometimes Westerners aren’t talking about independence or secession at all, but about development, human rights, and religious issues, but we Chinese immediately become wary, making it seem as though we are in the wrong.  Really, our achievements in Tibet (especially when compared to neighboring Bhutan and Myanmar) should be obvious to everyone. We should be completely confident in front of the international community, and should open Tibet to show the world. But we don’t dare to be so open, because we worry that someone will somehow “overthrow” or “destroy” our success.

In my opinion, China should be more self-confident when it comes to “sensitive issues” like Tibet, and shouldn’t be so passive-aggressive — that’s just falling into the trap set by Western public opinion.

There are problems not only with the way we discuss “sensitive issues,” but also with the way we think about them. I’ll use another small example to explain the big picture to everyone. I discovered that most Tibetans understand and are thankful for the central government. And when I go into Tibetan houses, I always notice that there’s a Chinese flag hanging over the door, and that there are pictures of Chinese leaders hanging on the walls insides — not just a picture of Chairman Mao or the current leadership, but large portraits of the past four generations of leaders hanging side by side.

I understand that some Tibetans may hang these pictures out of real admiration, and that it might be voluntary. But even those Chinese people who live in other provinces (much less visiting Westerners), feel that this scene is a little strange, and we can’t help but ask ourselves why our Tibetan countrymen seem to loves China’s leaders even more than Han people do. Why are they more fond of China’s flag? Is it really complete chance, done voluntarily (these portraits always are the same ones)? Why does Beijing want to give the impression that Tibetans appreciate the Chinese government, the Party, and its leaders more than anyone else in China? And does this mean that the cadres assigned to lead and educate Tibetans have already separated “us” (Han) from “them” (Tibetans) in their minds?

Maybe, deep down, some Chinese officials have a superiority complex, or even a “savior complex.” If our cadres really looked upon the Tibetans as family members, they should realize that it’s perfectly natural for the central government to provide subsidies and push forward development in poor regions. The country’s wealth comes from the people and should be used to help the people, whether Tibetan or Han. There’s no need for people to have to show extreme gratitude.

This is just a small example, but it reflects a major problem. It shows that there are some issues in China’s approach to Tibet. We haven’t truly understood the spirit of the speech then-Vice President Xi Jinping gave in Tibet three years ago. We need to adjust China’s policies in Tibet based on that speech. We should remember that, since we regard Tibet as part of China’s territory, when we consider issues and take action we should treat Tibet the same way as we treat Hainan or Guangdong Provinces. The central government provides vigorous support for Tibet according to its unique circumstances, but the purpose is simply to help regional development and improve living standards. Tibetans don’t need to (nor should they) show more patriotism or love for Chinese leaders than the Han people do.

Whether we’re talking about Tibet and other minority regions, areas lacking in development, or areas where incident frequently occur, we should adopt the spirit of Xi Jinping’s speech. When it comes to “soft” tactics China must be even more soft — just as China must be even harder when it comes to “hard” tactics. Soft tactics mean promoting economic development, improving peoples’ livelihoods, and especially providing more opportunities for minority groups to receive an education, take part in reforms, and have a share of the benefits of reform. Hard tactics mean showing no mercy to separatists and terrorists.

A longer version of this piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at