A fundamental difference: how the USA and China view Tibet

On a second note about the Tibet issue, I aim to discuss a fundamental gap between how the west, the USA in particular, view the Tibet problem and how the Chinese view the Tibet problem. This could explain why there is such an enormous gulf between the two countries on this issue that seems to transcend any political differences today. The issue isn’t about differences in political philosophy or even human rights perse, it is about how the two countries differ on religion.

I believe that China continues to be reviled in the USA not because of China’s booming economy, it posing a potential military threat, or because China is a one-party state. The biggest issue is that Americans view the Chinese as fundamentally immoral, which is why they take every opportunity to try to illustrate this point. The reason for this belief isn’t because the Chinese government violates human rights (China, in the grand scheme of things, is not so bad in terms of human rights violations) or because China is not a democracy in the western sense (again, most countries in the world are not western democracies); it is because China is unique among the nations of the world for one reason: it is mostly atheist. In fact, China is the only country in the world where more than half of its citizens claim to be atheists. In a recent study, it was shown that most Americans, whether religious or not, and even among people who call themselves atheists, believe that religious people are more moral. This is not entirely unfounded; as anyone who has lived in both China and the USA can tell you in a heartbeat. This makes America and China diametrically opposite on a very deep level.

Other manifestations of this misunderstanding aside, it boils down to the Tibet problem. To China, Tibet is purely a political issue. It views the Dalai Lama as a self-exiled former ruler of Tibet, whose only logical (political) ambition is to return to power with the aid of foreign powers. This is obviously unacceptable. What if Fulgencio Batista had tried, with foreign help, to go back to Cuba to take it over? How would Cuba see that issue? How would the world see that issue? It would be unacceptable; because Batista had obviously lost the mandate to rule in any legitimate sense by being overthrown and forced to flee the country. Thus China is absolutely resolute on this issue: it would not allow an overthrown passe dictator to return to one of its territories and claim political power. Indeed, no reasonable country would.

To the Americans, this is not a political issue as they do not see the Dalai Lama as a political figure, but as the head of a religion. To them, the Tibet issue is a religious one, and the root of the problem is China’s oppression of the free practice of religion in Tibet. Of course, Buddhism is not banned anywhere in China, but the worship or the public display of any pictures of the Dalai Lama is forbidden. To the Americans, fighting against religious oppression in their own country is seen as one of their greatest victories, and so to see China ‘oppress’ a religion raises some primal anger. Indeed, China has similar practices with respect to the Roman Catholic Church, where the bishops and cardinals are appointed by the Central Government, not by the Pope.

Thus, the root of the issue is at a very fundamental level and the two sides may never reach an understanding. Indeed, I suspect that neither side is even aware that this basic difference is really where the problem lies.

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