Sunday, March 23, 2008

American support of Tibet: Too little too late

Tibet was taken over by the Chinese in 1951. In 1959 Tibetan protests led to repressive measures by the Chinese that resulted in thousands of Tibetans fleeing their homeland and taking up residence in India, Switzerland, Canada and various other countries. The brutal treatment of Tibetans by the Chinese has been taking place for fifty years. And now the United States half opens one eye and takes a little notice. Why now?

I have nothing to offer but speculation as to why the United States now pays some attention to the suffering of the Tibetans, and speculation is of no use to anyone. I'll therefore keep it to myself. Instead of offering that, let me make a few observations about why it is too late for the United States to play a significant role in helping Tibetans find justice in their homeland.

From the Chinese perspective, the Han treatment of Tibetans, Uigurs and Mongols has been far more beneficial to those minority peoples than American treatment of the Cherokee, Lakota, Apache, Navajo, Ute, Shoshone, Crow, Cree, Iroquois and Ojibway peoples. The native American peoples were subjected to genocidal treatment, and their cultures were in many cases almost entirely obliterated and their traditional lifestyles made impossible by the forceful occupation of their lands. In past years I have been involved in several conversations with people from the People's Republic of China, and this point is always brought up. American treatment of ethnic minorities has been shameful from beginning to end. Americans enslaved Africans and forcibly brought them to America to do labor. Americans conducted an illegal war against Mexico and took parts of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona from the Mexicans before buying even more land from them at unreasonable prices, and Americans have never treated the descendants of those Mexicans who now find themselves in America particularly well. In the process of settling the West, Americans repeatedly betrayed native peoples, took their land from them, rounded them up and shot their women and children even when they had peacefully surrendered. The picture of Geronimo, Chappo, Perico and Chihuahua with the caption “Homeland Security–Fighting Terrorism Since 1492” is not just an amusing joke. The Chinese know that well and find it sufficient grounds to dismiss Americans now who try to take the moral high road.

In more recent times, the American government has engaged in yet more illegal invasions of sovereign nations, this time not a neighboring country but two countries halfway around the world. The pretext for invading both Afghanistan and Iraq was quite similar to that of invading Mexico in 1846; in all cases, the sovereign nations invaded were portrayed as a threat to America's safety and an enemy of American freedom. How can a country that has repeatedly behaved in this way object to the Chinese invasion of Tibet?

Unlike any other war in American history, the American occupation of Iraq has not been financed by taxation of American citizens. It has been financed by borrowed money. Estimates vary, but an estimate published today in the New York Times is that the invasion and occupation of Iraq will have cost every man, woman and child in the United States about $10,000. None of that cost has come through ordinary budgeting, which, during the Bush presidency has already been deficit financing every year. The national debt has grown out of control. About 40% of that debt is owned by foreign nations, most of it by the Chinese. If the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are being waged by borrowed money, and if each citizen of the USA bears $10,000 of the burden, and if China owns around 35% of the American debt, then this means that each American is about $3500 in debt to China. And this does not include the massive trade deficit that America has to China as a result of buying goods produced in that country. It also does not include the credit card debts and home mortgages and automobile loans that most Americans carry, a significant amount of which is also owned by Chinese investors. Being deeply in debt to someone does not put one in a strong position to make demands on the way they behave. The protests of a debtor are easy to shrug off. Ask anyone who has been in debt to the IRS.

As outrageous as Chinese policies in Tibet (and toward the Uigurs and Mongols in their homelands) have been, this may be a situation in which we must listen to Jesus and let him who is free of sin cast the first stone. Unfortunately, the candidate for throwing the first stone at the Chinese for their imperialistic sins is not going to be anyone who has had an empire in the past several centuries. The English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Germans, Dutch, Austrians, Hungarians, Israelis, Arabs and Turks will have to be sidelined along with the Americans, and of course the Japanese will have to sit on the bench with the rest of us. So who is left? Is there a David able and willing to sling a rock at the Chinese Goliath?

Unfortunately, any David preparing a sling to hurl a rock at the Chinese Goliath is likely to be just as ready to hurl a stone at the American Goliath, too. Thanks to our past conduct (or what Asians are inclined to call karma) as a people, most of us who belong to the human race (or to some subset thereof) have no option but to hold Tibetans in the light, as the Quakers say. That is, we have little option but to let the best of ourselves feel compassion for all those who are suffering injustice everywhere, beginning with those in our own homes, neighborhoods, countries, and continents and extending it to all living beings, animate and inanimate on this entire planet. That is the very least we can do to begin the healing of the world. Unfortunately, the very least we can do is probably considerably more than most of us will manage to do.