Tibetologist and Sinologist Elliot Sperling on Chinese People’s Understanding of Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibet Issue

Tibetologist and Sinologist Elliot Sperling on Chinese People’s Understanding of Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibet Issue

The sudden death of the renowned Tibetologist Elliot Sperling represents a loss that is difficult to put into words. On February 1, I wrote on Twitter and Facebook: “The grief makes me empty. It struck many people. He was not only an outstanding and inspiring scholar, he was even more a person who always stood up for basic human values. His conduct was always, as Albert Camus once conveyed, not just about personal indignation, but also always about solicitude for others. But I cried for an entire day, am so deeply sad on this day on which I have to say that I lost an intimate friend and greatly respected teacher: Elliot Sperling!” “I would sometimes call him ‘Genla’ (teacher), but he always wanted to me directly call him Elliot, because we were friends, as he said, real friends. He also said: “I always hope that one day I can show you my hometown of New York.” “Many people on Facebook commemorate him, our Elliot Sperling, thinking of him in tears. Let me share this one sentence: It’s as if a whole library has burned down…”

I am fortunate enough to have known Elliot for almost seven years. On my blog, I posted 10 of his articles that have been translated. One of them was his piece “Incivilities” (translated by Kalsang Dhondup); I re-read it and feel that I really have to introduce it to the Chinese readership. Elliot Sperling was a Sinologist who had visited China many times for academic research and fieldwork. This is why I would like to mainly focus my attention to the parts of the article that touch upon his understanding of the Tibet question and the problematic relationship between Chinese people and Tibet that echo in the comment of one reader: “…Chinese understandings of Tibet are very well portrayed in this article. Without any functioning civil society, the Chinese only wake up when their power and privileges are compromised, but with regards to Tibet, they have a very hard time freeing themselves from the errors caused by years of brainwashing.” The words below that I wrote in 2014 serve as evidence of how I understood Elliot: “My good friend, the Tibetologist Elliot Sperling’s research focuses on Sino-Tibetan relations, but he is also very much concerned with Tibetan politics, human rights issues and the current reality in Tibet. He once described the reasons for his concern for the Tibet question and his support for Tibet’s struggle against extinction as being based on a position of recognising and defending the fundamental values of civil society, which has nothing to do with the nation or the state.”

Prof. Sperling, who was proficient in Tibetan and Chinese, wrote the following:

“In some quarters the growing interest in Tibetan Buddhism on the part of some Chinese within the PRC has been translated into notions about support for the Tibetan cause within China, ignoring the fact that many of the people in China who take an interest in Tibetan Buddhism do so with little or no awareness of the Tibet Issue and its implications (not unlike some of their counterparts in the West, actually). Indeed, to the question that is frequently asked—what do Chinese think about Tibet?—the answer is quite simple: Tibet does not occupy the thoughts of the vast majority of Chinese. And when it does come to mind, it is likely to be as a region whose people were liberated from a particularly horrendous form of feudal oppression, or as a land of apolitical mysticism. The fact is most Chinese don’t spend time thinking or caring about Tibet. Indeed, when Tibet comes into broader view, as during the protests of 2008, this lack of serious reflection results in bafflement or, more commonly, resentment—resentment at the patent ingratitude of Tibetans for the liberation from slave-like servitude that China granted them. This is not to ignore those Chinese who do dare to reject what the official media and Chinese ultra-nationalism prompts them to think about the issue. But they are a terribly small part of the population and to see them as having a role to play in pushing popular sentiment (let alone official policy) in a certain direction is, at least at this moment in time, to misread the nature of civil society in China, as many in the exile community are indeed wont to do.

“It is for this reason that the projection of Tibetan hopes onto the phenomena of visible Chinese protests—the perception that these protests are opening up a space for greater Tibetan freedom—has serious failings. Protests within the PRC—and there are many—are indeed striking. But Tibetans who think that they may foreshadow the growth of a Chinese society predicated on broad notions of justice and human rights that will work towards addressing the aspirations of Tibetans are misjudging much of their context.

“And this brings us briefly back to RFA, where a March 11 news story headlined “Many Chinese Sympathetic to Tibet: RFA Poll” started off with the statement that “Mainland Chinese are largely sympathetic to the cause of Tibet…” The headline and opening phrase certainly express sentiments that feed into the exile establishment’s view that the Middle Way is an effective policy, one that is winning popular Chinese support because of its “conciliatory” nature. Yet when one reads the story closely one discovers that it is based on telephone questioning of… 30 Chinese respondents! 30 people (not all of whom, by the way, are wholly sympathetic to Tibetan expressions of discontent) out of, say, 1.3 billion! One may rightly wonder: what agenda—or, more aptly, whose agenda—would get such a headline and story posted on the RFA website on the basis of a statistically less-than-inconsequential phone survey of RFA listeners? Only a disregard for minimal journalistic standards for research and reporting could produce such a story. What next? Will RFA be breathlessly telling its listeners in China that most Americans have sighted Elvis Presley, alive and well, at their local McDonalds?”

“It should be understood, when trying to read potential Chinese thinking about Tibet from the larger phenomenon of Chinese protests, that local protests in China are most commonly rooted in specific local issues; they are fundamentally different from protests that involve nationality issues and nationality discontents. These latter are inherently imbued with—tainted with, as many would see it—the potential for undermining crucial elements in the modern construction of the Chinese nation. The introduction of the national question into a protest automatically places it in a much more sinister category (as far as the authorities and many Chinese citizens are concerned) than that of protests caused by limited local grievances. And here the crippled nature of Chinese civil society becomes clearer. Setting aside those few, brave souls who do look beyond their own group’s interests and raise their voices in support of broad human rights issues (and of course there are such people in China, let’s not forget), the sort of civil society backing for issues that transcend the personal interests of particular protestors is still quite weak. It does exist, of course, and when one sees manifestations of it, it is striking. But China is far from producing a civil society in which significant numbers of people will take a strong, public, dissenting stand on an issue removed from their own perceived interests. Consider that the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s only achieved the level of success that it did when a majority of the population—the non-Black population—was no longer able to avoid a gut-level sense of shame and anger over the bigotry, discrimination and worse that was visited upon one sector of society. That the majority did not suffer the same outrages inflicted on the Black population was beside the point. The situation was repugnant; it offended the sense of justice of the majority, which ultimately supported measures and actions to end it. And this, out of a sense of civil society; an awareness that it is largely the citizenry, not the government, that must ultimately set the agenda for social justice.

“This is what makes Tibetan expectations about Chinese society so misleading. Contrary to what RFA claims to have adduced, it is nowhere near being a society in which visceral opposition to injustice visited upon someone else can be sufficient grounds for outcries and broad social action over conditions in Tibet. Although there is sympathy for Tibetan grievances to be found on some social media sites, it is dwarfed by a larger public sentiment that either accepts official positions or is uninterested. Given the deterministic ideological arguments that dominated Chinese thinking on a host of subjects (history, religion, society, etc.) for decades, derisory attitudes to international sensitivities about injustice in Tibet are hardly unexpected. In most Chinese conceptions of the factors that produced an international movement in support of Tibet there is little room for consideration of the workings of civil society. Rather, certain forces whose objective effect is anti-China are at work underneath the veneer of civil society humanitarianism; forces that are deterministic: rooted, above all in group social and historical dynamics divorced from individualistic sensibilities and direction. Agitation over Tibet in the West and elsewhere (almost always characterized as anti-China) is presented as something easily understood once one comprehends the determining dynamics of the society or people in question.”

What needs to be explained here is that Prof. Elliot Sperling, in the points that he raises in the article about civil society, is not merely criticising Chinese society. He wrties: “The need for the free and open airing of arguments, assertions, and positions is an essential element of a functioning civil society in both the PRC and Tibetan exile society, though the dynamics and types of damage done in the two cases are indeed exponentially very different.” So, whoever is interested in reading the entire article, follow this link: http://www.rangzen.net/2013/05/08/incivilities/

In Chinese: http://woeser.middle-way.net/2013/06/blog-post_13.html

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This blogpost, translated by High Peaks Pure Earth, was originally written for the Mandarin service of Radio Free Asia and published on Woeser’s blog on February 7, 2017.