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Is breeding more Tibetan children really the answer to Tibetan 'identity challenge'? The dangers of ethnic nationalism.
Phayul[Saturday, March 02, 2013 06:25]
By Adele Wilde-Blavatsky

“When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.” - Krishnamurti

We are frankly, a people still in thrall to ignorance and superstition, which far from declining with the years seems to be gaining new life and impetus with foreign sponsorship and encouragement. -Jamyang Norbu

Independence did not mean chauvinism and narrow nationalism. - Said Musa

The quote above from Indian philosopher, Krishnamurti,may seem idealistic to some but the depth of its meaning is something we all would do well to consider. In a world overwhelmed by violence and anger, it is essential to think more about the causes and conditions that create and contribute to it. Xenophobia, ethnocentrism, dogmatism of any sort creates separation, resentment and misunderstanding. It is ironic, and perhaps indicative, of the meaning of this quote that Tibet,the land of HH Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism and non-violence has been subjected to one of the most violent occupations of the twentieth century. If we look at this issue from a worldly point of view then it is difficult to understand why Tibetans have been singled out for such a dogmatic, sustained attack on their religion, language, culture. On the one hand, there is the greed, hatred and political dogmatism of Chinese imperialism and power. On the other hand, as all Buddhists know well, for this situation to arise in the first place, following the law of cause and effect, there is clearly more to Tibetans and Tibetan history than the Shangri-la myth of peace, love and compassion would have us believe. Many Tibetans, including dissident intellectual Jamyang Norbu (who is quoted above), cite the prevailing conservatism, xenophobia, conformity and lack of modernisation of Tibetan society as the reason why China was able to occupy Tibet. Historically, Tibetans, like the great scholar, writer and poet, Gedun Chophel, who challenged such attitudes, pushed for modernisation and criticised the status quo were crushed, isolated and silenced by the Tibetan authorities.

Therefore, it was notable that in a recent interview, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the elected political leader of the Tibetans in exile, explains how the Tibetan government (CTA) are considering offering financial incentives and rewards to encourage ethnic Tibetans to have at least three children to combat the 'identity challenge' they are facing. Sangay said the Tibetan population numbers around six million of which 90,000 live in India and 60,000 in other parts of the world. He said the incentives, if approved, would be applicable mainly to Tibetans living in India, Nepal and Bhutan. “It is important to have Tibetans in numbers,” he is quoted as saying. Such an emphasis on quantity is to some extent understandable, given Tibetan worries about Han Chinese migration and nationalism in Tibet.

On the one hand, Tibetans in Tibet have been surviving and struggling for decades under one of the most brutal colonial powers in recent times, the Chinese communist government. The Tibetan population level has been significantly reduced as a result of murder, torture, ill-health, starvation and violence. In addition, there has been the threat from China's programme of forced sterilizations, which for decades has traumatized considerable numbers of Tibetan (and Chinese) women. As a result of this ongoing Chinese colonization, Tibet is facing a demographic and cultural assault, which has been described as China's 'Final Solution'. Although, as Peter Hessler asserts in 'Tibet Through Chinese Eyes' such migration may not be as politically motivated as some Tibetans assert:

'According to Beijing, Han make up only three percent of the population of the Tibet Autonomous Region, whereas some Tibetan exiles claim that the figure is in fact over 50 percent and growing......One common misperception in Western reports is that these people are sent by the government: the image is of a tremendous Han civilian army arriving to overwhelm Tibetan culture. The truth is that the government has little control over the situation.... Far from arriving with an ethnic agenda, the independent migrants are for the most part completely apolitical.'

Whichever viewpoint is accurate, the question remains, does having more ethnically Tibetan children ultimately benefit Tibetans, let alone the rest of humanity?

To some non-Tibetan observers (and more critical thinking Tibetans), Sangay's statement stems from a pervading conservatism (religious and moral), conformity and xenophobia within the exile community. Much of this is understandable, western governments have failed to adequately support or help Tibet, putting trade interests before human rights. In addition, the careerism and 'white man's burden' attitudes shown by many westerners in the internatioal Tibet movement is a subject I have written about from my own first-hand experience for the Free Tibet NGO in London. However, until now, such ethnocentric ideas have generally been shared behind closed doors. So the significance of Sangay's public statement cannot be underestimated as it is a sign that such attitudes are starting to become more prominent in public discourse. A recent social media debate as to whether non-Tibetan women should wear the traditional Tibetan dress of chuba, also revealed the emergence of hostile and exclusive attitudes among a small group of Tibetan women towards 'outsiders' when it comes to 'appropriating Tibetan culture'. When I debated with them I was verbally abused and called 'a white, racist imperialist'. Shortly after this debate, a non-Tibetan woman wrote about her experience online. Her article is somewhat defensive and appears to be aimed at appeasing less tolerant members of Tibetan society. However, her account of the prejudice and hostility she experienced from other Tibetans for being in a relationship with a Tibetan man is a moving and courageous one.

Apart from the ethnocentrism Sangay's statement potentially encourages, there are compelling social, feminist, political, environmental and scientific reasons why such views may also be ultimately of little benefit to the Tibetan people and humanity as a whole.

Demographics, economics and women

Tibetans currently number around 6 million in Tibet, a similar amount to the Irish population. So although not huge, it is certainly not the smallest in terms of ethnic groups. For example, Iceland currently numbers around 300, 000 as do many other ethnic groups in Europe and globally.

Moreover, the majority of Tibetans in exile currently live in one of the most overpopulated, illiterate and materially underdeveloped countries on the planet: India. While India is rising as a economic power and is recovering from being colonised by the British, it was nonetheless recently voted the worst country in the G20 to be a woman. Likewise,Tibetans in India and Nepal are increasingly facing unemployment, poverty and lack of adequate health and education resources. Many of their families desperately send them into exile at very young ages, making them orphans in their host countries. In addition, even those Tibetans living with their children in exile struggle to make ends meet and have to resort to sending their children to Tibetan boarding schools dotted around India in order to maintain their income and livelihood. To fund this education, Tibetan schoolchildren are often reliant on foreign sponsorship and support. One Tibetan I spoke to recently in Dharamsala told me how difficult it was to find childcare with parents often having to give up work to look after their children or place them in 'baby rooms' from the age of 6 months old, then sending them to boarding schools from the age of 5 onwards.

With these social and economic pressures, it is difficult to see how encouraging Tibetans to have more children would be beneficial to Tibetans in their host country, India or to Tibetans in Tibet? How about giving financial incentives to parents to live with and educate their children closer to home, or incentives to adopt and support Tibetan orphans (making them less reliant on foreign money)? In summary, investing more in the Tibetans who are currently living and struggling in exile as opposed to creating more mouths that need feeding and hands that need work? Quality of life being more important than quantity of people.

Furthermore, infant and childbirth mortality rates in India and Nepal are some of the worst in the world due to lack of adequate sex education, family planning and health facilities. As women bear the brunt of health issues connected to pregnancy and childbirth, perhaps this 'incentive' money would be far better spent on ensuring Tibetan women and children have better access to good quality family planning and healthcare facilities? Indeed, a feminist analysis of the implications of an ethnocentric policy that turns women's bodies into instruments of cultural propagation is a significant topic in itself, for which there is not enough space to write about here. In Gender Discourse and Ethnic Nationalism: the Case of Yugoslavia, Natasja Vovjodic, writes about the dangers of ethnically-oriented reproductive policies from chauvinist politicians:

'While women were paradoxically liable for the life as well as the death of their respective nations through reproduction, the women belonging to the groups of the ethnic Other were subjugated in a corresponding respect. Instead of being revered for their ability to produce children, these women were vilified as conspirators seeking to annihilate the nation by increasing the number of its outsiders through biological ‘ethnic cleansing’.'

Political, cultural or ethnic nationalism?

So, people who advocate ethnic reproduction on nationalist grounds of 'identity challenge', even with good motivation, are on slippery political and moral ground. Tibet is a vast, rich culture with different religions, dialects and distinct regions with cultural differences,so what does it actually mean to be a Tibetan or part of the Tibetan nation? And what about Himalayan regions outside Tibet such as Ladakh, Spiti and Mongolia that share a lot in common with Tibetan culture and ethnicity?

Many of the controversies surrounding nationalism can be traced back to rival views about what constitutes a nation. So widely accepted is the idea of the nation that its distinctive features are seldom examined or questioned; the nation is simply taken for granted, confusion abounds. The term 'nation' tends to be employed with little precision, often being used interchangeably with terms such as 'state', 'country', 'ethnic group' or 'race'. In particular, there are major divisions between those who view nations as primarily cultural communities and those who view them as primarily political communities.

For Max Weber (1968), the definitions of 'ethnic group' and 'nation' are very close, though not quite equivalent. An ethnic group is, at root, a 'people' that holds 'a subjective belief in their common descent.' Their identity is 'presumed' , which means that it is 'artificially' or 'accidentally' associated with a set of characteristics such as physical appearance, customs, common memories, language, religion, etc. 'Almost any kind of similarity or contrast of physical type and of habits,' says Weber, 'can induce the belief that affinity or disaffinity exists between groups that attract or repel each other.' This way of putting it, underscores the fact that the discourse of ethnicity at once homogenizes and differentiates. The artificially selected ethnic indicators that create 'affinities' among insiders simultaneously create 'disaffinities' with outsiders.

The idea of the nation as an essentially ethnic or cultural entity can be traced back to late eighteenth century Germany and the writings of figures such as Herder (1744-1803) and Fichte (1762-1814). For Herder, the innate character of each national group was ultimately determined by its natural environment, climate and physical geography shaping the lifestyle, working habits, attitudes and creative propensities of a people. Above all, he emphasised the importance of language, believed to be the embodiment of a people's distinctive traditions and historical memories. Each nation thus possesses a Volksgeist (literally, the 'spirit of the nation'), which reveals itself in songs, myths and
legends, and provides a nation with its source of creativity. Herder's nationalism amounts to a form of culturalism, emphasising an awareness and appreciation of national traditions and collective memories instead of an overtly political quest for statehood.

Friedrich Meinecke (1970), distinguished between 'cultural nations' and 'political nations'. 'Cultural' nations are characterised by high level of ethnic homogeneity; in effect, national and ethnic identities overlap. Germans, the Russians, the English and the Irish are cultural nations. Such nations can be regarded as 'organic', in that they have been fashioned by natural or historical forces, rather than by political ones. Cultural nations nevertheless tend to view themselves as exclusive groups. Membership of the nation derives not from a political allegiance, voluntarily undertaken, but from an ethnic identity that has somehow been inherited. Cultural nations view themselves as extended kinship groups, distinguished by common descent. In this sense, it is not possible to 'become' German, Russian or English simply by adopting the language and beliefs of such peoples. Such exclusivity, however, has tended to breed insular and regressive forms of nationalism and to weaken the distinction between nation and race.

The view of the nation as an essentially political entity reflects an emphasis on civic loyalty and political allegiance rather than on cultural identity. The nation, then, is a group of people bound together primarily by their shared citizenship, regardless of their cultural, ethnic and other loyalties.
This view of the nation is often traced back to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau ((1712-78). The idea that nations are political, not ethnic, communities has been supported by a number of theories of nationalism. Eric Hobsbawm (1983), for instance, highlighted the degree to which nations are 'invented traditions'. Rather than accepting that modern nations have developed out of long-established ethnic communities, Hobsbawm argued that a belief in historical continuity and cultural purity was invariably a myth and, what is more, a myth created by nationalism itself. In this view, nationalism creates nations, not the other way round. A widespread consciousness of nationhood -sometimes called popular nationalism - did not, for example, develop until the late nineteenth century, fashioned by the invention of national anthems and national flags, and the extension of primary education. Even the idea of a 'mother-tongue', passed down from generation to generation and embodying a national culture, is questionable. In reality, languages live and grow as each generation adapts its language to its distinctive needs and circumstances.

Lobsang Sangay appears to be straddling both a form of cultural nationalism (bound by ethnicity and culture) and political nationalism (shared political goals and citizenship). The continuing practice of arranged marriages organised by Tibetan families in exile, particularly with the pressure placed on young Tibetan women to participate, is a sign that ethnic nationalism is alive and kicking. However, given the current situation in exile and in Tibet, wouldn't it beneficial to err on the side of shared political goals as opposed to shared ethnicity though, with the inevitable racism and intolerance it can breed? Or focus more on preserving the Tibetan identity by continuing to set up and support institutions that help keep it alive in other ways like TIPA, TCV schools and various monastic learning centres? Indeed, Samdhong Rinpoche's pilot project of model schools, where greater stress is laid on the learning of the curriculum in Tibetan language, is such a pioneering idea of preserving the Tibetan identity with a visionary and futuristic intention. These initiatives by the Tibetan government in exile over the past five decades have also been aimed at tackling what Sangay calls an "Identity Challenge" yet assert a subtle fact that identity is more then merely a numbers game.

Overpopulation and environmental catastrophe

Although the implementation of China's one-child policy is barbaric, that is not to say the policy itself is irrational and without merit. The planet is currently facing an environmental catastrophe as a result of overpopulation and the strain this is placing on the Earth's resources. There are very compelling reasons for governments worldwide to try and restrain the population growth through incentives, education, better healthcare and access to family planning facilities. The efficacy of such measures can easily be seen in developing countries where birth rates have significantly dwindled and living standards and education have improved. His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself has recently placed much emphasis on overpopulation, not only to an international audience but also to Tibetans, saying on several occasions 'the best thing is to have more monks and nuns'.

Genetics, race and science

Finally, there is the scientific argument that genetic diversity and mixing races plays an important role in the survival and adaptability of a species. At one end of the spectrum is inbreeding, where the parents are closely related. This tends to produce very unfit offspring, many of which die young. So it is considered better to choose an unrelated partner. When the partner is not only unrelated but comes from a different population, this is like being ‘super-unrelated’ and can lead to what is termed 'hybrid vigour'.

Just four decades ago inter-racial marriages were illegal and eugenics has claimed millions of lives throughout the history of mankind. Even today, right wing groups across the globe believe that mixing of races is against the 'natural order'. As the mother of a half-Tibetan child, the promotion of any idea of racial or cultural purity is particularly worrying from a human perspective.

In addition, there is also compelling scientific evidence that challenges the concept of 'race' itself.
Race can be defined by a number of factors: by location, by physical characteristics, by cultural norms, and, more recently, by genetic make-up. Theories based on the biological race concept were at their peak in the nineteenth century in Europe and America, but thereafter came under increasing examination, questioning and criticism; accelerating in the light of discoveries in the science of genetics. Now, in the early twenty-first century, the biological race concept is defended by very few academics, and rejected and criticised by most, recognising that they are an invention of bad science and of poor (and prejudiced) reasoning.

Genetic scientists
have discovered that the overall differences between alleged ‘races’, say between Africans and Europeans, are no greater than between those in different parts of those continents. It is possible to talk of clusters of populations which show like phenotypic expression in relation to specific genetic factors. However, such phenotypic characteristics (and the specific genetic factors which are their root) have to be imaginatively isolated and privileged to be given ‘race’ value, something which cannot be regarded as scientifically justified. In fact, such privileging can be seen as motivated by social and political agendas of a racist nature.

Furthermore, the concept of 'race' does not even stand up to logical analysis. As Buddhist scholars are more than aware, when rationally analysed, concepts such as 'race', 'nation', 'ethnicity' fall apart very quickly. So, yet again, the question as to what counts as being 'Tibetan' arises. As Albert Einstein himself stated:

'Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.'


To conclude, no-one is denying that the Tibetan people are currently facing one of the most violent and brutal colonisations of their land, culture, religion and language, but the important political issues are about human rights, freedom, self-expression, modernisation and self-determination not about ethnicity. Culturally, in particular, through the power and charisma of their charismatic leader HH the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism has inspired and influenced millions of people globally; people who otherwise would not have even heard of or even cared about Tibetans or Tibet. Although, as Jamyang Norbu argues in 'Trapped by the Buddha' , even this popular Shangri-la image of Tibetan culture has 'to some extent concealed the more backward and unhealthy aspects of our culture'.

A foreign translator, who has spent many years working and studying with the Tibetan community in exile, states:

'Sangay is voicing the "conservative" opinion of many (perhaps the majority) of Tibetans. As we know these issues are very complex. The main point is that hyper-ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and racial discrimination are not good things. And they create a lot of social problems and generally serve to work against the Tibetan cause. Raising kids with Tibetan language, education, religion, and culture is far more important than having a lot of kids.'

In apparent contradiction, Dr. Sangay also acknowledges this sentiment in the same interview, stating that:

“As for me, I say Tibetan consciousness is the most important component. We welcome anyone who wants to feel Tibetan”.

It is not clear if Sangay means that non-Tibetan parents who choose to educate their children in Tibetan educational institutions in India and Nepal would also qualify for such financial incentives and the notion of 'Tibetan consciousness' itself is particularly hard to pin down. However Tibetans interpret Sangay's words is yet to be seen, but let's hope for the majority developing 'Tibetan consciousness' (or Volksgeist) is adopted more than 'going forth and multiplying' on spurious racial grounds alone.

While reproducing more children may give Sangay, the CTA and some Tibetans a sense of much-needed freedom and resistance to the Chinese demographic assault, it is short-lived, futile and temporary. In the meantime, what is needed from the West, China and Tibetans in exile is political action, unity and solidarity with not only the six million Tibetans alive and struggling in occupied Tibet but also with those struggling in India and Nepal and with Chinese dissidents and citizens in mainland China. After all, it is a little-discussed fact that over 40 Chinese citizens have self-immolated over the last two years in protest at Chinese policies. Tibet as a political nation is stronger, more tolerant and inclusive than Tibet as an ethnicity and culture. And for those of us who continue to believe in the ideals of humanity without boundaries and imaginary divisions, I leave you with Tagore who states in his essay 'Nationalism':

'We must never forget in the present day that those people who have got their political freedom are not necessarily free, they are merely powerful. The passions which are unbridled in them are creating huge organizations of slavery in the disguise of freedom....I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the Nation?...Those of us in India who have come under the delusion that mere political freedom will make us free have accepted their lessons from the West as the gospel truth and lost their faith in humanity. We must remember whatever weakness we cherish in our society will become the source of danger in politics.'

Adele Wilde-Blavatsky is an independent scholar, activist and writer based in Dharamshala, India and London, UK. Article submitted by the author.

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.

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